Designing a Dragon-Like Creature in ZBrush

A Character Artist at Ubisoft Bordeaux Mike-Amir El Frangi told us about creating a print-ready Leviathan in ZBrush and shared some great techniques for aspiring Character Artists.


Hello! My name is Mike-Amir El Frangi and I am a Belgian 3D Character Artist living in France. I joined Ubisoft Bordeaux almost two years ago and had the opportunity to work on Ghost Recon: Breakpoint before transitioning to Assassin’s Creed Valhalla where I made characters for the recently released DLC, Wrath of the Druids.

I studied at the HEAJ (Haute Ecole Albert Jacquard) in Belgium where I got a Bachelor’s degree in 3D Game Art. Early on I decided to specialize in game making, and more specifically in character creation, as I loved creating and drawing characters for as long as I remember, so for me it made perfect sense.

After graduating, I got hired in an indie company called Pretty Simple Games in Paris, where I worked on an undisclosed mobile game title, then moved to a more AAA setting when I joined Ubisoft Bordeaux 3 years later.

I also work as a Freelancer on characters and creatures for 3D printing with Lord of the Print. For the March release, they wanted to dive (literally) into underwater and deep-sea fantastic creatures, and I was tasked to do The Leviathan.

References and Moodboard

Since I had to work on it from scratch with no real design in mind, I had to start by looking for references and inspiration. We already had a moodboard to start with, to which I added more images of different types of Leviathans and sea monsters that I looked up online.

I also added some anatomy references of dinosaurs as well as some shots from Lord of the Print’s previous dragons to get a good sense of where to go in terms of design. 

In the end, I mainly took inspiration from the left concept as a general mood, but more specifically I liked the idea of him being some sort of dragon that evolved to live underwater, with the arms and wings merging to become fins, as well as the back legs transforming in the same way. Also, I liked the idea of having big scales from his torso to his tail, like snakes or crocodiles. On the right and upper concept, I reused the idea of having different layers of bone mass on his head that would make some sort of crest, and on the lower one, I liked having two different sets of teeth, one that would be inside the mouth, and one being bigger on the outside.

Having these in mind, I moved onto the next step.

Blockout and Posing

I have been using ZBrush for quite some time, and it’s my go-to when it comes to 3D sculpting, as it is for a lot of artists nowadays. Even though I don’t have any fancy layout, I like to customize my ZBrush interface to always have my most handy tools close by.

Instead of cluttering the UI with a lot of buttons and materials, I created some custom pop-up menus that I mapped to keyboard shortcuts. That way, I can bring my most used tools on screen when I need them, instead of wasting time looking through menus even if after some time, it just becomes muscle memory. I added my most used brushes at the bottom of my interface, but I also have a pop-up menu with them inside, ready at all times!

Here’s what these pop-ups look like (this is the one I use the most). 

I love ZBrush’s highly customizable interface, even if it can be scary at first glance, and all the features the software has to offer. It felt natural for me to open it up and start sketching some rough shapes for the Leviathan. Nothing too fancy though, but enough to be able to quickly pose it to see how it looks. 

The idea was to have a glimpse of what the final model was going to look like and be able to tweak the pose to have something appealing to the eye from different angles

For this part, I started with a simple sphere that I sculpted with symmetry on and deformed it until I had something resembling a snake or in that case a dragon. Then, after the “T-pose” was done and had all the elements I needed, I started posing it using the Transpose Master tool. 

This was used with a combination of other brushes inside ZBrush like the Move, ClayBuildup, Standard, and Dam Standard brushes, all native to ZBrush and probably used by most artists. 

After that, we had some back and forth feedback sessions with the guys at Lord of the Print, until they were satisfied with the look and the feel of the pose. The shapes of the wings would later change, becoming bigger and more wing-like. The bony structure on the head would have more layers as well as becoming a crest that would run down his back, following the curves of his body. Also, the horns on the side of his head would get doubled and become bigger.

When all was approved, it was time to start working on the high poly sculpt.

