The making of “CICCIO GATTO”
I decided to use this awesome image by Gop Gap because of its mood. It had a big, round tiger with a smile and small characters for great contrast. The cave's atmosphere also offered me opportunities to emphasize that contrast. Technically speaking this image was a good challenge for my modeling skill and at the same time gave to me the opportunity to implement XGen in my workflow as well.
First off first I usually start with some zSpheres. They are really handy to quickly discover some raw volume and a good silhouette. Unfortunately you have to be really conscious to maintain clean sculpting, so it is a nice challenge with this method.
I'd like to pose zSphere without activating the perspective; I don't want distortion in my block out
Once the base volume is ready is time to go I work towards the second and third volume shapes. Dynamesh can be the best tool for this purpose. You can quickly add resolution without worrying about topology, so you can be really free to sculpt.
ZRemesher is another nice tool that helps you achieve the best topology possible. Start with your retopo brush to create the main flow guide for ZBrush and then hit the button ZRemesh. If you need, you could also have a different evaluation just holding "Alt" when you hit the ZRemesher button. In that way ZBrush actives another algorithm for the final evaluation.
It's time to pose your piece. This is the moment when you put life in your character. Usually I like to move it with the transpose master because it's simple and effective. You just have to mask and move it. In this situation having good Polygroups helps a lot with selections.
ZBrush has a good plugin for UV and texturing. With UV Master you can have clean and quick UV. When I'm approaching a work like this, I typically use the same color pallet of the concept, especially when I want recreate the same mood that I see in the reference.
Extracting good maps is the basis for obtaining a good render in Maya from ZBrush. Multimaps export looks perfect for that. Select all the maps that you need and export them - it's really easy, but I need to be careful with stuff like normal and displacement maps, usually EXR files are the best ones for details.
Now that I have my mesh in Maya, it is fur time. Autodesk offers you different options for that, and my favorite is XGen. In particular now that you can use interactive mode with grooms, everything is quick and handy. I start imagining how to subdivide the character's fur in different patches, and then work on each of them individually. Take your time for this task because it could be really tricky, but the result is absolutely amazing.
Shading & lighting
It's time to put all the textures and maps together and create the best shading possible for the piece. Substance Designer and Painter are two awesome tools that help to speed up the process. When in Maya I like to begin with Arnold surface, and to link all the maps created by Substance. Also it's a good habit to put a color correction node in as a bridge among your maps and the shader. This helps you with tuning as well as checking your map's values, in order to achieve the best result in rendering.
Starting with a dome could be a good workflow, so my first step is to establish an ambient light (HDR helps to have awesome speculars). The second step is to set up the keylights, in this specific case I choose a point light to mimic the flame light. I have created a big area light and set it up behind the main character to simulate light from the outside of the cave. This one can be useful as well as a rim; this kind of light is really helpful to bring out the details. The last thing is a fill light to pick up some shadows.
AoV (angle of view)
AoVs are a great way to share control on your image. I have made direct and indirect diffuse; same for specular, refraction, SSS and ZDepth. Also, I have made some custom Aov with only keylight, fill light and rim light contribution. I create some extra render layers for AO, volumetrics and ID matte, which always helps to put more depth into the final image.
Comp and final image
My final comp is in Nuke; my starting point is to merge all the light passes and after that use all the others AoVs in combination with good masks to tweak the specular and indirect light as best I can. Volumetric and AO are the final touch to give more depth and the right contrast to the image. As you can see in this image I have decided to interpret the final background. I thought that to put in contrast in a close place like a cave with the entire space could be a really good choice to emphasize my final image.