General / 25 August 2014

In the slow and ongoing, but usually satisfying, learning of zBrush I decided that working on a character project in my downtime would be a good way to go from one end of the process to the other, learning all the bits in between that I hadn't covered yet. Its taken forever, and even as I render the last few frames for this project I'm looking forward to starting the next and doing it ten times better, just because the first time, you spend hours grappling with the simple stuff often enough. Like why is zBrush's import/export scale so uniquely broken?

Concepting (?)

So I started with a zSphere, drawing out limbs and creating a rough figure. Pretty soon after turning that into a mesh I had this.

Its weird writing this up retrospectively, I mean its always retrospective, but not usually with the whole thing completed and with knowledge of every part of the project and how it turned out. This feels a bit Blue Peter.

I did a fair bit on the helmet and hood areas early on, sculpting in what I thought might look good. Adding little details on the ear casings, almost like large headphone cups, toyed with the idea of adding in a "Britney mic", but it was too early for that kind of detail. Wish I'd come back to that.

I rough in two ventilation tubes using the armature brush in zSketch, its the least thought out breathing apparatus you will ever see, it appears to funnel air from under the armpits into the helmet, or maybe its dead air coming out of the helmet to cool the armpits? But then where's the in take? Or oxygen storage? I'm sure its stashed under the jacket somewhere. I had gathered some reference by this point of what I wanted to aim for for some of the specifics.



At the start I was sculpting everything using brushes which means everything has a sort of hand made look which is ok, but I could have saved so much time using techniques I picked up later. The rivets lining the helmet for example could have been stamped using insert meshes along a curve, or even alpha stamps with the stroke set to stamp at stepped intervals.

I had the whole body as one continuous dynamesh, guessing that this was a normal workflow and that I could cut up the pieces into separate subtools later. I was sort of right. I found out recently that dynamesh is actually effected by scale, so if you are working at a large scale (whatever that means in zBrush's constantly adapting and context-less workspace) then you can get much higher detail dynameshes at lower resolutions.

One of the tutorials I watched had a huge focus on anatomy, to the point of encouraging the viewer to memorise the names of muscles and bones in order to become familiar with their shapes and relationships to each other, really interesting, and it did help me add little details like the recess on the glove between thumb and hand, suggesting the shape of tendons within- but sculpted using the creases of the glove.

“This is the part where I put in a punchy quote pulled from the article, to exude that glossy magazine style.”
— Olly

I found some problems early on with subtools I had dynameshed had their subdivision levels frozen. Not sure what this means, but when I untoggled this option to unfreeze them I got this fantastic result:

And this:

I never intended to deform any of the of the final meshes so neat topology wasn't a priority, I got this from using the zremesher once I was happy with the basic form I started going in and adding finer details like stitching and damage. As is my usual mistake I took the shortest route possible to the part where I get to focus on the details, I didn't really iterate on the silhouette or shape of the character. If I had done, I might have realised that while the head and helmet proportions were hilarious- it would later mean that the face wasn't very readable from even a small distance. Tiny, tiny face.



I wanted to make a lady astronaut, so I was doing some research and thought that Valentina Tereshkova had a great face, and an incredible history. I found the image of her from her heyday, that I thought most clearly showed her features. It was the Russian space suits that had this iconic orange colour. I didn't really use the photo for reference for any of the gear on her helmet, but the number of metal bands, tubes and dual microphones(?) is fantastic. Off centre zip too, classy.

The face is definitely the part that went through the most reworking, every time I'd come back to work on the character after a break: the face would look wrong, and I'd go in and make the cheeks fuller, make the mouth bigger, give her a chin. Some of the screenshots below are from later on when I'd started texturing the skin, but you can see the kind of pore and wrinkle detail in the sculpt that I had fun achieving.


I spent quite a while browsing the fantastic Bad King website looking for insert brushes. That's where I found all the little straps and belt loops to line the hem of the jacket.

I also created a nice stitch stencil that I could stamp along hems, you can't see it so much on the jacket from this angle but its there, hiding.

THERE IT IS! In the top of the glove, that tiny zig zag stitch.

This was my first encounter with the h polish brush, a wonderful thing that acts almost like a sanding tool, shaving off the edges of a flat surface with hard corners. I was struggling to get a separation between materials, from hard plastic to padded polyester. This would have been much easier if I'd known how to use polygroups and panel loops at the time, tools that are perfect for creating nice separate meshes based on sections of mesh.


I had some classic Boston Dynamics image reference for the leg plate stuff, because I wanted a more exoskeleton-esque robo feel. Or something.

The materials I was trying to recreate was sort of a neoprene wet suit type material for the leggings, with the hard plastic shell flaunted so successfully here by petman -->

I used the insert mesh brushes again to stamp little screw heads across the plate, much like in the reference, to give the impression of floating plates, held together by small rivets. There's also am absolute ton of wiring you can see through one of the translucent casings, which I represented with just a couple of external wires connecting the plates cut out sections.


