Gael Kerchenbaum gave an interesting talk about Creature Art, the importance of anatomy and its practice, his workflow, and some helpful tutorials and tips.
Gael Kerchenbaum gave an interesting talk about Creature Art, the importance of knowledge of anatomy and its practice, his workflow, and some tutorials and tips that’ll be helpful to aspiring character artists. Gael is also one of the CGMA instructors and leads the course Sculpting Anatomy: From Animal to Creature.
I am Gael Kerchenbaum, a Franco-Swiss Creature Artist working in VFX, Cinematics, and Toys. I’ve been in these industries only for 4 years but I already worked on a lot of different projects.
I studied VFX at ArtFx, an amazing school focusing mainly on VFX. During my studies, I decided pretty early to specialize in Creatures. Even though the school did not encourage students to focus on just one field, they ended being very supportive to the path I chose, especially during my last year of study where I had the occasion to work on many creatures.
At ArtFx, I produced my first demo that you can see below.
Thanks to this reel, I was able to find a job at MPC and started to work on The Jungle Book directly after my studies. I was a part of the creature team of the modeling department and worked on a lot of animals. After my contract ended up, I had a lot of uncertainty and wanted to develop more ownership of my work.
I tried myself on a couple of different projects: Photogrammetry, Archviz, Real-Time rendering and more. That wasn’t what I deeply wanted to develop in this industry but I was looking for a way to find freelance gigs. I contacted a few people, only to help me find my way. A great artist, Brendon Isaiah Bengtson, saw my portfolio and gave me an advice that defined a lot for me. You cannot do everything in this industry, you’ll lose yourself. Focusing on what you love and developing it as far as you can will make you grow. When you’re doing the thing you love, you can only do it well. If you do it well, you’ll get more people to ask you to do it.
Since then I have been developing my skills in anatomy quite a lot. Being a freelancer and sharing a lot of my personal projects helped me to find many contracts. I did the first T-Rex for a Gnomon tutorial that has been shared on 80.lv. Then Noemotion ordered the second one which ended up in a full step-by-step tutorial accessible freely on Texturing.XYZ. This project helped me to work on my first collectible for Dungeon and Dragon thanks to PCS Collectibles.
After that, I worked on the third T-rex for pitch project and on two cinematics (Destiny 2 and Elder Scroll Online: Summerset) for Axis Animation, and these are just a couple of projects! I was also part of work for Capsule Studio, Bacon X, 3dtotal, CGMA, One Of Us. They became some of my clients who I deeply respect, and I work with them as frequently as I can!
Gryphon (Elder Scroll Online) and Abyssal Thrall (Destiny 2) I modeled and textured for cinematics at Axis Animation:
Below is my last year demo reel. It already feels old to me. Today I would have tones of the new project to add. However, it shows a quick learning curve when you push yourself.
Intro to Creature Art
I think that growing in an environment surrounded by animals when I was young ultimately pushed me to work on creatures. I have to thanks my parents for that. This is probably one of the reasons why I found body mechanic over robotic mechanic more appealing to me. I find this topic interesting for numerous reasons. What is the main structure of a body? How does it move? How things are working together? How does it come that an animal is different from another one when they both share the same structural layout? Why are we all so similar while being so different? They are tons of questions that come into my mind when thinking of animals! I am very curious and I want to learn how things are working so I can recreate them.
A Fox I modeled and textured. I did also part of the look dev with Justin Long.
Here we can speak also about the technical achievement of a complete asset, thinking about modeling, surfacing, and grooming. I think that animals can be hard to accomplish because this task asks you to know a lot of specialties. As Artists, we want to handle the full piece on our own. For modeling we need to know how to do concept sculpting in ZBrush, then retopology and UVs in Maya. About surface, technically we should know how to use Mari or Substance Painter and the Physically Base Render theory is also really important. We need to understand the Microfacet theory to sculpt properly the surface of a model and to make it work from when we move on to shading. Finally, grooming is also an extension of modeling. I am currently adding this to my skills thanks to my friends Francesco Di Luisi and Sofia Oliveira. So at the end of the day, you definitely need to know a lot of tools to do a creature, but it is doable! I am only 4 years old in this industry and I already feel capable of doing it. So nothing should stop you from trying. Give yourself some time to learn and allow some space for mistakes.
From Skeleton To Skin Workflow
Through 5 years of doing creatures, 1 at school and 4 as a professional, I definitely learned something: make sure that the fundamentals are well-applied. I have this particular workflow that I’m teaching to my students during my CGMA lecture. Know how to build anatomy from the inside out. We are learning how to sculpt a skeleton first, then we add muscle layers on top, then fascia and fat and finally the skin. This is a workflow that is really logical and organic. We are making sure that there is a strong basement before adding the house’s walls.
