Denis Udalov took the CGMA course Sculpting Anatomy: from Animal to Creature by Gael Kerchenbaum and talked about the wild Indian bull Gaur created during it.
Hi, my name os Denis Udalov I live in Saint-Petersburg, Russia. I’ve been working in the game industry for 5-6 years. From a young age, I was fascinated by computers, games, and any electronic device I could get my hands on. As you can guess, I wasn’t an artist at all. At the age of 26 when working as a network administrator at a local ISP, I was asked by a friend to participate in making a game with them as a C++ programmer. At some point, I had to get my hands on 3D, and it was like a charm. I spent two years learning it on my own, then got my first paid job as a freelancer for small outsourcing company H2Games (Sergey, Alla, thank you very much). And at the age of 29, my dreams came true: I joined Saber Interactive right in the middle of Halo 2: Remaster production as a Texture Artist.
Saber was a great place to work at, but I wanted to make Character/Creature art, so I spent a lot of time learning anatomy, traditional, and digital skills and after 4 years at Saber I moved to Sperasoft Studio as a 3D Artist. There I’ve worked for 4 months as a Prop Artist for OVERKILL’s Walking Dead and meanwhile took internal training on Animal Anatomy by Maria Panfilova. I knew a lot about human anatomy at that moment and made a decision to study animals deeper. That’s how I ended up at CGMA, taking the course Sculpting Anatomy: from Animal to Creature by Gael Kerchenbaum. In the end, it granted me a Character Artist position for an MMO project.
My goal for this course was to get a better understanding of how animals are constructed, how they differ from humans and how we can play with anatomy to create something completely new. I’ve learned a lot out of the materials Gael has provided in the course, and a lot more from my own research on a specific animal I decided to create.
Start of the Course
The course has a strict curriculum and, if I remember it right, the first week was spent on analyzing the anatomy of different creatures and painting over their bone structures and muscle systems:
Next step was to choose a creature each student would study for the next 5 weeks, gather references and sculpt a skull of the animal of choice. It was a bit tricky moment for me because there are so many great creatures on our planet, and I had to choose only one. At first, I made a hippo skull because it was just too hard to resist creating one. But after that, I changed my mind and moved to a wild Indian bull, Gaur, one of the biggest and strongest ones.
Each week we received some prerecorded feedback on our work from Gael which was very helpful and pushed me to make everything better.
The video is pretty self-explanatory: usually, I start from very basic shapes and refine them while developing all the forms. Primary, Secondary and Tertiary forms are the key to get everything right. I don’t move away from the current stage while I’m not sure that I have a proper silhouette from all the angles. Or at least I think so.
You can see an example of my workflow from start to finish in the Hippo skull timelapse:
Lately, I started making the initial stage with SculptrisPro. It has its limitations but is great for sketching and getting basic shapes.
Skeleton & Muscles
For the entire skeleton, the process is pretty much the same. There are some repeating parts such as vertebrae and ribs, so some of them were duplicated. I tried to do everything as anatomically correct as I could, so I made every bone and every muscle separately. To achieve the best result, I gathered a lot of references for different bones and bovine muscle system. There was a lot of checks and double checks for every bone, muscle and overall silhouette (and a bit more checking after Gael’s feedback) to get everything right. As you can see in the video, there are a lot of tweaks for muscles that I already made but found incorrect after some research. At this point, you have to understand that this is not a teacher who teaches a course, but you who either work hard and research or slacking. No teacher can help one who can’t put his effort into the project.
I didn’t record the skeleton production, but the muscle system can be seen in this playlist:
My approach to the muscle system has its downside, by the way. In the video, you can see how I tried to dynamesh everything in one piece and failed. There were a lot of holes and other glitches, so I decided to make a proxy mesh to reproject everything on it.
This pipeline wasn’t that new for me but I didn’t use it much before. The way Gael does it feels quite natural: first of all, you make a base skeleton to define the core landmarks of the body (it doesn’t need to be super detailed), then the muscle system, fat/skin and after that low frequency details such as wrinkles, small fur clumps, cracks, etc.
