Mirko Fan Art: Sculpting a Manga Character in ZBrush

Mirko Fan Art: Sculpting a Manga Character in ZBrush

Andres Castaneda discussed in detail how he made a stylized Rumi Usagiyama – Rabbit Hero: Mirko from My Hero Academia – talking about sculpting the body, face, hair, and cloth folds, polypainting, presentation, and more.

Introduction

Hi there! My name is Andres Castaneda and I´m a Character and Prop Artist at Teravision Games in Colombia. Since I was a kid I loved playing video games and watching movies, these were the reason why I wanted to pursue a 3D related career, especially characters. I have a bachelor’s degree in Computer Animation (Full Sail University) but I moved into 3D art for games by myself. My degree gave me a solid foundation but the knowledge about the pipeline, software, and techniques commonly used in the games industry came from the internet. I'm in a pretty early stage of my career so the projects I’m currently working on are unannounced, so sadly I cannot dive into details. But my work usually involves art outsourcing for other studios.

I'm 23, and I got into ZBrush around 3-4 years ago. At first, it was really tough, ZBrush has an interface pretty different to any other 3D software so wrapping my head around took a while. Michael Pavlovich's YouTube channel was the turning point in my learning process, thanks to him and his videos I significantly improved my skills by deeply understanding ZBrush and its capabilities. However, ZBrush is just one tool in an entire character pipeline so learning other software like Maya, Substance, and Photoshop was in my plans. In the end, the more software you know the more tools you have in your kit to solve problems and expand your capabilities.

Learning Stylized Art

I'm an artist who enjoys both 3D stylized character art and realistic characters. In my job, I do full-time realism and in most of my personal stuff, I work on stylized pieces. In my experience, both styles complement each other and I didn't take any course to learn stylized art. I'm the kind of person who thinks that stylized stuff is more about understanding the principles and what makes something stylized, such as shapes and silhouette that play a big role here. This is something I polished by myself. In the end, it is about putting in practice these concepts every time you do something stylized. But if you want to get an idea of different processes and pipelines I recommend taking a look at the Stylized Station YouTube channel, they have a bunch of useful info there.

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Mirko/Rabbit Hero Fanart: Character Reference

I'm a big My Hero Academia fan and since this character (Mirko) was introduced in the series she became one of my favorites, so I wanted to make a sculpt of her. One day, I stumbled upon this sketch that, as I found out, was something the author of the series (Kohei Horikoshi) posted on Twitter. I really liked the pose and the personality in the sketch, and I got to work immediately. But a sketch is just that, a sketch. Some parts are not really clear and less refined than a regular illustration or concept. I didn't want to replicate it exactly and make it work just from that single angle. Because of my job, I have to understand how a model is going to look from every possible angle. So I gathered as many images of the character in the Manga as I could to understand her proportions, shapes, colors and fill the holes where the sketch wasn´t enough. Things such as the design of her suit, the metal pieces of her feet, and her hairstyle became clear with further research.

One thing I keep in mind for this kind of project is the scope. I wasn´t going to follow a complete pipeline for this piece, I just wanted to do a good sculpt for fun and practice purposes. Usually a work, they give you a base mesh so if you want to practice you have to do it in your personal projects. This is why I decided to start from scratch.

Tools

When I work on any stylized sculpt, Sakaki Kaoru's brushes are some of my favorites and my go-to, especially the SK_Slash and SK_Cloth. The SK_Slash is like a DamStandart but more gentle, you get really clean and defined lines with that one. Other than that, I usually use the classic Standart, ClayBuildup (I really like this one for creating volume), and TrymDynamic brushes. The last one, I think, is a must-have in my stylized sculpting pipeline. The TrymDynamic brush really helps you to define stylized surfaces when you have any sharp angle so I really recommend it.

Sculpting

I always start working on the face of the character because this is the most important part, so I want to make sure I get it right. Especially when it comes to stylized art it can get really tricky. For example, in the sketch, the nose is pretty simple and pointy like in any anime/manga character but I didn't want to take that route – I wanted to create a face that looked stylized while keeping facial features like the nose clear and visible, something that could work from any angle and still fit the character. 

