Making Of 'Pursuit Of Perfection'

The original intention of this project was as an entry for CGSociety's 'Strange Behavior' Challenge.  I also hadn't created a personal image in a long time, due to being heavily involved in getting a studio started, and I felt like it was time for me to really go for something crazy - and this challenge fit that mould nicely!
The brief of the challenge was to create something that depicted "strange behaviour", and I figured that a big, crumbly rock with arms trying to sculpt itself into a sphere would be pretty strange! I wanted the action to appear to make sense when the viewer first looks at it, but then after second thoughts they would realise that Mr. Rock would never be able to achieve such spherical perfection (Fig.01).

Fig. 01

It's just not physically possible for him to do! This is how I got the name for the image, "Pursuit of Perfection" (Fig.02).

Fig. 02

I also thought it would be fun to make him into an artist of sorts, complete with a beret, a measuring pencil, and a sphere as his subject on a satin pillow and wooden stool. I wanted to experiment with techniques in ZBrush to create the rocky textures that would contrast with the smoother worked-over parts of Mr. Rock.  It needed to have that transition from completely rough to nice and smooth. You know, to show that he was kind of getting somewhere with his efforts. Plus I needed to figure out a way to get all the arms doing something individually, in a way that made sense.
Of course, my original aspiration was to do my best to win the challenge, but there were so many great artists contributing that, at times, I felt like Mr. Rock himself! I encountered a lot of those wonderful "learning moments", where you have to scrap a large amount of your work in order to finish the project.  There was only so much my computer could handle and so I ended up having to scrap some good, hard work. Of course, ZBrush handled these details fine, but I ran into problems in 3ds Max later on. I'll get into this more later. I also originally wanted to make him animatable in 3ds Max so that I could do a funny short movie with him as my animation entry. Unfortunately, work projects took hold of my time and I had to massively reduce the scope. But nonetheless, by the grace of God, all of this crazy sculpting paid off when I won the 'Best Texturing' category for the challenge, which was one of those mini-awards they handed out for achievements in certain areas of the production of an entry.  I took great honour in this as I truly slaved away at making this character (Fig.03)!

Fig. 03

So for the creation of this character, I needed to think of a concept. I had the idea in mind but needed to spit it out onto paper (Fig.04).

Fig. 04

As I was drawing it, I realised that I was getting myself into a heap of trouble with all of the rock, stone, and cracked surfaces. But I knew ZBrush could handle the job!  So once I got the concept figured out, I went into 3ds Max to get Mr. Rock formed out and to get somewhat of a shape that had a decent amount of polys and edgeloops in the right spots, as well as cutting in where the smooth sections would go.  
I needed to keep a lot of elements separate so I could manage to get the displacement and texturing at a high enough resolution later on. So he got split into his face, arms, a smooth belly area, and then the rest of his body, to glue it all together. Once I figured out how tall and wide I wanted him, and had everything pretty much at a good low-res level, I took it over into ZBrush.  This was where a huge majority of my work was done. When I work, I do things in big layers that start on a broad level, and then layer by layer get hacked and tweaked away into the final piece (Fig.05). I've learned the hard way in getting too detailed early on in the process. If you do this, you just end up with something that looks like it got pieced together like a Frankenstein project or something!

Fig. 05

So my first efforts went into getting the major areas sculpted so I could get his silhouette right. I didn't want the surface of Mr. Rock to have that feeling of a giant boulder with small details sprayed on. I really wanted him to have that chunky feel and overlapping non-linear flow. I wanted it to look organic, but in a rocky way, if that makes sense? Different sized rocks, shapes, cracks, etc (Fig.06a - b & Fig.07). Since the biggest chore for the whole project was getting the surface and texture right, I thought I might dive into how that look was achieved and which brushes I used for certain strokes. There's a bunch of ways and techniques to make rocky stuff in ZBrush, so keep in mind that this was just my way and personal choice... at least for now!

Fig. 06a

Fig. 06b

Fig. 07

The main brushes I used were (Fig08a - g):








Inflate - Used to quickly extrude the surface and lay in basic forms and rough overall sections.

Clay Tubes - Used to get an easy texture onto the stone and to define the rocky in a less smooth way.

Move - Used to push and pull the forms around and to achieve concavity (curve inwards) and convexity (outwards) with the rocks.  This also helped with defining the silhouette even more and in starting to move things to different levels so everything wasn't on the same elevation.

Pinch - Used to make sure the rocks look like they were derived from the same natural process, meaning that they needed to be neighbours and not just a bunch of extrusions.  So this brush helped in getting everything to have that collective feel.  I also used it to define the edges of the rocks more, which was a huge part of achieving that kind of texture to be further readable.

Slash1 and Slash2 - Used to dig in some cracks and separate out of some the rock transitions.  Also good for making little scratches and giving irregularity to the rock surface.

Clay - Used a couple of custom and default alphas to apply a fine layer of surface texture over the rocks, so that it didn't look too hand-made (Fig.09a - b).

Ram - Used to smash in some pits and deeper crevices.