Actually, it was quite challenging for me to create a defined muscle system on the ecorche sculpture without going to subtlety (fat/skin) right away. But it feels right when you do it because you can understand how muscles are placed. There is no problem in making defined muscles more subtle after all.
Other than that, working on an organic creature, human, animal or something mixed is always about working on its silhouette from every angle. It really helps to make creature thin or massive: just look at its silhouette from time to time. Take a look from far away, go 2-4 meters away from the monitor and take a look. This way you can see some mistakes.
Most of the detailing was made with default DamStandard and Standard brushes using Layers system to control the level of details. This way I could overdo some details at first and reduce the layer opacity after that. Also, there’s a really neat trick with Rake brush shared by Dmytro Teslenko. He used it with Intensity 1 to 10 and Focal Shift near 99, with Alpha from DamStandard – this way you can achieve really subtle carvings.
It was near impossible to find an interesting pose for Gaur in the natural habitat, so I took a lot of references from videos of corrida and Spanish festivals (there is a popular event called Running of the bulls), I wanted to create a really dynamic pose and there were a lot of interesting references, but this one caught my eye:
I tried to make it even more dynamic using S-curves and reviewing it from different angles. It was quite challenging to make it somewhat believable, so there were a lot of iterations for legs and overall posing. But the course has its time restrictions for homework submissions, otherwise, I’d probably continue changing things. This is what I ended up with:
To strengthen dynamism a bit more, I decided to add some sand and splashes going from the hoofs. I used basic shapes formed as floor surface and clouds of sand coming from the hoofs. After that, I used Micromesh and placed simple cubes all around these meshes, then deleted unnecessary geometry and formed a bit more interesting shapes using Move and Snake Hook brushes.
Gael has explained how to set up a render scene on our own, but I lacked time and used this little “cheat”. It is always great, however, to know how to set the lighting in your scene to create great renders. If you want to improve your lighting skills, it will be a good idea to watch Lighting setup for Photo/Video tutorials like this one:
If You Want to Make Creatures
Knowledge of anatomy can help you a lot while working on creatures, especially ones that are fictional. At first glance, you can think: if they are not real, I can do anything you want. But everything we do is expected to be seen by someone, and we, people, are used to comparing everything we see to something we know. Good knowledge of human and animal anatomy will help you to create believable creatures. Lycans from Order 1886 are a great example.
When doing something completely fictional, it is always good to ask yourself a few questions. Where does it live, what does it eat, how does it move? After that, plan your creature and think what anatomical parts can be for it: is it humanoid, reptile, insect, or some kind of a mix? When I was working on the previous project and got game-changing advice to look at some animal anatomy, it really helped to push the character.
While making creatures, get a lot of references, observe nature to get an understanding of proportions and shapes. If you want to create something realistic but with fictional parts, look closely at the animals that resemble your creature. Study their proportions, dynamics, etc. and then apply everything to your own creature. Great examples would be characters by Antoine Verney-Carron and Javier Blanco.
If you plan to create something completely fictional you have to really understand what you are doing. Design is an iterative process. Make different versions and choose one that fits your needs. Anatomy itself is no more than an instrument in your hands. When you know it, you can break the rules to create something completely new, and the more you know, the better you can do that. Move/remove/add limbs, exaggerate proportions, mix everything the way you want it but remember to apply the fundamental knowlege of anatomy. Without it, the result can be weird. Also, find friends and show them your work in progress, so that they can point our questionable places right away.
Overall, learning creature production is a long way and it is always nice to let someone who knows more than you teach you. I believe that Gael Kerchenbaum put a lot of effort into the course to make it great. He is a great teacher and a great person. During the course, I learned a lot about animal anatomy, basic creature design principles, posing, rendering and even texturing, plus there is quite a lot of additional information you can get from live Q&A sessions if you actively participate in them.
This is the end of this wall. Thanks for reading to the patient ones!