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Understand creature anatomy
Sculpting Anatomy: From Animal to Creature WHAT YOU’LL LEARN
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Gael Kerchenbaum is a Freelance Creature Artist. Early in his life, creatures like King Kong, Godzilla and dragons inspired him and bring him to the world of VFX. Gael decided to dedicate his career to understand the mechanism behind animal anatomy. He worked at MPC, where he was part of the team who gave birth to the animals of Jungle Book. Then he became a freelancer and worked for many studios like Bacon Picture, Noemotion, Capsule Studio… Gael is currently working as a Creature Artist for Axis Animation on unannounced cinematic projects.
Sculpting Anatomy: From Animal to Creature Student gallery
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Feb 11, 2019 - Apr 26, 2019
Nicole Jackson | Spring 2018
The instructor was fantastic and I absolutely loved his class!
Michka Mouret | Spring 2018
Best instructor ever!
Jason Metcalf | Spring 2018
Great class. Highly recommend.
Diego Rodriguez | Spring 2018
Gael is a great teacher, he explained his workflow in great detail and provided even more information in the Q&A sessions. He also encouraged us to help each other, creating a great ambient between the students. I really enjoyed the course.
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Serval Anatomy Sculpt
Interview with Jess O'Neill
Jess O’Neill did a breakdown of her beautiful serval sculpt made in ZBrush & Maya
Hiya! My name is Jess O’Neill, I am a modeler and texture artist from Australia, and I recently won an internship at Method Studios through The Rookies while completing the CGMA course Sculpting Anatomy: From Animal to Creature taught excellently by Gael Kerchenbaum.
I graduated from a three-year Bachelor of Animation program at Queensland College of Art, where my education on art and film-making began.
After my degree, it took me some time to work out what I wanted to specialize in, something my peers seemed to figure out with ease. However, I’ve always had a keen interest in learning how things work, so after studying Anatomy for Production at CGMA, I thought that Gael’s course would be a step in the right direction for figuring out my specialty.
By signing up to this course I expected to improve and expand my knowledge of anatomy, as well as have some guidance and feedback on how to improve my sculpts, however, it far exceeded my expectations. I learned the similarities of anatomy between species, meaning every time I learn something new about anatomy for one animal I can apply that to future sculpts of entirely different species. Valuable lessons on design, composition, and workflow tips. The Live Q&A’s also provided a lot of extras I didn’t expect, so I was sure to watch the recordings every week
I anticipated learning only the tools to create an anatomical study, but Gael’s excellent teaching and guidance helped make it my most successful piece yet. Most importantly, his course helped me find my passion for animal and creature design, the field which I now endeavor to specialize in throughout my career.
Over the first six weeks of the course, we were to sculpt an animal of our choosing. I chose the serval because I thought its slim form would be a challenge for me, but also because cats have so much character and I thought it would be fun to make one.
Each week we would collect references for the stage we were up to. For example, we started by sculpting the skull, so our reference board would have images of the skull and head of our animal from various angles like the image below.
When looking for the reference of a specific animal, particularly for photos of its skeleton, I found it helpful to use the animal’s scientific name in the search as it gave me more relevant search results. Wilhelm Ellenberger’s An Atlas of Animal Anatomy for Artists and Eliot Goldfinger’s Animal Anatomy for Artists are also invaluable resources when studying animal anatomy, so I included some images from their books on my reference board to save time.
To make the skull we started with a cube in ZBrush, keeping it at a low density and blocking out the silhouette using the Move brush with Symmetry turned on. Then we used DynaMesh to cut out any necessary holes. The ClayTubes brush with a low ZIntensity was used to sculpt the different plane changes of the object, starting with the primary shapes and moving onto the secondary shapes. ZRemesher was then used before moving on to more refinements.
The skull and the mandible were made as separate pieces, as well as the teeth which were mirrored, duplicated, resized and repositioned to match the reference.
