Create a stylized character with ZBrush, Maya and Marvelous Designer


In this tutorial, I’ll show you how I created my latest look, Michi, based on the concept of the amazing Laia Lopez. I’ll share the process I followed from modeling (ZBrush, Maya) to final render (Arnold), as well as some of the tips and tricks I use to create stylized costumes in Marvelous Designer.


Concept analysis

Before taking on a project, I like to analyze the concept first, sketching over it to better understand the proportions and volumes. This was especially important for understanding the hair because it changed with each drawing, and it helped me identify the basic shapes that I would need later in the blockout step.

Michi, concept by Laya Lopez @itslopez

Preliminary study of forms on top of the concept
Preliminary study of forms on top of the concept

Finding good references

Concept analysis also allows you to understand which parts of the character will require additional references. In this case, I had no information about the position of the hands or how the back of the head should look.

Therefore, before I start modeling, I usually spend hours looking for the right references. It’s also very important to find the right clothing patterns (to use later in Marvelous Designer). I always use Pureref to organize my references and I really like to classify them into groups.

References for my project in Pureref
References for my project in Pureref

body sculpting

I usually start with a base mesh but for this model I started with a sphere (which gave me more freedom to explore the shapes) and slowly built the character around it.

In the beginning, most of the body parts were separate parts so that you could move them around to see different variations without worrying about the topology. I always keep an eye on the silhouette window in ZBrush and make sure it reads well from all angles.

Once I was generally satisfied, I put all the parts together and worked on the anatomy. I then added some basic topology in Maya and went back to ZBrush to finish up the details. I didn’t work much on the legs, as they won’t be visible in shoes.

Body Blocking in ZBrush
Body Blocking in ZBrush

Work on the face

Creating a pretty face is a key part of a character. I worked on many versions of the face until I found a good direction that kept the essence of the concept, while connecting it with the stylization I wanted to achieve. While I’m modeling the face, I keep talking a lot about the character’s personality, and that determines the type of shapes I use.

Following the same workflow that was done for the rest of the body, I used Dynamesh until I was happy with the general direction, and then I added the topology in Maya using QuadDraw and continued polishing. It is much easier to delineate volumes with nice and clean topology. Then I connected the head to the body. At this point, I usually start adding colors in ZBrush because it helps me get a better idea of ​​what the character will look like.

Face sculpting in ZBrush.  Topology done in Maya.
Face sculpting in ZBrush. Topology done in Maya.

Making hair with hair tubes

I modeled the hair using several types of hair tube brushes, then I modified each bundle individually to give it the desired shape and added more or less geometry as needed. I edited complex areas in Maya to better control intersections with each other and to better adapt the topology.

The lower part of the hair is the most difficult moment to implement. At first I tried to form it in separate buns, like the rest of the hair, but it looked very complicated and difficult to read. In the end, I decided to simplify it and create a solid separate volume in Maya (like a piece of hard surface) with details like tufts of hair at the back.

Hair tubes
Hair tubes


I started working on the top in Marvelous Designer by putting the character in a T-pose, as it makes it easier for me to create patterns and quickly change them without messing with complex poses. Once I was happy with the overall result, I set the top aside until the body was in its final pose, and then loaded the new body as the Morph Target (you can see the settings in the images below). It is very important that they both have the same topology so that you can blendshape them. So since this is animating from pose A to pose B, I also got the natural creases in the sleeves that occur when you push your arms back and the contraction of the fabric between the arms.

I also applied some “pressure” to the sleeves to give them a puffy look.

Creating a pattern in T-pose.  Marvelous Designer
Creating a pattern in T-pose. Marvelous Designer
Adaptation of clothes to the posture.
Adaptation of clothes to the posture.

In this final position, I fine-tuned the length and frills and made smaller distances between the particles to get the most detail from the fabric (and avoid surface artefacts in Maya). After that, I created the topology in Maya using the “flat to pose” method:

In Marvelous, I create a nice UV for the clothes and then export it in pose and flat mode. Then in Maya I create a nice topology on top of the flat patterns with 4x draw+livemode. Then it’s time to move the UV attributes across world space from the flat pattern in the triangles to the flat retopologized patterns we created. After that, I pass the position of the triangle mesh in the final pose to the new flat retopologized patterns, which now have the same UVs (if the result requires more resolution, I do some additional sectioning before this step). Then all that’s left is to put the pieces together and create the necessary seams. With this method, you also save perfect UVs, which will be very useful for texturing later.

As for the pants, I modeled them directly in Maya, as they were very close to the skin, and the holes had a complex shape. I then exported them to ZBrush to section them off and add more detail and creases.

For the torn parts, I used the Curve Tube brush to create the threads, then tweaked them and added some variations in thickness.

I also modeled the shoes in Maya.

Posing and finishing touches in ZBrush

I posed her with Transpose Master when the clothes were still at an early stage and before adding details to avoid unnecessary deformations on the mesh.

First of all, I outlined an action plan based on the concept. Then I applied the principle of contraposta (this classic pose forces the figure’s hips and shoulders at opposite angles, giving the entire torso a slight S-curve) and developed the pose a little further than in the concept to make it more dynamic. Before choosing a final pose, I usually do two or three different poses quickly and then refine the one I like best.

Once I was happy with the result, I worked on the silhouette of the hair, added asymmetry to the face, finalized the clothes (as explained in the previous step), and created a UV in Maya. Since I wanted to use simple shading, I textured it in ZBrush using Poly Paint and then exported the maps to Maya.

Posing in ZBrush with the Transpose Master
Posing in ZBrush with the Transpose Master

Lighting and rendering

Lighting and rendering were done using Arnold for Maya. I used a total of four lights for this scene: one warm-toned light as the main light, another with blue tones for the edge light to contour the edge and separate the character from the background, and two additional lights for the fill and backlight. (to get rid of dark areas). For close-up rendering, I also activated Arnold’s DOF. I then rendered the different passes and made the final composition in Photoshop.

Light setup in Maya.  Rendering with Arnold.
Light setup in Maya. Rendering with Arnold.

Top tip: take breaks

There’s always that moment when you’re working on a new character where things can get frustrating and you feel like things aren’t going to get better. My advice: relax, don’t give up! Step away from the computer for a while and come back with renewed vigor. In addition, you can try to make some drawings to understand the scope or part of the concept that you cannot understand correctly. 2D will help to see it from a new perspective.

Whole character render
Whole character render

How to render a bust in Marmoset Toolbag? We will find out in an open lesson.
— Let’s talk about Marmoset Toolbag and its advantages over other renderers;
– We will render a high-poly model;
– Set the light and set up the scene to achieve a spectacular image;
– Let’s talk about the tricks and methods of a beautiful render and demonstrate them in practice.
You can register for the course here.

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