Sculpt a realistic pirate in Maya & ZBrush


This tutorial is a general guide about creating a realistic style pre-rendered character, from reference gathering to final pose and rendering. I will show the overall process of modeling and posing in Maya and ZBrush.

maya zbrush pirate styled character

Final render of Pirate


When first gathering reference, I identified the most important details of my pirate character and categorized my photos around them (body, skull, gun, pants, etc.). Photo reference is also important to get all the details of dirt, scratches, and color variation. I use Pureref a lot for reference.

It’s easy to keep all the images on one page and keep the original resolution. I gathered a lot of pictures for each asset to get all the angles and group them. For the face model, it’s good to choose someone such as a model or celebrity that has a lot of photos online, including top and bottom angles.

reference photos for imagery

Concept Art

Then I choose my favorite photo references. I drew those key references as one character to see how it would look all together. It’s good to spend time to develop concept art. This critical step saves you time because you can plan ahead for all of the character’s details.

If you are not comfortable with drawing, use the Liquify tool in Photoshop, and place the photo of the character, then draw on it is a good alternative way to make this process easier and faster.

concept character art pirate

Character concept art with references


I started making a base body. Even though the character is wearing clothes, it's easy to get the wrong body proportions without that reference. It’s good to start with demo mesh in ZBrush, and when I change proportions a lot I used Zremesh to make better topology for sculpting details. I sculpted in ZBrush and decimated the mesh. Then I brought that mesh to Maya to start building clothes and props on him.

3d sculpt male anatomy

Changing the body proportion and sculpting muscle details


After choosing a specific male model for my main reference, I gathered as many photos as I could from different angles. Using these photos, I sculpted the base shape using the transparency function in ZBrush, and checked to make sure the model aligns with photo. When I compare the model with reference, I turn off the perspective mode.

After building the base shape, I use spray brush to make random bumpiness on skin and moles to give him imperfections and break the symmetry. I used the textures to represent micro details like pores and small skin folds instead of modeling them. Then, I made hair and beard quickly with fiber mesh to see the hairline and likeness easier. Fiber mesh is a great tool in ZBrush for making a quick hair block-out, but not useful for rendering in Maya or creating game models.

sculpting alphas 3d male model

Adding details on the face


For this character I made the clothes in Maya and sculpted wrinkles in ZBrush. Marvelous Designer is another good alternative for creating clothes, as well. Cloth seams are very important for showing details, so we should pay close attention to how the clothes are sewn together. One trick is to enable Lazy Mouse to place the seam alpha more accurately. For wrinkles, I tried to think about the difference of fabric and thickness of each cloth when I sculpt.

And if other props are pressing against the clothes, such as a belt buckle, it needs more reference and attention since it has both tight and loose shape wrinkles.

base mesh pirate clothing 3d model

Making seam with alpha and Lazy Mouse

Modeling Props

The process for props is the same with body. I made a block out of the gun with a reference photo using transparency. Then I put more details in the block out props in ZBrush or Maya. For the gun, I painted ornament patterns using Drag Rect and when I was done with painting, I converted paint to mask then inflated it. This way I can keep the same thickness of pattern and I can generate the same mask anytime. When I am done sculpting, I brought the mesh into Maya and considered how the gun would sit in the holster and in his hand naturally.

polypaint making 3d model gun

Making ornament shape on the gun using alpha

Retopo and UV

I usually use Maya and Topogun to create a cleaner mesh topology. I imported a decimated mesh from ZBrush and re-topologized with Quad Draw. It's faster to draw big quads and add edge loops later. I had to consider animation when I re-topo body and clothes. Usually, it needs more edge loops where there is more dynamic movement like elbows, knees, neck, and eyes. Also, the character’s silhouette was the most important thing when I decide the final poly count. It’s good to add more geo if the silhouette is complicated like wrinkles on the cloth.

3d model sculputre quads live mesh

Drawing Quads on the decimated live mesh


I usually use Ornatrix or Xgen in Maya to bake the hair texture, and started placing big pieces of hair first then smaller hairs. It’s also best to match the scalp texture color to the hair, so the skin color doesn’t contrast too much. I tried to twist each hair card a little bit to not show the thin card edges and give more volume. If the hair or fur is too sharp and card looking, and easy to see the scalp, try placing the cards crossed, like X shape from the top. I used the same trick for props with fur like the animal tail and skull.

hair placement 3d model render

Placing cards on the face and asset


I used Substance Painter for props and Mari for the skin. I projected a color and normal map using textures from Texture XYZ.

For the gloss map I duplicated the color map, made it grayscale, and adjusted the brightness until it looked like skin. Some parts like the forehead and nose are glossier because of sweat and oil. For prop texturing, I tried to get correct PBR value using PBR value chart when I textured props. It’s easier to get realistic looking when I start from the correct PBR value.

texturing character model 3d pirate

Textures for the character


I used a photo reference for the pose as well. I like to use movies for action pose references. I used ZBrush Transformation for posing, and then fixed intersecting parts of assets and clothes. From there I sculpted more wrinkles and skin details. It's important to have the similar pose references because cloth and body shape will change a lot depending on the movement. For this character, his fingers should have a lot of skin folds because of his age and pose.

pose changes male model pirate

Changing pose using ZBrush Transformation

Color correction & lighting

I used V-Ray for rendering. I adjusted value, saturation, and contrast of textures a lot during rendering, so every prop and cloth would blend. Each prop’s wear level should be similar as well. For easier color correction, I used Nuke with V-Ray masking and Maya Hsv node. Finding a reference for lighting helped me a lot since I can decide the angle and the color of light easily.

colour corrections 3d pirate male model

Progress of lighting and color correction

Top tip - Looking at the big picture

I spent months on this character and it was so easy to get tired. I think if I was focusing all the detail on one prop, I might not have finished. Spending less time on the small details is way better for time management. After you got the general look of the character, you can always go back to a more important prop if you think it needs more detail.

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