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Stylized character creation with Maya and ZBrush

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Date Added: 13th February 2018


3D generalist Caroline Ng demonstrates how to create a stylized bunny character with Maya and ZBrush, from an illustration by Karly Jade Catto...


Hello! My name is Caroline Ng. I am a 3D generalist for films and games. Here is a tutorial of how I create a stylized character for games. It's based on an illustration by Karly Jade Catto.

Collecting references

The first thing I do is gather references of the materials I will be texturing as well as images that will help me figure out the form of the character. Since there is no character sheet showing the different angles of the bunny, I search for similar concepts or illustrations of characters drawn in different angles, as well as 3D characters done by other artists.

Reference board

Modeling the base mesh of the character

Depending on the asset that needs to be made and how difficult it is to model, I will either choose to model straight in ZBrush or Maya. Usually I would model inorganic assets in Maya and more organic assets in ZBrush. For this project I modeled the bunny and his clothes in ZBrush; the fishing rod, hooks, strings, and ropes in Maya.

I started by blocking in the character using basic shapes such as spheres and cylinders. Referencing often to the reference images I found. I adjusted the shapes from different angles until I felt pleased with the shapes. I would then use "Merge Down" (if your shapes are inserted as separate SubTools, you would need to do this so they are merged into one SubTool) and "Dynamesh" to merge all the shapes together in one continuous mesh.

"Merge Down" and "Dynamesh"

Modeling the base meshes for the clothes

The technique I used to model the bases of the clothes was by extracting a mesh from the base mesh. This was done by masking the shape of the clothes on the base mesh and extracting them.

Make sure to put the thickness to 0 and to click on "Accept" afterwards. This mesh should come out as a new SubTool.

Extracting the cloth pieces

Using ZModeler

Next, ZRemesh the model with the option "Half" applied, as this halves the poly count and gives a cleaner mesh. Now it's time to apply the thickness to the clothes. In order to do this, I used the ZModeler tool. You can use polygroups to control which areas to be extruded.

1. First, I press on Ctrl+W in order to make sure the extracted mesh is all one polygroup
2. Hovering over a face of the polygroup you want to extrude, press down the space bar and a window should show up
3. Still holding down the space bar, I choose the options highlighted in orange in the image below
4. Click and drag to extrude the mesh
Using this method, you can polygroup specific areas and only extrude that polygroup.

Options in ZModeler window

Sculpting in ZBrush

The next step is to sculpt in the details of the model. I usually use the standard brush or slash brush to sculpt fabric. Because this character is stylized, make sure that each stroke sculpted on the clothes is intentional. For this project I sculpted up to the secondary details and left tertiary details for texturing.

Sculpting secondary details

Making the low-res

Now with the high-res sculpted and done, I decimate the model in ZBrush. Export the decimated high-res model and import this to Maya. Now you will want to retopologize. You want to do this using "Quad Draw" under the "Modeling Toolkit." First select the mesh you want to retopologize and make it "live" (the magnet icon on the top shelf), then select "Quad draw" and draw four points on the mesh. Hold down Shift and hover over the four points. You will see a green face, left-click on it to create a face. Once retopology is done, it's time to layout the UV. Once the UVs of each piece are flattened, make sure that the pixel density is correct.

Quad draw

Making the cage

With the high-res and low-res done, it's time to bake! We want to separate the meshes as far as possible, exploding them. You want to organize your meshes in layers. One for low-res, one for high-res, and one for your cages. To make the cages, you want to select the low-res pieces and duplicate them and put them in a layer and call it cage.

Select the Move tool and open the tool settings. You want to change your "Move Settings." Change the "Axis Orientation" to Normal. Now select all the meshes in the cage layers and right-click > Vertex. Select all the vertices on the mesh, using the Move tool, click and drag on the N. You want the cage to cover over the high-res. You may need to move individual vertices because you do not want the cage meshes' vertices to be intersecting into one another.

Making the cage

Baking the high-res to the low-res

1. Export your high-res as an OBJ. Do the same for the low-res and the cage meshes. So in total you have three files for baking
2. I open Substance Painter and import my low-res. To bake in Substance Painter, go to the "TextureSet Settings" and click on "Bake textures"
3. Select your Output Size. Import your High Definition Meshes by clicking on the paper file icon on the right. Tick "Use Cage" and import the cage file on the paper icon on the right
4. Select Bake at the bottom. You may need to adjust your Max Frontal Distance and Max Rear Distance depending how your bake goes

Baking in Substance


For texturing, I mainly used the smart materials and materials provided inside of Substance Painter. I applied the smart materials and materials as a base. I used smart masks, mostly the occlusion dirt smart mask in order to create a stylized look on the texturing, using a contrasted darker color. I added a paint layer on top of the smart mask applied and hand painted the edges. This created a more natural look.

I do more details in the texturing phase, such as the threads on the clothes and badges, using a layer with the height map higher than the rest.


Bringing your model and texture files Marmoset Toolbag

I bring the low-res model into Marmoset Toolbag and plug in the maps to the corresponding boxes. I made additional maps for SSS and Fuzz. I used Fuzz map for the clothes to create the cloth-like texture.

Materials in Marmoset Toolbag

Lighting in Marmoset Toolbag and presentation

I use the HDRI provided in Toolbag and dimmed the brightness of the HDRI so that it would act as a fill light and show reflection in the eyes. The important part was to have the reflection in the eyes to make the character come alive. I used the three point lighting set up. An orange/yellow key light, a blue rim light to contrast the warm key light, and another purple fill light.

Lighting set up


Related links

Check out "His First Catch" in the gallery
Caroline's Facebook
Caroline on ArtStation
Subscribe to Character Design Quarterly


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