The making of 'Chubby The Unlikely Hero'
Raul Tavares introduces the Photoshop, ZBrush and Maya workflow used in the creation of his image Chubby The Unlikely Hero...
As technology and software evolve at an unbelievable speed, the process of creating effective and realistic-looking 3D characters has become less arduous and technical, leaving more room for the creative and artistic side to bloom. No other software allows me to imagine the extraordinary and bring it to life in high definition quite like ZBrush does.
Although this is not a comprehensive tutorial on how I made Chubby, I'm still going to try and share as much of my thought process and workflow as I can without being too boring or technical. I would have to go into much more depth if I was to show you the entire workflow, but I believe that most of my thought and working process is here. I'll take you through my workflow without getting too technical, from gathering references and developing initial ideas, all the way through to the post-production stage.
I started Chubby as a personal project, with the intention of developing it into a game character for DOTA 2. That only came about because I was actually playing DOTA 2 when the idea hit me! After ending the match I thought, ‘Why not make a courier for the game?' I would love to see something stylized yet realistic; cute yet cunning with a bit of a cat personality to it, to carry my items around in the game!
Though that initial pitch and keywords mean nothing unless a good story and concept bring credibility to your character. So I wrote a small narrative to set my direction and went on to look for references to support it:
"Chubby is a very humorous little creature. When Alduur, the beautiful exotic forest hidden from the greed of man at the center of the world, was still a beautiful forest, populated by the most exotic wildlife, you would normally find Chubby diving after fish in the crystal clear waters or being chased after provoking the elder dragons.
His beautiful round shapes contrast with his hard skin and spiky horns. Wildlife in Alduur was not kind for the weak. Being able to blend into aquatic and green environments made him survive this long. Now he has a new purpose, a new life: helping heroes in the defense of the Ancients."
So before starting anything else I went to look for reference. I knew I wanted to design a creature that would contain all the above characteristics and be somewhat of a reptile/amphibian/dragon-like creature – but other than that I was open to any design path.
To start things off I gathered photos of reptiles, amphibians, fish, elephants, dinosaurs and every kind of real world reference (even if it was just colors or a mood) that would help support my design choices (the imaginative and extraordinary). I call these references because they exist and are based on reality. After this I go and have a look at what I call inspiration: work from other artists.
I normally narrow my selection down to a single mood-board sheet that I can have a look at every once in a while to remind myself of my design considerations. After this is where the fun starts!
I give a lot of importance to story in my designs. It can be a simple pose, a facial expression or a little diorama but, everything that you put into your design needs to tell the viewer, with very little effort, all your intentions. When I thought of Alduur and all its wonders and beauty I knew I had to somehow incorporate this into Chubby's design, which translated into his beautiful round shapes and vivid colors.
Shaping your design in 2D
Now that our theme, story and the general traits of our character have been established, it's time to start looking for our character to come to life. Not every project starts the same for me, but for this one I wanted to start with some thumbnails to start figuring out some initial shapes and design choices before jumping into ZBrush.
At this very early stage, I normally think of a simple word that defines my whole thought process to inspire the design – contrast: curves against straights, big and small, pointy and rounded, and so on. It's also important that you allow yourself to iterate on your design, simply put because you will end up with a better final design that has more thought to it. Don't stress yourself too much with these as they serve merely as a guide and the design will change.
Looking deeper into your sketch
Now that you've chosen the one silhouette that you like, enlarge it and start looking within the shape for the character traits we defined earlier. No fancy stuff, just erasing and laying down lines to start envisioning the design – a bit like sculpting a whole character from a single block of stone. You start carving and carving until you find what appeals to you, your design considerations and story.
I try to play a bit with proportions by using Liquify, because it's not a realistic character. I normally end up with just a faint color pass to match some of the choices I made for his narrative, so that everything blends together at the end.
Shaping your design in 3D
The good thing about starting a project with thumbnails and iteration sketches is that when you get to the sculpting stage it becomes faster because you've already established your design. Though it's still subject to change (and it will), at the very best you have paved the road ahead already.
I've never liked starting my sculpts from a base mesh. There's nothing wrong with it, but I've always liked to ‘earn my keep', meaning that I like to get everything done myself – it just feels more rewarding. So, now, all my projects start from a sphere.
I open up Lightbox and start with a x64 DynaMesh Sphere ZPR. Then I import my reference sketch with Spotlight and use a combination of simple brushes to start shaping my character. I still allow myself room to experiment with things like exaggerating the eyes a bit more, or the neck, or the proportions of the body. I still refer to my sketches but I allow myself some artistic freedom.
Adding the props and accessories
I like to have everything in place before I move along to any kind of secondary and tertiary shapes. I know I want a couple of backpacks, a roll and maybe some cloth to cover his back.
