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Sculpting a Realistic Pirate in ZBrush

Alice Lee did a breakdown of her Pirate character made in ZBrush, Maya, Substance Painter, and Mari.


Hi, I’m Alice Lee and I’m from Korea where I majored in Sculpture. I decided that I wanted to sculpt digitally, so I studied 3D modeling at the Academy of Art University. Since graduating, I’ve been working as an Environment Artist at Infinity Ward on Call of Duty: Modern Warfare and Warzone.  

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Pirate Project: Inspiration

I was inspired by Pirates of the Caribbean which is one of my favorite movies. I wanted to expand my imagination and make a realistic-looking character. Also, I liked that Pirates of the Caribbean movies have a lot of decoration and props that show the history of each character. So, I tried to show the story of the pirate and his battles in his appearance and props.


I always gather a lot of references before I start modeling. If I don’t have good enough reference it’s hard to make the details, and it’s more likely that I will keep changing the design. I always try to gather references from a real photo instead of drawings or 3D work to get the most realistic look. After that, I choose the main reference photos and draw a character concept to see how would it all look together. Then I’ll start to build a good proportion body even though it will be covered under the clothes. It’s so easy to make the anatomy look wrong if I model clothes and props without a nice modeled body underneath.

Sculpting in ZBrush


I mainly used ZBrush for sculpting. First, I made the base mesh in Maya to see the overall shape. When I thought the silhouette is good enough, I brought the blockout to ZBrush to sculpt the details. Since this character has a lot of props, I tried to add details where props and clothes intersect. For example, belts will change the wrinkles on the clothes. Then I tried to sculpt the difference of the surface using alphas, such as small noise on the skull and leather. It’s good to have a high-resolution photo reference to see the surface details.

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I tried to choose an actor or model who has a lot of photos from different angles. It’s usually better to choose some celebrity. I use layer tools in ZBrush a lot to see the progress and I can adjust the intensity of what I sculpted. The most challenging part of making his the character's was achieving the likeness. I turned off the perspective mode to reduce the distortion, then I reduced the opacity of ZBrush’s program window and aligned the model with the reference photo. This way I could easily see which part should be fixed.


I tried to imagine the history of each prop. For example, while modeling the mechanical arm, I made the inside gears darker and glossier since they are harder to clean and need some oil to move more flexibly. The bottom of his wooden leg should have a lot of scratches since that part would scrape the floor every time. For the clothes, I made the seam using the alpha in ZBrush and painted stitches in Substance Painter. I also made the edges of the leather brighter since that is usually the easiest part to get worn out.


I used Substance Painter for props and clothes. I used Texture XYZ images for skin and projected albedo and displacement maps in Mari. This workflow helped me make realistic pores and skin tone. When I textured props, it was hard to get a correct diffuse, glossiness, and specular value. I searched PBR values for each material and started putting the dirt and scratches with the correct value. Here is the PBR value chart from Marmoset that I used. In the end, I adjusted textures little by little checking renders to make props blend all together. If it’s taking too much time to re-export the texture, it’s helpful to use the HSV remap node in Maya.

Preparing the Renders

First of all, I think lighting is really powerful for mood. I found reference for good lighting from paintings and photos. Then I tried to match the lighting angle and color. After I finished the lighting, I used Nuke for final adjustments. I rendered the mask map in Vray first, did color corrections, and added some post effects such as depth using masks. It’s too time-consuming to render the whole turntable again, so it’s an efficient way to correct the renders. Also, I can add any background using Nuke to change the mood completely.

The most challenging part of this Pirate character was deciding on the pose. I wanted to create a nice, natural pose. I used a lot of screenshots from the movie and adjusted from there depending on the camera angle. I also had to talk to some animators to make a natural-looking pose. Their advice was to move the arms and legs in different directions to make more depth and a dynamic pose. For example, if the right arm is going forward, the right leg should go backward. It will make the pose flat if the arm and leg are going in the same direction.

Alice Lee, 3D Artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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