Main Body Structures

Since I had a general idea of what the final result would look like and avoid having too many deformations once I will start posing the mesh, I used the base body that I made earlier and posed it so the silhouette would roughly match the final one. At this stage, I was still working in symmetry to save time, and I added most of the important landmarks and changes that we talked about during feedback sessions. 

The first important thing was to work on the anatomy and make it look believable. For that, I used a mix of human and lion anatomy, while incorporating some other elements from giraffes and dinosaurs. Also, depending on the type of creature you’re doing (dragon, wyvern, sea serpent, etc.) you can look up similar existing animals from which you could take anatomy references.

That part was a bit tricky, as I wasn’t too familiar with that kind of anatomy but my friends and colleagues from Lord of the Print were super helpful and gave a lot of great feedback.

The other important thing was to have a cool silhouette, especially for 3D printing, where the bigger and medium details are often more important than the smaller ones, which can be washed away by the printing process. Because of that, most of the stuff was over-exaggerated, mostly because it would print better, but also give it a more badass and imposing look.

The anatomy and big shapes that I created were to be used as landmarks, not as proper realistic body structures even if tried to keep it as functional and logical as possible.

These were the areas where I would start adding all the scales later and as they were going to get buried under all the details, they needed to be at least visible in some way, and a bit exaggerated to retain their shape.

The brushes I mostly used were:

  • Move and Move Topological to move stuff around and give them the desired shape
  • ClayBuildup, Standard, and Orb brushes to sculpt the big shapes and areas
  • TrimDynamic and hPolish to flatten and polish areas
  • DamStandard for sharp lines and crevices
  • Slash2 for damages and more detailing. You can find this brush by opening the Lightbox then going into Brush > Slash > Slash2

After that, I started adding more elements, like spikes on the shoulders and wings, the dorsal fin, etc. At this stage, the body went through quite a lot of changes where the wings would lose their bat-like structure and merge with the body, the back legs would become separate and more fin-like. The torso would become bulkier while the dorsal fin shifted from the middle of the body to the back of it. This was essentially due to the fact that when posed, it would be in a “dead zone” of the sculpt, and shifting it lower would allow it to be more visible and add a little bit more to the global silhouette. 

The bigger scales that cover the belly and the back were created as separate subtools. I started by masking an area on the body and extracting it, adding a shell, and using ZRemesher to give it a nice and clean topology. I would then duplicate and manually place them along the curves of the body, before subdividing and detailing them.

Scale Placement

The scales were directly placed on the body using a cool feature in ZBrush called VDM (short for Vector Displacement Maps). These brushes will allow you to add detail and pull topology from your existing topology, the same way regular alphas would work, except it, will keep all the overhangs and the 3D details. This also means that you need to have enough resolution to avoid blurriness and lack of details, so I’d recommend using subdivision levels and working on the highest subdivision.

By default, you can find some VDM inside ZBrush if you have the 4R8 version or higher, under the brush palette, called Chisel3D and ChiselCreature.

You can also easily create your own VDM to fit your needs. There are some great tutorials for this online, but here’s a quick way to do them:

  1. Start by selecting the Chisel3D brush and cloning it in the Brush tab, so it doesn’t override the existing one while retaining all the existing parameters.
  2. In the Tool palette, Append a Plane3D. It is important to use the default ZBrush plane and its default topology. Don’t try ZRemeshing or DynaMeshing it or it could cause some issues.
  3. Now the fun part begins! Subdivide your plane a few times, mask an area and sculpt your alpha 3D.
  4. You can make more than one alpha in the same project, just be sure to use the ZBrush plane for each one of them.
  5. When you’re done with all your alphas, select the Chisel3D from step 1, open the brush palette, and hit the Create MultiAlpha Brush on the bottom. This will add every subtool to your current brush. You can save this brush for further use by clicking on the Save As button in the brush palette.

Here’s an example of what can be done with only one scale. You can add more variation by creating different shaped scales.

When your VDM brushes are ready, you can start adding your details by dragging the alpha on your mesh. For the Leviathan, I used some of the awesome scales made by Lakoh for previous Lord of the Print projects, to save some time and to keep a coherent look with the models they worked on.

