This tutorial was written by the amazing Daniel D’Avila and appeared in issue 98 of 3D Artist
It is always a great challenge to interpret 2D concepts and make a faithful version in 3D, but it’s also an extraordinary practice to turn shadows and lights from a pencil artwork into a 3D scene.
One of the most interesting aspects of this tutorial is to see how rewarding it is to bring to life great concepts like this one and increase fine details for your characters and so on.
Another great aspect of this process is to take advantage of the powerful render scheme of MODO and how it handles render passes so you can have precise control of your post-production stage. You can also discover exactly how ZRemesher can easily optimise your meshes for sculpting work and maps productivity.
Great lighting can be achieved in a few steps inside MODO. Not only does it create great light, it’s also a powerful tool when it comes to the shading process. Once you master the Shader Tree, you can achieve any result you aim for. MODO is the main tool in my pipeline, simply because it has a very intuitive interface. Tasks become easier when your software UI is clear and neat and that’s how it feels working in MODO.
Specific render settings in MODO can boost your final render quality and save plenty of time afterwards in Photoshop. Tweaks and fine adjustments are essential for a better result, so don’t skip it!
Step 01 – Block primary shapes
The starting point of this artwork begins with blocking the primary shapes of your elements. You can do that simply by observing the overall composition and extracting those shapes in your mind – for example, the whale and its S cylinder movement. Open MODO and create an eight-sided cylinder using the reference image as a backdrop. At this stage it’s not necessary to worry about topology issues, since it’s just a base mesh of your scene.
Step 02 – Create the whale base mesh
After exporting the whale OBJ file, import it to ZBrush as a tool and begin to refine its silhouette. Using basically the Move tool and different brush sizes you can achieve pretty good results. If your topology begins to get uneven, it’s time to turn your tool into a DynaMesh. Increase your DynaMesh resolution to 32 and while pressing Cmd/Ctrl, click, hold and drag inside the canvas to activate your DynaMesh. Then when you achieve a good blocking result you need to optimise your mesh with ZRemesher. Before that, create some ZRemesher guides with the ZRemesher Guides brush to specify the polygon flow and then let ZRemesher work its magic.
Step 03 – Begin to sculpt
At this point it’s a good idea to create UVs, since your data will turn into maps in a further step. Always begin to sculpt rough aspects of the whale, such as the cheek volume and then go on to finer details as you increase the geometry resolution. You can make good use of brushes like Dam_Standard for the majority of the wrinkles and clay buildup. The last touches of texture are created with Alpha brushes combined with DragRect stroke.
Step 04 – Polypaint and map exporting
As you finish the entire sculpting stage, you’ll start to polypaint the model. Select a light-blue colour as a base for the upper side of the whale and a pale yellow for the bottom part. This is where your artistic background can make total difference in enriching details of the whale. Widespread use of masking was used to reinforce occlusion areas and reliefs. Using the Cavity Mask will produce great results to select areas combined with polypaint. At the end of this step, it’s time to export all of your maps. Be sure to export your polypaint at the highest geometry subdiv and maps like Normal and Displacement at the lowest values of your geometry subdiv.
Step 05 – Assemble overall positions
You’ll need to repeat the previous steps until you get the scene completed. All the elements and characters created in the final render were made with the exact same technique, so it’s just a matter of hard work and time. Another important comment about this workflow is also the fact that all the models will remain in the same workspace even before switching between programs like MODO and ZBrush, so make sure you create all the base meshes in the desired positions as precisely as possible.
