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Sculpting Anatomy: From Animal to Creature

A 10-week course using anatomy foundations and design principles to model animals and create creatures

Course overview Course overview

Course Overview

Understand creature anatomy

In this course, students will create their own animal anatomy study in ZBrush. They will learn how to construct a model from the inside out, starting by building the skeletal system and adding muscles and skin later on. This course will also focus on portfolio by covering how to light and render a beautiful study in Maya and Photoshop. In the second part of the course, students will jump from the study to the creation process by learning how to build up their own creatures. They will create the anatomy of their own dragon and discover the workflows to sculpt details and paint accurate skin colors in ZBrush.

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Course Format:   Standard
Lecture Type:   Pre-recorded
Feedback:   Individual recordings
Duration:   10 weeks
Assignment:   Deadlines each week
Q&A:   Once a week
Materials:   Zbrush, Maya, & Photoshop (or equivalent software)
Skills level:   Intermediate
Prerequisites:   Knowledge of ZBrush and digital sculpting strongly recommended; basic knowledge of Maya and ZBrush is required; basic knowledge of Photoshop strongly recommended; course pre-reqs include Anatomy for Production

Environment design WHAT YOU’LL LEARN

What you'll learn

The more you know, the better.

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Hierarchy of animal anatomy | Motion: skeleton, muscles, articulation, direction | Basic understanding of design: carnivore vs. herbivore | From design to study | Anatomy study and paint-over in Photoshop
Introduction to animal face anatomy | Description of the face | Skull sculpting
Basic understanding of the body structure and connection | Deeper understanding of the anatomy of the spine | From the scapula to the fingers | Standing on the legs | Creating the base of our animal in ZBrush
Understanding the role of a muscle | Description of the head anatomy | The spinal column muscles | ZBrush sculpting
Fat presence on the body | The skin's appearance | The écorché in ZBrush | Understanding the anatomy of fur
Put motion into practice | The photographic look of an animal anatomy study | The clay material | Create a pose in ZBrush | Setting up our studio in 3D
Interpreting anatomy | Introduction to the dragon project | Creating the base in ZBrush
Dragon skeleton draw-over | Study from Avatar's creatures | Building our dragon's écorché in ZBrush | Adding the wings
Creating details in ZBrush | Using Photoshop to create details | Posing our dragons
Understanding production needs | Colorize your creature | From 3D to illustration
Instructor

Taking your skills to the next level

Lectures by Gael Kerchenbaum

Gael Kerchenbaum is a Freelance Creature Artist. Early in his life, creatures like King Kong, Godzilla and dragons inspired him and bring him to the world of VFX. Gael decided to dedicate his career to understand the mechanism behind animal anatomy. He worked at MPC, where he was part of the team who gave birth to the animals of Jungle Book. Then he became a freelancer and worked for many studios like Bacon Picture, Noemotion, Capsule Studio… Gael is currently working as a Creature Artist for Axis Animation on unannounced cinematic projects.

Student interviews

COURSE BEGINS

January 29th!

winter TERM Registration

Nov 5, 2018 - Feb 1, 2019

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$998*

COURSE BEGINS

January 29th!

* Between now and December 31st, accepting only $50 seat reservations. Remaining amount will be due January 4, 2019. More info at checkout.

Pricing & Schedule

Even though our courses are the most affordable for the quality of education.

These Finance Options allow you to focus on your goals instead of the barriers that keep you from reaching them.

Employer Reimbursement

Animation Guild CSATTF

Payment Plan

Companies that hire our students

  • Naughty Dog
  • Luma Pictures
  • Google
  • EA Games
  • DreamWorks Animation
  • Blizzard Entertainment

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Serval Anatomy Sculpt

Interview with Jess O'Neill

Jess O’Neill did a breakdown of her beautiful serval sculpt made in ZBrush & Maya

Serval Anatomy Sculpt

Introduction

Hiya! My name is Jess O’Neill, I am a modeler and texture artist from Australia, and I recently won an internship at Method Studios through The Rookies while completing the CGMA course Sculpting Anatomy: From Animal to Creature taught excellently by Gael Kerchenbaum.