When sculpting faces you won´t get a pretty result from the beginning, it's a matter of refining those shapes and imperfections little by little until you get the result you want. At one point, I like adding some features that define the character like the eyelashes, hair, and in this case the bunny ears. That way even when I'm just looking at the face, I can get an idea of the character as a whole. 

Once I'm happy with the face, the body goes next. I start with simple shapes that I could modify quickly to get the proportions right. Trying to match the proportions of the character in an A-pose based on a posed sketch/concept is hard. Here is where other images come in useful. For body proportions, it was crucial to get her breast size, hips, and length of the legs right to achieve a similar to the sketch result, so I was cautious when working on those. By comparing both the sketch and the images I got before, I was able to make my best guess. 

At this stage, I don't worry too much about hands and feet. In this case, the toes are covered so it was pointless to work on them. After the blockout, I dynamesh everything together, polish and refine the muscles and shapes, Zremesh, reproject, and do a second pass. Because she represents a rabbit, the legs are her main feature. Making sure that you could tell her legs are strong was key, so I made them thicker and longer in comparison to her arms. 

The suit is a hero suit so it was pretty straightforward. The process goes as follows:

  • Masked the area 
  • Extracted it with 0 thickness; I like to apply polish by features here so I don't get jaggy edges
  • Zremeshed it; in this case, I wanted to keep some of the anatomy features, so I put the target polycount at a decent number
  • Added Panel Loops
  • Subdivided it and then applied a little bit of inflate to get a smoother result
The Jacket was the only new element added to the manga character design. I didn't have any clear reference for that. I took the sketch and some jacket references from the internet and tried to make a design. However, I didn't want to work on wrinkles that I knew would get deformed, destroyed, and might not even work once the character is posed so I kept it pretty simple at first. Once I had the character posed, I came back and created the wrinkles.

For the boots, it was pretty straightforward, the purple piece was a masked extraction from the legs following the same process as the suit. The metal bunny feet were made in Maya and imported into ZBrush. 

One trick I like to use for hard-surface stuff is to use Creases, but not just with default subdivision. I use the Dynamic Subdiv tool to get a preview but additionally, I go under the Crease menu and take the CreaseLvl to a lower number, around 2 or 3 usually works for me. I do this because this way, I can get clean surfaces with rounded edges. Really sharp edges often feel fake, this applies to both realistic and stylized modeling and this process is a good way to avoid it.

Once I finally have the model in a good enough state, I start thinking about the posing. I'm not an expert in this topic because most of the characters I work on are for production so posing in ZBrush is not that common for me. I used the Transpose Master tool to get as close as I could to the final pose. Some things broke and had to be tweaked again but it was expected. One thing I keep in mind is that there is no one-button solution. Even when some tools might get me close, in the end, it is a combination of these tools that get me all the way to the result.  

Polishing

After posing, I can finally work on the final sculpt, adding any missing elements such as the carrot, the facial expression, and clothes. The clothes were in a pretty simple state, especially the jacket so I began refining them first. For the wrinkles, I used the SK_Cloth and SK_Slash, these two brushes combined are really powerful for stylized clothing. When I work on stylized sculpts I like to make my wrinkles feel kind of sharp but with volume. The SK_Slash brush helps me to put some hints of folding in the sculpt and also sharpen some angles. The SK_Cloth gives me the volume I need. One trick I like to use for wrinkles is to sculpt like an elongated “V”.

The first part of the “V” is sculpted with the brush as a Zadd or Zsub, the second part of the “V”  is sculpted with the opposite. This is something I use a lot and it really helps me get those stylized wrinkles I like so much. 

This works not only with the previously mentioned brushes. The same principle applies to the Standard or DamStandard brushes. When working on some places where the wrinkles are softer, I mainly use the Standard Brush for rounded wrinkles or subtler ones. In the end, I have different brushes I can use to get different results and as a result, different materials. I used this not only for the jacket but also for the suit and gloves.
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I love spending time on the wrinkles of my character's clothing. I think it's one of the features that really make your character feel real and grounded. You can communicate a lot through them, and they become small points of interest in your character. So, do not overlook this stage, take your time while working on them. 

Hair

Usually, I leave the hair for last. I enjoy working on hair and it often consumes a good portion of my time. Everything starts with reviewing the reference I gathered and understanding what this specific hairstyle consists of. Hair tends to be divided into chunks, when working on stylized hair it becomes really noticeable. So understanding how the hair is going to be divided beforehand is really useful. That's why I usually start making a quick blockout to get the main shapes and volumes, it helps later on. 

