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Crafting a Real Time Elf Character in ZBrush

Julie Beliveau told us about the amazing experience and lessons she gained taking a course at GAI.

Julie Beliveau told us about an amazing experience and lessons she gained taking a course at Game Art Institute. She also showed a full breakdown of the character she produced at the Bootcamp.


My name is Julie Beliveau, I live in Fort Lauderdale, Florida and I currently work full-time doing 3D for a Maritime Simulation company. We train deck officers from Captains to First Mates in safety navigational training using a bridge modeled after one of Royal Caribbean’s Oasis Class Cruise Ships.

My first intro to game art was when I went to study for Multimedia Design at my local college, they happened to have a 3 part 3d course in the curriculum. I didn’t really start getting heavily invested until I decided to enroll into Game Art Institute in August 2018 after I saw what my friend Mohammad Asraf was producing and sharing after he completed his Bootcamp with GAI.

Elf Commander Onneisha

Experience with GAI

I enrolled in the Character Artist Bootcamp with Game Art Institute. I really wanted to learn the current pipeline for games. It was something I previously struggled to understand, especially with baking and hair works. We use a very old pipeline at my current job, which is basically modeling, unwrapping, and then texturing in Photoshop and then breaking it down into LODs.

My main instructors in the Character Artist Bootcamp were Ryan Kingslien and Marcin Klicki who is a Senior Character Artist at CD Projekt Red. The first project starts out with modeling a prop, preferably an antique. For my antique, I chose a Powder Horn that is currently owned by the MET Museum. We were challenged to complete our props before the Environment Artists and Character Artists went to their own groups with their industry mentors.

For the prop phase, we would meet up with Ryan Kingslien twice a week to receive feedback and have our questions answered as well as some encouraging pep talk from time to time. One thing Ryan really loves to also encourage is to post progress often! This was my first real true taste of the pipeline!

If we students had trouble with achieving something we had a library of tutorials available to us from great artists like Adam Skutt who also instructs at GAI. If someone was really following behind Ryan would arrange a meeting with alumni bootcampers to help them get up to speed, which is super cool. Over at GAI, it’s a pretty awesome community of people that like to share knowledge.

Sometime around early September, I selected Onneisha as my chosen concept to work off of. At the time I found her on Pinterest and I began to do initial sculpts as well as moving into the second phase of the bootcamp where I was mentored by Marcin Klicki!

Sculpting Workflow

At the start, I’ll spend some time gathering as many references as possible. For Onneisha, my thought process was: If I were to cast any actor as this strong, beautiful elven warrior, who would I cast?

To me, I thought someone who looked like Catherine Zeta-Jones would fit the role nicely. She has features that I tend to be attracted to, such as the hooded eyelid where the lid sort of disappears into a fattier upper eye. For the body, I spent time scouring 3d.sk which is an amazing reference site where they take a lot of high res images of people. There’s so much to comb through on that site but it’s a great resource, they’re even starting to get into scanning.

I really love Puref, it’s pretty essential to my workflow. I love being able to compile all of my images into one document. The great thing about it was that any feedback Ryan Kingslien would give me I would dump into the puref board and try to work off of his notes. I circled one of Ryan’s draw overs he did for me here. Ryan would sometimes also ask us to send him our models where he would do a sculpt over to show us his techniques for bringing out forms in the face or body and then encourage us to follow his example.

This is the model I chose from 3d.sk, while I didn’t go for quite the full muscularity this awesome lady has, I tried my best to get close. This is one of my goals for my future projects, to get better at sculpting muscle and form. I also invested in a 3D Total Female and Male Figure which helped me visualize the muscles under the skin. They can be found here:

Another tool I picked up midway through was:

This book is incredible and really helps me think of muscles in ways I haven’t before.

This was from September 11th 2018 after I received some feedback from Ryan. Putting the old and the new side by side in Zbrush would help me see the changes more clearly. I don’t know about anyone else but I find that if I look at something for too long I can miss something.

This was an early update from Sept. 12, 2018.

Later in the day, I made a few more adjustments:

It was really important that I tried my best on the face, it was one point I really wanted to nail down as I started getting into building her.

Armor & Clothes Workflow

This actually turned out to be easier for me than getting the face and body right. Marcin and Ryan always insisted that for certain pieces like the pauldrons and vambraces above we start out in a 3d modeling package to build construction meshes. I use 3DS Max to model because I really love the modifier stack workflow. Plus I use Max at work, and it is what I am most comfortable with when modeling.

I personally like to start out modeling with simple planes, and then tacking on a shell modifier and then moving that around until I’m satisfied with the base shape and then I’ll collapse the stack down and start using a method that was taught to me by Simon Peloquin where I use Marius Silaghi’s Quad Chamfer Modifier to target smoothing groups when I’m beveling out shapes and details.