The valves were fun to do, anything that requires the trim dynamic brush to crush corners is fun to do. There is a radial symmetry feature that means instead of mirroring your brush strokes over one axis, as is fairly common, you can mirror multiple times around an axis. So radial symmetry down the z axis split five ways allows me to sculpt and cut away bolt hole five times evenly spaced with one stroke, which is rather neat. It's also possible to get nice kaleidoscopic patterns this way, as brush strokes begin to overlap each other. I'd thought about the breathing apparatus more at this point and created extra tubes to connect the ones entering the jacket to these front valves, still no sense but at it flows from one place to the next.

Final Touches

Beyond this point it was polish polish polish, and then convincing myself its done. Otherwise it will never see the light of day. As soon as the renders are done I'll write another, shorter post.

“Here is a self aware quote summarising the salient point of the entire article.”
— Olly

Wax Seal

General / 19 August 2014

I had some fun a little while ago in zbrush creating this wax seal concept for a logo.

It didn't get used in the end, but it was a good exercise in using alphas with sculpting to raise the embellishments out of the wax. Another good technique was using the 'mask by cavity' and other masking tools to isolate areas of the sculpt that would attract dust, and texture them appropriately. I then took the base mesh into Maya and created a Vray blend material to get the gold leaf layered over the wax effect, a Vray material over the fast sss 2.

Im still working on my astronaut character and she is really nearly done, I'm rendering at a much higher resolution than I normally would (8k turned out to be untenable so I've settled for 4k). This means renders and file sizes are hard to manage, and I can only really use the render farm when its totally quiet. The projects taken so long that I've already moved out of the honeymoon completion phase and into the "things I could have done better" phase. Though I still can't wait to share her, here's another sneak peak at the look dev process for her face texturing and skin shader.


General / 06 July 2014

Some Observations:

The Icelandic language has a timbre that evokes an image of fish flip flopping on the deck of a fishing vessel, each syllable a gentle wet patter.

Each room we stay in that has a double bed also has two duvets, I can only assume so that if one of the bed's inhabitants steals all the duvet, the other isn't then deprived of warmth and doesn't meet a hypothermic and frost bitten end.

If you run the water hotter than luke warm it becomes infused with a sulphurous scent.

There is wi-fi everywhere.

There is something satisfying about capturing a spherical panorama, its like the photographic equivalent of a snow globe. 

What We Observed

Into Zee Unknown

General / 27 May 2014

Its been a little while since I had to pull off the unique mental gymnastics required of learning a new piece of software, a new tool. I mean, I've picked some things up gradually and at a natural pace at work- but consciously setting aside time to intellectually binge on tutorials and manuals is something no longer familiar.

I'd been wanting to learn zBrush for a little while, mostly because of the kind of work Id seen people produce with it, its more modern workflow, and the tools that are specifically unique to zBrush that make it a thoroughly different thing to packages I'd used before, which is only Mudbox in this case.

I started by watching the videos on the Pixologic website which outline each of the tools in a very broad way, to allow you to get an idea of what each is to be used for. Noodling with each tool I slowly, slowly got my head around what in many ways is an impressively ill conceived user interface. There's some particularly confusing 2.5D tools that are a legacy from its roots as an illustration program, and a camera system that I wish was just the same as Maya, as it can cause weird muscle memory schizophrenia when switching between the two programs. Also why call a sculpt a tool, and a layer a subtool? 

However, just sculpting a blob, using brushes and alphas, smoothing the blob, sculpting a little more, and then creating some masking or soloing part of the mesh to continue sculpting feels Really Great.  The viewport always does a great job of staying performant, dynamically soloing, unsubdividing, and resubdividing meshes to keep things responsive. A lot of the features can encourage really messy workflow but that can ok, great for concepting stuff and then trashing it. But it can also lead you to a place where you think you have a final sculpt, only to find its messed up in some way from 200 levels of undo ago.

Once I'd created a good number of abominations that needn't see the light of day I decided to try and take something to a more finished place, to gauge how much of the process I had internalised, and see what kind of quality I could get out of it at this early stage. There were first many muscley insectoids, including a particularly impressive ant-dragonfly-thing, something that certain tools often allow your sculpt to devolve into.

Using the zspheres to create an initial form, and dynamesh to join and extend parts of the geometry I created the creature that I have inventively dubbed Cauldron Eye

I was extremely pleased with the stage I got this thing to, I'd even got as far as the painful process of retoplogising it when our new install of zBrush overwrote all the files. Anyway, the amount of time it took to go from basic outline to the part that actually enjoy where I'm adding the details, obsessing over cracked iron and bark texture. Adding every dent and scratch is a joy. Also using great tools like the insert mesh brush to draw a ring of pre sculpted teeth (that I made also within zBrush) around his mouth, and then bringing the gums up to fit them. The cavities in the cauldrons body were mostly made by inserting spheres on the meshes surface and then using them to subtract their volume with dynamesh from the cauldron, leaving spherical holes to fill with eyes and tongues and branches sprouting out.

