Adding Realism to A Stylized Character

Adding Realism to A Stylized Character

The Gnomon student Courtney Chun talked about her amazing Kali project and the way she achieved realism working on a stylized character.

The Gnomon student Courtney Chun talked about her amazing Kali project and the way she achieved realism working on a stylized character.


Born and raised in Honolulu, Hawaii, I moved to Los Angeles and started college at Loyola Marymount University. I decided to major in Multimedia Arts which gave me a good foundation in Photoshop, After Effects, and photography. I later added a minor in Animation after my Mom suggested I take a few classes. I’d always wanted to be involved in the artistic side of film but hadn’t realized till watching Avatar that there was an entire world of VFX that could be instrumental in telling a story.

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Joining Gnomon

I learned about Gnomon through a teacher at the university I attended. After having no luck finding a job, I knew I needed a more specialized school to help me. Everyone at Gnomon has said this, but the best part about the place really is the people. All the work I’ve been able to accomplish wouldn’t have been without the help of my friends and teachers at this school. There were countless times I had questions or needed advice on how to model or texture a tricky piece and these people always went above and beyond to help.

I’ve learned a lot from instructors like Andrea Adams, Anton Napierla, Stephen McClure, Eric J. Valdes, and Dan Edery, to name a few. I’ve worked the most with my demo reel teacher, Miguel Ortega, who is just as amazing as a person and artist as everyone says he is. I honestly can’t speak any more highly of my experience at Gnomon and the entire faculty, staff, and students.

Character production

I have a Pinterest board where I save a bunch of concepts. When I’m deciding on one, I always try to imagine what parts I’ll have difficulties with and which will be easier to tackle, and then decide if it’s doable. It also helps to come up with a reference page, something many of our teachers at Gnomon have required us to do. Putting together reference familiarizes yourself with everything in the scene and also helps you to get a better understanding of how much time everything will take you. I learned this the hard way with leaves. They seem simple but they always take me so much longer to get right than I anticipated!


Sculpting with ZBrush is SO different from clay. Sculpting with clay is more intuitive for me and I feel like I have more control over larger shapes. ZBrush was difficult for me to pick up, but once you understand how subdivision levels work it’s a lot easier to control.

I only use about 4 different brushes, clay buildup, dam standard, move, and inflate. I’ve seen people make a lot of neat brushes but I like to keep things simple when I work in ZBrush.

I feel a lot more comfortable with ZBrush now but I learn new ways to use it all the time. One of the neatest things I learned working on this piece was how to create the detailed carvings on the metal pieces. A friend from school sent me a link to a demonstration Square Enix did at the ZBrush Summit. With a low res, well-UV’d object, you can paint a black and white pattern or design on the UV Snapshot of the object in Photoshop. Subdivide the object pretty high and import the pattern as a mask, use the inflate option in the mask settings and now you can export a displacement map to get that high-resolution pattern detail on a low res object in Maya!


I use both Mari and Substance Painter for texturing. Mari is primarily for organic textures like skin, foliage, or anything I want a lot of control in painting-wise. Substance Painter, on the other hand, is amazing for when I need hard surface materials textured quickly. 

All the metals in the Kali piece were done with Substance Painter and took probably the least amount of time for me to get the texturing done right. PBR is a godsend when it comes to texturing metals in Substance! I also used Painter for the cloth materials and found using maps from the materials library on Substance Source were really helpful as a base for the cloth texture. From there, you can play around with it to fit whatever look you’re going for.


I tend to be drawn to concept art that has unique or interesting lighting, but that can prove difficult to pull off in a 3D scene. I try to get away with what I can inside Maya by putting planes or pieces of geometry to direct the light the way I want it to. In the past, I used Photoshop to make the lighting more dramatic but now I rely on Nuke. Photoshop works for a still but 3D work looks so much better with some kind of rendered movement – and you can’t fake it with Photoshop there!

I don’t do a ton of post-production work but I do have a few go-to’s in Nuke. My favorite thing to add is a bit of glow on the reflection or specular pass. It makes any scene look so dreamy and beautiful, you just have to be careful not to take it too far. I’ve also learned in my last few months of Gnomon how incredibly important MultiMattes are. Multimattes allow you to make those minor hue, grade, saturation, etc. adjustments on separate objects or materials in a post instead of trying to get everything perfect in your render. I usually have at least 12 different MultiMatte passes, which may be a little much but they’ll save your butt from having to rerender.

The challenges of stylized production

I learned a lot from Leticia Gillet who teaches the Stylized Character Creation class at Gnomon. Usually, when I sculpt a realistic character, I’ll just start from a base mesh and use those four basic brushes to mess with it until the sculpt starts to resemble my reference images and the concept. I learned from Leticia that for stylized characters, the smart way to work is by blocking out your own base mesh with basic shapes like spheres and cylinders. Keeping the shapes separate in the blockout stage simplifies the process and allows you to focus on silhouette and nailing the straights/curves of the character first.

Realistic characters take a lot of finesse and detail to make the sculpt and textures sing, but I tend to feel less pressure on getting everything perfect. Stylized characters, on the other hand, are less forgiving for me and usually, end up taking me longer. The overall shapes need to be just right so the story you get from the concept reads the same as in the 3D piece. In the long run, I spend the same amount of time doing the extra texture work to make a realistic piece actually look real as I would be making minor adjustments to a stylized character so the read is just right.

Courtney Chun, 3D Modeling and Look Dev Artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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    Adding Realism to A Stylized Character