I got the edging of each piece out using this method, which I then carried over into Zbrush where I went through a trial and error period. I tried IMM, curve tubes, so many different things to achieve the overlay silver designs, but in the end the only thing that I found that worked best for me was to simply get to a high subdivision level, mask out the shapes I wanted, extract, split the extractions into their own subtools, zremesh and then polish by features. This is also what I used for extracting the silver designs on the chest and back piece.

The Dragons were the FUN part! Ryan Kingslien showed me this super neat Zbrush feature that helped me build the alpha I made for the dragons. The process calls for using the MRGB ZGrabber in Zbrush. You can find a Pixologic Tutorial on it here. It turns your height and depth sculpt information into an alpha.

I couldn’t quite tell what the dragons were at the time, my best guess was a hippocampus but even that didn’t feel quite right. Amazingly enough, though a fellow Bootcamper knew one of the artists that worked with Kings of the Realm and put me in touch with the base concept artist at the time. I was delivered a very handy character sheet which I won’t share in its entirety out of respect for the artist and the studio.

Using this I was able to start building my stamp, though I needed to do some work, so it was a process of going back and forth between Zbrush and Photoshop.

I took the artwork given to me by the concept artist, put it into photoshop, cleaned up some of the edges and took out the bottom half of the tail (because I needed to wrap it a different way) desaturated it and then adjusted the levels and contrast and as a final touch did a gaussian blur pass. (I don’t need a whole lot of detail anyway just a rough outline)

I projected it onto a plane in ZBrush, recreating some of the forms, I’d take it back into photoshop and clean up my alpha errors and mess with the contrast some more until I achieved the final result below. I repeated this for the pauldron emblems as well.

For the clothing, I constructed the tunic/duster in Marvelous Designer. It’s such a fantastic tool. I used to be big into cosplay myself, and creating patterns was my favorite thing to do. Sewing in 3d? Amazing! Put me in coach! Marvelous Designer is perfect for that. It can be a bit tricky at times but there are ways to really get the fabric to sit how you want it.

My favorite trick is to make a makeshift duster in 3ds Max in the angle I want the cloth to fold over and then import it as a mannequin to get the cloth to drape over that.

To get it out of Marvelous Designer and into Zbrush/Maya I used this Patrick Anderson’s MD Mesh Process Tool.

Early Potato Phase

Early Zbrush Potato Phase

This is an early phase of the armor that I like to dub as the ‘Potato Phase’. Where it’s sort of concepting out the armor and getting a feel for the shapes and putting them into ZBrush to see how well it’s coming together and if the silhouette looks good. The tunic is also an early MD design I did, but I really wasn’t feeling the duster here. Sometime around September 23rd.

Creating the Props

This was an early start of the chest piece which followed the original concept, but I really wasn’t feeling it! So back to the ref hunting again! I eventually found this again via Pinterest and fell absolutely in love. I tracked down the original designer here.

So I changed up the design to something similar to this artists work while trying to stay true to the chest plate shape from the concept. The main belt was also started out in the same manner as the vambraces, pauldrons, and chest plate where I used the quad chamfer modifier to make my construction mesh for Zbrush.

For the dagger belt, I also used Max to pull the initial construction mesh off but starting out differently. To start out I created a spline around the main belt and then I used a sweep modifier with the built-in ‘bar’ selection to make the geometry. Always starting out in the simplest way possible. You can see my stacks here in the modifier panel to the right.

I also like to point out that in the beginning stages I tend to use clown colors so I can see the separate pieces. I later turn all of that into a single material with a bit of specularity to see if any of the geo looks off.

For the other elements:

The jump rings were also all simple geometry. The rectangle jump ring was formed also via the spline sweep method. The dagger belt buckle, dagger tops, boot dagger, and sheath were all started out in the same manner as the vambraces.

The final construct meshes in 3ds Max.

Working on Hair

This was the biggest challenge for me I think with this project. I went through so many hair tutorials! To name them:

Learning Xgen wasn’t really all that hard, the tutorials by Adam Skutt really helped flesh out my understanding of the tool, the real challenge here was placing them. That’s where Georgian Avasilcutei’s hair tutorial came in. I took my rendered hair textures from Maya to Max and laid out my hair cards and bound them to splines. Georgian’s Hair tutorial is pretty good, he goes over the way he creates hair using Max as well.

The braid is geo I got from XMD’s Lifetime Membership packs, the braid, however, was a little too tight and I wanted it to be exaggerated, so I spent some time teasing out the curves and using the inflate brush in various spots. I then took it into Maya where I unwrapped it and carefully made sure the UV shells were over the base clump I had on the texture sheet. I then spent time weaving flyaways and loose hairs in and out and around the braid area.

