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Robots in ZBrush: Cartoon exosuit

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Date Added: 12th October 2016
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Character artist Pierre Rogers shares the process behind his stylized sci-fi duo "Foxer and Sidekat", using beginner-friendly ZBrush tools...


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In this tutorial we will cover how to create a stylized character wearing a sci-fi suit of armor, from beginning to end in ZBrush. We'll use basic ZBrush tools like ZSpheres, DynaMesh, sculpting brushes, and Polypaint. We'll cover how to develop and edit hard-surface geometry, making good use of the mesh generation tools and SubTool splitting to manage multiple parts as if our character was real.

Step 01: Start with a stick man

We get things started by selecting a ZSphere from the Tool menu. Next we want to make sure we are facing the front of our sphere by locating Front View (Texture > Image Plane > Front).

Next turn on symmetry on the X axis, located in the Transform > Activate Symmetry > X. Now that we are set up, draw out ZSphere joints. Under the Transform palette, use the Move tool to manipulate ZSpheres and the Scale tool to size the spheres up or down.

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Making a stick man with ZSpheres

Step 02: Blocking out

Now we want to convert our ZSphere man into geometry that we can sculpt on. Navigate to Tools > Adaptive Skin > Make Adaptive Skin. Now our little guy is available as a new low-res ZTool to begin our journey. Subdivide the mesh a few times and we can begin sculpting in some rough anatomy.

After we have established some basic forms, navigate to Tool > Geometry > DynaMesh, and click the DynaMesh button. Undo and increase the resolution until your model has increased in geometry. Use the Clay, Move, and Smooth brushes to edit your model. Every brush is essentially the Move brush, so try to get as much as you can out of it before sculpting on large forms. Take your time developing your base mesh; even though our character will be covered in armor, most of his armor will conform to his base mesh and so will inherit any flaws from its foundation base.

To create the eyes, append a sphere, being sure that you mirror and weld across the X axis for symmetry (Tool > Geometry > Modify Topology > Mirror and Weld).

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Sculpting the base mesh

Step 03: Facial hair

To add some simple hair, append another sphere, duplicate it and place the spheres in appropriate locations for editing. I utilize DynaMesh in order to sculpt a beard and mohawk using Standard, Move and Dam_Standard brushes.

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Adding DynaMesh facial hair

Step 04: Creating Sidekat

Now that we have our main guy fleshed out, it's time to create his trusty sidekick, "Sidekat." We use the same steps that created our main character, beginning with a ZSphere stick model and converting it using Adaptive Skin.

After a few subdivisions or DynaMesh, we dive into roughing out our stylized cat anatomy, developing forms with the Clay, Move, and Smooth brushes. Unfortunately I don't have an actual cat to pose for me, so I make good use of some reference images to create a convincing cat.

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Rinse and repeat the previous steps for Sidekat

Step 05: Slice and dice

Hopping back over to our main guy, it's time to put some armor on him. To make things efficient we will transform his current body into armor instead of building armor over his body. Using Mask Pen (or any other masking brush you prefer), section off areas of the model that correspond with pieces of armor, and go to Tool > Polygroups > Group Masked. Next select Tool > SubTool > Split > Groups Split, which will separate each Polygroup into individual SubTools. Now DynaMesh each new SubTool to create whole pieces of geometry.

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Cutting up the mesh for better management

Step 06: Suiting up

Now mask off a portion of the face, drawing the rough shape of a chin strap. Then navigate to Tool > SubTool > Extract, and click the Extract button with a thickness of 0.03. You will see a temp preview of the extraction. Extraction is one of many ways to generate custom geometry. If you like it, click Accept to generate it.

Use the Move brush to push and pull segmented pieces to form intersecting parts of armor. Continue to block out armor and accessories using various tools like the Topology brush, as well as simple primitives with the Insert Cylinder and Cube brushes.

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Blocking out the sci-fi suit

Step 07: Spine and refine

Time to add some details to the back of our character, starting with a mechanical spine for his exoskeleton suit. To do so we create a small section of the spine; you can use Mirror Symmetry to create a perfectly symmetrical piece.

Next go to Brush > Create InsertMesh. Select Stroke > Curve > Curve Mode. Now we have a Curve Insert Mesh brush to use for our project and future projects. Let's continue now to refine our hard surfaces by increasing our subdivision levels or our DynaMesh resolution, and using a combination of the Polish, hPolish, PolishD, and Trim Dynamic brushes.