I graduated from a three-year Bachelor of Animation program at Queensland College of Art, where my education on art and film-making began.

After my degree, it took me some time to work out what I wanted to specialize in, something my peers seemed to figure out with ease. However, I’ve always had a keen interest in learning how things work, so after studying Anatomy for Production at CGMA, I thought that Gael’s course would be a step in the right direction for figuring out my specialty.

The Course

By signing up to this course I expected to improve and expand my knowledge of anatomy, as well as have some guidance and feedback on how to improve my sculpts, however, it far exceeded my expectations. I learned the similarities of anatomy between species, meaning every time I learn something new about anatomy for one animal I can apply that to future sculpts of entirely different species. Valuable lessons on design, composition, and workflow tips. The Live Q&A’s also provided a lot of extras I didn’t expect, so I was sure to watch the recordings every week

I anticipated learning only the tools to create an anatomical study, but Gael’s excellent teaching and guidance helped make it my most successful piece yet. Most importantly, his course helped me find my passion for animal and creature design, the field which I now endeavor to specialize in throughout my career.

Assignment

Over the first six weeks of the course, we were to sculpt an animal of our choosing. I chose the serval because I thought its slim form would be a challenge for me, but also because cats have so much character and I thought it would be fun to make one.

Reference

Each week we would collect references for the stage we were up to. For example, we started by sculpting the skull, so our reference board would have images of the skull and head of our animal from various angles like the image below.

When looking for the reference of a specific animal, particularly for photos of its skeleton, I found it helpful to use the animal’s scientific name in the search as it gave me more relevant search results. Wilhelm Ellenberger’s An Atlas of Animal Anatomy for Artists and Eliot Goldfinger’s Animal Anatomy for Artists are also invaluable resources when studying animal anatomy, so I included some images from their books on my reference board to save time.

Skull

To make the skull we started with a cube in ZBrush, keeping it at a low density and blocking out the silhouette using the Move brush with Symmetry turned on. Then we used DynaMesh to cut out any necessary holes. The ClayTubes brush with a low ZIntensity was used to sculpt the different plane changes of the object, starting with the primary shapes and moving onto the secondary shapes. ZRemesher was then used before moving on to more refinements.

The skull and the mandible were made as separate pieces, as well as the teeth which were mirrored, duplicated, resized and repositioned to match the reference.

After sculpting the skull in ZBrush I imported it into Maya. In Maya, I created a new camera and attached my reference image to it as an image plane (orthographic views of the skull for example). I then changed the focal length of the camera to match what the original photo was taken with – the focal length can often be found in the image properties. By looking through the new camera and lining it up to my model, I was able to check that the model correctly matched the reference and use Soft Selection to adjust the areas which were not quite right. I repeated this with two other cameras to check different angles, then reimported the model to ZBrush to continue.

Skeleton

The skeleton was first blocked out using ZSpheres, starting from the base of the skull and using symmetry to save time. For this sculpture the skeleton is buried under the muscle, so is then broken into three pieces – spine/ribcage, forelegs, hind legs – rather than individual bones. It’s important to get the silhouette correct and then refine the bones. The process was the same as the skull: using Dynamesh, the Move tool, and the ClayTubes brush, and starting with primary shapes before moving onto secondary shapes.

Muscles

I spent the most time on the face, as I hadn’t studied facial anatomy before and felt it was really important to establish character blocking in and reshaping the muscles to match references. The sculpture went through stages of looking really horrible, but it was just a matter of refinement and always checking the silhouette. I used lion anatomy as a reference but kept in mind that the serval is a much more lean creature.

Even when the sculpt was in its neutral pose it didn’t look quite right, as the serval has different proportions compared to other cats. I had to continually check against references by overlaying photos and using the ‘Look Through’ slider through all stages of the project.

