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Ellie: Creating an Anatomically Correct Human in ZBrush & Maya

A Digital Artist Syed Jafri talked about his Bodies in Motion series, discussed the latest Ellie project, and talked about the importance of human anatomy in sculpting.


Hi, my name is Syed Hassam Hussain Jafri, I was born and raised in Pakistan but I moved to Canada in 2016 and now I live here. Unfortunately, art is not a study option or a career path in Pakistan. I have got a bachelor's in Computer Arts from Pakistan Airforce KIET, and also went to Vancouver Film School for a diploma in 3D Animation & VFX. But to be honest, YouTube has always been my best teacher.

Right now I’m working on The League of Super Pets at Animal Logic Studios Vancouver. I have worked exclusively on Pixar’s Monsters at Work, Netflix’s Transformers as a Modeling/Surface Artist, ICON creative studio was generous enough to trust in my skills and gave me the chance to be a part of it. I worked on a few more undisclosed titles while my time at ICON. I’ve also worked for several ad companies like The Sphinx Factor, Airwaves Private Limited as a 3D Artist, and Multinet Pakistan as a 3D Character Artist back in Pakistan.

Bodies in Motion Series

I’ve always been a huge fan of superheroes. That made me want to create art since my childhood but being from a country and a family with no art culture or resources I failed many times as there was no one to guide me. I even tried video editing and concept art but couldn’t find that spark but then I discovered my strength in Character Art and love for human anatomy accidentally while on my university’s summer break in 2014. ZBrush helped me to channel my feelings into visual forms and since then I’m learning on my own from every resource I can gather. I was unable to find any art-related work for 3 years after I had moved to Canada so I have also worked as a car mechanic and photo lab tech just to keep my bills running,

The Bodies in Motion series is originally from Scott Eaton mainly for figure drawings and references. I decided to challenge myself to learn fast and with more accuracy, I pick one extreme pose from his library, and instead of drawing, I do sculptures and to make it even useful, I live-stream the process which helps me focus on it better.


Ellie was another weekly challenge and as usual, I used the reference from Scott Eatons library and decided to push it further.

My goal was to recreate this image as close as possible but from all three directions as fast as possible, It was a big test for me as this was the only angle I had. I had to rely on my anatomy knowledge to nail the proportions and details we don't see from this angle. I also used Human Anatomy Atlas for very subtle general muscle flow.

Working on the Body

I’m most comfortable in ZBrush so that’s my main tool for sculpting. I usually start my sculpts with ZSpheres or a default mannequin from ZBrush library, then I do a super quick pose as close to my reference.

Once happy with the pose, I convert it to a very low res DynaMesh, so I can add and manipulate volumes easily. ZBrush's Move, Clay BuildUp, Standard, and Dam Standard brushes and a lot of masking are my go-to everyday tools for various tasks – from blocking volumes to final details for every sculpture I do.

There was a lot of asymmetrical sculpting, so I had to plan ahead in my mind while I was moving forward and sketching in my mind.

I also try not to spend too much time on one specific area, instead, I keep switching to different areas from a different angle to make it work efficiently. Also, by that time I have learned to keep my strokes subtle as they're easy to manipulate or adjust.


I use ZBrush and Substance Painter for most of my texturing depending on the needs, and I do a lot of hand painting as well.

For Ellie, My main goal was to get a high-quality anatomically correct sculpture so there was no texturing involved, my goal was to get the results with minimal effort. The rule of thumb for any kind of surface is to plan your workflow and research as it's very important to find the correct references and as many as you can. And this is what I did for Ellie as well, I tried to extract tones as close I can to the reference. I’m also a photographer so it helps me a lot guessing colors, compositions, tones, and how much and what kind of light I need.


I use Arnold for Maya for my Bodies in Motion series and I reused the lighting scene I created for my first Bodies in Motion sculpture with some tweaks in shader and light values. I believe in clean and simple work so there is no fancy stuff happening here, just a decimated version of my sculpt with a ramp and a few lights. I did use the ACES workflow with default values.


The most challenging part of my workflow is to plan, start a project and then stick to it, and also to know where to stop or call it finished.

For beginners, I would say to study as much as you can. Never rush any artwork, take your time, gather as many references as you can. I use myself as a reference or a friend when I can't find desired references. Also, take feedback from the artists you look up to in the most appropriate way possible,  most are happy to help. It takes time to get better and faster but it always works.

Lastly never compare your work with any other artist’s work, everybody has different circumstances, resources, ability to learn, and journey. Patience and consistency are the only rules that would take you far!

Syed Jafri, Digital Artist

Interview conducted by Theodore Nikitin

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