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Creating a brush for the spine and refining armor parts

Step 08: Cat gadgetry

Let's give our trusty Sidekat some gear and whiskers now. For the whiskers, you can use the custom Insert brush 'Hair single,' which is included in the downloadable resources.

We will use simple Insert brushes to block out his equipment. A combination of the Topology, Insert Cylinder, Insert Sphere, and Insert Cube brushes are used to create the base for his gear. Increase the polygon count and use Polish brushes if necessary for crisp edges.

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Adding Sidekat's whiskers and equipment

Step 09: Platform

Our dynamic duo could use a stage to stand on. Let's start with appending a cylinder. Scale and place it appropriately and increase the resolution rather than subdivision or DynaMesh. Duplicate the cylinder and place it to make an extra level.

Next use Mask Pen to mask off a geometric area and extract some raised detail. After some editing, create a copy of the wedge detail by selecting SubTool > Geometry > Modify Topology > Mirror and Weld. Duplicate this SubTool and select SubTool > Deformation > Rotate _90 on Y axis to create and place a second copy, making a set of four raised designs on our platform.

Now let's add some detail to the base cylinders by selecting Transform > Activate Symmetry > Y axis > R and setting Radial Count to 50. With Radial Symmetry set up, we can now use Clay brushes to sculpt into the platform geometry.

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Put some effort into developing a stage, but don't overdo it or it will steal focus from our characters!

Step 10: Simple posing

The team has come a long way from simple ZSpheres, but it looks a bit static, so let's pose them up! There are multiple means of being able to pose your character in ZBrush; however, the basics are simply, Mask and move.

Start by grouping SubTools by appendages, such as arms, legs, feet, torso and head. For solid organic parts like his tie, utilize Mask Pen and Ctrl+click on the model to soften/blur the mask to allow smooth deformations. Then place the Transpose line and rotate.

For multiple pieces, utilize Ctrl+Alt+Shift to hide and unhide parts, mask off appropriate parts and move as needed.

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Mask and move

Step 11: Color and material

Finally comes the moment when we add color to our team. Select Skin Shade and go to Draw > RGB. Select your color and use masking tools to apply color to each piece accordingly.

Next let's add a little spice with a simple paint job. To create a simple airbrush, select the Standard brush, navigate to Draw > RGB, set RGB between 10-20, and turn off Zadd. Now that we have our airbrush, select darker color values for each part and add some shading to recessed areas.

With some fine-tuning we can create a brush to simulate hair. Select Alpha 23, then click the Stroke button and select the Spray option. With some trial and error, you can edit the placement and flow values to your preference.
Next is the fun part: adding shaders. Using the materials shown, fill each piece accordingly by selecting Draw > M and Fill Object. For an added outline to establish a more stylish look for each material, navigate to Material > Mixer and set Outline to 1 and Depth to 3.

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Base colors and paint. Use Flat Viewing mode in Render settings to view your textures without shading

Step 12: Rendering

No character art is complete without a bit of rendering. The default settings for your BPR (Best Preview Render) won't flatter your work and will need a bit of tweaking to get some nice results.

Note that trial and error is recommended when editing the render settings - depending on the size of your model within ZBrush, you will get different results.

Start by establishing a preferred angle to render from, then navigate to Render > Render Properties and turn on Shadows and AOcclusion. Next go to Render > BPR Shadow tab, and set Angle to 246 and Blur to 2. Click the BPR button to render and see the results.

Next go to Light and double-click to turn on additional lights. Position each light on demo sphere (you can click on the sphere to place the light behind it). Play with the lights' intensity while clicking BPR to see results. For some extra flair, navigate to Render BPR Filters. Select F4/Orton and click the circle in the corner to show a open circle, denoting that the filter is on. Set Orton to 50, Opacity to 100, Radius to 32, and Mask to 0.2.

Render to see your results and lastly select Document > Export, to name and select the format to export your render. You can also use Photoshop to composite your renders and add some extra flair for presentation - and now we are done!

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You can render your characters in ZBrush for presentation

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Related links

To see more from Pierre, check out his website
Discover ZBrush Characters & Creatures in the 3dtotal shop

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