Fat, Skin, and Fur

Photos of sphinx cats were used as a reference for this stage to aid in the identification of wrinkles. I had trouble with the fur, so I started by drawing over photo reference to understand where the clumps of fur were before sculpting.

After the serval was posed, I increased the mesh density and used a spray mask where the fur was displaced the most in references. I then used the Snake Hook brush to pull out these areas, giving the impression of finer furs. This allowed me to make an interesting composition as I was more concerned with having the sculpture feel believable rather than being completely physically accurate.

Posing

The sculpt was posed in ZBrush using Transpose Master. The serval’s long legs and body are its distinguishing features, so the leaping pose was chosen as I felt it best captured the nature of the serval and was best able to display these attributes. The pose also offered an opportunity to further study the compression and extension of the muscles and skin. To have the model look correct in such an exaggerated pose, I had to continually line-up the sculpt against my references to check and maintain correct proportions.

Render

I chose the colors for the render based on the references found of servals. Quite often they would be a yellow cat on a green background. The grass was included to add context and story to the pose (just planes reshaped, resized, and duplicated).

Conclusion

This project helped me find a workflow that suits how I operate by understanding how a design is to physically work before sculpting. It was very interesting to see the similarities between mammalian species, including humans, which has helped in gaining references for new and current projects. The course has also taught me how quickly I can create something beautiful and interesting and has helped me realize my passion for creature design. I really enjoyed Sculpting Anatomy: From Animal to Creature and I am very grateful to Gael and CGMA for providing such a wonderful course which has been a very important step in my career!

Jess O’Neill, 3D Modeler/Texture Artist

Antelope & Dragon Studies

Interview with Nicole Jackson

Nicole Jackson shared her experience of taking CGMA‘s course Sculpting Anatomy: From Animal to Creature led by Gael Kerchenbaum and did a breakdown of a sculpted Nyala and Dragon. Software used: ZBrushMayaArnold.

Antelope & Dragon Studies

Introduction

My name is Nicole Jackson and I am a 3D character artist from California. I graduated from CSU Chico with a Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Animation and Game Design. I started taking CGMA classes in order to improve my understanding of anatomy since CSU Chico did not offer an equivalent course. Without a formal understanding anatomy, it was harder to produce realistic creatures. In order to learn these skills, I enrolled in CGMA’s Sculpting Anatomy: From Animal to Creature by Gael Kerchenbaum.

The class was set up into two sections with each part focused on a different project. For the first project, we could choose to work on a carnivore or a herbivore. My first instinct was to do a carnivore, specifically a big cat, because those are some of my favorite animals and I have almost exclusively worked on carnivores in the past. I decided, however, to choose a herbivore in order to push myself out of my comfort zone. To challenge myself, I decided to work on a more exotic animal rather than one where the anatomy reference of the exact species was readily available. In the end, I chose to do an anatomical study of a Lowland Nyala (an antelope native to southern Africa) because of their long limbs and elegant proportions.

The Nyala Project: Reference

Before sculpting our projects, we needed to gather reference material and organize it in reference boards using a program called PureRef. Throughout the project, I collected hundreds of relevant reference images including photographs and anatomical studies of Nyalas and similar species (mainly horses, deer, oxen and other antelope species). I also referenced several anatomy books including Animal Anatomy for Artists by Eliot Goldfinger and Animal Anatomy by W. Ellenberger.

This was how my PureRef reference board looked towards the end of the Nyala project:

We started by finding a profile view of the animal we were studying in a neutral pose. On top of the photograph, we drew a diagram of the skeleton and muscle groups’ location within the body. Each week we created a reference board of the relevant images for whichever part of the body we were sculpting.