However, my first iteration of the hair clumps was not what you see today. After my friend, Fareed Nagy William showed me the 80lvl Article with Jeff Hindsbol Hansen I immediately threw the whole wig out and started over with the clumps and finished the hair placement in a day.

The old is what I had going for the longest time. Until I was shown the article on 80lvl with Jeff.

Hair Placement inside of 3ds Max.

Spline Card Work from the back view.

Pictured above was close to the final placements of the hair on May 25th, 2019.

Important Note: When placing hair cards its a good idea to create a guide mesh in Zbrush so you know where you want your clumps to curve and conform to, it really helped me get it done easily.

Here is my final hair guide mesh I used to help me place my hair cards:

Working on Leather

Honestly, my high poly could have packed in loads more detail from Zbrush, but I also wanted to see how far I could push it in Substance Painter. For the leather, I chose base materials such as: lamb leather, some soft leathers, overall I wanted different kinds for certain pieces because using different materials is something I’d probably do if I were to build this in real life. I then built on top of these with different color variations, some damages, and dirt. Dirt and damage are super important to each piece!

This is my favorite part of the pipeline, where I can experiment with all sorts of materials and build up layers of information. I like to think about the story that the materials tell. Worn in leather will have variation in color, if it was stained (dyed) you can see some sort of fading. I also thought about how Onneisha probably takes care of her gear such as oiling her leathers to keep it moisturized so it doesn’t get too dry, cracked or faded.

So pretty much every tertiary detail you see on her, whether it be the stitching (which by the way is a fabulous Substance Painter tool by SubstanceTools, however, I don’t think it’s available anymore). Down to the chest plate engravings are the result of me trying to push it far in Substance Painter.

Face Workflow: Lips, Makeup

I did invest in some Texturing XYZ packs. This was a giant experiment for me but I imported XYZ face displacement maps from two different faces. I used a regular fill layer and targeted the Normal + Height, with the guide XYZ provides I stamped them in meticulously one at a time and then followed up with Substances XYZ skin texture to fill in any spots as well as blend the height maps together.

For the skin color… Magdalena Dadela did an epic GDC workshop on skin painting!  I followed this as best as I could as well as doing research on the color zones of the face.

For the makeup: I really thought of how I apply my own makeup when I do it. I don’t like blush, I use minimal eyeshadow, and at most I use a very small amount of lip balm. With this in mind, I translated it as best as I could to Substance Painter, a slightly rough eyeliner with smudged/blurred edges, a faint pinkish/orange slightly rough eyeshadow and for the lips, multiple colors of light pinks/reddish colors blended together with some spec.

The face paint was its own beast. My main source of inspiration for it was Senua from Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. They had scanned in the detail for Senua’s face paint so it served as a really nice reference for me to go off of and try to emulate in Substance Painter.


Marmoset is a super cool and pretty easy renderer to learn. They also have a lot of nice character art tutorials that I pulled knowledge from:

One important detail I would like to note for the skin was the height map I took out of Substance Painter needed some adjustments in Photoshop, particularly a levels adjustment to really bring out the cavities for the pores. It helped with bringing out the detail even more.

Towards the end of the project, my lighting was not doing Onneisha justice and Ryan Kingslien had actually had a saving grace lesson here for me (and the rest of GAI) on lighting in Marmoset. Here’s a before shot, some days before I finally nailed the lighting.

I had completely reworked the lighting. I utilized cameras to place spotlights which works out better than trying to maneuver them with the gizmo in Marmoset.

This was the last piece I needed to bring her altogether, lighting makes a huge difference in how well your materials show.

Important Lessons

My biggest lessons with this character were not to be afraid of experimenting. Trial and error were apart of the process in making Onneisha as best as I could. Don’t be afraid of having to redo things either! As a result, I learned so much from things that didn’t work out so well for me. Also not to shy away from seeking out help or even seeking critiques from people you look up to.

Perseverance is also incredibly important, there were days where I felt like I wasn’t going anywhere with the project but I stuck with it because I really wanted to complete her in time for The Rookies. It really paid off in the end.

Furthermore, take breaks. Even if it’s just 5 minutes away from your computer every 30 minutes, breaks are super essential to your mental health and when you come back to your work chance are you will have a fresh mind to see what more you could work on next.

Julie Beliveau, 3D Artist

Interview conducted by Kiril Tokarev

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Comments 2

  • Anonymous user

    It's not the same artist. There are a few people that have done this same character. :)


    Anonymous user

    ·4 years ago·
  • Stas

    You might want to know some other online school student claim to have done this model



    ·4 years ago·

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