After sculpting the skull in ZBrush I imported it into Maya. In Maya, I created a new camera and attached my reference image to it as an image plane (orthographic views of the skull for example). I then changed the focal length of the camera to match what the original photo was taken with – the focal length can often be found in the image properties. By looking through the new camera and lining it up to my model, I was able to check that the model correctly matched the reference and use Soft Selection to adjust the areas which were not quite right. I repeated this with two other cameras to check different angles, then reimported the model to ZBrush to continue.
The skeleton was first blocked out using ZSpheres, starting from the base of the skull and using symmetry to save time. For this sculpture the skeleton is buried under the muscle, so is then broken into three pieces – spine/ribcage, forelegs, hind legs – rather than individual bones. It’s important to get the silhouette correct and then refine the bones. The process was the same as the skull: using Dynamesh, the Move tool, and the ClayTubes brush, and starting with primary shapes before moving onto secondary shapes.
I spent the most time on the face, as I hadn’t studied facial anatomy before and felt it was really important to establish character blocking in and reshaping the muscles to match references. The sculpture went through stages of looking really horrible, but it was just a matter of refinement and always checking the silhouette. I used lion anatomy as a reference but kept in mind that the serval is a much more lean creature.
Even when the sculpt was in its neutral pose it didn’t look quite right, as the serval has different proportions compared to other cats. I had to continually check against references by overlaying photos and using the ‘Look Through’ slider through all stages of the project.
Fat, Skin, and Fur
Photos of sphinx cats were used as a reference for this stage to aid in the identification of wrinkles. I had trouble with the fur, so I started by drawing over photo reference to understand where the clumps of fur were before sculpting.
After the serval was posed, I increased the mesh density and used a spray mask where the fur was displaced the most in references. I then used the Snake Hook brush to pull out these areas, giving the impression of finer furs. This allowed me to make an interesting composition as I was more concerned with having the sculpture feel believable rather than being completely physically accurate.
The sculpt was posed in ZBrush using Transpose Master. The serval’s long legs and body are its distinguishing features, so the leaping pose was chosen as I felt it best captured the nature of the serval and was best able to display these attributes. The pose also offered an opportunity to further study the compression and extension of the muscles and skin. To have the model look correct in such an exaggerated pose, I had to continually line-up the sculpt against my references to check and maintain correct proportions.
I chose the colors for the render based on the references found of servals. Quite often they would be a yellow cat on a green background. The grass was included to add context and story to the pose (just planes reshaped, resized, and duplicated).
This project helped me find a workflow that suits how I operate by understanding how a design is to physically work before sculpting. It was very interesting to see the similarities between mammalian species, including humans, which has helped in gaining references for new and current projects. The course has also taught me how quickly I can create something beautiful and interesting and has helped me realize my passion for creature design. I really enjoyed Sculpting Anatomy: From Animal to Creature and I am very grateful to Gael and CGMA for providing such a wonderful course which has been a very important step in my career!
Jess O’Neill, 3D Modeler/Texture Artist
Antelope & Dragon Studies
Interview with Nicole Jackson
My name is Nicole Jackson and I am a 3D character artist from California. I graduated from CSU Chico with a Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Animation and Game Design. I started taking CGMA classes in order to improve my understanding of anatomy since CSU Chico did not offer an equivalent course. Without a formal understanding anatomy, it was harder to produce realistic creatures. In order to learn these skills, I enrolled in CGMA’s Sculpting Anatomy: From Animal to Creature by Gael Kerchenbaum.
The class was set up into two sections with each part focused on a different project. For the first project, we could choose to work on a carnivore or a herbivore. My first instinct was to do a carnivore, specifically a big cat, because those are some of my favorite animals and I have almost exclusively worked on carnivores in the past. I decided, however, to choose a herbivore in order to push myself out of my comfort zone. To challenge myself, I decided to work on a more exotic animal rather than one where the anatomy reference of the exact species was readily available. In the end, I chose to do an anatomical study of a Lowland Nyala (an antelope native to southern Africa) because of their long limbs and elegant proportions.