Here I drew the skeleton over the top of the reference photo of a Nyala and color coded the bones to compare the bones to a human, a Plantigrade animal (chimp), and a Digitigrade animal (Tiger):

Here the muscles were drawn over the top of the reference image:

Kerchenbaum also taught us about the differences and similarities between carnivores and herbivores and how their anatomy varies based on their needs as a species. For example, herbivores, such as horses, need to be able to run in order to avoid predators and, because of this, they have straight spines that aren’t as flexible to provide stability while running; whereas a carnivore such as a cat has a curved and more flexible spine that allows it to jump and pounce on its prey. Keeping characteristics like these in mind is helpful for creating a realistic and believable creature.

Skeleton

We began working on our project by creating the skeleton, specifically the skull. Starting with a cube in ZBrush, we slowly adjusted the shape to match the references we were working from. I frequently used the move tool and the clay tubes brush to adjust the shape of the skull and Dynamesh to quickly retopologize the mesh as I made large changes. ZBrush is a creative and organic process; instead of worrying about topology, you can focus on sculpting in a way that feels like working with real clay. Because of my background in traditional art and clay, many of the methods of working with clay translate to digital sculpting in ZBrush.

Gael showed us a useful technique for creating holes and carving out sections of the mesh by using the Insert Primitives Brush. Using this method, we were able to quickly make cavities for the eyes and nose and hollow out the interior of the skull. During the process of sculpting the skull, I referenced 3D scans of similar skulls on sketchfab and other 3D model viewing websites. Having the ability to rotate around the reference and view it from any angle is beneficial, because it fills in information gaps that the reference material alone does not provide.

Once the skull was complete, we began blocking out the rest of the skeleton. We used ZSpheres, starting from the base of the skull, to block in the skeleton. Getting the correct proportions of each bone was important because we would be layering the muscles, fat, skin, and fur on top of the skeleton; if the skeleton wasn’t correct then it would cause problems down the line. Each bone was sculpted into the ZSphere base mesh that we created earlier using the same tools used to refine the skull; this caused the bones to be fused together but this was fine for our purposes. We were also careful to include the bony features of the skeleton, such as the bumps and ridges on the bones, because each of these features has a purpose; often indicating the attachment point of a muscle or tendon.

Muscles

Using the skeleton as the framework, the muscles were added one by one on top of the bones; while always checking my references. We used the insert mesh brush to insert a sphere onto the mesh to start a muscle group and then used the move tool to shape each muscle and shift it into place. Once the placement and general shape of the muscle was correct, we would use Dynamesh to connect it to the rest of the model. Once all the muscles were attached, we used the move tool and clay tubes tool to refine the shape of the muscles. As I refined the muscles, there were times when I could tell that there was something not quite right with the skeleton of the creature. When this happened, I would go back and adjust the skeleton in order to fix the problem.

During this process, it was important that the bones of the creature were not lost. There are areas of the creature that have little, if any, muscle covering the skeleton (such as a portion of the ribcage, the hips, etc), so it is important to keep these areas looking like bone rather than allowing them to fade away into the surrounding muscles.

Skin & Fur

The next step in the process was to add the fat, skin, wrinkles, and fur. I duplicated the current model and filled in the holes between the muscles and carefully softened and blurred the divisions between the muscle groups and removed brush strokes. This gives the illusion of fat on the animal; however, it is important not to completely lose the definition of the muscles beneath the skin. Once the general smoothing and refining of the model was complete, we began adding the wrinkles and skin folds. Wrinkles occur in areas that need additional skin to allow for movement such as joints (elbows, around the neck, etc). While looking at my reference, I carefully added the wrinkles; making sure they were not too even or symmetrical so that they would look natural.

Next, I blocked out where I wanted to place the fur by duplicating my model and pulling the geometry through the original model using the move brush and the snake hook brush. Checking the silhouette often, I continued to refine the fur volumes until I was happy with the general shape. Working in smaller clumps, I made several strokes with the clay tubes brush to show the direction of the fur. The trick was to create the illusion of fur without actually sculpting out each individual strand.

