Patrick Yeung presented a full breakdown of his wonderful character study, performed under the guidance of Jared Krichevsky at Gnomon.
Hi 80.Lv! My name is Patrick Yeung, and I’m currently an Entertainment Production student at Gnomon School of VFX in Hollywood. I took an interest in making 3D models in high school, and eventually decided that I want to pursue making CG characters as a career after receiving a B.A in Fine Arts from the University of California, Santa Cruz in 2014.
I’m on the Games Track in Gnomon studying to be a character artist. Nearing graduation, I’ve had the chance to learn from many tremendous teachers along the way. For this particular project,Jared Krichevsky was my instructor. He’s the Creature and Character Supervisor at Aaron Sims Creative. I’m really fortunate to be in the class and to have him as a teacher. We’ve learned so much about creature design and production techniques—it’s quite the eye opener to see him sculpt and demo each week.
Every week in Jared’s class, we receive a card with a brief and vague description of the creature we are to conceptualize and sculpt. Pora Palmata, a creature of mine, originally began as a fungus type of creature in the sci-fi genre. My idea was to create some type of ancient and intelligent mushroom creature that was full of organic and fibrous details. There were tons of fungi images in my reference library—I even incorporated facial references of elderly women in my reference board! Eventually, my project evolved more into a different type of forest-spirit character. With so much creative freedom, I really enjoyed seeing everyone’s take on the same creature card in this class.
The original concept and preliminary sculpt didn’t even have a head! Ultimately, the viewers had to feel connected to this creature in one way or another. As a result, this character went through multiple iterations and eventually came to this more appealing stage. Below are two work-in-progress screenshots of Pora Palmata about midway through the project.
Before I begin all of my creature sculpts with ZSpheres, I jump into either Krita or Photoshop to quickly draw out ideas for the silhouette, proportions, and faces of potential characters. As you can see with my original sculpt above, I planned around the general idea of a mushroom creature. Although I knew the final product would be somewhat different, starting with a blueprint got me to the sculpting phase faster than simply doodling in 3D.
My sculpting process always starts with reference gathering. The bits and pieces of information I like from my reference board fuel my sculpting at later stages of the creative process. With sculpting, I start with some type of base mesh either from ZSpheres or a really simple humanoid mesh. I then use the Move Brush to get the proportions right. Below highlights a practice study where I took a skull, added muscles, found forms, and eventually provided detail to the character.
It’s always good practice to clearly construct foundations before nailing smaller details. I think this principle applies to all mediums of art. At the beginning stages, DynaMesh is my best friend until I’m fully happy with the form of my sculpt. After that, I’ll use ZRemesher to get a better topology on the mesh and continue with my sculpting. All of the surface details, such as cracks and pores, really don’t occur until the last 90% of the creative process.
Figuring out details is the most interesting yet frustrating part of the production process! I avoid frustration as much as possible by gathering as many references as I can early on. When the time comes, I have a large inventory of reference material at my disposal! For Pora Palmata, the details were first based on fungi and different types of tree bark. Coral details were added later after Jared mentioned in a critique that he saw deep sea potential in my character and that she would fit right in with a coral environment. With this in mind, I investigated more references and found that a coral’s shape language mixed well with my fungus design. Below is a contact sheet of the surface details I hoped to incorporate into the creature’s design.
Most of the references had a high enough resolution that I could fashion alpha maps from them. For several other specific patterns, I would have to sculpt on a plane and then capture it in an alpha map with the MRGBZGrabber. Below is a quick demonstration of how to use it.
In addition to creating alphas for surfacing, I also crafted Insert brushes for the creature’s body. I modeled pieces of lichen petals and subsequently applied them to her body.
To deal with holey structures, such as those on the shoulder and by the hips, I first created a bigger shape that had the correct form, and then I masked out the actual shape of the growth with the holes in it. With the mask on the right form, all I had to do was extract it with the correct thickness, polish it, and detail it from then on.
The fibers in the back of the character were inspired by the gills of mushrooms and the back muscles in human bodies. I came about the idea as I was applying brush strokes along the neck down the back to build form to connect to the scapula. Since she has leaf-like structures around the neck, I figured applying root or fibrous like details to the back made sense. I still have much to learn about human anatomy, but seeing how muscles groups and fibers intersect each other to create form and function inspired me to share this cool interaction through this element on the creature.
I love to polypaint my sculpts midway through projects just to convince myself of the concept in my head. Since my ultimate goal was to create a single image that presented this creature concept in an appealing light, I spent most of my time sculpting and detailing the mesh. I chose magenta as the key color to contrast the paler, bluish tone of the creature’s body. I also added green to complement the purple tones of the body. I seamlessly blended the veins and other minor details with the rest of the body through alphas and hand drawn methods.
I reworked the entire topology of the character with the ZRemesher feature for a cleaner surface. The subtools are clearly subdivided enough for me to incorporate precise details to my sculpt such as color information. There was no unwrapping process involved since I sent my paint information directly to KeyShot for rendering. Every aspect of the model was in subtools so I could tweak individual materials to obtain a certain look, such as subsurface scattering (SSS).
I used ZBrush’s Transpose Master Plugin to pose Pora Palmanta. Since the creature is broken down into parts in subtools with the help of the plugin, I could quickly move her between various poses I liked without switching back and forth. The idea for the final image was to show her in the most elegant yet powerful manner possible. I learned that posing a character with a T-pose is a big mistake. If we’re making living things, we have to continue that illusion through posing our characters in powerful and lively stances as well.
My first render pass (above) was entirely done within ZBrush. I made different light passes and composited them in Photoshop. After Jared’s critique, I decided that the lighting was a bit flat as it didn’t have quite enough contrast to create a compelling visual. I went back into ZBrush, tweaked the character a bit more, and re-rendered the creature in KeyShot for a more dramatic lighting that showed off surface details and correct global illumination. Big thanks to Eric Valdes, my Character Instructor from Sony Santa Monica, who did a quick paintover and suggested I add more facial expressions to Pora Palmanta as well as fix certain aspects of her arms. Below is the final render pass of the character before compositing.
I took the clean render from KeyShot, which took about three hours, into photoshop and composited her with an ocean background. Lastly, I added a glowing jellyfish and some atmospheric noise like bubbles and sparkles as finishing touches in the final image.
Advice from Gnomon
It’s an incredible opportunity to study at Gnomon. Every teacher at the school possesses tons of knowledge and rich experience from their time in the video game industry. The advice that I follow on every project no matter its type is simple yet incredibly valuable: perform research. I spend several hours or even an entire day researching as much information and gathering as many details as possible so I can better my creative work. Put simply, we don’t know what we don’t know! We continuously improve our craft by being constantly curious about the world.
Another solid piece of advice given to me by almost every teacher is to always build a strong foundation before moving on to the next step. Getting the big things right at the beginning, such as form and value, will serve the rest of the project well! Having tight deadlines at school has really instilled this principle within me because having to go back and fix mistakes that I neglected at the beginning of a project consumes precious time I’d prefer to utilize on heightening the overall quality of my project within the latter stages of the production process.
Thank you so much for reading about me and my work. I hope this article gives you a more in-depth perspective on my take on the creative process of creating creatures!