The Nyala Project: Reference
Before sculpting our projects, we needed to gather reference material and organize it in reference boards using a program called PureRef. Throughout the project, I collected hundreds of relevant reference images including photographs and anatomical studies of Nyalas and similar species (mainly horses, deer, oxen and other antelope species). I also referenced several anatomy books including Animal Anatomy for Artists by Eliot Goldfinger and Animal Anatomy by W. Ellenberger.
This was how my PureRef reference board looked towards the end of the Nyala project:
We started by finding a profile view of the animal we were studying in a neutral pose. On top of the photograph, we drew a diagram of the skeleton and muscle groups’ location within the body. Each week we created a reference board of the relevant images for whichever part of the body we were sculpting.
Here I drew the skeleton over the top of the reference photo of a Nyala and color coded the bones to compare the bones to a human, a Plantigrade animal (chimp), and a Digitigrade animal (Tiger):
Here the muscles were drawn over the top of the reference image:
Kerchenbaum also taught us about the differences and similarities between carnivores and herbivores and how their anatomy varies based on their needs as a species. For example, herbivores, such as horses, need to be able to run in order to avoid predators and, because of this, they have straight spines that aren’t as flexible to provide stability while running; whereas a carnivore such as a cat has a curved and more flexible spine that allows it to jump and pounce on its prey. Keeping characteristics like these in mind is helpful for creating a realistic and believable creature.
We began working on our project by creating the skeleton, specifically the skull. Starting with a cube in ZBrush, we slowly adjusted the shape to match the references we were working from. I frequently used the move tool and the clay tubes brush to adjust the shape of the skull and Dynamesh to quickly retopologize the mesh as I made large changes. ZBrush is a creative and organic process; instead of worrying about topology, you can focus on sculpting in a way that feels like working with real clay. Because of my background in traditional art and clay, many of the methods of working with clay translate to digital sculpting in ZBrush.
Gael showed us a useful technique for creating holes and carving out sections of the mesh by using the Insert Primitives Brush. Using this method, we were able to quickly make cavities for the eyes and nose and hollow out the interior of the skull. During the process of sculpting the skull, I referenced 3D scans of similar skulls on sketchfab and other 3D model viewing websites. Having the ability to rotate around the reference and view it from any angle is beneficial, because it fills in information gaps that the reference material alone does not provide.
Once the skull was complete, we began blocking out the rest of the skeleton. We used ZSpheres, starting from the base of the skull, to block in the skeleton. Getting the correct proportions of each bone was important because we would be layering the muscles, fat, skin, and fur on top of the skeleton; if the skeleton wasn’t correct then it would cause problems down the line. Each bone was sculpted into the ZSphere base mesh that we created earlier using the same tools used to refine the skull; this caused the bones to be fused together but this was fine for our purposes. We were also careful to include the bony features of the skeleton, such as the bumps and ridges on the bones, because each of these features has a purpose; often indicating the attachment point of a muscle or tendon.
Using the skeleton as the framework, the muscles were added one by one on top of the bones; while always checking my references. We used the insert mesh brush to insert a sphere onto the mesh to start a muscle group and then used the move tool to shape each muscle and shift it into place. Once the placement and general shape of the muscle was correct, we would use Dynamesh to connect it to the rest of the model. Once all the muscles were attached, we used the move tool and clay tubes tool to refine the shape of the muscles. As I refined the muscles, there were times when I could tell that there was something not quite right with the skeleton of the creature. When this happened, I would go back and adjust the skeleton in order to fix the problem.
During this process, it was important that the bones of the creature were not lost. There are areas of the creature that have little, if any, muscle covering the skeleton (such as a portion of the ribcage, the hips, etc), so it is important to keep these areas looking like bone rather than allowing them to fade away into the surrounding muscles.