Since then I've been working on a character sculpt from scratch. Its been the closest experience I've had to the kind of drawing I did as a child in absolutely years, creating a shape from nothing and then iterating on it until it evolves into a character or object.

The Astronaught, she approaches...

Brazil V

General / 23 May 2014

The Campus/Airport

A last minute location change lead to us heading out to an abandoned university campus, chosen as a stand in for Rio airport.

The drive there took us over some elevated main roads that ran right through a really dense part of the city, we passed a large tented market housed in a grand concrete structure. 

This was followed by the Complexo do Alemão, an enormous favella comprised of 5 smaller favellas, hundreds more unfinished habitats stacked atop one another, lived in. We were advised to shut the open door of the van that the cameraman was using to film out of, lest he catch a stray bullet if violence erupted  in the streets below. I realised how much crossover there is between weapon and filming terminology, shooting film, reloading the camera etc.

While we never witnessed anything close to resembling the crime a person associates with Rio, we were constantly reminded by the local crew to keep an eye out, and be careful when walking around with equipment.

Arriving at the campus we approached the entrance under a pillar supported ceiling, dangling from which is a large black spider that looks remarkably black widow-esque. Furious googling followed. A crew of security guards and cleaners fill doorways and corners with a subdued activity, its an otherwise deserted but fully furnished campus.

We shoot some quick stuff with a luggage trolley, I do my HDR thing, and that was kind of me done for the day apart from a few shots down on the beach later on.

Last Night

Our last night in Rio prompts a return to the amazing fish place followed by a short pub crawl through the torrential yet confusingly warm rain. Goodbyes are said to the local crew just as we're are given the chance to get to know them a bit, and I return to the hotel by 2:20am. My shorts are still drip drying on the shower rail from an afternoon swim in the equally warm sea.

I tried to get more panorama stitching done on the flight home, having started earlier that afternoon, but kept nodding off in the dark of the plane between waiting for the stitching process to complete, dimming the screen to avoid disturbing John and Danny.

We land and say our sit-com style goodbyes, each person peels away one by one as their luggage arrived on the conveyor belt. England smelt cool and fresh.

The End

As I finish writing up my journal entries we're well into production on the animation side of things, and its turning out pretty well.

Brazil IV

General / 27 April 2014

Despite arriving downstairs in the hotel at the time told to me by the creative director I am greeted with jabs at my tardiness, never trust a director with scheduling questions, apparently I was supposed to be down there earlier. Though I clearly haven't missed anything so no harm done, today we shoot a sequence involving a taxi which requires rigs for the enormous camera and more camera shake than we would have liked. Movement means stablising the footage or tracking the camera's movement in post, so I cover wiper blades and windscreens with tracking markers whenever I can. 

I capture an HDR panorama on the street corner and shoot some photos of the canopy of leaves above us, in case we need to recreate the light shining through the gaps as they move over the driving car and our CG passengers.

Street corner outside our hotel

Today the main event is the favela, we are going to the favela. A favela, one of the hundreds in Rio, some safer than others. We have apparently scouted one with a police station nearby, a bar with scenic views, and a colourful football pitch surrounded by an amphitheatre of painted concrete houses rising up around it, from which people cheer on the match making the whole thing feel slightly gladiatorial in nature. My Dad kindly sends me a web link to a BBC news article detailing the gang violence and subsequent "pacification" of the favelas in the build up to Brazil's hosting of the world cup. The have cleared an impressive 3% so far, pacification seems to be an Orwellian euphemism for extermination. The people don't like the police, they grew up with gangs who are familiar to them.


Directorial and Producerial shenanigans 

Our vans start to ascend, winding up into the heights of Rio, crawling up the sides of its vegetation and favela covered basin. The geography is such that driving can be slow and circuitous but never boring, tunnels cut through ridges of mountain that stretch toward the central lagoon, the gridded city centre gives way to meandering elevated roads and coiled cobbled streets. As our route gets even steeper the driver cuts the air conditioning in the van to give the engine the extra kick it needs to make it up.

the pitch

Little passageways connect open views and buildings stack up on top of each other at offset rotations. We're shooting in Bob's Bar, a sprawling concrete mosiac castle of a structure that appears just about ready to topple into the football pitch below (we're even warned not to touch specific walls on the perimeter for this very reason). From one of its various roof tops, accessed by windy wooden staircases, you can see what seems to be most of the city. Here I take my most precarious HDRs yet.

