Building Intimate Scenes with ZBrush and Substance

Building Intimate Scenes with ZBrush and Substance

Robert Röder talked about the production process behind his “Secret Romance” scene.

Robert Roeder discussed the way he worked on his latest personal project with brilliant materials and intimate lighting. 


Hi, my name is Robert Roeder and I was born in a village near Leipzig in Germany. I am currently living in Puch Urstein (Austria), where I study MultiMediaArt/Animation at the Salzburg University of Applied Sciences. I am currently attending the fourth semester of my bachelor studies and look- ing for an internship in the gaming industry.

I started getting interested in 3D art in 2008. Without any kind of previous knowledge, I taught myself how to use various tools, including 3ds Max and Photoshop. My biggest interest is designing environment art for video games, which is why I finally applied for the university 3 years ago and I keep improving ever since.


The whole scene started pretty innocent when I wanted to create an interior space, since my teacher told that this was missing from my portfolio and could spice it up. At this point there was no story or anything. I gathered some references for classicism and art nouveau patterns, trims, doors and so on and thought that a staircase is maybe an interesting space to create. Furthermore I wanted to push my lighting and compositional skills as well as my materials to a more realistic and appealing look. For my rendering engine I wanted to test out Redshift which is an incredibly fast and easy understandable renderer.

Building the Scene

I started the scene with my scale reference which is one of the demo humans from ZBrush and blocked out the stairs with simple blocks since stairs are a good way to get a feel for the scale in my scene, this is one of the most difficult parts for me, to get the scale right.

Almost every object is created with the spline tool of 3ds max. I used some trim outlines from my personal architectural library and traced a few of them. After that, I used the sweep and extrude modifiers to create all frames and boards in the scene. This workflow allowed me to work very flexible. Thus I was able to change the shape of nearly every object on the fly.

The hardest thing was the railing with the marble base which is spinning it’s way up. I tried a cou- ple of ways to create this smooth bending look without loosing the ability to alter the outline. In the end I used a combination of the sweep modifier, pushing some vertices manually in place and turbo smoothed the result.

The real story started during the process when I thought about “Where are the stairs leading? What is behind the two doors on each side? Who is living there?” and slowly, imagination led me to this little romance. Initially this project was planned to be done during my weekend but expanded to a three weeks night-time project.

At this point I actually intended to create a daylight scene but with the romance in my mind I decided to create a way more moody scene with a complementary contrast of the natural bluish moonlight and the artificial orange light coming from the two open doors. The camera position for the main shoot was also locked at this stage and did not get changed a lot during the rest of the process


The lighting itself is not too complicated. I used an HDRI for the moonlight and two portal lights with a bluish tint and different intensities to push more lighting into the scene. To get it even more moody I was playing around with volumetric fog which made it way more interesting in my opinion. Since I wanted to lead the eye to the tulips, the open door with the shoes and to the painting, there was no need to put a lot of interest into the lower level. Nevertheless, leaving it completely dark caused an unpleasant feeling so I decided to block this window with some leaf cards and lowered the volume fog scatter contribution and the intensity for the portal light.

There is only a simple rectangle light placed behind each door and only one supporting light to get more lighting behind the door on the left side. I tried to place each light in a way that it contributes to flow of the scene, that’s basically it, the rest is GI and reflections.


Almost every material was created with Substance Designer, to be clear I made 3 graphs, one for the floor tiles, one for the red marble and the last one for everything that is made of wood. This setup took me about two days but with all the exposed parameters it was very easy to create different variations of each material. For example, I used the flooring material without any tiles or color changes, cracks etc to create the material for the stairs.

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I needed to go back and forth between IPR and balancing the materials to make them look consistent and decided to create the breakup later in post with the help material IDs, ambient occlusion and curvature passes.

Telling the Story

The last three elements were the most important ones, so far it was just a staircase with some lighting but no hints or clues to understand the story I was after. I thought about them for some time and asked friends and people on the internet what they thought about my ideas. I wanted to make it subtle, like breadcrumbs leading you through the picture to discover the story.

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In the end I decided to take three objects as focal points, the painting in the golden frame, the shoes and the tulips scattered on the floor. I tried many different placements for the shoes and the tulips to make them feel right and decided to brake the real world measurements and scaled the shoes a tiny bit up, otherwise they were not really noticeable in the scene. For the painting I swooped through a few pictures until I found the right one. With the frame I was locking for something heavy, something that catches the eye. One year ago I created some ornate Insert Mesh Brushes with ZBrush, and they were perfect for the job. The painting is called “Romeo And Juliet On The Balcony” made by Julius Kronberg in 1886, which I thought is a nice hint to my story.

Finishing Touches

After iterating on the color scheme, materials, lighting, and set-dressing I thought about lens effects like chromatic aberration and depth of field. Those effects are normally pretty expensive on your render time but turned out to be manageable for 1080p images, so I used them for my additional renderings. Also, I used a photographic exposure node on my cameras to create a more realistic look by adjusting the white point as well as crushing the blacks a slight bit.

The last step was to create all the render elements I needed to recompose the beauty image and some additional maps as mentioned before. For the main image I kept the changes minor and for the secondary ones I boosted some effects and added some dust on my lens and in the environment to create a more stylized but still realistic look.

Robert Röder, Environment Artist

Interview conducted by Artyom Sergeev

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Comments 1

  • JoPhi




    ·5 years ago·

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