Skin & Fur
The next step in the process was to add the fat, skin, wrinkles, and fur. I duplicated the current model and filled in the holes between the muscles and carefully softened and blurred the divisions between the muscle groups and removed brush strokes. This gives the illusion of fat on the animal; however, it is important not to completely lose the definition of the muscles beneath the skin. Once the general smoothing and refining of the model was complete, we began adding the wrinkles and skin folds. Wrinkles occur in areas that need additional skin to allow for movement such as joints (elbows, around the neck, etc). While looking at my reference, I carefully added the wrinkles; making sure they were not too even or symmetrical so that they would look natural.
Next, I blocked out where I wanted to place the fur by duplicating my model and pulling the geometry through the original model using the move brush and the snake hook brush. Checking the silhouette often, I continued to refine the fur volumes until I was happy with the general shape. Working in smaller clumps, I made several strokes with the clay tubes brush to show the direction of the fur. The trick was to create the illusion of fur without actually sculpting out each individual strand.
The fur is roughly blocked out:
Model with completed fur:
The project was rendered in Maya using the Arnold renderer. I used ZBrush’s Transpose Master to create a simple pose for my Nyala and added it to a Maya scene with a backdrop. I lit the scene using 3-point lighting and added a few additional lights to illuminate the background and key points of the model. The material I used was meant to look like clay and is an AI Standard Surface material with subsurface scattering enabled to give it a nice glow, especially in thinner areas of the model such as the ears.
The Dragon Project: Using Anatomy of Real Animals to Create Believable Creatures
The next half of the course was focused on a second project: a dragon. What was interesting about this project was that, since they don’t actually exist, we had to use the anatomy of real animals and adapt it to work for the dragon. Not only did we learn how to combine and adapt the anatomy of many different species, but we also learned about the anatomy of birds and bats: specifically the muscles that allow for flight.
While looking for reference material, I came across an interesting dragon concept image from an unknown artist. The dragon itself was stylized but I loved its proportions; it had a long neck and tail, but what really caught my attention was its feet which looked similar to those of a lemur. These became the cornerstone of my dragon concept. The story I created for my dragon was an agile, small to medium sized dragon (around the size of a small cougar) that lived in trees. It would have a semi-prehensile tail and feet meant for climbing trees and gripping branches.
Proceeding with this concept story, I decided to use reference of clouded leopards, leopard, several monitor species (especially Spiny Tailed Monitors), birds, and bats as my main reference material. The actual sculpting process was almost identical to that of the Nyala.
My PureRef reference board with all my reference and inspiration images organized:
Dragon skeleton (without wings):
Dragon before final texturing:
I created a layer in ZBrush with the mouth shut to make sure that the jaw and teeth were shaped correctly to allow the mouth to close:
With the dragon project, we took the sculpting a step further and created high detail scales and skin textures. We used alpha maps created from high detail scans of real animal skins such as a crocodile, a frog, an iguana, and even an ostrich. I also hand sculpted many of the larger scales such as those on the head, belly, the legs, and along the spine. I also added spikes along the dragon’s head and neck.
Once the scales were sculpted, we moved on to Polypainting the model in ZBrush. I added many layers of color and used ZBrush’s automasking features to bring out detail in the model. Kerchenbaum also showed us how putting a lighter, sandy color between the scales can give the illusion of dirt and dust stuck amid the scales. Previously, my instinct was to paint a darker color to add shadow but, by painting a light color instead, the resulting texture was much more realistic.
I pictured my dragon living in a rainforest so I decided to have some fun with the texturing and make it rather colorful. I used many shades of blue for the body with some variations of hue into the greens and purples to give the color more depth. Then, I used a soft ivory color for the dragon’s spikes, belly and the inside of his limbs. I added a streak of black across the dragon’s face and tiger stripes along his back. The first iteration of the legs had tiger stripes as well, but I decided that this was too much pattern so I faded the legs into black instead.