Step 06 – Light the scene
The simpler, the better – that’s an expression that fits perfectly for many lighting setups. Unless you need an specific effect, you can produce beautiful illumination results with just a few light sources. In this case use one directional light as the main light, an HDR image for the environment and an area light from the bottom side as the
Step 07 – Work with your maps
The next step is to take care of all the maps you’ve created in ZBrush and import them in to MODO. You’ll need to do a few tweaks in some of them in order to produce the correct results in the render. In the case of Normal maps, select the map in the Shader Tree, go to the tab image still and set the Colorspace to Linear instead of None.Once the scene is ready we can move on to the Render Settings and Render Output adjustments. One my favourite features of MODO is the ability to select many different Render Outputs in a variety of situations. It will allow you to diagnose specific issues or give you huge amounts of control over compositing in Photoshop. A default scene automatically includes a Final Color and Alpha output, which should be fine for most situations. Additional layers can be added from within the Shader Tree viewport itself simply by clicking the Add Layer option of the full viewport window, and selecting Render Output>Render Output from the pop-up menu.
Step 08 – Shade in MODO
Before starting the shading work in MODO, lock the position of your main camera for security purposes so you don’t offset the position accidentally. Duplicate your original camera and use it as a free camera, so you can pan around and focus on closer spots of your model. Watch the Preview window refresh the results. The use of a physically-based (BRDF) material can produce great results with a richer texture. Duplicate your Diffuse map and drive it as a Subsurface Color map, which will give the effect of translucency that can be seen in most of the characters, such as the friendly penguins in front of the whale.
Step 09 – Create render passes
Once the scene is ready we can move on to the Render Settings and Render Output adjustments. One my favourite features of MODO is the ability to select many different Render Outputs in a variety of situations. It will allow you to diagnose specific issues or give you huge amounts of control over compositing in Photoshop. A default scene automatically includes a Final Color and Alpha output, which should be fine for most situations. Additional layers can be added from within the Shader Tree viewport itself simply by clicking the Add Layer option of the full viewport window, and selecting Render Output>Render Output from the pop-up menu.
Step 10 – Render the final scene
Now, before starting the final render you should quickly adjust your Global Illumination settings. Boost your Light Bounces up to 3. This will prevent noise issues in the darker areas of your scene and also provide a more vivid final result. Select your image resolution inside the Frame tab. In this case the values are 6,000 pixels wide by 3,850 pixels tall. Once you’ve done all this, press the F9 key or go to Render>Render. The Render window should open and begin to calculate the irradiance cache pre-passes. Go grab a cup of coffee and wait until the render is finished.
Step 11 – Design cartoon clouds
After the render is complete you can add clouds around the scene in order to give the composition some balance. In fact, this is a good opportunity to use some modern and cartoon cloud designs rather than traditional, as it would fit perfectly in this surreal scene. After a few studies the clouds were concluded and ready to render separately. You can now open Photoshop and start to have fun with the post-production stage. When you’re placing the clouds in the scene, you might find that their design is a little too distracting, so it might be worth adding in a blur or tweaking the opacity of the cloud layers. The clouds can be placed in the scene to suggest perspective and depth, so feel free to position them in different spots of your image. This is where your work will gain more life and interest.
Step 12 – Make use of render outputs
This is where you’ll feel thankful about having multiple layered render outputs in MODO. It becomes pretty handy to select areas with the help of Surface ID, or controlling shadow areas with a Shadow Density pass in Photoshop. As you get more and more familiar with each one of these render outputs you’ll find yourself addicted to this workflow since they give huge control to lights, shadows, reflections, specularity, roughness and so on. It is also time to play around with different background colours, and it can be a such a challenge in such a colourful palette. The pink-orange solution combined with subtle light invasions really worked for this scene.
Step 13 – Final retouches and colour adjustments
At this point, the last colour adjustments are added. Try to compare your rough render with your final retouched image to see how rewarding and important is to master Photoshop techniques. Add a Vibrance adjustment layer and increase the saturation of your image. You can also use a soft brush with a low opacity and paint a few interventions of pink and orange over the elements to simulate light and color bouncing. Add some fog, dust, speckles and particle effects above all layers but do not exaggerate it. It’s simply a matter of using your artistic skills and abilities to balance colour and contrasts.