zbrush at the Movies

In­dus­try vet­er­ans share their sculpting se­crets and dis­cuss why Zbrush is the star of all your favourite films and tele­vi­sion shows

3D World - - CONTENTS -

In­dus­try pros share their sculpting se­crets and dis­cuss why Zbrush is at the heart of all your favourite films and tele­vi­sion shows

Dig­i­tal sculpting tool Zbrush has long been a con­trib­u­tor to the world of film and tele­vi­sion. Prior to Zbrush fig­ures were sculpted in clay be­fore be­ing scanned to pro­duce 3D as­sets, in a process that was as time-con­sum­ing as it was costly. Such was its game-chang­ing na­ture that in 2014 Pixo­logic co-founder Ofer Alon re­ceived an Academy Award for his design and im­ple­men­ta­tion of the soft­ware.

CG modeller Jose Li­mon retells his first en­counter with the tool: “Zbrush was first in­tro­duced to me while I was at­tend­ing The Art In­sti­tute of Cal­i­for­nia-in­land Em­pire, some­where be­tween 2007 and 2011.” Cur­rently lend­ing his tal­ents to the teams at A52 VFX and Elas­tic, Li­mon has seven years’ experience in craft­ing char­ac­ters for TV, film and an­i­ma­tion, pri­mar­ily us­ing Zbrush.

“I started get­ting a glimpse of what Zbrush was ca­pa­ble of through the art that other stu­dents were cre­at­ing,” he con­tin­ues. “Even­tu­ally I took an in­tro­duc­tion to Zbrush course that fo­cused on char­ac­ter and prop cre­ation, I fell in love with the soft­ware there and then.” Since then Li­mon has worked on the main ti­tle se­quences for The Man in the High Cas­tle, West­world, Dare­devil, Luke Cage, and Fan­tas­tic Beasts and Where to Find Them, among oth­ers. His TV work has earned him three Emmy nom­i­na­tions and one win.

Re­cently Li­mon utilised Zbrush on the main ti­tle se­quence for sea­son two of HBO’S science-fic­tion se­ries, West­world. The soft­ware helped him to re­alise the com­plex vi­su­als of a mother and new­born baby that ap­pear through­out the se­quence. “I knew that we would re­veal some por­tions of their un­der­ly­ing anatomy in the se­quence,” he ex­plains. “But we were un­sure where ex­actly that would be. I had to ap­proach it in a way where I could eas­ily go back and swap things around.

“The first stage con­sisted of set­ting up a Zbrush master file for the anatomy of the mod­els:

it con­sisted of a T-posed hu­man body with as much anatom­i­cal and skele­tal de­tail as pos­si­ble. At this early stage, the file was put to­gether from var­i­ous sources, some re­cy­cled mod­els and newly sculpted pieces to fill in the gaps.”

He con­tin­ues: “One of the chal­lenges on my end was pos­ing the mother and new­born in a way that felt nat­u­ral. There was no rig­ging in­volved so ev­ery­thing had to be done by hand in Zbrush. With the pose ap­proved, the next thing to do was to mask ar­eas of the model where the un­der­ly­ing anatomy would come through. Go­ing back to the Zbrush master file, I took the por­tions that would be re­vealed and fit­ted them into place on the posed model.”

Fi­nally Li­mon was re­spon­si­ble for merg­ing the model’s anatomy with the outer skin, cre­at­ing a hol­low shell. He ex­plains: “Us­ing the remesh fea­ture in Zbrush, a rough shell was cre­ated. From there it was Dy­nameshed and re-pro­jected back to the orig­i­nal de­tails. No dis­place­ment in­for­ma­tion was used for the fi­nal ren­ders. In or­der to keep all the high fidelity de­tail, I op­ti­mised the fi­nal sculpt us­ing Zbrush’s dec­i­ma­tion fea­tures. This mesh could then be passed on to the artist work­ing on the fi­nal model.”

It’s clear that Zbrush was a cru­cial part of the cre­ative process be­hind this ac­claimed se­quence; ac­cord­ing to Li­mon it’s all down to the flex­i­bil­ity that it pro­vides, but that’s also what can make it one of the trick­ier soft­ware to master. “As a be­gin­ner, it might seem over­whelm­ing at first, per­haps due to the way the UI is set up or where the nav­i­ga­tion con­trols are placed,” says Li­mon.

“Zbrush should be used in a non-lin­ear work­flow, this is a soft­ware where one can achieve the same re­sult in a mul­ti­tude of dif­fer­ent ways and half the time those are rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent from one an­other in terms of motive or mind­set. It’s a very im­pro­vise­friendly soft­ware and one that helped me find the right ap­proach to this se­quence. All it took was some will­ing­ness to try new things and not be­ing afraid of fail­ure.”

For Dou­ble Neg­a­tive’s crea­ture and char­ac­ter de­signer,

“You can make in­sanely com­plex or­ganic shapes us­able for sev­eral tasks” Glen South­ern, dig­i­tal sculp­tor

Madeleine Scott-spencer, Zbrush has been a part of every­day work since 2003. She adds: “I use Zbrush ev­ery day to gen­er­ate con­cept images and dig­i­tal sculp­tures that will serve as the be­gin­ning of the mod­el­ling process.” With a back­ground in make-up ef­fects, pros­thet­ics and phys­i­cal sculpting, Scott-spencer pre­vi­ously worked with New Zealand-based Weta Work­shop and Weta Dig­i­tal. Since mak­ing the jump to Zbrush she has never looked back, au­thor­ing sev­eral books on the

soft­ware and cre­at­ing the In­tro­duc­tion to Zbrush train­ing videos for The Gnomon Work­shop.