Smooth - I like to use this brush so I can get controlled smoothing instead of the simple Shift + click method that goes pretty much full pressure. When I use the smooth brush method, I can have a more varied level of smoothness so that I don't destroy all the hard and cracked surfaces. I didn't want the rocks to look like they got smoothed-over or polished.



I used all these brushes in this general order, but definitely switched between all of them to get the right look.  I tried to get each of the brushes to do their intended job and never forced one to do it all. I don't like fighting through a sculpt with just the standard brush because I tend to work faster with specific tools. There's nothing wrong with using the standard brush only, it's just not my weapon of choice!

I had also never used the Polypainting feature of ZBrush before this challenge, and I decided this was a great time to do that.  Since he was all rock it was going to be easier to spray on a basic texture and then paint custom treatments to define the rockiness even more (Fig.10).  


After I finished that, I started moving on to the export process. One of the learning processes I had with this project was that displacement used a lot of resources. Since I needed to render this image at a high resolution, my displacement was crashing my computer no matter what I did. So, after many tries with different approaches, I had to scratch that because of my planning error and decided to just use a high-res mesh in Max and supplement it with bump maps and good GI lighting. It was definitely a frustrating time in the project for me, but I was just running out of time to figure out another solution and I wanted to complete the image strongly. I had essentially lost most of the fine details that I had created in ZBrush, and that took me some time to get over!
At this point, I had my model in 3ds Max. I rigged up the low-res model because, as mentioned, I originally intended to do an animation with the character (Fig.11).


If I had known that I was going to run out of time for the animation portion of my concept, then I guess I could have just used ZBrush's Transpose Master to pose him.  But I also needed to set up a camera in 3ds Max for the final shot, so I knew that I would need to be able to tweak the pose in individual areas like the arms and define how much his head should be turned, etc.  I then used the Skin Wrap modifier on the high poly mesh to follow what the rigged low-res mesh was doing. This way I could hide the high-res mesh, pose him in low-res, and then unhide the high-res and it be in the same spot as the low-res (Fig.12). Otherwise, I'd still be waiting for the high-res mesh to respond to my transform commands to this day! The Skin Wrap modifier was a life-saving feature to have.


For the composition, I wanted to have Mr. Rock look down his extended arm, with the pencil towards us in perspective, and have the sphere more in the foreground. I quickly modelled the other supporting props and set pieces, and before I knew it I had my major 3D elements ready to light (Fig.13)!


I use V-Ray for everything that I light, and this image was no exception. I wanted the lighting to help tell the story just as much as the modelling, so I needed to make sure I placed the lights in just the right places.  The nooks and crannies were very important to me, and the lighting direction needed to capture those at the right angle so that they weren't lost in the big mass. I placed a spot light directly over Mr. Rock and the sphere, and kept the falloff somewhat tight to make sure I kept the focus on them. I then added a couple of rim lights behind them, a fill light off to the right of the camera, and a couple of extra spot lights to highlight the sphere, the stool and "Quiet" sign. Finally, I added two more lights which washed the back walls to achieve it a bit more of the overall mood (Fig.14).


Once I got the image rendered, I took it into Photoshop and started doing some basic colour correction work, tweaking and image enhancements (Fig.15).  


I rendered out an ambient occlusion pass of the scene using Mental Ray, and used that as a Multiply layer at 50% on top of the render in Photoshop. I then began to refine the lighting in certain areas by burning and dodging on a layered copy. I like to mask out main elements and separate them out so I can have freedom in changing them easily. I used this technique on many elements in the scene. I changed the colour of the back walls and ceiling to pop out the foreground more, added some crumbling on one of his left hands, motion blur on the hand with the hammer, some dust and spray, and finally added a slight glow to the brighter areas, as well as the lights in the background (Fig.16).  


These days I rarely try to get this all correct in 3ds Max and V-Ray.  I like to give myself a good starting point to work from in Photoshop.  In essence it's a painting, and I'm just using these pieces of software to achieve a final result.  In my earlier days, I would try to get it all absolutely perfect in 3D only, and would waste a lot of time trying to figure out how to technically get it all flawless.  You can get there light years faster by combining 3D and 2D, in my opinion.  Of course, there are certainly artists out there who do it all in 3D with very minor corrections in Photoshop and achieve amazing results.  This is just the way I like to do it.  It all depends on the project I guess.  If I was doing an animation, I'd probably spend a little more time in 3D, but I would still in end up tweaking it with masks and passes in post-production, so it would be the same principle there, too.
So at this point, the image is done. I could probably hack away at it forever, but you have to find a stopping point and be pleased with it as it is.  Sure, I see some weak points with some of the composition now, and some things in the scene I'd like to have more time to tweak. For instance, I'd really like to have managed to transfer a lot more detail in Mr. Rock from ZBrush to 3ds Max (grr!), but I'll just use those mistakes as a learning experience and apply them to the next project that I work on.  
So that's how I made Pursuit of Perfection. I hope to create more images in the near future and push my artwork to the next level, and I'll do my best to make leaps and bounds every time. Thanks!

To see more by Jesse Sandifer, check out Digital Art Masters: Volume 7

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