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Recreating American McGee's Alice in ZBrush

David Zavala talked about Alice: Madness Returns fanart project made in ZBrush and Substance Painter and presented in Marmoset Toolbag.


Hi, I'm David Zavala, and this is my second time at 80.lv! Right now, I am working as a freelance character artist for some small video game and VR companies. I love making female faces and putting models into real-time rendering and I spend a lot of time on the lighting process to improve my rendering process.

I studied industrial design in Mexico, but I no longer dedicate myself to that. I changed everything to make characters in my free time and little by little I have been finding my own clients. I hope to one day work for some AAA company (maybe Naughty Dog).

Alice: Inspiration

I created a Twitch channel recently and did a Halloween challenge on stream. I chose some horror characters to do it in my own style and after making two characters, I found Alice and finished her in 2-3 weeks. Though I never finished it, Alice: Madness Returns. For the project, I just looked for some concepts from the game that would help me with the colors of the dress and the atmosphere of the game for inspiration, plus browsed through some cosplays, fan art on ArtStation, similar characters, gameplay videos, and finally Fernanda Suarez's works (my supreme source of reference) for inspiration – she makes beautiful women in 2D and I always study their faces because I want to emulate their look. Remember that finding your inspirations will help you define your style, a combination of everything you like is reflected in your art.

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Modeling the Body

I used an old base mesh that I made in the past, so it didn't take much effort to do the UVs and retopology. I spent this saved time on the face and body instead, I like to have extra time that I can use to give more detail. If skipping retopology, I think people should spend more time on high poly, improving the silhouette, making it more complex, and refining their techniques in general.

I use the same basic brushes, I think my favorite one is Move. I prefer moving over sculpting, and I would say my process is 70% move 30% sculpt.

I have been trying to develop my own technique of making hair with cards; at the moment I try to do everything in ZBrush, the process is a bit destructive but I like to use it. Maybe someday I will create a course for that. 


The clothes were an experiment. I made all of them in ZBrush and after 3 zremesh passes, I achieved good topology. You can view the process on my Twitch channel.

First, I made a base with the topology from the body, then substantially changed it to form the dress. It’s an extract-and-zremesh technique and you can get a good topology with it. The best thing is that you are making the low poly at the same time. 

When I make folds, I start with the Standard and Dam Standard brushes to create reliefs and depth successively in the low poly, little by little increasing the subdivisions. I also use Orb Crack from Orb's brush, it helps a lot with creating good and credible shapes, I recommend to use it. Also, you can try to use Dynamics in ZBrush, it's really useful when it comes to making quick folds but always remember to define them better with other brushes to improve the shapes.

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I hate retopology! I need to improve my workflow for it a lot. With characters for social media, I don’t spend much time on retopology and unwrapping, but with portfolio stuff, I try to emulate UVs and retopology workflow from studio pipelines. I try to optimize space, increase resolution principally in the face and hands areas, plus I search and experiment with other joint loops all the time.


I start with a simple black and white sketch, only to prepare the base for the character's look I want to achieve. I put the eyebrows, simulate the eyelashes with eyeliner and a little makeup. After this, I change the hue and saturation of my character (polypaint – adjust colors in ZBrush) turning the white color into a light skin color. Once the skin base is ready, I move on to the initial makeup pass: lips color and defining the eyebrows. This is just to give me an idea of what it would look like, all of this will be improved later in Substance Painter. In SP, I refine the colors, create a cavity map to improve the roughness and add smart materials like in the case of blood and dress detail where I added these materials and I improved them little by little. You have to use such materials correctly, do not abuse automatic things, always do part of the work manually.


I use Marmoset Toolbag to render the projects in real-time. I always have a lighting configuration where my key light (directional or an area light) is positioned a little to the side of the character, so it affects the model a little diagonally to create some strong shapes. Then I place a fill light (an area light) to attenuate the shadows and finally a rim light to highlight the outline of the character. With Alice, I wanted a more aggressive setting with a red background, I think it was good for this specific character.


I think that one of my biggest problems is hair, it takes too long and I am constantly changing it – because of the haircard texture, transparency, the number of layers, the shape of the hairstyle, the shader. There are so many problems, and often it is difficult to identify them. But little by little, these problems are solved and with patience and many attempts, the hair begins to take shape. I usually re-use the same hair texture several times, but I think after a few projects you need to update such things, change the workflow from time to time – not only with the hair but for the whole process.

David Zavala, Character Artist

Interview conducted by Arti Sergeev

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Comments 2

  • Anonymous user

    great job. try this plugin, save your time https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=foxHH8HAwu8


    Anonymous user

    ·a year ago·
  • Tokarev Kyrylo

    Great work!


    Tokarev Kyrylo

    ·3 years ago·

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