Atop the parapet

Sunlight comes and goes from behind cloud and we see a couple of torrential downpours before the end of the day, but we get everything we need shot somehow and feel pretty lucky.

wedged in a staircase

We go out for Mexican food in the evening which is delicious though the combined food and room temperature are hard to bear, shouldn't have worn a shirt with sleeves. I am wary of the cocktails this time.

Brazil III

General / 14 April 2014

3 hours of time difference between Brazil and the UK doesn't seem to be contributing to the morning grogginess nearly as much as the long shoot yesterday.

I start the day by burning a triangle of skin above my collar from standing in the sun too long, we're gradually making our way toward the summit and Christ the Redeemer, stopping to shoot various things along the way as the views get loftier and loftier.

bottom left, Christ the Redeemer, absolutely tiny.

I feel I'm starting to become familiar enough with the personalities of the crew that I start recognising other people I know in them, old friends, fictional characters. One director is the joker from secondary school, another the quiet and approachable companion from college. Another even bears a striking resemblance to a quartermaster from a series of books I read as a kid, running a tight ship with charm and menace. Though he didn't seem to have the same double crossing villainy, fortunately.

The ascent to Christ the Redeemer

Then we roll all the way back down the mountain to the copacabana beach to shoot for the rest of the evening, I promptly have my shoes filled with wet sand by a wave, the camera equipment is fine though. Some of my favourite HDRs are shot here with the sand catching the light and enormous cloudscapes filling the top of frame, people are scampering around what with the waves and fading light so there is some funny image stitching in places but they look great on the whole.

copacabana day

copacabana evening

The sun disappears behind the cloud shrouded mountain and the sky darkens, revealing city lights flickering in the heat haze. Forks of lightning follow, connecting sky and sea. A google later revealing that lightning does in fact strike the ocean sometimes killing whole shoals of fish.

copacabana  night

The heavy weather foreshadows a dramatic downpour and we wrap for the day after grabbing a last shot at a nearby beach cafe. We eat in the most amazing fish restaurant, traipsing past laden fish counters and lobster tanks still wearing out damp and sandy clothes, I usually make a point of not feeling guilty for under dressing but can't help feeling bad as we pass countless tables of smart looking pescatarian patrons. The night ends with one caipirinha too many.

the little yellow cafe.

Brazil II

General / 03 April 2014

Maracana Stadium

9:30 am

The day begins outside the Maracana stadium, the grown ups have a scheduling discussion, the heat of the debate matches that of the concrete ground. I take shelter in the shadow of a tree. Its meltingly hot, liberal amounts of sun cream are applied and bottled water gets passed around, its in these little plastic cups with foil lids. I shoot my HDRs, managing to the find a gap in the traffic moving to capture them all static. We're lucky enough to be escorted inside the stadium, but only far enough to use the toilets, then straight back out past the army of cleaning staff. Before moving on we get some shots of a group of students jumping in the air excitedly, all painted up with bright colours, a donation is made to their cup- turns out its just a beer fund.

A road slaloms down a hillside in the distance on concrete stilts, we spend a short while trying to get a drive by shot of it. It looks like a vehicular version of a water park slide.

Maracana Stadium Alt

I'm waiting in the van while the crew shoot some stuff on the red mosaicked stairs of the Escadaria Selarón, a stair case of hundreds of wide stairs decorated by Jorge Selarón starting in the 1990's until the day of his death early last year. Its tiles are worn smooth under countless tourist's feet. I've been told its safest to wait until I need to dive in and HDR, so I'm watching from the open van door, parked opposite the staircase's neighbouring "Hotel Loves House" as it calls itself.

Its really tough when not only the crew but a dozen tourists are also milling around my little tripod, you are guaranteed to get someone striding through the multiple exposures messing up the final image. At least the lady under the umbrella selling the fridge magnets sat still. More water, hand sanitiser, and sun cream before moving on to the next location.

Escadaria Selarón

The rest of the that day and some of the next was spent in the same 200 metres of cobbled street where we shot bar scenes, carnival scenes, and cafe scenes populated with local extras plus film crew, I managed to fill a corner of the frame in one of the bar scenes. People ask what Brazil is like and its hard to know when you're so busy assembling all the iconic and stereotypical stuff in front of a camera, because its commercials. Authenticity takes a back seat to ease of recognition.


The Bar

1 am

Weird things have happened to my perception of time, the stunning contrast of doing almost nothing for 11 hours on a flight cut against continuous activity for 15 hours makes the latter occupy the space of a busy weekend in your memory while the former a 10 minute day dream. The two densities of activity throw it all out. We arrive back at the hotel for 2 am and some of us bond over a beer before turning in- everyone is broken, but in a good way. We got so much done.

Broken crew

2:30 am

I copy the images from the camera to the laptop and leave them running while I skype Jenny, we finally got the internet connected, its 5:30am in England, poor Jenny.