Scott-spencer has also be­come adept at us­ing Zbrush to cre­ate fine art and com­mer­cial fig­urines, having used the soft­ware to cre­ate many of Weta’s Hob­bit col­lectibles. “At Gentle Gi­ant Stu­dios back in 2006 we were the first to cre­ate a com­mer­cial col­lectable fig­ure us­ing Zbrush, it was a Grindy­low from Harry Pot­ter,” she adds. “We sculpted it in Zbrush and then had to work out dec­i­mat­ing in other soft­ware as there was no Dec­i­ma­tion Master yet. We then printed and re­cast it in wax to part it for mould­ing. Today the dec­i­ma­tion is much eas­ier and I would do all that part­ing in Zbrush.” Ac­cord­ing to Scottspencer there is no al­ter­na­tive to Zbrush when it comes to dig­i­tal sculpting: “Noth­ing else comes close and it has tools specif­i­cally de­signed to as­sist the artist go­ing to 3D print, such as Dec­i­ma­tion Master and 3D Print Hub.”

Dig­i­tal sculp­tor Glen South­ern was an early adopter of Zbrush, “I’ve been us­ing it since 1999, which sounds crazy to me when I say it out loud,” he ad­mits. “I picked it up on the cover of a mag­a­zine and in­stantly fell in love with it. It was dif­fer­ent to the other tools I was us­ing and wasn’t used in any pro­duc­tion en­vi­ron­ments back then. There was no Dy­namesh, Zspheres and only a limited amount of brushes. It re­ally be­came

pop­u­lar once artists started us­ing the high-res­o­lu­tion data for nor­mal maps in games and in dis­place­ment maps for other pro­grams.”

South­ern, who also runs his own stu­dio, has been help­ing to meet the ever-grow­ing de­mand for train­ing in dig­i­tal sculpting for over a decade. Such is his pro­fi­ciency with the soft­ware that South­ern was asked to help the art depart­ment on sea­son two of the hor­ror se­ries Penny Dread­ful. Or­di­nar­ily Zbrush would be em­ployed in post-pro­duc­tion, but the de­mands of this project called for a dif­fer­ent ap­proach.

“They wanted to build a witches cas­tle and the pro­duc­tion de­signer wanted com­plex ar­chi­tec­tural pieces made in Zbrush and then carved in poly­styrene on a five-axis ma­chine,” he ex­plains. “The blocks were 2.4 me­tres high and the fi­nal item was sent off to a depart­ment for hard coat­ing, which made the piece feel like con­crete. I was mak­ing gar­goyles, bats, ram heads, col­umns and a host of sculpts that you might see in an an­cient cas­tle.”

When asked what made Zbrush the right tool for the job, South­ern puts it down to its com­pat­i­bil­ity with other soft­ware. “I was work­ing with files from Sketchup de­liv­ered from the main drafts­man work­ing on the project. They could be as sim­ple as a cube scaled cor­rectly, a piece of wall, or some­times an arch or a win­dow. Those files gave me the di­men­sions and I would de­liver low- and high­poly ver­sions back to him. The low poly went back into the main Sketchup scene and the high poly was sent to the five-axis ma­chines. Zbrush is per­fect for those kinds of jobs – you can make in­sanely com­plex or­ganic shapes and de­liver them back dec­i­mated and us­able for sev­eral tasks.”

Though Zbrush has be­come an in­dus­try-stan­dard tool, its ever-evolv­ing na­ture can make it a daunt­ing propo­si­tion for be­gin­ners. Scott-spencer has some ad­vice for those look­ing to get stuck into a ca­reer in sculpting for film and tele­vi­sion: “Look at artists out­side the dig­i­tal world for in­spi­ra­tion and sketch in Zbrush ev­ery day. I en­cour­age my stu­dents to do a daily sphere sketch, just a head or a face on a poly sphere us­ing Dy­namesh or Sculp­tris Pro mode. This will help build your confidence.”

Ac­cord­ing to South­ern, tute­lage is cru­cial for get­ting to grips with Zbrush quickly: “Once some­one has taught you how to work with the in­ter­face and con­fig­ure it to your needs it is no longer a bar­rier to you. If you try that on your own with tu­to­ri­als you can end up tak­ing ages to get to grips with things. Just learn the ba­sics and the rest will come over time. Fo­cus on just a few brushes rather than try­ing to un­der­stand the hun­dreds that are avail­able.”

Li­mon also urges be­gin­ners to grad­u­ally em­brace the free­dom that the soft­ware pro­vides: “Even though Zbrush is a very ro­bust soft­ware, it’s best to stick with the de­faults and pro­gres­sively in­te­grate fea­tures as you start to ex­pand your knowl­edge and tech­nique.”

He con­cludes: “I rec­om­mend to strictly fo­cus on the sculpting side and limit your tools to a few de­fault brushes. This will force you to work loosely, make mis­takes, and im­pro­vise so­lu­tions. This is the way to see and cre­ate as an artist, sculp­tor and vis­ual sto­ry­teller. It’s go­ing to take time and ef­fort, so get on with it.”

Scott-spencer says that the ease with which Zbrush al­lows artists to edit their work has caused a sea change in the world of as­set cre­ation

Li­mon and South­ern high­light Dy­namesh as their favourite fea­ture in Zbrush, as it al­lows them to sculpt from a prim­i­tive shape with speed and ease

Above left: Gar­goyles mod­elled by South­ern be­fore out­put in poly­styrene and used to dress the set on Penny Dread­ful Above right: Mod­els cre­ated for the Poole fam­ily house also in­cluded stone wall dress­ings, grave stones and ar­chi­tec­tural sculp­tures

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