Making of 'Turtle Freedom For Sale'
I made this image for a 3D challenge about freedom. My first ideas were way too ambitious for the time I can currently spend on my personal projects and much more serious, full of contemporary meaning. But after some thought I decided to go with a lighter and funnier approach.
Even though my drawing skills are limited, sketching is still a crucial part of the process. When sketching a concept it's really important to have in mind that you're just drawing for yourself and that the sketches aren't supposed to be a final result. Rather a first step towards that end (Fig.01 - 02).
I really like using ZSpheres. It allows you to quickly test your character's proportions and generate a base mesh.
For this character I tried a new approach to the thumbnail, which gave me a very nice result. I didn't extrude all the fingers from the same ZSphere. Instead, I placed another one on the wrist area and, following a more anatomically correct approach, I appended the thumb to this ZSphere (Fig.03).
It's not unusual for me to go into 3ds Max and do some simple topology corrections to the adaptive skin that ZBrush generates. In the following image you can see the adaptive skin already corrected (Fig.04).
For the shell I used what I usually refer to as a box sphere. It's basically a cube with uniform square quads topology, spherified. It really gives you a lot of freedom to sculpt and a more even topology then the classic sphere.
From that basic shape, and with the use of some references, it was easy to get the initial shape of what would be a single object with both back and belly sides of the shell (Fig.05).
As for my sculpting techniques, I believe they're pretty straightforward. I don't usually jump into a high poly model. I like to gradually advance towards the detail, taking advantage of different levels of geometry.
My most common tools are Move Topological and Move Elastic, Clay and Clay Buildup, Trim Dynamic and MPolish, as well as the Standard brush.
With the concept well defined and the proportions established, the sculpting of the character becomes really fast. It took around two hours to get the complete model (Fig.06).
For the eyes I just did the main eye cavity and then, starting from a box sphere (as I did with the shell), I created the external eyelids and then duplicated that tool to create the internal ones.
The whole model was done following a "waterproof policy" so that it could be printed in 3D. For that, it's extremely important that every tool is done with completely sealed geometry intersecting each other (Fig.07).
The other elements in the image were done with the use of ShadowBox and the cutting tools in ZBrush. I just created some "For Sale" alphas in Photoshop to project over the wooden surface of the sign (Fig.08).
Before I started to detail I did a quick unwrap with UVMaster. It's amazingly fast and with the symmetry and polygroups options, plus the control painting, you can really get some nice results (Fig.09 - 10).
Detailing the turtle took a lot longer than sculpting it. I used some alphas to create the pattern's variation on the character's skin, but everything had to fit together. This meant I had to manually verify everything and it was quite a complex map. I didn't want to have strange overlapping alphas projected onto the turtle. It just wouldn't work (Fig.11).
So, if I was going to have to draw the whole thing (mainly the big plates) I made sure I had a texture saved that would allow me to quickly recover that mask from polypaint. You'll see this further down.
For the shell I used a different approach. I found a great photo of a shell from top view with good resolution, which was perfect to texture and why not to sculpt too? So I went into Photoshop and worked on it to create a displacement map which I used as an alpha with the Standard brush in DragRect (Fig.12).
After that some corrections and further refining were needed. One of the most interesting things about detailing the shell was the way I quickly managed to give it a feeling of combined plates. I did this by masking the single plates individually and inverting the mask, and with a little inflate, move, rotate and scale they just came out and fit to each other.
Your character's pose can make a big difference. Again, the sketching phase made this a lot faster, since I already had a good idea of what I was looking for. With Transpose it's easy to get there (Fig.13 - 15).
For texturing the turtle I just used polypainting with layers. In this phase the map I had done from the mask of the detailing was very useful. I then combined all the layers to get a final look. I also exported the other layers individually in case I needed more control for the rendering. As well as a tan mark mask (Fig.16).
The shell was polypainted mainly with spotlight (Fig.17).
For rendering I went into 3ds Max with V-Ray to create a simple, sunny light set. With a VRaySun and a beach VRayHDRI (for environment and reflections) I got the natural beach light I wanted. The HDRI I used is available at Openfootage.net. There you'll find, free of charge, great quality material (Fig.18).
The camera is a standard 28mm camera. I used V-Ray materials with no SSS, since the reptile skin is rather dry and thick.
My rendering setup tends to be very optimized in terms of material reflections and glossiness parameters. V-Ray gives you all the control you need to make sure your rendering times don't get unbearable. A very simple parameter that can really help you on a complex scene with many refractive and/or reflecting materials is the Max Depth on the Global Parameters. Ideally you would want to limit the number of times a ray can be of reflected/refracted in each material, but most of the time in scenes like a decorated interior, that just isn't doable. So you have this global setting that will override the default value for V-Ray materials, which is 5. In my experience, 3 will work just fine in 90% of the cases. That's a lot of processing we're saving.
In this case there really wasn't much to reflect but I still lowered the default value to 2 (Fig.19).
One of the most important things in rendering is to be able to predict what you'll need for post-production. Meaning, what elements you'll want to have for post adjustments and, most importantly, what masks. Again, V-Ray provides a vast list of amazing elements for total control in post, including a MultiMatte element for us to create perfect RGB masks. This means you will have to configure several Multimattes since you can only get three masks out of each one of them (Red, Green and Blue). For those in a hurry and less concerned with mask quality, you can use the Render ID element, which will automatically generate a color for each rendered object, regardless of its Object/Material ID.
As for the image format and bit depth, I always render to OpenEXR format at 32 bits with all the channels included. I can't tell you how wonderful this workflow is. After you try it, you won't settle for anything else. It's so easy to just replace the loaded file (or image sequence) in Fusion or Nuke and see the compositing script working just fine and even adapting to different resolutions. What a wonderful world (Fig.20)
I also rendered a simple black and white image with the tan mask to work on it in post (Fig.21).
The main compositing was done inside Fusion 6.1. With all the elements and mattes I had there wasn't much I couldn't do in post.
Essentially what you do is reconstruct the rendered image (also called a Beauty pass) with all the separated elements and then insert masked color correcting nodes in each element connection to the main string of the comp in order to change the color of an object, enhance the reflection etc. I did some background and tan testing (Fig.22).
After presenting some friends with a few different versions I decided on the tan and on the background. It's really important to have other people/artists give feedback on your work. It really helps you to refresh and see new things (good and bad) in your work.
So it was time for the final touches in After Effects and Red Giant's Magic Bullet. Next you'll see the evolution from render, to post-Fusion and finally post-Magic Bullet (Fig.23 - 25).
In terms of execution, this took me a single weekend, but to this I would have to add several weeks of mental conception and some sketching hours. As my first humour piece I am really happy with the result. It was a very fun and light project with some tripping overworked hours on a Sunday night.
As an artist I feel this type of work was more liberating than my usual attempts to create something that looks real, whether it exists in reality or not. I've definitely become a fan of cartoony work. You can give priority to creativity rather than technical virtue, although it's still important to remember that both should walk side-by-side, as close as possible.