The goal here is to understand what makes the hairstyle special. In this case, it is the front part. Finding a pattern really helps to break down the overall structure. So, after figuring this out, I could start applying this information to the sculpt.

I used the MAKKON_HAIRCURVES_03 brush from Chris Whitaker. I really like this brush especially because it has different variations so you don't have to worry about every chunk of hair looking exactly the same. 

An important tip with this kind of brush is not to be afraid to play with the Curve Falloff options, you can change the result of the brush by just adjusting the curve a little bit.

Another tip – don’t sculpt on top because it can destroy the shape. Such brushes are made in a way that you only have to subdivide to keep a clean mesh. So I don’t recommend sculpting on top of them because you can damage those clean shapes. 

Here is an example of the analysis represented in the actual sculpt. 

Another thing to keep in mind, symmetry can really kill the believability of your character, and in hair, this is really noticeable. You can have a symmetrical face but if the hair is not, it will still feel believable. On the other hand, if you keep both of them symmetrical, people are going to notice it. As a rule of thumb, I never make completely symmetrical hair, always trying to find a way to break it.
The final touch that makes any hairstyle look better is to add some extra hair strands. They help break the silhouette and shape by adding some extra negative space to the hair making it look more interesting.  
We can appreciate it in the final result:

Final Render and Composition

For the final render, I used a combination of different techniques. The first one is the actual coloring of the sculpt. I used Polypaint with 3 materials:

  • Hair2: This was used on the metallic pieces, I really liked the reflections I got, kind of rough without being too shiny.
  • ToyPlastic: This is used on the eyes.
  • zbro_Viewport_Skin4: This one was used for everything else, it gives a good stylized feeling to the piece once rendered. Also, I increased the wax modifier up to 50 to get a softer look.
For the lights, I used a simple setup of a key light and a rim light. The key light gave me interesting shadows to work with. The rim light was for a good edge highlight on the character. 
The composition of the image was a combination of different PBR render passes from ZBrush and PBR filters. I got some extra passes that are not set by default, Ambient Occlusion and SSS (Subsurface Scattering). PBR Filters are a way to get interesting results in ZBrush, you can get different shading effects, outlines, color tweaking, etc. directly in ZBrush, and I wanted to try it. I did a lot of research and these are the PBR filters settings I used:
I also rendered two additional materials for further use in the composition. I rendered one with the Sketch04 material from ZBrush, it was used to strengthen the cel-shaded effect on some areas such as the suit. The other one was a Chrome2 material. This one was needed for some areas that I wanted to have a shiny effect such as the boots and some of the metal pieces.
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I used Photoshop to compose the different passes together and get the final result. Below is a quick gif showing the composition progress and the final result!

Advice

When working on stylized art, you have the freedom to apply your own twist to it. You can have the same character interpreted in different styles and still be able to identify that character as such. But when you choose a certain style for your character, try to stick to it. Otherwise, it would feel like you tried to create something entirely new and it might not work. Understand what makes the style you are working in, get some reference on previous work done by other artists, and identify what you like about them and especially what are its distinctive features.

In each project, you will find new challenges that will lead you to improvement. In this project, my biggest challenge was actually posing the character in ZBrush. It was something new and I wasn't really sure about how to tackle it. I was afraid everything I did might break and it'd be all for nothing. So I checked some videos on how to pose characters in ZBrush and by watching the process, I got an idea about how to work around that. I created a separate scene with a test model to get used to the tool and once I felt more confident, I more or less understood how to tackle things like the jacket. That's the reason why I didn't detail those pieces at the beginning. This is just an example of different blockers you might encounter in your projects.

This is the beauty of stylized art; each artist can make their own style by using the works of people they admire as reference. In the end, it is the combination of each artist's experience and the art they follow and admire that affects their perspective about art and their style directly. So don't rush, it will eventually come to you. 

Andres Castaneda, Character and Prop Artist

Interview conducted by Ellie Harisova

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Comments 1

  • Anonymous user

    Awesome man!! And super instructive the whole process

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    Anonymous user

    ·a month ago·

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