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Create Grand Organ in 3ds Max, ZBrush & Substance 3D Painter

Jérôme Bussat showed us the workflow behind the Dominion Reed Organ project, explaining how he tackled wood as a PBR material, organized props, and set up the lighting.


Hello, I'm Jérôme, a recent graduate from Geneva, Switzerland. I’ve always had a soft spot for hard surface modelling and realistic texturing. With that said, I decided to venture into something a bit different and experimental with this project, which also enabled me to create a bit more personal. Overall, the goal for this project was to expand my skill set as I aim to break into the video game industry. 

The Dominion Organ Project

With high ambitions in mind, I set off to work on a new project that would ideally surpass my previous portfolio work but also showcase something new. Initially, my thoughts gravitated towards spaceships, but as I delved deeper, I realised that I was craving the challenge of texturing wood. Combined with a somewhat outdated taste in music, the idea of crafting a church organ felt like a perfect fit. My attention was ultimately drawn to the Dominion Organ, a fortunate choice since it had recently undergone a restoration by Rodney Jantzi. Furthermore, it had thoughtfully been documented, providing me with a trove of reference pictures. 

Here is the software I used:

Autodesk 3ds Max 

  • ZBrush 
  • Topaz Gigapixel 
  • Adobe Substance 3D Painter 
  • Marmoset Toolbag 
  • Adobe Photoshop


Starting with the big shapes and very simple meshes, I did my best to match the proportions and silhouette of the organ despite the lack of proper orthographic views. Relying only on essential geometry both facilitated iteration and allowed my assets to easily be subdivided later. 

Mid Poly

The mid poly is what I define as the state of a model before it is transferred over to ZBrush for further refinement, beveling, and sculpting. 

In order to get there, I made sure to define the organ as much as I could inside of 3ds Max until polygonal modelling could no longer help me. As part of my workflow, I almost exclusively made use of a specific subdivision technique: 3ds Max’s TurboSmooth with the smoothing group option enabled. Not only does it keep sharp corners, it is a more forgiving smoothing method. In some rare instances, I did rely on some boolean operations while making sure that my operands were also made non-destructively. At this stage, I do not worry about the baking down of details and instead model everything I see on my references. 

High Poly

The majority of the high poly modelling was carried out in ZBrush, with the exception of a few simple components. There, I started out by dynameshing everything at a reasonably high resolution. To avoid accentuating the jagged edges of curves, I ensured that, prior to importing the models into ZBrush, I used plenty of subdivisions. 

Through a combination of basic brushes, I sculpted the ornate details and embellishments with relative ease. I was conscious that, due to the scale of the model and the subsequent texturing phase, minor imperfections during sculpting would not be prominently visible. 

With that said, I did make sure to preserve the initial silhouette of the midpoly to ensure a successful bake later on. Once I was done sculpting, the high poly was decimated and sent back to 3ds Max, where it would be compared with the upcoming low poly version. 

Low Poly

Through my non-destructive workflow, I was able to get rid of the mid poly’s subdivisions and bring it back to a manageable polycount. With baking in mind, parts that could be baked down were deleted. As a result, some manual cleanup was necessary until I achieved a final count of 68k triangles. 


I aimed for a fairly high texel density, given that this piece would serve as a portfolio piece. To achieve this, I partitioned the organ into three texture sets with roughly equivalent volumes: the base, the keyboard section, and the pipes. Unwrapping was done manually for this project. Sharp corners were turned into seams and sizable UV islands were cut into smaller pieces when possible. This helped later when I sorted them with the help of UVPackmaster. This tool not only scaled everything appropriately but also introduced padding, which proved valuable in smoothing the bevels during baking. 


Before transitioning to Substance 3D Painter, I took the time to ensure that all of my assets were properly renamed so that the low poly and high poly versions matched. With that done, I did a test bake to verify that everything was appropriately aligned. Fortunately, the test went smoothly, allowing me to tighten the cage even further. Following an approach similar to my previous project, I conducted an initial pass with the "average normal" option disabled to prevent the organ's details from getting distorted. However, this approach had the drawback of breaking the bevels. To address this issue, I proceeded with a second pass, enabling the "average normal" option but selectively masking it to exclusively impact the corners. The bake did however feature some visual artefacts on concave corners due to the way Substance 3D Painter projects the cage but these were manually edited out. 


Now came the main challenge of this project: tackling wood as a PBR material. From my research, I noticed artists tend to rely on scans due to how intricate the grain and patterns can get, especially when you pair this with the direction of the fibres. With that in mind, I searched the internet for scans of wood veneer sheets, and to my surprise, there were quite a few. To make them usable, I desaturated and equalised several, before upscaling them using Topaz Gigapixel. Now came the lengthy task of projecting these textures to match the construction of the organ. 