For this I normally append primitive objects that resemble the basic structure of the object I'm trying to create. I then use the Transpose lines to move the primitives into position and shape them to match the specific prop I have in mind. I also use the Move Topological brush as its refined polygon selection will allow me to control these low-poly shapes better before I DynaMesh them. The reason I do this is because I want to have that bit of extra detail that the stretched low poly will cause once I DynaMesh the object.
If you're starting off and you like to start your work from nothing, try to do so with a low level DynaMesh. I start my projects from Lightbox with a x64 DynaMesh sphere. It has enough resolution to push and pull and still retain detail when you apply brushes like DamStandard or Clay BuildUp. I normally use DynaMesh just at the beginning while I'm still discovering my design within my design. I sculpt with DynaMesh until I have all my secondary shapes in place.
Creating clean topology
Back in the day, having clean topology meant having to do tedious retopo work by hand, either in external applications or with the old ZSphere method. Nowadays, ZRemesher makes everything really easy for us. With a simple click of a button you can get clean workable topology for further sculpting.
The way I go about doing this is to duplicate my SubTool, then ZRemesh it, add a subdivision and then re-project the detail back (be sure to turn off visibility for all SubTools except for the one you're going to re-project the detail from) for further sculpting.
I also try to go as low poly as I can with this ZRemesh pass, so I normally choose half for the target count.
After this it's just a matter or re-projecting the little detail we had on the previous DynaMesh object. I find this to be really good because those little details that get projected are already defining some shapes and detail that we can further explore while sculpting further.
Also, as tedious as the process might be, now is the time to think ahead and to do this for every SubTool you have. I have split them all (horns, nails, and so on) to have full control over the model and also for the purpose of detailing later on (it might be hard for lower-end PCs to handle too many high subdivision level SubTools at once).
Building your secondary forms
I treat this part of the sculpting as I would traditionally – that means having a set of brushes. For the sake of time I prefer not to get too lost in brushes and effects at this time, so I use a combination of the Move, DamStandard, Clay and Clay Buildup brushes for everything I do.
I start by moving shapes into position with the Move brush, use the DamStandard to carve shapes and then Clay to go over and smooth the transitions between shapes. Finally some Clay Buildup to give some of the directionality and smoothness to melt the extra detail I don't need. I like to build and smooth, build and smooth, and I do this several times until I feel I've created a nice layering of bones, flesh and skin on my character.
I do this for every single part and SubTool of my model. The reason why I do things this way is because I believe in structure. There's structure in everything in the real world. Your body has bones to hold your muscles in place and skin on top of that to hold everything together, so I like to think this way when I'm building my characters. Without solid structure there's no detail that will save the work – detail is just a cherry on top of the cake.
Additionally, for things like the horns and hard ridges I use ClayPolish to flatten the surface and give it more or a sizzled look.
High frequency detail
High frequency detail, or tertiary shapes, is when it all comes together – just before the UVs and the texturing stage.
I try not to over exaggerate things at this stage and pollute the design with too much noise. I've seen some great design ideas, with great and solid foundations that ended up not having the deserved attention from people because they were too crowded with detail. Visual interest is created, as with all things, by contrast. Your eye needs rest and seeks out details for excitement. Balancing the two is where the observation and knowing your subject will come in – knowing how to guide the viewer's eye to follow a pattern of rest and detail is fundamental.
I like to use both alphas and manual detailing (with DamStandard) at this stage but I normally do it in layers, so that I can exaggerate or tone them down to the point I find the details are actually adding something to the overall character. You can find useful alphas on the Pixologic website.
I like to think that everything I add somehow contributes to the story of the character – even detail. The roughness and texture of the skin can tell a story in itself of where the character was recently or has been throughout the years of his existence. The wear and tear of his horns might tell how many times he gets into a fight or how sloppy with them he is. Detail should always add up to the character and the story behind him.
UVs – a necessary evil
UV Master is probably, for me, one of the best plug-ins Pixologic ever created. No more cutting and arranging seams and tedious work for projects like this. Since our goal here is to design a maquette and present it the best way possible, there's no need for perfect UVs.
You'll find UV Master under the ZPlugin menu. Try to work on a clone and divide the model into Polygroups, separating things like arms (and hands if you have them), legs and feet, tail, body, head and ears. Make sure the Symmetry and Polygroups buttons are enabled in UVMaster and press Unwrap. Copy the UVs before going back to your original model.
Select the same SubTool as the one you were just working, in my case the body, and paste the UVs. These are perfectly usable UVs for any maquette presentation.
Texturing - Polypaint magic
Color, for me, is something that is as important as sculpting. It adds another layer of believability to your character, informs the viewer where he comes from and adds that extra detail that tells a complete story in itself. Even though I sometimes spend less time with the painting then on the sculpting phase, you should always try to spend as much time as you see fit painting your character.
So, to start off, I try and gather some references to see if there is any living organism or even landscape that matches the same color scheme I have imagined in my head. I am actually able to find two weird creatures and a landscape that match exactly what I had imagined for Chubby and for his home world – Alduur.
