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Recreating Phoenix from Harry Potter with ZBrush, Ornatrix & Substance 3D Painter

Ramón Tapia shared the workflow behind the Phoenix project, explained how grooming was done in Ornatrix, and showed the texturing process.


Hello, fellow creative readers! My name is Ramón, but in the realm of digital artistry, I go by the name ramon.exr. Why that name? Well, there are too many people out there with my name, and as I am a Digital Artist, this name can symbolize a strong connection to the technical and aesthetic aspects of what you see in my work. 

Long story short, my career started a long time ago, in Mexico, where I did my degree in Animation and Digital Art at Tecnologico de Monterrey. Then I got a diploma in Animation and Visual Effects at Vancouver Film School. In the meantime, I started working part-time doing freelance work as a modeler and graphic designer for small clients. I used to love to draw, and I have always been known as a creative kid since I was in elementary school. Mixed with my interest in computers, video games, movies, and art, it is no surprise I chose this path. 

Right after I finished school, my career in Canada started almost 4 years back. I got very lucky to meet the now Head of Grooming and the CFX Supervisor at ICON Creative Studios, who gave me the opportunity to start my career in the industry as a Grooming Artist. I stayed there for 2 years, working on all of the productions that required groom, with the standout being Monsters at Work, Transformers: Earthspark, and Young Jedi Adventures. Then I promptly moved to Animal Logic where I met a lot of talented people. I worked on a feature animated film and new IP called Leo (not yet released) as a Surfacing and Groom Artist for hero characters and hero props, where I stayed for 1 and a half years. 

I consider my skills at this point to come from hard work and commitment. I like to absorb everything people teach me. I used to practice a lot when I was a student acquiring great speed, so when something I need that I haven’t mastered slows me down, I practice that until I master it. There is a lot for me to work on myself and to learn, especially when seeing other artists' works, and even though people say it is not good to compare yourself with others, I like to admire other great artists, compare myself with them and aim for the best.

The Phoenix Project

This phoenix project started simply because I wanted to show my versatility in characters and creature art, with a special focus on grooming. I was like, what is the thing all of the groomers out there like but they have struggled with? The answer was feathers. Feathers are a great way to demonstrate your technical skills and proficiency in grooming by dealing with complex elements. 

I made it based on an artwork of Harry Potter’s phoenix. I had to look for references of different birds, especially eagles, which is the animal with the most likeness to this phoenix. I wasn't familiar with bird anatomy so it was an extra challenge. I didn’t want to make it exactly like in the movie, but instead followed the art with some changes to make it my own.

As you know by now, all of my experience has been for working in production, so I have special care in my workflow. I know what is needed to create a character and make it work for different pipelines. 

For this one, like in most of my personal projects, I used ZBrush for the sculpt and model, Substance 3D Painter to paint my textures, Maya to merge everything, an Ornatrix plug-in to create feathers, with Arnold as my render engine for the final look. 


This process appears to be easy, but in reality is not. Like any creature or animal, you need to imagine them and make your research on how the anatomy is without the fur. I always start by looking at references. You need to know the anatomy of the character before you start twerking anything else. I use ZBrush for any organic thing. Then I start sculpting, but I don't like to trace anything literally, instead, I like to have references next to me and start sculpting the initial shape by just looking at them side by side. Once I have it, I add more details and texture. 

I took some references from eagles for the legs. I try to go with the shape of the phoenix but add additional details to make it more realistic.

I don’t waste my time trying to detail what I am not going to see at the end, so I take special care in the face. 

To make your future work easier, you need to keep in mind the final geometry and UVs for grooming and texturing and for animation if you are going to rig it or have it rigged by someone. 

For my phoenix, I didn’t plan to animate it or show my topology (maybe in the future?), so a simple ZRemesher in ZBrush helped me do the job. If I had needed to, I would have done it manually using the Quad Draw Tool in Maya. I am a manual guy, I don’t like to use any procedural approaches when technical precision is needed. I modeled my phoenix already with a simple pose, but if your plan is to animate it, consider a neutral pose instead.

