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I should start by saying, that you should always start with a concept you love since you're going to spend a lot of time working on it. In this case, I wanted to do something tribal, and after a long search I ran across an amazing Dutch artist, Hendrik Visser.
Once you have the concept you want, the easiest way of starting is doing a simple paint over to block out and list all the meshes that are part of the piece. I've found that this way you'll have a "plan of attack" and you'll have a more clear idea of the pieces you have to make if you are going to polymodel or sculpt, etc.
I believe that it is crucial to have good working topology in all your models, even if a character you are working on is not going to be animated. It is good practice to keep clean, rig/animating friendly topology in every model you do, and from what all my teachers have taught me, recruiters will always want to see this in your models too.
If you can get away with modeling it, do so. Nothing will ever beat a good model.
For this reason, I did the base mesh in Maya. At this stage, I don't worry about the likeness to the original concept or posing, but keeping a clean edge flow and basic shape layout for easier and more organic sculpting later. The awesome thing about having a clean base mesh is that you avoid having to retopo your sculpt in the end.
* This is the mesh I took into Zbrush for further sculpting, but after doing so I was not very happy with the topology on the legs, so I did some retopo on that part.
After I was happy with the sculpt, I exported the lowest subdivision levels back into Maya for UV unwrapping and then brought them back into ZBrush to export all of the displacement maps. It's definitely a slow process, but it is immensely gratifying when you have all of your sculpted detail in a usable polycount.
One of the most fun little details I had to model were the feathers. I approached them with different strategies, ranging from VrayFur to trying out Fibermesh in ZBrush, but in the end choosing to model the feather in the exact shape that I wanted, since the other strategies were not giving me the control that I needed. I started out by modeling the spine of the feather, and deforming a 1x10 poly plane with the lattice tool, duplicating and lattice again, and so on. As one of my teachers told me
At this point, you can also pose your character, either by using the tools in Zbrush or by using a simple rig in Maya, although, in this case, I used ZBrush for posing. If you do this, it is very important that you keep a T-pose version of your sculpt since Zbrush doesn't keep transformation information.
Once I had my pose ready, I took some time to model the environment and set up the lighting while trying to match the mood as closely to Hendrik Visser's original concept as possible. For this project, I decided to use Vray since I find it gives very good results and it is very easy to work with. I had a warm key light on the right as the sun, a cooler fill light on the left side, and an environment HDRI for my indirect lighting.
Once the hard part is done, on to my favorite part: texturing! I went through this huge task from head to toe, piece by piece, using Mari. I've found that this program, although intimidating at first, includes so many handy tools that simplify the process of texture painting, without having to worry too much about having seams on your meshes.
The most important step on texturing skin is having high-resolution quality images.
By using high-resolution photographs along with painting tools and blending modes in Mari, I ended up having very convincing and seamless textures for my project. Another thing that I find super useful in this program is that you can build mock-up shaders where you can plug in (and edit) displacements, bumps, specular maps, etc.
The most important step on texturing skin is having high-resolution quality images of a model that suit your needs. In this case, I needed a black young female, and after finding a good set of photographs, I proceeded to do some editing. The thing is, you really don't want any lighting information, so any highlight in the skin has to go. It's going to look a little odd, almost dead in some way, but when you plug this is to your SSS shader with the correct specular, it is going to make a BIG difference.
For this purpose, I used Photoshop. The process is pretty straightforward: with your high-res image open, go to image> Adjustments > Shadows/Highlights. You can leave it as default, or play around with the values, although try not to go too crazy since things might start looking a little to clamped. It is ok to leave some highlights since you can clean those afterward.
Once you are satisfied with the more uniform skin, you can get rid of the tighter highlights with the clone tool, sampling from areas on the skin where there is no light information. Once you do this, you can also get rid of the eyebrows and the eyelashes since you'll be needing other tools for this.
And, of course repeat this process for all your other images. It's time-consuming but completely worth it!
Now that you have your matte images, you can take your time to project them and match them to your geometry, being careful with not leaving any seams and making it look as uniform as possible. It's very easy to make skin look "patchy", especially in darker skin, so take your time! You can't rush perfection.
After I finished painting my textures in Mari, and set up the shaders in Vray, I moved on to setting up the environment fog. There are different ways to tackle it, but after some testing I went for the easiest and fastest render done in Maya software. Basically, you apply a black surface shader to your entire scene, so this way you are ultimately creating a Fog pass to comp later. Something really important to consider, is that this will not allow you to use displacement maps, so if your silhouette changes too much without them this option would not be ideal.
After assigning the surface shader, turn off all your scene lights, and add a basic spotlight that covers your entire shot. Play with the cone and penumbra angle, as well as adding some dropoff to get a softer feel. After you set this up, you should have a dropdown for light effects, where you have an option for light fog. Add the fog by clicking on the checker next to it, and on the light fog color options, plug in a cloud 3D texture, which you should scale up considerably, testing what size works better for your scene.
Play with the fog spread and intensity until you get the desired look. This way, you create a super simple and really fast fog pass. (13 seconds a frame in this scene!)
A basic spotlight that covers your entire shot
For the final compositing on this project, I opted for using Nuke, since it gives you great control over your look and its fairly simple to use. I rebuilt my beauty passes, and took the fog pass I created previously and just did a simple merge. Since it was already layed out to match perfectly, there is not much to adjust except some basic grading to add some color and decrease/increase the intensity. After this I just added some depth of field and final color correction.
And that is it! I hope this run-down was useful, I tried my best to fit the most interesting aspects of the process.
I want to thank my teachers, Josh Herman for modeling, and Miguel Ortega and Mark Dedecker for texturing and look-deving, and of course Hendrik Visser, whom without his beautiful concept I wouldn't have where to direct what I learn every day at Gnomon!