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See How to Create a Cyberpunk-Style Character in ZBrush

Thiago Brandao talked about the Agent 147: Lost Horizon - Real Time project and explained in detail the modeling, texturing, and rendering pipelines.


Hey there, I'm Thiago Brandao, a 3D Character Artist from Brazil. My love for gaming led me to Think Tank Training Centre, where I immersed myself in learning the ropes of the game character pipeline. After completing the program and wrapping up my mentorship project, I'm excited to keep pushing boundaries in the world of 3D character art.

Agent 147: Lost Horizon - Real Time served as my mentorship project at Think Tank, offering a profound learning experience. Through its development, I gained insights into new pipelines and honed my efficiency without compromising quality.

The Mentorship Term

The mentorship term at Think Tank concludes the 64-week program, offering personalized one-on-one sessions with an industry mentor. It's a pivotal phase to enhance your skills and acquire new techniques. My experience with mentor Kestutis Rinkevicius was truly enriching, providing a valuable opportunity to elevate my craft and explore new dimensions in the field.

The Project

For my latest project, I opted for a concept by the skilled artist Jude Smith – a captivating Cyberpunk-style character that instantly caught my attention with its vibrant colors and intricate mechanical elements. The concept proved to be a rich playground for learning, featuring a blend of cloth, hard surface, hair, and fur. It was a delight to work on, offering a comprehensive and enjoyable experience as I delved into various aspects of character creation.

Gathering References

Beginning any project involves a vital first step – collecting references. I find PureRef useful for this task as it simplifies the process of assembling images with notes and allows easy zooming in and out. As the project progresses, expanding the reference board becomes a natural practice, ensuring a comprehensive guide for various aspects of the creative process.


ZBrush is the place where the magic truly happens for me. Typically, I handle everything from the initial blockout to the final high-poly stage within it. While I occasionally turn to Maya for certain modeling tasks, my primary emphasis remains on leveraging ZModeler and Marvelous Designer for crafting intricate cloth components.

I typically begin by creating a DynaMesh sphere or combining primitives to establish a foundational sense. Afterward, I refine the form using ZRemesher to achieve a cleaner version. Subsequently, I build upon this foundation, meticulously adding all the necessary details that will be crucial later on.

Retopology & UVs

Once the high-poly stage is completed, I proceed to decimate all the components. Following this, I transfer the models to Maya for retopology using QuadDraw. To facilitate the retopology process, I separate the various parts into different files, such as Pants and Legs. Given that this was a personal project and not intended for an actual game, I aimed for a topology that performs well in close-ups while maintaining optimal efficiency. This is particularly crucial for cloth, which features numerous folds; ensuring the presence of edges both at the top and bottom of these folds is essential for improved baking and silhouette definition.

When it comes to UVs, I break down my process into three key steps to ensure optimal results. Initially, I create individual UVs for each component within Maya. Subsequently, I export the file to Rizom UV to align all the islands for improved texture quality and optimization. Finally, I consolidate the pieces into a unified UV set and perform a final packing operation within Rizom, ensuring that all the UVs are straight and optimized for the best results.


When it comes to texturing, I crafted all the textures within Substance 3D Painter, employing distinct files for optimal optimization. This includes one for the character, another for props, and a separate one for the face, among others. To enhance the realism of the facial features, I incorporated scan data from the 3D Scan Store, allowing for a more detailed representation of pores and contours with ease.

To ensure consistent and appealing details across all parts, I established a neutral light setting inside Substance 3D Painter. I took care to zoom out initially, focusing on prominent color and roughness variations, then progressed to medium-scale details before delving into close-ups for fine intricacies. This approach allowed me to weave a compelling narrative that translates well from various angles and distances.

Hair Cards

Hair cards play a pivotal role in game creation, breathing life into characters and creatures without imposing a heavy load on the engine, unlike actual geometric hair. In this project, I ventured into a new pipeline, employing FiberShop for texture creation and GS CurveTools for hair card placement. This approach streamlined the process of crafting hair and fur for my character, thanks to FiberShop's quick texture adjustments through sliders. The GS CurveTools proved invaluable for creating layers and defining curves, enhancing the precision of hair card placement.

Opting for XGen can yield satisfactory results, but it introduces additional time demands for similar outcomes. The extended duration is mainly attributed to the lengthier processes of rendering textures and setting up guide placement. Moreover, the creation of shaders for different maps and CPU rendering further contributes to the overall time-consuming nature of using XGen.


For this project, I opted for Marmoset Toolbag 4, known for its real-time rendering capabilities and modern features. While leveraging fundamental PBR textures like albedo, roughness, and metalness for most textures, I enhanced them to achieve a more realistic effect. For the facial details, I incorporated detailed Normal Maps to enrich close-up views, along with clearcoats, subsurface scattering (SSS), and Cavity Maps to ensure proper skin representation. When addressing the cloth, I paid special attention to the inclusion of Microfiber, a standout feature in Marmoset Toolbag. This feature allows for the application of a Custom Map, simulating real-life fibers on the cloth and producing a delightful fuzz effect.

An additional standout feature that played a crucial role in achieving the desired level of realism was the implementation of ray tracing. This technology enhances the behavior of maps and lights, lending a more lifelike quality to the model by introducing depth and contrast. Despite the increased scene weight and longer render times, the results justify the investment, making the utilization of ray tracing truly worthwhile.

To achieve a high-quality render, I adhered to the fundamentals by meticulously setting up a three-way lighting scheme, incorporating a main, a fill, and rim light, along with additional accent lights to highlight specific areas of interest. As a finishing touch, I introduced a backdrop and a foundational floor to ensure a visually appealing and cohesive final render, complementing the character's pose and contributing to the overall narrative.


In conclusion, this project proved to be both gratifying to work on and an incredible learning opportunity. It allowed me to explore new pipelines, enhancing my productivity throughout the journey. A heartfelt appreciation goes to the entire Think Tank community for their valuable assistance and guidance, and special thanks to my mentor, Kestas, for aiding me in refining my skills across various aspects of character creation.

A heartfelt appreciation for the fantastic opportunity provided by 80 Level to showcase my project and its creation process. I hope it proves beneficial in some way, and please feel free to reach out to me. Thank you very much!

Thiago Brandao, 3D Character Artist

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