Making Of 'Fishman'
I've always loved the mariners Blizzard made for Starcraft and this was my main inspiration when creating this image. I also like using a realistic cartoon style, so I thought to myself: how can I mix these elements and make the image funny?
I sketched a fish-like human who needs a special suit that he wears when out of the water (Fig.01). The water pistol is to add a comical element. I wanted to make it very clean and colorful to contrast with the rest of the scene and make it more noticeable.
I started this image in 2008 and through a lack of ideas at the time I stopped working on the image until beginning of this year. Of course after two years I had a different idea and changed the concept. My work friends also gave me a lot of ideas that helped me to improve the image. I think it is essential to listen to the thoughts of others as they always have different visions that can add something to your work.
No special techniques were used to make this image. The software I used was ZBrush to do the model and texturing. The head and body were done with standard box modeling in 3ds Max. ZSpheres are a quick way to make base meshes, so I used them to give me an idea of the overall form of the head. With the form done I sketched some details, like gills (Fig.02).
The next step was the re-topology, so I could work with a better mesh that could be adjusted more accurately. I exported the high poly base mesh back into Max and used 3D Max Graphite Modeling tools to reconstruct a new mesh over the old one.
After making the UV mapping of this new mesh, I sent it back to ZBrush so I could work on the details and textures (Fig.03).
The armor was a little trickier because it had to be a mixture of realism and cartoon. I took a lot of references from Blizzard's mariners, but I didn't wanted the Fish Man to look as strong as them. That's why I left the arms uncovered, showing a thin silhouette.
He had a cartoony look, but it was also my intention to give him a sort of realistic appearance, so I got to work on the details of his armor. The armor needed to look functional, so I created some breathers and showed how it would be assembled if it were to really exist. I started with a very simple base mesh for the body, to have a better idea of its proportion, and then I modeled the main parts low poly until I had the overall proportion. After that I went into the details, making the junctions and assets I mentioned before (Fig.04).
I imagined the Fish Man coming out of a swamp on a cloudy afternoon and the environment being very humid. The swamp wasn't difficult to model at all; I got some trees from Archmodels and deleted the leaves, so the hardest part of the scene model was already done. My aim was to position all the trees the right way, so they could be seen in front of the armor and the light could pass through the trees, making natural illumination. To do this I had to put the trees all around the character (Fig.05).
After posing the character, I exported a plane to ZBrush to make the ripples, then exported a displacement map to use with a displace modifier in the mesh for the water (Fig.06). Before I used the displace modifier, I selected a small part close to the Fish Man to subdivide. This way I could optimize the polygon count of the water, creating a heavier mesh where it needed it (Fig 07a - 7b).
Textures and Shading
To texture the head I used the ZBrush plugin ZApp Link so I could project pieces of photos onto the ZBrush mesh using Photoshop. This was very handy since I am very familiar with the tools in Photoshop. Using this procedure is like photo manipulation over a 3D mesh. One good photo of a fish was enough to make the texture of the head (Fig.08).
The idea with the armor was to not make it look to old; I didn't want it to look like it came from a World War II submarine. The intention was, however, to make the armor look rusted and damaged. Some photos of rusted metals, scratches and painted metals were enough to make the armor textures.
All the armor materials have mental ray arch design with glossy reflections applied. A map was applied on each material to vary the reflection intensity. Making a reflective material helps the object reflect its environment and that's why I put trees all around it, even if they're not shown in the final image. Reflecting environmental elements and lights made the character more of a part of the scene.
Here is an example of the torso material. All the rest of the armor followed the same standard (Fig.09). Of course all these glossy reflections meant that the rendering time was increased.
As I mentioned before, this scene is very humid and cloudy. To show this, I couldn't use direct lights or sharpened shadows. Everything had to look smooth with soft shadows. The main light is a huge Sky Portal that covers the scene to simulate the cloudy sky. The other lights illuminated some areas on the character that were too dark and made some specular spots to help the armor looks wet (Fig.10a - 10b). All these lights meant the scene was close to the final result I wanted. I kept in mind that in Photoshop I could improve the overall look very quickly, so the most important thing at this stage was to keep the information of each rendered detail, like the reflection, specularity and volumes.
Render and Post-Production
The render was the toughest part. Everything was rendered at once, including the Depth of Field. I did it that way because there were too many elements interacting with each other, like the reflection of every tree on the armor, the reflection of the water and the DoF (which, by the way, when rendered together in the scene gives smoother transition between the planes). All these elements would be very difficult to put together in post-production without any undesired effects. To help me treat each element separately I rendered a color mask (Fig.11).
With the render of the entire scene and a mask separating the main elements like character, helmet, gun, water and trees, I could start the post-production. The first thing I did in Photoshop was to improve the lighting and raise the contrast, over-exposing the background and making the foreground darker. This way I could achieve a more mysterious and dramatic look to the scene (Fig.12).
I created an empty layer set to Overlay, which I put over the elements I want to improve, and painted gray tones into it to force the volumes. I also adjusted the highlights and dark areas of the character. After tweaking all the lights and volumes, it was time to adjust the colors. A gradient layer with desired tones set to overlay did the trick, and also made the top of the composition brighter (Fig.13).
I painted the fog in the background with custom brushes. With a solid brush I painted effects like the lens flare and the wide glow coming from the sky. This way I could add a foggier look (Fig.14). I couldn't get the desired wet look in 3D, so to made the armor look wet I used photos of drops of water and added a high pass filter to normalize the tones (Fig.15).
This guy was fun and challenging to make. I passed through a lot of technical barriers like render time, working with a very heavy scene, texturing issues and other little things that pushed me back.
I am satisfied with the result, and sometimes I joke with people saying "I couldn't finish this work before, because I had to wait for technology to evolve". This is not entirely untrue because my old computer couldn't handle the render!