Steve the Space Explorer
London based CG artist, Morten Jaeger, shares how he made Steve, the Space Explorer using ZBrush...
Step 1: The birth of Steve
Steve came about from a tiny sketch. The main idea behind him was to make an alien who was really tired of his life, his job and just does what he has to to get by. I wanted to explore it a little further and decided to make a more complete illustration in Photoshop. No fancy shading and this was something I came to represent in the final render as well, initially though this wasn't my intention.
Step 2: Capturing the essence
I wanted to stay true to the quality of the line in the design. I kept all the quirks, everything that essentially gives Steve his strange and slightly messed-up look.
Everything was pretty much made from a DynaMesh sphere in ZBrush. It's such a great tool and allows for a lot of freedom and exploration. I started by trying to get the silhouette down, and basically aimed to match my concept as closely as I could. This meant that asymmetry was a big part of what I did, and because he was drawn as flat as he was, everything was done without perspective.
Step 3: An incomplete picture
The final 3D model was really an incomplete model. Whenever I do these kinds of projects I tend to focus on the part you will actually see. There's something to be said for exploring a character completely, but working as a full-time modeler in London doesn't quite leave for a lot of time. So doing selective projects like these gives me time to learn, grow and explore new things.
Step 4: The shading
In terms of shading this really comes down to simplicity. I used the Shaded Brightness ToonShader, which works based on the angle of the light. For this project I only used one directional light, which helped give me the form of the shadows I was looking for.
For the shader, everything was driven by one shader. There was one texture for what received light and another texture for the shadows; I used the same texture for both inputs, but used the Color Gain for the shadow texture in Maya to give it a darker color. This just saved having to load in two textures, and if I decided to make any corrections, both textures would be updated.
Step 5: Simplicity is key
To make this as painless and as fast as possible I didn't really want to do anything advanced in terms of the shading, so the rough and sketchy look that the shadows have are just a cheat. This was just an over paint done in Photoshop - sorry, no fancy magic here! Because I didn't need this for animation, a turntable, etc., I could do whatever I wanted in post. I like to work this way, especially when doing an illustration. It's fast and efficient, and most of the time you don't need to re-render as you can simply makes changes in Photoshop. And as long as it looks good, no one is going to complain.
Step 6: Occlusion and normals pass
Because everything was rendered out completely flat with only a harsh shadow, it really took away a lot of the depth that 3D offers. This was exactly what I wanted, but I tried to experiment a little and ended up adding a bit of depth with an occlusion and normals pass. The occlusion was primarily used for darkening shadows, and the normals pass helped create some interesting color overlays. You can how see the normals pass adds some nice green and purple - a sort of "fake" bounce light.
Step 7: Going from good to great
But the "cheating" didn't just stop there. If you compare the raw render to the final image you can clearly see a big difference. In Photoshop, I corrected the shadows, painted highlights to the body and eyes, and also added some "paper" scratches just to tie it in to the original illustration even more. A last and really important tool is color correction: even minor tweaks can have a profound effect on how your image is perceived, so keep that in mind as well.
Step 8: Bringing it all together
In the end I think it's important to just have fun, and experiment as much as possible. Don't let yourself be restricted by the medium, because the possibilities are endless. 2D is really a powerful tool, and I feel like is often overlooked, especially by people who are just starting out. It's always a good exercise to see what you can accomplish with post-production - try comparing your before and after pictures and you'll be amazed!
As our beloved friend Steve would put it, EXPLORE! Try something different and challenge yourself.
Top tip 1: ZBrush's "See-through" feature
When the feature was first introduced in ZBrush I couldn't actually find a use for it, but the See-through mode comes in handy when you're trying to match a concept. This way you don't have to load things into Lightbox, and you can very quickly compare your concept with your sculpt. It's really easy to match your geo to whatever is behind it, especially because you can adjust the opacity with ease.