Modeling Dinosaurs in 3ds Max & ZBrush

Modeling Dinosaurs in 3ds Max & ZBrush

Ren Manuel talked about his evolution of the dinosaurs project in 3D made with 3ds Max, ZBrush and 3D Coat.

Ren Manuel talked about his evolution of the dinosaurs project in 3D made with 3ds Max, ZBrush and 3D Coat.


Hello! I’m Ren Manuel and I’m a character artist. I am currently working at Airship Images, after a recent move from Gaia Technologies where I worked for six years as a 3D Artist/Digital sculptor after graduating from the university. Now at Airship, I get to work on clothing and hair in much more detail, so it is an exciting upgrade for my character work.

I started off as an aspiring illustrator/concept artist and played a lot of video games. The combination of these two things led me to pursue a career in 3D art and game development. I went to college in Glamorgan South Wales to study the Foundation in Art and Illustration, and from there moved on to do a computer animation and modeling course at the University of Glamorgan.

After graduating I started the job hunt, and I’m sure you know it’s a competitive business to get into. It took me another 8 months of solidly working on my personal work and portfolio to get a job in North Wales. I would work day and night on my sculpting and modeling and did not stop until this opportunity arose.

During my work in Gaia, I worked mostly on educational projects for schools, which were put into VR environments for the children to be immersed in different periods through history, however, I did not stop working on my personal projects at home and eventually started getting offers for freelance work.

1 of 2
1 of 2

The Dino Project

This project started as a part of a larger project for Gaia Tech. I was asked to create 3 models which showed the evolution of an animal and I could have chosen anything. The idea that popped into my head was the evolution of a dinosaur, I thought it would be a fun concept to do. This idea had some extra room for creativity: there are many scientists who work on figuring out how the dinosaurs might look like, but we don’t know anything for certain.

This entire project was aimed at primary school lessons under the subject of evolution. That being the target audience, I wanted to make sure that it was visually strong, vibrant and colorful. They also wanted to make a few animations for each of the creatures to show how they lived and moved at that time. So, after the sculpting stage, I was required to also make a low poly version for rigging and animation. Rigging it was simple. I had to make sure that I rigged them as clean as possible to get all the poses needed for the final presentation. I used CAT rigs in 3ds Max.

Blockout & Base Mesh

Everything started in ZBrush. I used it to block out the dino’s anatomy and proportions. ZSpheres enabled me to quickly block out and create a base mesh for each of the creatures. See a thorougher breakdown in the image below.

This is the quickest way I found to start any type of creature in ZBrush and lets you focus more on the overall shape and structure. You also get a decent base mesh after it, low polycount, clean/basic topology for you to sculpt on and easy to mask polygroups.  

The tricky part here was making sure the creature looked balanced and was able to stand up on its own. For this, I overlayed a skeleton on top of the mesh and placed/lengthened each sphere accordingly.

I tend to keep the ZSphere mesh skinny and bone-like, sculpting onto the bones and from the inside out. It really helps you understand the anatomy.


I had a few different attempts at making the feathers at the start. For example, firstly I tried editing some of the feathers from an image I got in my reference folder. Second try was sculpting them from scratch in ZBrush and the third time I tried hand painting them in Photoshop and even painting over some feathers. These different approaches didn’t really turn out to have the overall effect of what I had in mind, so eventually I ended up using a bit of everything to create the feathers.

The process I went for in the end was from a guide for creating feathers in ZBrush by Pablo Munos, with the ZRemesher guide lines, clay tubes/edited curve lines on a flat plain. This way gave me more control over the shape and density. Combined with BPR render passes it was easy enough to render out the textures I needed. The texture maps I used from the render passes were the diffuse, shadow, normals and mask. After that I loaded them all in Photoshop, tweaked the levels, cleaned with a subtle paint over with the colors and started placing them into plane cards in 3ds Max.

1 of 2
1 of 2

Once in Max, I hand placed the feathers on the model. I would create a group/clump of feathers in sections and then duplicate/place them accordingly. When I’m happy with the placement, I would add an FFD modifier and groom with the selected points. This gave me control over the direction and randomness.


Rigging the feathers/fur took me the shortest time to do, oddly enough. I applied a skin wrap modifier onto the feathers and fur over the main low poly mesh. This way it saved me from having to rig each feather separately which would have taken ten times longer. I would have essentially 2 meshes for the body, one for rigging and one for skin wrap.

For the main rig, I used the low poly body mesh and a for the skin wrap I used the same low poly but with 1 subdivision up.

1 of 2
1 of 2

Rigging the low poly body mesh was easier due to its low vertices count, and overlaying this with the second mesh with skin wrap gave me the deformation and a more detailed model to pose.


For the fur on one of the models I used fiber mesh, I created 2 sets of fiber mesh groups for the fur. One main one and one short/filler. I used the default grooming brushes, mainly the short groom brush with low intensity. I then exported them in 3ds Max, pro optimized it to 50% and applied skin wrap to the model underneath to pose them.

1 of 2
1 of 2


During the texturing stage I relied heavily on the polypaint stage in ZBrush. This gave me total freedom with the colors. The brush I used to paint was just the default one with some very minor tweaks.

I would block out the colors with the standard brush and change its alpha to the spotted one from time to time with the spray/color tweak to add a variety of subtle colors on top.

Due to the target audience of this project being primary school kids, I wanted the colors of these creatures to catch their attention straight away, so I made sure they were bright and vibrant and read well together.

Baking stage is where I make sure all the maps come out as clean and clear as possible. This is key for bringing out detail later in the texturing stage.

I then use Photoshop to further tweak the baked maps. For example, I would copy the green channel from the object space normal map and overlay it by 50% onto the AO map. I would also use my normal map to convert it into a separate cavity map. I do this by going to filter>find edges and saturate to -100. I would then overlay it on top of the baked-out cavity map to give it more sharpness. After this I would blend them onto my diffuse map by colorizing the cavity map and changing the opacity.

After the initial clean up bakes and blending are done, I would bring it all in 3D Coat to overlay patterns and give it a general paint over/clean up.

Quixel was used very little on the texturing stage, I just used the reptile material and general dirt to finalize the textures.

Finally, if needed, I’d tweak the levels of the maps in Photoshop before bringing them all into Marmoset shaders.

1 of 2
1 of 2

The main things I watch for during the texturing stage are the clean UVs and bakes. The clean maps and UVs help me bring out the most from the polypaint/vertex colour map.

Once all the textures are ready, I set them up in Marmoset using the skin shader.


To be honest I didn’t really have to do much work once I was in Marmoset. Most of the details came from the textures and lights. I find that Marmoset can make your models stand out easily from the very beginning, but it relies heavily on your textures and lighting.

In Marmoset I purposely used the dark background to bring out the vibrant colors. I used 3 key lights in the scene, rim light at the back to contrast the dark background, as well as a key and a bounce light to flesh out the colors.

Ren Manuel, Character Artist at Airship Images

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

Join discussion

Comments 0

    You might also like

    We need your consent

    We use cookies on this website to make your browsing experience better. By using the site you agree to our use of cookies.Learn more