Polypaint in ZBrush:
Once I was finished with the texturing, I created a base mesh with a lower polygon count and baked out all the textures so they could be used to render the dragon in Maya. The base model wasn’t perfect (some of the spikes became too low poly and lost some of their shape) so the final Maya render lost some of the detail in the original ZBrush sculpt. I plan to manually retopologize the dragon in my free time so that I can bake the textures again and hopefully get a cleaner result but I am still happy with the final result for the course.
My experience with Sculpting Anatomy: From Animal to Creature was phenomenal and Gael Kerchenbaum is an amazing teacher. The techniques that he taught us helped me improve my skills as an artist and gave me the tools to create any animal or creature I can imagine. I loved that he not only taught us about animal anatomy but also gave us a few tips about being a professional artist and showed us how to texture and render the model to create a portfolio quality image. I would highly recommend CGMA‘s courses to anyone who wants to improve their skills as a 3D artist.
Nicole Jackson, 3D Artist
Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev
Canine Anatomy Study
Interview with Tsvetelina Zdraveva
I was born and raised in Bulgaria but moved to the States to pursue a degree in architecture at Rice University in Houston, TX. Throughout my studies, I found myself most drawn to creating 3D visualizations for my architectural environments, and shortly after graduating, I decided to focus entirely on 3D and animation. Since then, I have enjoyed directing and creating a diverse set of video projects, among which were a whimsical short for National Geographic and a PSA for NASA.
As a transplant into the film industry, I am always on the lookout for resources that can help my work. I found Gael’s CGMA course Sculpting Anatomy: From Animal to Creature while looking for a foundation in animal anatomy and a comprehensive creature sculpting walk-through. I was impressed by the roster of their experienced instructors, and I hoped to gain the secret workflow tips of a talented VFX-industry insider like Gael himself.
How the Class Began
The course kicks off with an incredibly fun discussion on phylogenesis that provides everyone with the skills to sustain their own independent anatomical research. Through the comparative principles that Gael teaches, my peers and I learned to inform our understanding of virtually any creature existing or imagined.
I chose to work on a sculpt of an Ibizan Hound as I was drawn to their unusual capacity for movement and the beautiful pronouncement of their musculature. Each week, before I began sculpting, I would make image reference boards to better understand the forms I’d be working on that specific week. I would markup landmarks to look out for, note any relationships between what I’d already learned and the structures I was studying, and continue to expand my visual library of the Ibizan Hound in movement.
The vibrant Discord classroom where Gael was tirelessly present was extremely helpful in this preparatory stage. It was a dedicated space for us to share our research material, and even months after our term has ended is still a place I visit often and benefit from.
Building the Skeleton in ZBrush
I started with the Hound’s skull, but as I was unable to find the exact photographic reference, I sculpted a general canine skull and then adjusted my mesh to match the proportions of an Ibizan Hound’s head in profile.
The workflow in ZBrush began with a basic sphere that I pushed and pulled with a large Move brush, and subsequently dynameshed to create all the skull cavities. The ClayBuildup and ClayTubes brushes were my favorites for refining the volumes afterward. I feel like with just these two brushes – by adjusting their Imbed value, and sometimes altering their alpha Radial Fade – mostly, I can achieve any shape I am after.
I approached working on the animal’s skeleton in a similar way to the skull. Starting with a typical dog skeleton, I proceeded to adjust its proportions to match the Ibizan Hound reference photographs I had compiled. At this first stage, my most helpful resources were Ellenberger’s and Goldfinger’s anatomies, as well as a number of free online bone scan libraries. Two of my favorite online archives were the Digital Morphology library at the University of Texas at Austin and the collection at the California Academy of Sciences.
