The Youngest Dragon: Sculpting Creature Anatomy and Details
Tjeu Pubben shared the production details of a 3D creature made in ZBrush and Maya during his studies at CGMA.
Hello all, my name is Tjeu Pubben and I am a self-taught creature artist. Currently, I am working at Ubisoft as a Player Support Agent.
When I was younger and watching Jurassic Park with my brother, my parents were doubting whether the two of us really needed to see all the on-screen carnage. We were all too happy with this carnage on display, though. These moments made me realize that there are people in this world who make such movie creatures as a job. This realization transformed from movies into game art, and overtime back to creature art.
The course started at the perfect moment for me. I just finished school which gave me an abundance of free time. Next to that, looking at Gael’s work is an inspiration in and of itself. To get lessons from this beast of an artist, such an amazing combination of available time and opportunity!
When I was attending schools, I realized that they would never teach me the things I wanted to learn and the skills I wanted to pursue. School is a whole other discussion topic in itself. Do know that getting the basics and getting them right requires a lot of time and effort. School is this small capsule of time where you can do this work. It taught me valuable lessons in discipline, managing egos, and friendship.
Before, I organized a workshop on animal drawing together with Joe Weatherly. This showed me how to look at animals, how to feel their pose, and how to capture their essence. Being able to look through the animals’ exterior and recognize their anatomy helped me in the course immensely. It was one of the first lessons, too! What I wanted to learn was to be able to create écorchés correctly with a high level of focus on proportions and design. And, of course, to create one of the cool dragons!
The Youngest Dragon: Reference
Who doesn’t want to create a super cool dragon? This has always been an artistic dream of mine, to create dinosaurs and dragons! The initial plan was to create a dinosaur-like dragon based on the Spinosaurus. More akin to a water- or swamp-dwelling dragon. Something that was a clear goal for me was to achieve the quality akin to the T-Rex in Jurassic Park. To have an interesting yet primal creature that can instill fear in hearts and minds.
There were many boards of references and mood boards. These encompassed bones, skeletons of dinosaurs and lizards. Images of 3D scans, references from academic studies, and wildlife photographs. Keep an open mind when collecting references, don’t be afraid of anatomical breakdowns. Though don’t look at them when eating! And keep the time spent on this in check, else you might end up spending more time collecting references than actually sculpting.
Sculpting the Body
After you make an animal, you have a full setup of bones, muscles, and skin. In my case, the animal whose muscles I was working on was a cow. This enables you to create skeletons faster. I always use ZBrush for this purpose. Restart the skull sculpt as this is usually different from the mammal skull structure. Or use the skull if the face shapes correspond. Always work in a lower sDiv to keep the model pliable and adjustable. This way you can always check the proportions and make adjustments.
There are moments to consider when using Dynamesh and when to stop using it. My take on this is that you make 99% of the primary forms using Dynamesh, you zRemesh the mesh, and continue to sculpt. It is a temporary mesh to make the sculpting go correct. After all the sculpting is done, you want to retopologize the mesh in whatever software you use. This is to make it either game- or animation-ready. There is always a way to project your details back on top of the mesh in ZBrush. Our intention is to make a concept sculpt to use for presenting ideas that progress in the pipeline. The model itself is as such not complicated. In the early stages, this is very fluid since you use Dynamesh and ZRemesher a lot. First, you get the shapes and proportions right and then move on to secondary shapes. When all the muscles and bones line up you have 70% of the model done. When you know where the bones are, you will know where the muscles go. When you know where the muscles go, you know where the skin goes. When you know where the skin goes, you will know where to put the details.
The texture I created is not a complex one, it combines two very strong programs. First, the bulk of all the work. I created the albedo using ZBrush PolyPaint and the masks available in ZBrush. The main masks used are Mask by cavity and Mask by smoothness. These masks will ensure that you can fill in the cavities. Creatures aren’t cleaned every day so dirt and grime build up between scales and in skin folds. Layers of dirt will influence the colour. Use the opposite colour of what is present and the cavity mask to build up this grime. Next in line is the smoothness mask. It is gentler than the cavity mask and will allow you to create this grime build-up on the bigger parts of the body. Scales, nails, teeth, though also think of the feet. Always work from reference. Use animals that are closest to whatever creature you are creating. Lizards were the biggest source of reference in my case. This way you can make your creation look real.
