Learning Sculpting Anatomy
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Bit late to the game. The kickstarter got cancelled in January! :(

by koen vosters
4 hours ago

Kickstarter failed and it got cancelled?

by Madhav Bharadwaj
6 hours ago

will the course contain timelapses?

Learning Sculpting Anatomy
11 June, 2018
Character Art

Gael Kerchenbaum introduced his CGMA course Sculpting Anatomy: From Animal to Creature and talked about creating an awesome dragon!


Hi everyone, I am Gael Kerchenbaum, a creature artist working in VFX. Some of you may already know me for the work Release the beast and the complete step by step tutorial I wrote for TexturingXYZ.

In November last year, the CG Master Academy approached me to give a lecture about Animal Anatomy for them. Teaching is one of my passions. I value it more than anything else. During a couple of months, I worked on my animal anatomy program and recorded the content for my online lecture. This course is now part of CGMA’s Elective classes. It takes students from studying the fundamental of animal’s body to being able to design their own creature. The name of the course is Sculpting Anatomy: From Animal to Creature.

CGMA Course

To me, it is really important to start with the fundamentals of art and to understand how to use them to create something new. Sculpting Anatomy: From Animal to Creature is a 10-week lecture and during it, my students learn what it is to work as a creature artist.

During the first 6 weeks of this lecture, we start by learning what we need from the world of quadrupeds, mammals especially. Every week contains between 2 and 3 hours of pre-recorded videos. The students begin their week by watching these videos. Then they get instructions for an assignment they have to submit later on. On the due time, they send it to me, and I record some feedback for each of them. Once during each week, I stream an hour of Live Questions and Answers where I can share some production tips, or the students can ask me some questions.

The 4 last weeks of this lecture are about getting from anatomy study to anatomical design. For this part, I teach them how to design their own dragon. We go from the concept sculpt to the texturing, without thinking too much about topology, UVs or technical modeling. This lecture does not aim at teaching students how to work on assets that are production ready, even if I’m ready to speak about it during the lives. The goal is to focus on sculpting creature’s anatomy.

Something that I’d say is different in my class from other workshops I saw, is that I integrate my own production workflow in the heart of this course: when I start to work on any animal, I always begin by creating the skeletal system. Then I add the muscles on top, then the layer of fat, then the layer of skin… I need to understand and build my models from the inside out. I know that some artists do not spend the time to do that, which is perfectly fine. It is really relative to my own way of understanding anatomy. If I can’t figure out what is happening on the inside, I can’t build a believable model. Understanding the underneath is a key I think, so this is why I push my students to learn as much as they can from each stratum of anatomy.

Taught Technics

I aim at keeping everything as simple as possible. For this class, almost everything is made in ZBrush, apart from the rendering. I don’t want my student to worry about the technical achievement of modeling like using Maya for retopology, or doing some clean UVs and then learn some advance technics to bring their model in Mari for texturing. I want them to stay focused on Anatomy. For this reason, I decided to do all the creation workflow within Pixologic’s software. It keeps things easier to understand when you just have to focus on your digital sculpting application.

Sometimes, during the Live especially, I switch to Maya. It is because I like when my students get an idea of how we deal with some particular aspect of the work in a production environment. For example, I had a Live where I showed how to create a Camera line up inside of Maya, in order to create an accurate Digidouble of an animal. We need to understand the metadata of the photos that we use to match in 3D, and we can recreate some of the shooting condition directly in our digital world.

I use Maya and Arnold to teach how to create some eye candy pictures for my student’s portfolio. I really believe that if you submit yourself to an anatomy class, at the end of the day you want to show your work the best way possible. A lot of people are doing some amazing study; but because they have no idea about how to render it, they can’t benefit from their anatomy knowledge to find a job. This is where things do not work for me. If you’re doing some amazing sculptures, you need to sell the piece! I don’t want my students to feel lost at the end of their journey. Finding a job and having a kickass portfolio is what matter the most in our industry.

Dragon The Eldest

The Eldest is a dragon that I designed during my CGMA lecture. It was done fully in ZBrush, from the concept sculpt, retopology, UVs and texturing. Once more, I do not teach how to create some manual retopology during this workshop; at least not during the pre-recorded videos. I’m sure that I’ll be able to speak about it during the Q&A. The retopology is done automatically using the ZRemesher to ease the work of sculpting.

For me, The Eldest has a really lizard-like anatomy. This is exactly what I wanted to have cause I like it when creatures show their animal relative features. I was inspired by some Komodo dragon photos, along with some dinosaurs. To be honest, at the beginning this guy was designed on its four legs, walking like a giant lizard. However, I wanted it to feel a bit more like a t-rex while keeping the heavy feeling of a thick lizard. The creation of the Dragon followed the same workflow as any of my animal studies: I built the skeleton, then I added the muscles and the skin layer. Everything has been recorded so my students can learn from this project.


Some people know me for my tutorial on how to texture some realistic creatures for VFX with Mari and ZBrush. Here the workflow is different. I have a library with a lot of ZBrush Alphas coming from the files that I purchased on TexturingXYZ. Jeremy Celeste, the owner and creator of this website, put so much effort in order to build a library of textures that make the creation of realistic creatures effortless. The new animal displacement packs are so easy to use. I wanted to show to my students how they can quickly use them to populate the skin of their dragons. Getting from the smooth model to the high-resolution one took about 7 hours of work; which I think is pretty quick when you’re thinking in production timelines! There was also a lot of manual sculpting. You can’t only depend on surface displacement to do all the job for you, manual details will help to bring a lot more to the character. And if you’re afraid of losing the high-frequency details… just drop a leather alpha to break the spec’.

Working with ZBrush

When making the Dragon  I also used ZBrush. It was done thanks to Polypaint only. This is the last lesson part of my lecture: how to colorize your dragon. I started to paint the primary colors, then I took advantages of all the amazing details coming from TexturingXYZ’s alphas to build up the different layers of my Albedo. In order to do that, you simply need to use masking features in ZBrush, by cavity or smoothness, to paint all the depth and color variations. In order for my students to understand how to paint their dragons, there is a lesson explaining the anatomical theory behind an Albedo map.

The final aspect of The Eldest was the look development and rendering. This one was done in Maya and Arnold. I recorded an introduction to creature’s look dev. In order to get some quick maps to play with, I simply exported some utilities out of ZBrush: a cavity map, a manual SSS mask made with Polypaint, and that’s it! The rest was done inside of Maya’s Hypershade by combining and tweaking the former maps. 


This concludes the presentation of my CG Master Academy lecture. I hope that you learned a thing or two by reading this article. It is really important for me to share as much as I can. If you want to join my class, the registration for the Summer term has already started, so do not hesitate to enroll. The class should be happening four times this year. I also recorded hours of videos of an unannounced project that I keep exclusively for my students. See you!

Gael Kerchenbaum, Creature Artist at Axis Animation

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