Even though I did my best to proportion the bones as closely as possible to the silhouette of the Ibizan Hound, my primary focus at this stage was not to create impeccable proportions. Those kept being adjusted all the way through to the end of the écorché phase. What was most important to me at this point was to make sure each bone had all the necessary surface planes to provide for origin and insertion of superficial muscles. In this exercise, I approached the sculpt of the skeleton as a necessary structure for accurate placement of musculature and not a finished piece on its own.
Building Up the Body
As soon as I built up the skeleton, I began layering superficial muscles starting from the head and making my way inside-out toward the tail. My goal for this class was to gather as much anatomical knowledge as possible, so in many ways, this stage of the sculpt was the most important for me. At this point, I worked primarily from the third volume of the Color Atlas of Veterinary Anatomy and used Ellenberger as a guiding tool along with a selection of greyhound anatomy diagrams by Ernest Thompson Seton from Art Anatomy of Animals.
I modeled each muscle individually, keeping a consistent naming system to help with subtool selection while working. Nick’s Tools is a plugin that has saved my life many times when having to batch rename subtools, and I would gladly recommend it to everyone. I also grouped my subtools to easily include or exclude muscle groups from my viewport. Because muscles are more like sheets of tension than balloons of mass, each layer showcases what lies underneath it. To control the way muscles wrap around what lies under them, I used the ZProject brush.
Each time I created a new subtool, I would Dynamesh it, refine it, and adjust its topology with ZRemesher.
To sculpt the areas around the eyes, nose, and ears, I gathered a lot of close-up photography of Ibizans, dogs, wolves, and even cats. This way, I was able to resolve at the écorché stage both the proportions of the whole figure and the features of the head that would make my sculpt distinguishable as an Ibizan.
Ibizan Hounds have very little fat or fur, so to wrap up my sculpt, my focus was on adding skin, veins, and wrinkles. Exploring the various Smooth brushes inside the ZBrush default folders was a lot of fun here. My favorite were Peaks, Valleys and Directional. As I had gained a mountain of reference material by this point, I found PureRef to be the easiest way to organize and view all photos while working on this layer.
I really enjoyed Gael’s additive method of sculpting from the skeleton out. It not only facilitates more accurate sculptural likeness but allows for a logical transition into posing movement, the next and last stage of this sculpt.
Postures & Presentation
What I love about Ibizans is that they can be both regal and playful. I experimented with a few different poses before settling on the two used for final renders. Both poses were created with Transpose Master and a varying degree of further manual adjustments and resculpting.
To position the final mesh for render, whether to align it with another mesh or to just create a good mesh-to-floor contact, I highly recommend a small script called Positioner. I use it all the time for an accurate and fast arrangement of the things I sculpt in ZBrush.
The renders were created in Octane, which is incredibly fast when paired with a few GeForce 1080Ti’s. A simple waxy texture was applied to the mesh and was lit with three light sources against a simple paper-textured backdrop. The image was then color-corrected in Photoshop and further sweetened by following Gael’s color-correction workflow. I created contrast by stretching the image histogram with a levels adjustment. Then I duplicated the image, isolated and blurred the highlights, and screened this back on top of the composite to create a subtle bloom effect. Lastly, I duplicated the image again, blurred just the red channel, and screened with partial opacity. This last step adds a warm hue to the bloom.
Taking part in Gael’s course has been an honor. The lectures alone would have been enough to sustain two courses on their own. Our live Q&A’s additionally covered a wide range of relevant topics a character artist needs to master alongside sculpting: texturing, retopology, rendering, and even grooming.
The class Discord channel really fused the group together and made it easy to share our progress and questions. With Gael’s constant encouragement, we shared resources and kept each other going through each stage of the workflow. Some of the students even live-streamed their progress as they worked (you guys have to check out Denis Udalov’s magnificent gaur and the rigor captured in those process videos).
I have been fueled with a lot of new creative ideas to work on, and I cannot wait to share my next creature with all of you. Thank you so much to Gael for your generosity, commitment, and knowledge, and to everyone at 80 Level for the thoughtful questions and the opportunity to talk about my work with you.