This is how I would have done the retopology in Maya using Quad Draw. Every edge loop is important for a clean workflow and for the next steps. 


Now to my favorite process. I always start my grooms sculpting my grooming guides by hand. Think about this as if you were actually sculpting or grooming hair. This process is tedious for most people, however, there are a lot of approaches you can take depending on the program you are using if sculpting is not your best strength.

Most of the time I start my grooms using symmetry as if I was sculpting. Once I have something solid, I start twerking more if I need to 

Once I have everything set, for this asset in particular because it's so ambitious, I need to have every section well controlled by having it separated with different systems for each important part of the body.

I start testing how I want the look of the groom with every piece together. Then I start optimizing and doing small fixes if I need to. 

Ornatrix is a powerful Maya plug-in used for grooming. They have documentation for every node and modifier, and for this project, in particular, I used their node called “Propagation”, which allows you to create multiple hairs per common hair strand. Think about it as an extra system for each strand. Then, you need to be creative and start adding whatever modifier you might need for the look of the feather you desire. My phoenix has different feather lengths for each section of its body, so I had to keep in mind the shape of each feather to work for each modifier. 


My texturing process is very controlled. Most of the time I don’t need to google any texture in particular. I combine procedural textures created with Substance 3D Painter with hand-painted work. I work with layers or nodes depending on the program. And I use masks for everything to give me control if I need to make any color change or whatever I need. 

My phoenix has a lot of variation in its color texture. This allows you to give more depth to the character and make it more defined. All parts of the body are important and you need to dedicate the time to build any other texture like roughness or scatter for the next process. 

For the black-and-white textures, I paint them by simply keeping in mind that zero means black, one means white so I don’t need to see in previsualization when connecting them further.


I use Arnold Render in Maya for the final look. I have a couple of HDRIs that have been making me company since I was a student. I use those as my principal source of light, and if I’m feeling more artistic, I add a couple more which I can turn on or off once I go to the comp part. 

This is an example of how I start testing my textures, the materials, and using Hypershade in Maya to make color corrections, fixes, or set-ups. 

As for the feathers, this is a tricky one and the first struggle I encountered. You need to keep in mind the UV coordinates for each feather. Lucky for me, Ornatrix has already a few options which allow you to hit this task and know where the texture should be placed. 

I try to make the shader as close as possible to what a real shader would look like for each material, then I start playing again if I need to make it more artistic. I made the feathers shader very radiant, not that glossy, but with a nice color balance on its specular color. The skin has also a small touch of color in the spec to help blend it well with the feathers. 


Finally, when I get all of my renders, I use an EXR image which gives me all of the passes I need to comp everything. For this project, I didn’t make any changes other than setting up all of my renders for the turntable video export.

This is the end of the process. Here I can check closely if everything is working as intended.


The most challenging part of my workflow for this phoenix, in particular, is definitely the feathers. As I said, they are complex to work on and make them work, but everything comes from experience so don’t be discouraged if you don’t get them right away. I am sure I wouldn’t be able to achieve this quality, or at least, not with the same speed during my first year of experience as a groomer. 

My advice for those who are starting grooming is: it is complicated, but don’t discourage yourself. It’s more technical than what you start learning. You will find yourself frustrated, because like with every powerful software, you will encounter bugs, cooking times, etc. which will make the learning process more tedious. However, like everything, if you start practicing more and more, you will get to your goal eventually. 

I gave you some good key elements to investigate if you are interested. Google is the best tool you have to learn to find what you need. I don’t have any tutorials in particular that I can share with you, but another piece of advice would be to follow the work of other artists or studios that you like. This is the best way to set the quality you want to achieve. There are a lot of artists out there who share their knowledge and their workflows. Pick what makes sense to you and make it your own. 

Thank you for reading this interview, and thank you, Theodore. As you can see, making a 3D character or creature for production is a lot of work, but I hope this summary of my workflow for this asset, in particular, gave you a hint to help with your learning process and to know a little more about myself.

Ramón Tapia, 3D Character Artist

Interview conducted by Theodore McKenzie

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