3D Sculptor and Grooming Artist Erika "Mui" Ayame shares her artistic journey and explains how to groom photorealistic fur in XGen.
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My name is Mui, and I've been doing 3D for five years now. Before this, I served as a nurse for two years. Surprisingly, while I was often told I didn't work hard enough in the nursing industry, I received recognition for my sense of style in the 3D field. I believe this is because what I truly wanted to do was art.
During my student years, I took to heart the voices around me saying, "You need to have talent," "You have to be young," and "Only a handful of people can secure a job in this field," which led me to give up on attending the art school of my dreams. However, I've learned that the most crucial thing is to continue pursuing art and challenges, holding on to goals that matter to me, no matter how difficult they may seem.
While working as a nurse, I blamed myself so much that I nearly worked myself to death at one point. When I thought about what I wanted to do before dying, I remembered the art that I wanted to make in 3D for games and movies. It reminded me of how much I loved it.
This led me to enroll at Digital Hollywood, a school that conveniently had classes only on weekends. Despite working full-time as a nurse with overtime, attending school was incredibly fun and fulfilling, making it feel like a year of sprinting through on a runner's high. However, I struggled with group learning, so I primarily taught myself. After graduating, I was desperate for a job, so I worked as a 3D artist on a group graduation film. Fortunately, later I was picked up by Aww Inc. and participated in the Virtual Human Project for two years.
At Aww Inc. I met a supervisor named Polo, who was like a godsend, teaching me the nuances of 3D and photorealism in particular. This was when I began learning about XGen. As for the self-taught aspects, I read various articles and watched numerous YouTube tutorials on XGen, carefully avoiding misinformation and engaging in a lot of trial and error.
The Meow Project
My current passion is to express the beauty of spirals, curves, and colors through any means necessary. I am particularly fascinated by the beauty of all animals with fur. Naturally, I chose a cat as my subject for this project since I have lived with them my entire life.
Interestingly, many cat poses are so comfortable that they have been incorporated into yoga. Among these, the "Meow" pose, similar to a muscle relaxation technique, is something I regularly incorporate into my routine. A cat's torso is almost cylindrical, with flexible joints and muscles that allow for nearly 180-degree bends or stretching like a crescent moon.
In sculpting for this project, I paid close attention to the placement and shape of internal organs and muscles.
For efficiency, starting with an animal that already has a cat-like shape might be faster, but for my personal projects, I enjoy creating from scratch using spheres in ZBrush.
Like humans, each animal can have its characteristic features. This time, I aimed for a cat with larger ears, a big nose, a slightly long nasal bridge, double eyelids, a long tail, assuming the cat was neutered at a young age, with a small bulge above the upper lip, and well-built muscles without being overweight. I also calculated the sizes of various body parts in terms of facial parts, comparing and rescaling them multiple times based on references. The references were chosen for their high quality and lack of excessive perspective distortion. This time I used photographs of sphynxes and cat skeletal specimens, and for grooming, I used references of colored hairy cats whose hair flow is easy to see.
After sculpting, I opened the UVs with ZRemesher and proceeded to hand-paint them in ZBrush. I painted with green, red, and yellow, both locally and sometimes randomly. I took anatomical and physical considerations into account, thinking about how skin appears green to white when blood is not flowing through it, orange to yellow for dirt and sebum, and red for blood.
In addition, I like to pay attention to the parts of the body that are often shadowed or covered by hair and thought to be invisible, so I added transmissions to the ears in a way that the veins show through. Subsurface Scattering (SSS) and Roughness were also added easily by painting in ZBrush, avoiding fine details as I have trypophobia. The final colors were adjusted in Photoshop.
I used XGen Interactive Grooming for the fur. After closely observing the fur patterns and understanding the flow, I created a base description and prepared three different types. The types include short, thin, and sparse fur, medium and most abundant fur, and thick and least abundant fur. For this project, I went with short and thick fur. Additionally, the missing parts, the even thicker whiskers, and the hard-to-trim ear hairs were prepared separately.
This is the general grooming method I recommend:
Lightning & Compositing
For lighting, I was particularly careful not to overly darken the shadows, to include lighting that highlights the shapes, and to give a pleasant expression to my favorite parts. The light source was simply a sky dome light and as for the environment, I used Poly Haven's HDRI. I prefer HDRI for its ability to achieve natural light indoors while avoiding excessive brightness and unintentional detail loss.
I like to create art that is pleasing from all angles. In this case, I did not include depth of field, photorealistic gray noise, or color noise, because I wanted to show everything. The Arnold rendering settings were kept simple with nothing special.
I built this Meow model up over 21 days through trial and error during intensive 6-8 hours a day. XGen has many caveats, so careful verification and information gathering were necessary. Learning and experiencing new things, gaining new knowledge, and improving myself as an artist are the things I am always looking for.
Sometimes we can start over as many times as we want, and each time we start over, we find new efficient ways or something we can improve on. It is also true that there is no end to improvements, and there are several things that Meow can improve for the next time. However, since I was busy with other tasks, I ended the project here with a rough quality line.
It is much more reasonable to value the desire to do something rather than feeling obligated to do it. The desire to do something leads to growth. Enjoy the process of trial and error. If you enjoy it and keep at it, you will create unparalleled value.
Erika "Mui" Ayame, 3D Sculptor and Grooming Artist
Interview conducted by Theodore McKenzie
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