The fur is roughly blocked out:

Model with completed fur:

Rendering

The project was rendered in Maya using the Arnold renderer. I used ZBrush’s Transpose Master to create a simple pose for my Nyala and added it to a Maya scene with a backdrop. I lit the scene using 3-point lighting and added a few additional lights to illuminate the background and key points of the model. The material I used was meant to look like clay and is an AI Standard Surface material with subsurface scattering enabled to give it a nice glow, especially in thinner areas of the model such as the ears.

The Dragon Project: Using Anatomy of Real Animals to Create Believable Creatures

The next half of the course was focused on a second project: a dragon. What was interesting about this project was that, since they don’t actually exist, we had to use the anatomy of real animals and adapt it to work for the dragon. Not only did we learn how to combine and adapt the anatomy of many different species, but we also learned about the anatomy of birds and bats: specifically the muscles that allow for flight.

While looking for reference material, I came across an interesting dragon concept image from an unknown artist. The dragon itself was stylized but I loved its proportions; it had a long neck and tail, but what really caught my attention was its feet which looked similar to those of a lemur. These became the cornerstone of my dragon concept. The story I created for my dragon was an agile, small to medium sized dragon (around the size of a small cougar) that lived in trees. It would have a semi-prehensile tail and feet meant for climbing trees and gripping branches.

Proceeding with this concept story, I decided to use reference of clouded leopards, leopard, several monitor species (especially Spiny Tailed Monitors), birds, and bats as my main reference material. The actual sculpting process was almost identical to that of the Nyala.

My PureRef reference board with all my reference and inspiration images organized:

Dragon skeleton (without wings):

Dragon before final texturing:

I created a layer in ZBrush with the mouth shut to make sure that the jaw and teeth were shaped correctly to allow the mouth to close:

Texturing

With the dragon project, we took the sculpting a step further and created high detail scales and skin textures. We used alpha maps created from high detail scans of real animal skins such as a crocodile, a frog, an iguana, and even an ostrich. I also hand sculpted many of the larger scales such as those on the head, belly, the legs, and along the spine. I also added spikes along the dragon’s head and neck.

Once the scales were sculpted, we moved on to Polypainting the model in ZBrush. I added many layers of color and used ZBrush’s automasking features to bring out detail in the model. Kerchenbaum also showed us how putting a lighter, sandy color between the scales can give the illusion of dirt and dust stuck amid the scales. Previously, my instinct was to paint a darker color to add shadow but, by painting a light color instead, the resulting texture was much more realistic.

I pictured my dragon living in a rainforest so I decided to have some fun with the texturing and make it rather colorful. I used many shades of blue for the body with some variations of hue into the greens and purples to give the color more depth. Then, I used a soft ivory color for the dragon’s spikes, belly and the inside of his limbs. I added a streak of black across the dragon’s face and tiger stripes along his back. The first iteration of the legs had tiger stripes as well, but I decided that this was too much pattern so I faded the legs into black instead.

Polypaint in ZBrush:

Once I was finished with the texturing, I created a base mesh with a lower polygon count and baked out all the textures so they could be used to render the dragon in Maya. The base model wasn’t perfect (some of the spikes became too low poly and lost some of their shape) so the final Maya render lost some of the detail in the original ZBrush sculpt. I plan to manually retopologize the dragon in my free time so that I can bake the textures again and hopefully get a cleaner result but I am still happy with the final result for the course.

Conclusion

My experience with Sculpting Anatomy: From Animal to Creature was phenomenal and Gael Kerchenbaum is an amazing teacher. The techniques that he taught us helped me improve my skills as an artist and gave me the tools to create any animal or creature I can imagine. I loved that he not only taught us about animal anatomy but also gave us a few tips about being a professional artist and showed us how to texture and render the model to create a portfolio quality image. I would highly recommend CGMA‘s courses to anyone who wants to improve their skills as a 3D artist.

Nicole Jackson, 3D Artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev