Telling Stories in 3D

Telling Stories in 3D

Pablo Muñoz talked about his approach stylized character design and 3d art in general.

Pablo Muñoz talked about his approach stylized character design and 3d art in general.


My name is Pablo Muñoz, I’m a 3D artist and I’m heavily involved with 3D sculpting and visual development. I currently work as a lead animator and run the on my free time, I also do seasonal teaching at the RMIT university in the masters of animation and interactive media.

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Stylized Characters

Developing a character is quite an interesting process. Figuring out everything from the technical aspect to the final composition is something that I really enjoy. For me, I think the most influential stage of developing the look and feel of the character is the backstory, I try to create a story around the character which ultimately will influence the design. It doesn’t have to be a complex story, sometimes is just a matter of determine the environment where the character might live in and a single trait of its personality.

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I think is a good idea to strive towards hyperrealism and there seems to be a great demand for it in the industry, so I treat my characters as creatures that somehow might fit into the real world. However, I think the stylisation of the character is an invaluable trait that contributes to its appeal and sometimes, creating an image that looks like a photograph, something it is easier to just take the photo.

Making Them Lively

If I had to name 3 things that I always pay special attention when creating a character, they will be: the eyes, the lighting and the pose. As I mentioned before, the story is really what drives everything else in the design process but ‘locking in’ some basic ideas earlier on, helps me to have something that I can aim towards while iterating and sketching out ideas.

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In all honesty, my design process is very chaotic and I tend to go back and forth between different ideas before I commit to something. I usually start with Dynamesh or ZSphere in ZBrush because these tools allow me to figure out propositions and shapes very quickly. Once I have something that looks good I sometimes take a screenshot and bring it to photoshop and do a quick paint over of how things might look like. At this stage everything is very loose and things can change quite a bit, so I start to gather references and images for inspirations than I use as anchor points to further tweak the design while keeping an eye on how things look, move, behave or function in the real world. For instance, if I’m working on a character with fur, I will have a few images of real fur/hair always open so I can look at them and make sure the thickness or flow is believable even though the character is just a imaginary creature.

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ZBrush Work

I do have a rather large collection of brushes I’ve made for every project I’ve worked on. However, with every project comes a new challenge so I rather create a new brush for a specific purpose or tweak an existing one. For the most part, during the design and 3D sketching process I limit myself to just a few default brushes.

Although I try to stay in ZBrush as much as possible, there are cases where is necessary to include other software to adapt to a production environment. I generally use Keyshot to render concepts and ZBrush internal PBR if I want to do a bit of compositing. For texturing nowadays, substance painter is my ‘go-to’ software but I’m comfortable switching between applications that are more specialised and can handle specific tasks faster, for example marvelous designer for cloth, or xNormal to bake normal maps etc.

Little Details

I avoid thinking about details until I’m happy with the main shapes. Details are great to add points of interest and make the model more visually appealing and complex, but they will be detrimental or won’t have the impact you want if the underlying structure of the character is not right. For things like hair and feathers is always good to gather references and use them as starting points, but experimentation is where things can start to look more interesting. I usually do a screenshot of my sculpture before getting into the smaller details, and let it set for a couple of days as my computer wallpaper so that when I come back to work on it I can see it with fresh eyes.

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To start with the small details is definitely a good idea to be comfortable with your main shapes, then it is just a matter of trying differ brushes, patterns, surface noises and even insert meshes.

Implementing Substance Painter 

Substance Painter is definitely a revolutionary software. What it does is not necessarily something new, but the way that integrates seamlessly into the workflow makes it a necessary tool once you’ve tried it. The best thing for me, is that it is in a way similar to photoshop in the way that the layers stack is build but with an amazing level of control on how things like roughness and albedo are mixed, not to mention the masking tools, material blending, the real time normals, live preview and the options of baking maps.

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All you need to do to get to substance painter and create amazing textures is a decent UV map and more often than not, ZBrush UV master can point you in the right direction.

Material and colour (or lack of) are an integral part of the design. I try to always consider a character as a composition of its own, so every part should have a counterpart… For example a highly detailed area in contrast with a more dull section where the ye can rest. This contrast can be easily done with the use of colour or by assigning a different material that changes the surface.

I usually start with very rough strokes of colour to establish the main areas of interest and determine where the colour could be placed to add more to the character’s appeal and helps the viewer read the design better. Also I try to avoid overly saturated colours at the beginning.

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I don’t think there is a particular technique that is specifically to character portraits, other than a few tricks borrowed from real portrait photography. I like to add a bit of depth of field and very subtle chromatic aberration to account for the use of an imaginary camera lens. Also the way that the lights in a scene are placed is very suggestive and can change dramatically the overall mood of the scene. I generally place a single light and add more if I feel is necessary but usually never go above 3 or 4 for a scene.

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I use Marmoset Toolbag to quickly explore lighting scenarios as it’s very fast and easy to use. You can decimate a character and send it to marmoset and spend some time tweaking the lights and environment to find the lighting conditions that will suit your character and the mood you are trying to create.


Lighting is a huge topic, arguably it is a character itself. Lighting can make or break the presentation of the character so it is always a good idea to understand the ways light can help to define the narrative and mood of a scene. For example, we are use to see a main light coming from the top (think of the sun or a lightbulb), obviously there are variations and the sun can be very low and cast a very long shadow, but generally speaking the highlights are at the top, so when you place the main light source at the bottom pointing upwards, the character feels very unnatural, mysterious and evil.

Keyshot is a great software to experiment quickly with different light scenarios. With the Keyshot Pro edition you can edit the HDRI and add more highlights by selecting specific areas of the character.

Pablo Munoz Gomez, Concept Artist, 3D Sculptor and Educator

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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    Telling Stories in 3D