That’s where all the muscular and body landmarks would come in handy, as I would use them as a reference to start adding all the scales and give them a nice flow. At this point, I started looking at some real-life reptiles like crocodiles, lizards, chameleons, etc. to understand how the different types of scales interact with one another.

For this part, there is no secret. I added all the scales by hand and with symmetry on, trying to get a nice and badass look for the Leviathan, alternating between different ones to add some variation, and sometimes sculpting on top to add some damage and wear. The idea was also to fill the gaps between the different elements and cover his whole body as you would see on an alligator. The back of the wings, the tail’s end, and the back legs were treated the same way.

In the end, this is what the body looked like with all the scales on:

Head and Wings

The head followed the same process as the body, and I kept iterating on it each time I made significant changes to the whole model. I kept the detailing part for last, to try my hand with the rest of the body. 

I used similar brushes and techniques to sculpt the head as I did for the body, working on bigger landmarks first, before adding more details and some pointy scales. After that, I added some variation, damage, and wear, as well as polishing and refining the sculpt. The Dam Standard and Slash 2 brushes were really helpful for that part, as they allowed me to create most of the smaller details like crevices and bumpy areas.

To make things easier, the horns, upper jaw, lower jaw, teeth, tongue, and eyes were separate subtools that I could toggle on and off or isolate. This allowed me to have much more control when sculpting them (and also saved my PC from dying).

For the wings, I decided that the front would have a different texture than the back, which was covered in scales like the rest of the body. I could’ve left them bare because small details can easily disappear during the printing process, but I wanted to go all-in so I figured some small texture could add a lot. The process was rather simple, I used a frog skin alpha that I imported inside ZBrush.

From there, you can select your Standard brush, change your current Stroke to DragRect and add the frog texture in the Alpha slot. Then you can start applying the texture by dragging your cursor on the surface. You need to have enough resolution so the textures don’t appear blurry or low res.

Using layers with different sizes, intensities, and opacity variations can help give a nice look to your texture. If your brush modifies the geometry without applying the alpha correctly, you might want to turn on the Surface button, located under Alpha > Modify > Surface. 

In addition to that, I used Dam Standard and Slash2 to break up the textures and bring back some detail to the wings, especially on the bottom parts, as well as enhancing some wrinkles and areas.

Posing and Rendering the Leviathan

Now that the sculpting part is done, it’s time to pose this bad boy in order to match the original blockout. For this, I once again used the Transpose Master to merge all my subtools together on the lowest subdivision. Using my blockout as a reference, I started posing it, using masks to move big chunks of the mesh first, and the move tool for finer areas. Some adjustments were made to the general pose to make it look more appealing and menacing, like straightening the bust, exaggerating some of the shapes, and refining the silhouette and curves of its body. 

I didn’t spend a lot of time creating the Leviathan’s base, as this wasn’t my primary focus. In order to make the figurine base more appealing, I figured rocks would give a simple yet efficient result. 

When the model was done, I imported it inside KeyShot, where I already had a scene set up and ready to go. Then, all I had to do was to find some cool angles, hit the render button (listen to my PC scream for 15 minutes) and it was done! 

Here are some of the final results!


In the end, I loved the time I spent on this piece. It was a challenging project, because I never worked on such a big creature before, especially for 3D printing. I think what took most of the time with this piece was finding a nice pose in the beginning and placing all the scales by hand (even with the symmetry on!).

I learned a lot when it comes to silhouette, flow, and even new techniques that allow me to keep growing as an artist. It also took me out of my comfort zone, which I would recommend to anyone willing to try new stuff, in addition, to keep working and improving on a daily basis.

I would also like to take the time to thank my friends Jason De Loos, Florent Desailly, and Gintautas Jankus for all their help and continuous feedback, without which I wouldn’t have been able to do this!

If you liked this project and want to see more stuff like this, be sure to check out Lord of the Print’s Patreon page. On top of being great people, they drop stunning creatures each month for your DnD, wargaming, and board games!

Mike-Amir El Frangi, 3D Character Artist

Interview conducted by Arti Sergeev

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