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Blood Priestess: Working on a Fantastic Character in ZBrush & Maya

Matt Frederick gave another talk on his approach to character art and broke down his recent project Blood Priestess. Read our previous interview with him here.

About the Project Blood Priestess

I'm a rea-a-ally big fan of the horror genre. If you were to point at any random horror movie on Netflix, there's about a 99% chance I've already seen it. So in the latest project, I decided to lean on that passion for inspiration and design my own horror character from scratch, the Blood Priestess.

I took a lot of inspiration from games like Diablo and Bloodborne. While designing her I wanted to pay homage to my influences, so I worked on a lot of smaller details as shout-outs to the games that inspired her. Her necklace, for example, is the symbol used by the Zakarum and Crusaders in Diablo III. Her blade's skulls are also inspired by Gerald Brom's Diablo II cover art and the faces on the pommel refer to a scene in the Diablo IV cinematic announcement trailer. Even her hand position refers to The Doll in Bloodborne. There are a lot of other small elements like that scattered around, and I found it a really fun way to pay respect to my influences while also giving life and story to the character.

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I usually work from a concept or re-imagine an existing character, but this time around I decided to push myself and come up with an original concept. Creating Blood Priestess's design from scratch really made me think about the purpose of every aspect of it and how they contribute to the story of the character. The two major design goals I prioritized were story-telling and contrast. I wanted to have her embody deceit and betrayal, so I made use of contrasting elements to help support that. I tried to make sure this idea was present throughout the design, so I let it dictate everything from materials to shapes and colors.


Since I planned to create the concept for this piece myself and I only had a vague idea of what I wanted to do, I ended up spending a while doing really rough sketches in ZBrush to see where I wanted to go with the project. Some of the initial elements made their way through to the final design, but she also went through some pretty radical changes. At one point she even had a bunch of tentacles coming out from under the dress.

Once I was fairly settled with the general direction of the design, I started building simple low poly stand-ins for all of the character's props so I could plan out the composition better. With a majority of the final pieces in place, I pushed and pulled things around to get the proportions where I wanted them. At this stage I didn't worry whether the geometry was clean or not, I was only focused on silhouette and how things related to each other.


Embarking on this project, I knew that I wanted to have two sets of arms: one to welcome weary travelers, and one to betray them. Fitting them both in was a tricky task. I had to make sure that the top and bottom arms did not interfere with each other when I posed them. I also wanted to make sure they looked like they were from the same body, but were distinct enough to tell apart. To accomplish this, the demonic arms have defined muscles and are more elongated than the human arms. I used color and value as well to make them more homogeneous where they attach to her torso and more distinct towards her hands. The overall proportion was another thing I had to take into consideration in regards to the anatomy. Because of the distance between her shoulder and the tip of her fingers on the lower set of arms, I had to play with the length of her dress and torso a bit to get something that felt correct.

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The props were primarily modeled in Maya and then brought into ZBrush for final touches. The wings around the halo were initially sculpted by hand during my design phase, but I ended up rebuilding them from scratch with clean topology for the final high poly. I found having access to manageable topology and readable UVs very useful when it came to weathering and adding filigree. For her weapons, I only modeled the blades in Maya, the handle, guard, and pommel were all sculpted from primitives in ZBrush.

Since I had planned on bringing the character to Substance Painter for texturing, I only worried about sculpting in details that either might have an effect on topology or would be too difficult to pull off otherwise. Things like scratches, pitting, pores, minor edge damage, and fabric weave were all added later in Substance. This gave me a lot more control over the surface details without having to worry about re-baking everything if I wanted to make any changes.

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I ended up using Maya to build base meshes for the majority of cloth where it made sense. While modeling the cloth, I focused primarily on creating the top-down silhouette of the bottom edge to make sure I had plenty of concavities and overlap, which are a lot more difficult to sculpt from scratch. After modeling the bottom edge of the fabric, I extruded it upwards to fill out the overall volume I needed and then added in horizontal support edge loops for sculpting. Once I had my meshes ready to go, I pulled them into ZBrush, sculpted the more complex drapery and folds, and broke up a lot of stiff/parallel lines to make things look more natural.

The blouse and hood are approached differently than the rest of the cloth since they have more complicated organic shapes that lend themselves well to sculpting.


For this character's materials, I wanted to capture the grittiness and mood of my inspirations. I started by building up some base textures for everything. Since she has a lot of clothes on, I added a little bit of variety to cloth and differentiated the fabric of her blouse and dress by giving it a finer weave than her hood, cowl, and waist flaps. Once I was fairly happy with how those looked, I added gradients to break up some of the larger surfaces.

I wanted to tell a story with the materials by using grunge and weathering to age them and give them a life prior to what's seen in the final renders. The ends of the cloth on her lower half are shredded and matted down with blood, dirt, and mildew. I placed blood spatter, streaks, and handprints to show indications of where blood might have splashed on her, or where she wiped her blades clean and I added areas of the dark moisture-saturated cloth.


For the halo VFX (both angelic and demonic), I layered a couple of additive planes and made use of Marmoset's key-frame editor to add some movement. The idea behind the halo was to give another element to distinguish between her two forms while also adding a subtle pop of color to the image.


My approach to the final presentation was similar to how I created my materials. I wanted to capture the feeling of a dark moody painting, and I also wanted to keep my palette fairly muted and warm to sell that Gothic feel. To achieve this effect, I started off with a key light to block out interesting shadow shapes, and then slowly added other smaller/lower strength lights to lift out surfaces that were darker than I wanted.

Once the values were more or less in place, I started tweaking light colors to warm up or cool off areas slightly. For the background, I built a curved backdrop mesh and used dithered alpha to blend it out towards the bottom center of the image. This way I could create a textural feel and control how my ground plane blends with the rest of the scene. I also made use of fog, tone mapping, and curves to add depth and atmosphere.

Matt Frederick, Senior Character Artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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