Using, among others, the gradient filter, I was able to apply colours onto the scans. With the help of an anchor, I could then easily recall a specific pattern and adjust it some more on other layers. This was done for the roughness and height attributes of the wood. The two pedals also relied on scans, this time from the restoration pictures. To make them work, I first made sure they looked neutral and featured no obvious shadows. I then managed to recreate a roughness map with adjustment layers in Photoshop and a normal map using a 3D filter. 

The intricate patterns on the pipes, the complex carvings, and a couple of inscriptions had to be redrawn in Photoshop and carefully projected onto the model.

Like my other pieces, I weathered the organ to give it a past, a story. But once again, wood made this a challenge. The flat surfaces consist of veneer, meaning a thin layer of desirable wood grain is glued on top of a wooden frame. In the corners, it can chip off following impacts or warp because of moisture. To achieve that specific effect, I started by painting in a lighter recessed wood texture in a way that respects the direction of the veneer’s fibres. I then added a bit of bump around the edges and darkened the inner contours of the damage to mimic how grime would stick to the glue. 

Wood also tends to darken in the carvings and close to the edges. While curvature maps can help easily isolate these sections during texturing, I got much better results by manually painting in the wear. A decent layer of dust was then sprinkled on top. For each of these features, I make sure to give them colour, roughness, and height attributes. It is also nice to think of little stories while texturing. For instance, the organist may have repeatedly stained the instrument with wine and his greasy fingers could have made the keys shine over time. 


With the organ mostly taken care of, I turned my attention towards crafting a setting that would highlight the prop and feature some storytelling. I have always had a soft spot for the romantic portrayal of grand artists who gave up on life and conventions, only to work on their craft. For a touch of drama, I thought of featuring an overturned stool to suggest the obsessed player was one day forced out of his seat for some reason, never to come back. This exploration was also highly influenced by old 18th-century Vanitas paintings, known for featuring symbolic use of props and morbid reminders of death. 

With the exception of some scans I purchased and borrowed, like the skull and the withered flowers, the props were made using the workflow I described earlier. Just like the organ, I made sure to feature plenty of roughness variations and colour contrasts. For the music sheet and other related items, a custom atlas was put together to save on textures. 

It was then a matter of laying out the period-appropriate props in a way that would draw the eyes towards the organ. This proved difficult because I wanted to create something close to a spiral composition. I went through a couple of iterations and welcomed the advice from my friend Linus Alstergren. The floor, the ceiling, and the walls were later added to give the scene a fitting background using Megascans. 


At this point, I had moved over to Marmoset Toolbag, after some failed experiments in Unreal Engine. To fit the melancholy associated with my scene, I settled on a warm light from a low sun. With realism in mind, only 2 lights were used in the renders: an HDRI and a directional light coming from the window on the right. I made sure to bask the face of the organ with enough light while keeping some soft projected shadows for contrasts. To showcase the entire scene, several angles were set up and depth of field was used a couple of times to highlight specific sections. 

To prepare my shots for post-processing, I always make sure to keep my shots quite dark to avoid accidental overexposure later. Once I was in Photoshop, I started off by putting my renders through the Camera Raw filter. There, I cranked up the texture slider to bring out the surface details of my scene, before adjusting the brightness, contrast, and vibrance. Colour lookup and photo filters also helped in setting up the mood I was looking for. I also made use of the smart sharpen filter within reason. 

What follows is a more targeted approach where, through the use of layer masks, specific areas see their values or colours adjusted to better frame the subject of the renders. Effects such as volumetric lighting and god rays were also edited in. I finished it all off with some low-opacity film grain set to hard light so that it mostly affects dark areas. 


While life got in the way of this piece and delayed its completion, I’m happy with the result. I think I was able to surpass my previous project and reflect my growth as an artist. It is now time for me to try and break into the video game industry, which makes me all the more grateful to have once again gotten the opportunity to break down a project of mine in an 80 Level article. Now, despite my lack of industry experience, I hope I was able to share some valuable insights.

If you are just starting out recreating realistic props, I would recommend against recreating large assets like this one. It is instead more recommendable to settle on a small yet intriguing prop and polish it as much as possible. Make sure to gather countless reference pictures of what you are making because our eyes have been passively trained to spot imperfections since birth. With the ever-climbing requirements to get into the industry, the bar is set high, so bring your passions into your work, tell some stories, and have fun!

Jérôme Bussat, Hard Surface Artist

Interview conducted by Theodore McKenzie

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