Creating Stylized Characters with Maya & ZBrush

Creating Stylized Characters with Maya & ZBrush

Dillon Hetrick talked about the production process behind his most recent character based on Shen YH’s Xela concept.

Dillon Hetrick talked about the production process behind his most recent character based on Shen YH’s Xela concept.


My name is Dillon Hetrick. I’m a Senior 3D Artist at ETC Simulation here in Orlando, Florida. I’ve been here for several years and have worked on training sims for various organizations and clients that primarily deal with disaster management training. I have a strong interest in character art and am hoping to focus more on it in my future.

This project originally started because I wanted to continue practicing sculpting female characters. Around that time I came across Shen YH’s Xela concept. Shen is an awesome artist whose work is a great source of inspiration. Xela, in particular, struck me as a really cool female character. Her design wasn’t overly complicated with tons of gear which allowed me to focus on getting her main forms and anatomy correct. That’s mainly why I thought she’d be a great design to exercise my sculpting on.


I approached sculpting Xela by starting with a simple base mesh, one that I’ve made over the years. From there, I began refining the overall proportions and anatomy, subdividing once, twice max. You don’t want to be too distracted  with the small details early on. Once I had the overall proportions close to what I wanted, I began to add/extract a few elements to use as landmarks. Adding  things like her jacket and hair helped me figure out surrounding shapes, making sure everything looked correct in relation to one another. This process continued until I had just about everything blocked out. From there it was just a matter of refining and adding the small details.


The vast majority of Xela’s attire I created from extracting a masked off shape from the base character. It was important to get the base character’s shapes correct because it would serve as a foundation for a lot of the smaller/medium details.

I create these extracted meshes by masking off a shape and extracting, polishing them with the Deformation sliders, and then ZRemeshing them so they have better topology to work on.

In terms of her anatomy, Xela’s isn’t too exaggerated. A lot of stylised female characters may have wider hips, thinner waist, longer legs, etc. If you’re going to exaggerate a character, it still has to appear balanced in some way. For example; if I her waist had been 2-3 times thinner, it would begin to cross a threshold where it wouldn’t be believable; that her waist could hold her torso up. For the most part I followed Shen’s concept.


When creating the hair, I roughed out the overall shape of the hair with Zspheres and sculpted on that to figure out how the hair would flow. After which, I took the Curve Strap Snap Brush and drew out clumps of the hair over the roughed-out mesh. I then used the Move Topological brush to position those clumps, then the pinch brush on the ends, and finally used the Dam Standard brush and crease alpha to add detail.

For adding details or wrinkles to clothing on a more stylized character like this, I like to use the Dam Standard brush with a stretched-out alpha I’ve made based on the default Dam Standard alpha. This is a trick I learned from watching Jon Troy Nickel. This alpha can help create a nicer crease. I also like using it to create wrinkles, folds and other details on clothing with a larger brush size. It’s also a good idea, when sculpting on clothes or other meshes that have a very thin amount of thickness, to turn on back face mask so you don’t accidentally sculpt on the inside of the mesh.


Once I had the default A-pose sculpt nearly finished, I used the Transpose Master plugin inside of Zbrush to modify and pose Xela. Simply mask off an area and move or rotate it around to where you want it. This can be a tedious process and will often require a decent amount of cleanup afterwards. The Transpose Master plugin is a great tool; it can also make modifying and tweaking proportions for a model with a bunch of subtools very easy.


I used a couple different BPR render passes to create the final image. You really can go overboard with tons of passes quite easily, which would give you a lot of options when assembling it in Photoshop. I simply played around with the renders for a bit and exported the basic ones I knew I wanted to use. The main color render, I created by turning down the shadows so I’d have a clean start. This way I have full control of the shadows in Photoshop. With the shadow settings back at default, I rendered out a pretty basic shadow and AO pass. I also moved the light around and created two color passes to serve as rim lighting. Using the BasicMaterial2 material, I created a spec render. Lastly, one thing I like to do is switch my materials to FlatColor and render that as sort of an ID map for easy selection in Photoshop.


The PS setup for this was very simple: base color on bottom, shadows and AO set to multiply and then spec and rim lights set to screen. The way I like to setup my multiply/ screen layers is to group the render layer ( shadow layer, spec layer, rim light layer) and set only the group layer mode to multiply/ screen. I leave the contents of the group on normal layer mode. This allows me to easily add a levels, hue and saturation or any other image adjustment layer inside the group to tweak the rendered layer.

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A sculpt like this usually takes me about 20 hours depending on the character. Posing took a few more hours, it helped that I didn’t go overboard with a crazy pose. The biggest difficulties I had were the tedious parts like her hair and posing, which required a lot of little tweaks to make sure everything fit and worked together.


Thank you 80 Level for this opportunity to talk a little about my experiences with this sculpt. If you’d like to see more of my work you can visit my Artstation.

Dillon Hetrick, Senior 3D Artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev.

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    Creating Stylized Characters with Maya & ZBrush