For the material I like to paint with the SkinShader4 because of its white color that still retains some Specularity, thus not interfering with the perception of the painted colors.
For the most part I start by filling the model with a base color and then gradually build layers of color with the Standard Brush using the following settings: A low RGB intensity, Spray for the stroke and a Spray alpha. I paint darker colors where blood naturally flows more at the surface (near the skin) and brighter colors where more bony landmarks would be. This is also dependent on the anatomy of the creature but for the most part I use human-like anatomy. This way, same as with the sculpting, you ensure that you build things with consistency.
Now, before we move ahead for the posing, I extract two textures that we'll need later on for Maya: diffuse (or color) and cavity. It's a bit of a tedious process, especially if, like me, you have lots of SubTools, but also a needed one.
So, for this, we need to transfer the Polypaint into a texture. In the Tool menu, under UV Map, set the size to 4096. In the Texture Map sub-menu press New from PolyPaint to generate the map. Now press the Clone Txtr and in the Texture menu at the top of the screen select Export and save the texture. Do the same for all your SubTools.
Finally all we need is the cavity map. Make sure your selected color is white before you mask, then under the Masking menu press Mask by Cavity. Under the Texture Map sub-menu, pick New from Masking, press Clone Txtr and go to the Texture menu for exporting. Save all your maps as PSDs.
Posing your character
The good thing about having clean topology at this stage is that by the time you go into posing (ZPlugin > TPoseMesh) ZBrush will automatically set every SubTool to its lowest subdivision and merge it into a single tool. Your Polygroups are still retained too so if you want to select something quickly you can simply select that Polygroup, mask it individually and apply the same method for the parts you want to mask in order to pose.
The rest is a matter of using the Transpose line and Ctrl, tracing the line to make a selection or using the Lasso tool with the mask to accurately select the parts you want and then moving or rotating them into position.
This will always require you to do some additional tweaking by the time you go back to your high-poly sculpt (by pressing TPose-SubT) because we modeled him in a static pose and we're dealing with organic shapes that will suffer from deformation (stretching and squashing, and so on).
Another thing you should have in mind is that posing is just another part of your story, so I thought about how I should show him to best represent his attitude, feel and characteristics! A bit of his personality had to come through the facial expression, his posture had to tell a bit about how he behaves and acts daily, and the way he stands had to tell something about his next move.
So I append a box and I model a small rock that could eventually sit near a river and the crystal waters of Alduur and imagine a bit of his natural day, waiting for the fish to pass by so he could dive in and get it! His cunningness and strategy look from above as if he was planning his next move.
Now one final step before we move onto the render: we need to export the model to Maya, but we need to optimize the polygon count with the Decimation Master for that first. First, clone all your SubTools and save the tool. We'll be working on a clone because once you decimate it you'll love your original topology.
Select the first SubTool you have and in the Decimation Master menu, under ZPlugin, enable Keep UVs. Next press Pre-Process Current and wait for it to finish. Slide the % bar to something like 2 or 3% so that the final result is a reasonable amount for Maya to handle, then choose Decimate Current. Now what this did is convert your current SubTool to triangles with a much lower polycount, while still maintaining the detail. Now repeat the process for every SubTool you have.
Once you have everything ready for exporting just press the ALL button next to GoZ and this will export all your SubTools into Maya and Maya will open them in place.
Maya – your lighting studio
I treat Maya as my lighting studio. I see it as if I was actually with a model in front of me and needed to make a photo-shoot for a magazine.
Which camera angle should I opt for? Which light condition could best describe his traits and maybe the lighting of his natural environment? What type of shadows would he have at specific times of the day? These are just a few of the many questions I ask myself when the time for lighting and rendering comes.
I create a camera to set the stage for the render so that the action is clear to the viewer. I set the camera lens to 40mm and turn on the Resolution Gate just to be sure I have the right angle.
For the lighting I go for that studio environment with two area lights opposed to each other to create a dramatic shadow. Then I create a background plane with a bit of a bevel that extends to the floor (just like in a normal studio – cyclorama) and a spot light pointing behind the character to make him pop out a bit more.
For this type of project I use Photoshop to save up some rendering time since I can create most of the camera lens effects you see in real life by hand, instead of relying on heavy renders. I generally experiment a lot with the blending options, though the ones I use the most are Overlay, Soft Light and Screen. Also, levels and curves are among the tools I use the most for creating the perfect color and shadow balance.
So, I start off with just the base Maya render (as a TIFF with an alpha transparency) and then add a background, something simple that frames the character. Next comes the Lens Glow and Depth of Field (objects or parts of the object far from the camera start to get out of focus). I apply an Unsharp filter for extra detail, do a pass over to paint in some of the shadows and end up with a Noise Filter to blend everything better.
Finally, to focus the viewer's attention I add a vignette, some texture details just to make the final result look more like a picture, and a warm photo filter to make the colors in the composition blend together nicely.