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Recreating Bowser in ZBrush, Blender & Substance 3D Painter

Ümral Ismayilov shared the workflow behind the Bowser project, showed how the hair was groomed, and explained the texturing process.


Hello, I'm Ümral Ismayilov, a 3D Character Artist and Motion Designer based in Baku, Azerbaijan. From a young age, I've been passionate about the 3D industry and animations, which led me to pursue a career in this field. Learning the fundamentals and principles of the 3D world and design was a pivotal decision in my life, and my prior experience with drawing and sketching allowed me to quickly understand the concepts of modeling and sculpting.

To continually improve my skills, I practice every day and watch various techniques and tutorials. As a result, I have been able to work as a freelancer for several years on various projects, including game development, trailer production, character development, NFT projects, and more. These experiences have allowed me to take significant strides in my career and refine my skills in this highly competitive field.

The Bowser Project

As a long-time fan of the Mario games, I've eagerly anticipated the release of the official movie since it was announced. After watching the movie, I was blown away by the high-quality character design created by Illumination Entertainment Studios. Inspired by the film, I decided to create my own 3D model of one of the characters. While my initial plan was to create a model of Mario, I noticed that few people had attempted to make a 3D model of Bowser, and I decided to take on the challenge.


To create an accurate representation of Bowser, I gathered references from both the current movie and previous games, carefully studying his basic shapes and intricate details. At first, my goal was to create a model for Lookdev purposes only, but as I worked on the project, I became more ambitious. Ultimately, I decided to depict Bowser in the exact starting scene from the movie, imagining what it would look like if he finally obtained the Super Star, a powerful object from the Mario series.


To begin my 3D character modeling project, I first created a base model by blocking out the initial shapes using Blender. This is a crucial step in the process as it allows me to create a foundation to build upon without any limitations.

Next, I imported my blocked base model into ZBrush to begin sculpting and adding the main details. Creating an accurate representation of the character based on a reference requires a great deal of time and effort, and it is important to keep in mind that some deformation may be necessary to achieve the right dimensions.

I focused on sculpting the head and face details extensively, as they are the most important features to capture the essence of the character and attract interest to the model. To achieve the desired look, I used a variety of brushes including Move, Clay Buildup, TrimDynamic, DamStandard, and others to sculpt the main features before adding smaller details. 

To create the eyes, I imported a sphere shape into my model in order to determine the correct placement. I then left the stage of creating materials and deformation for later in the process, before moving on to the rendering part using Blender. Prior to rendering, I created the eyes separately using procedural materials in Blender. This allowed me to add charming details and ensure they were fully prepared before being integrated into the final model.

After completing the retopology process, I focused on adding smaller yet important details such as scales and skin pores. This was an enjoyable part of the process, but it required a careful and precise workflow.

I manually sculpted scales on Bowser's shoulders, hands, knees, and other visible areas that required additional detail. To fill in gaps in the skin, I utilized reptile animal alpha brushes. This approach helped me achieve a more realistic and visually appealing final model.


Creating hair can be a very time-consuming and stressful stage in the 3D character development process. For this project, I decided to take my renders in Blender, which meant that I had to create the hair within the same software to ensure better results.

Although Blender's default hair particle system is not perfect in the version I am using (3.3.0), I utilized the hair particle addon called '3D Hair Brush' to access more grooming brushes as well as noise and clump settings. This helped me to obtain exceptional results for Bowser's hair and eyebrows, despite the challenges of working with the default system.


As mentioned earlier, I sculpted Bowser's body in ZBrush, which included deformations to his face and head. I particularly enjoy sculpting character bodies because you have more space to work with and it's easier to correct any mistakes.

One of the most important parts of Bowser's character is his shell, which contains a great amount of detail in terms of shell cracks, imperfections, and high-definition textures. After sculpting the shell and its spikes, I used turtle shell alpha brushes to achieve its skin details, as well as bone details for the spikes. I got the skin brushes pack from the ArtStation marketplace. This helped give the shell a more professional and polished look.

I utilized the masking technique to apply the alpha brush perfectly onto the separated spike roots of the shell. This allowed me to limit the area where I didn't want the brush applied, resulting in a more precise and detailed finish. The star was the ready asset I found on the internet, and I applied my textures to it.

Retopology & Unwrapping

To complete the retopology process, I opted to use Autodesk Maya. It proved to be a quick and enjoyable way to complete the task. I manually retopologized each part of the character individually, preparing them for the UV mapping process, as well as the high-poly model projection.

After decimating the high-poly model in ZBrush, I imported it with the GPU cache to facilitate the retopology process of Bowser's base model. Using the Quad Draw tool in Autodesk Maya, I manually retopologized each part of the character, ensuring that the topology was perfect for the next stages of the pipeline, such as UV unwrapping and texture baking. Although this stage required a lot of patience and took several hours to complete, it was crucial in achieving a low-poly model with optimal topology for the rest of the project.

Here are some behind-the-scenes visuals of the retopology process:

For the UV unwrapping process, I used Blender because I find it easier to create UV tiles. Since the model has several subtools, I separated UV maps into tiles and checked with the test texture to ensure that there were no stretches before moving on to the texturing process.


When it came to texturing Bowser, I used Substance 3D Painter as it is my go-to tool for creating high-quality materials for my 3D models. After baking and projecting the high poly details onto the low poly model, I began surfacing the entire mesh. The texturing process for the body and shell was particularly time-consuming due to the intricate skin details and scales. To achieve precise painting among the scales, I utilized black masking with the curvature map, which produced excellent results. I then added several layers of shadows and highlights to create a sophisticated look.

For the hair material, I switched to Blender, where I used procedural methods and the skin subsurface scattering (SSS) effect to achieve a more realistic appearance. By using these techniques, I was able to create an incredibly detailed and lifelike texture for Bowser's hair.


After rigging Bowser in Blender and positioning him according to the reference, I utilized various light sources such as point lights, spot lights, and area lights to achieve the desired lighting. Lighting plays a crucial role in producing great render outputs. To highlight the most prominent details of the model, I employed the spotlight technique, which involves pointing a spotlight at the area in question and allowing the light to reflect over the perfectly tuned roughness map that I created using Substance Painter. Additionally, setting the camera position and depth of field correctly can enhance the overall effect of the lighting.

To render Bowser, I used the Cycles rendering engine with 6000 samples to ensure high-quality output.


The workflow for this project was truly enjoyable, despite taking about a week to complete, with daily work hours of 3-4 hours. The main challenges were achieving the character's likeness in shape and texture quality, as seen in the movie. Patience is key in character art, as you have to be satisfied with the results before moving on to the next step.

As an aspiring character artist, my advice is to practice, practice, and practice. Sketch, sculpt, and model basic shapes, learn from mistakes and try again until you find the right path. Don't be afraid to seek guidance from senior artists, as knowledge is meant to be shared.

Finally, I hope that my experience inspires and impacts someone's creative journey. Thank you for the opportunity!

Ümral Ismayilov, 3D Character Artist

Interview conducted by Theodore McKenzie

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