Add to that the other part in Maya – adding the SSS shader – and you make a skin texture that is realistic. The sub-surface scattering is the icing on the cake for creatures. This adds a layer of plasticity and simulates the skin with subdermal layers. This will also give you the opportunity to create an SSS mask to make parts see-through. This happens in the real world when you look at thin layers of skin in a backlight and the light shining through them. Think ears, sometimes fingers, teeth, or nails.
Detailing the Creature
First of all, to get the gritty details right, you need a very high polycount. The full model ended up having about 75 million polygons.
Be aware of the different types of materials at play. This will influence how you sculpt the shapes and carve in detail. This goes beyond the final stage. You need to keep balance, weight, gravity, and movement in mind. The anatomy of your creature can change at any moment and this influences the muscles, and therefore skin and details. Teeth, nails, and scales are harder surfaces than the skin. These show signs of wear on them, scratches, and in extreme cases, cracks. All of these are tools to create a story.
I was initially very scared of turning the symmetry off. This resulted in heavy use of alphas, blending alphas, and some manual enhancing at parts. I have used a lovely alpha from texturing.xyz. They can be recommended for all parts of my dragon and playing with the intensity will give you many uses. Next in line is the Dam_Standard_02 brush. When used at low intensity and large size, it will push geometry away while carving a path. I used this to emphasize the alphas and create very interesting patterns of skin, folds, or scales. I applied this to the small scales to blend alphas together or to enhance large scales. Make space for bigger scales. I used this on the chest of the dragon.
I used the classic colour combo of blue and orange, in a milder manner. Nothing fancy – start from the basic 3-point light setup: key, fill, and rim. As this is a large animal, you will need supporting lights. The creature would be roughly 4 meters in size in reality. Arnold uses real-world dimensions to calculate the lighting. In total, I have 6 lights, 4 of which function as supportive to get the nice rim light and edge highlights in, to break any tangents or muddying of the shapes.
Of course, with the SSS this will increase the warmth of the scene. This also affects the impact and mood of the image. I did light tests with inspiration I found in a flier with a cow silhouetted against an orange sunset. My thinking was those wings would be an amazing thing as the SSS would be another extra layer in the image. It was a lot of fun and frustration at the same time to get the lighting correct. The most fun I had was while I was playing with the spread of the area lights. I did this to make a narrow beam of light that can kiss the silhouette of the model.
As such you will need many lights to ensure the whole model is properly lit – when I achieved this, it was bliss!
One of the biggest challenges was time. While I had plenty of time, life still managed to get in my way. You want to create the most awesome model out there which I have tried many times. I learned to tone this urge down during the course, it is alright if you don’t have all the work done. Your intention is there. Seeing how people create awesome anatomical breakdowns makes me want to make them too. Hold up, though, take your time.
One issue that I ran into later in the process was that I cut my model wrongly. This resulted in a visible cut line in the model when rendering. I kept projecting the main shapes on top of each other so it remained cut while I should have merged the model and project the details up to a lower sDiv. Still struggling with this, but I will figure it out!
Gael and the Discord group have been a genuine godsend in this. The number of times I asked for help, feedback, or motivation has been endless. Getting personalized feedback from your instructor is great. I still listen to those lessons today from time to time, as the amount of information you receive in those 10 weeks is insane. The lessons learned during the course have been invaluable in my development as an artist and as a person, a true basis for life. My approach to creature design is unrelenting and passionate as I firmly believe this is the way to becoming a true master of the craft.
At the moment I am working on a stylized bat that I intend to 3D print. After that, I want to switch it up and look at vegetation – Houdini and a game-ready environment with a focus on organics. Creating animals and creatures will be in my DNA. Creating environments around them will be the icing on the cake. In attending a few art events I have been lucky enough to meet my art heroes. This only fuelled me further and I will be attending art events the next year to meet more heroes!
A final note is a special thank you to 80.LVL for reaching out to me. Another special thanks to CGMA for allowing me to follow the course. A big thank you for our Discord group, for all the feedback and shared references. You are on the top of my Discord list. Another very big thank you to Gael for sharing his wealthy knowledge about sculpting animals.