That is exactly how it works in real life when you study animal motion: we have a skeletal base that is roughly just a support for the body. It is the basement of our body. This basement has some particular shapes that allow and constraint it to a certain range of motion. However, being a hard surface, these bones cannot move without the help of a soft tissue that flexes and relaxes. This is where muscles come into play. Even though they seem really hard to understand I can assure you that the role of muscle is pretty easy: it is just a string bent between two points, its origin that is not movable, and its insertion that can move. Because muscles are soft tissues, they need something to hold their shape together. This is where we speak about fascia. For a muscle to work it needs a fuel, the fat. And finally, we need something that is strong enough to maintain this little world altogether, while being also elastic to allow motion. This is where we speak about the skin.
All in all, this is exactly my workflow when working on a creature. Starting with the first and deep layer, and building things following this natural hierarchy. When building anatomy in 3D I don’t like to be distracted by the tools and UI. This is why I use quick and simple ways to sculpt in ZBrush. I am using only simple brushes when building my models. They are packed into a custom menu and include only a few brushes that are pretty standard. I’m doing almost everything with them. It is important for me to keep focusing on my sculpt. This is why I’m making some small custom menus that I can call with simple short keys. Then I’m hiding everything else in order to focus on my canvas.
If you’re interested in my UI, I added it to my Drive. You can also download my hotkeys there. Just open them with a text editor to find out what they are doing.
Usually, I work on models that can go up to 100 to 200 million polys. I am using a lot of Texturing.XYZ files to quickly reach that amount of details. If you’re interested in my workflow, you can have a look at this in-depth tutorial I wrote.
There is also this PDF version for you.
When building anatomy, we always have to focus on what we know first. The idea is to treat every creature as a part of our world. Animal anatomy is just an extension of human anatomy in teaching. I am not speaking about evolution here but how we should think about every anatomy. You have several choices when building imaginary creatures: either to use concept art or to go a little bit further and build your own design. This forces us to actually “think” anatomy! I like this second approach, even though in production we are more used to start our sculpting from an illustration. In any case, you’ll need to have strong foundations. Concept art pieces look really well most of the time, but they can drive us to be a little bit lazy because things are already here. However, we need to make the model believable in 3D. This is where it becomes more technical than artistic in my own taste. It is not a bad thing at all! In our industry, the job of an artist does not only mean being creative but also making strong technical pieces.
Together with 3dtotal, we made three printed animal ecorches. A Panther that represents the anatomy of Felines, a Great Dane for the anatomy of Canines, and finally a Quarter Horse for the Equines. When you have them in hands, the first thing you may think of is how different they look. However, I think you should first understand how similar they are instead. All of them were made in ZBrush from the same bones and muscles. Sometimes when I’m lost in the references trying to model a creature, I look at human anatomy. All mammals, squamates, and avians share a very similar anatomical layout. We are all coming from common ancestors. At the end of the day, this is what we should focus on when modeling a creature. Focus on Phylogenetic and evolution. This is a great help when designing animals.
There is also a great challenge to add more limbs to your creature. A six-legged animal doesn’t exist on vertebrates. That’s a topic that we study together with my CGMA students. One of the exercises that I give to them is to create their own dragons: 4 legs and 2 wings. Once more we never create things randomly. The first step is to find what we need from the animal kingdom, and making sure that our creatures are technically able to live. Think of evolution, phylogenetic, differences between carnivores and herbivores. How the digestive system of your creature is made, and basically how should it be designed to become the best-optimized beast of its kind. This means that you’ll always have to be curious, dig really hard in what science tells us, always come back to what you know. These would be my main pieces of advice for this kind of exercise.
Advice for Learners
Fundamental is the keyword that I’ll give here. It is easy to lose yourself in details but years of practice are required to master the basics. I did the XYZ tutorial to speak about the details because the workflow itself is pretty easy to achieve. It is purely technical, you just have to follow the recipe step by step. For the beginners, it’s easy to fall into details, however, they may struggle if they do not practice enough anatomy. Again covering a bad piece with tons of details is easy, but making sure that the base is solid takes years to understand. This is why it is so important to start by a deep learning of anatomy. It is a long process, and we will pretty much learn it during all our life. So it’s better to start digging in as soon as possible in order to reach the level of other professionals.
Once beginners feel confident enough in anatomy, the next step is definitely to learn how to sell the piece. Again this is something that we speak a lot during my class because for me it is important that my students feel proud of their work and that they can find a job thanks to what they’ve learned. I am teaching them how to light and render their creatures. At one point you begin to understand that everything is linked: lighting a model is a way of putting emphasis on the primary shapes. We sculpt the secondary and tertiary shapes so that the materials we develop look beautiful and detailed. We want to build a correspondence between the color of skin and the sculpt. Everything has to be logically built. For rendering, I started to work on a tutorial about how to create eye-candy renders for digital sculptors but didn’t take time to finish it yet.
At the end of the day, I really feel that going far is a matter of always pushing yourself. You have to build your own roadmap and see it for the couple of years to come. Do everything you can to achieve your goals because if it is your dream it should definitely matter to you. Dig in everything you want to learn. Don’t stay superficial. If you want to learn anatomy, do not only focus on resources made for artists. Look for actual dissection on youtube, surgical and veterinarian books… and finally, push yourself to make the piece!
I would like to thank 80.lv for this interview and say hello to all my amazing students around the world. Thank you guys for the beautiful work you’re doing!
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