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Creating a Grimm's Tales-Inspired Character in Maya, ZBrush & Substance 3D Painter

Diego Sain has shared his workflow behind the Jezebel project, explained his approach to defining the character, and discussed the importance of having a clear idea early in the project about the final image's mood.


My name is Diego Sain, and I am a Senior Character Artist with seven years of experience in the game industry. I have worked at Airship Image (Star Citizen), Rebellion (Zombie Army 4 and Sniper Elite 5), and finally Ubisoft (Assassin's Creed VR).

I believe that the biggest challenge for an artist is to maintain the desire to experiment and breathe life into new stories while balancing studio work and personal projects. This is why I never lose sight of the purpose of a personal project focusing on the result I want to achieve while being realistic about the time and energy available and prioritizing the work in the studio, with my team.

Now, to begin discussing my latest personal project, Jezebel, the first question I ask myself is: "What story do I want to tell?"

The Jezebel Project

My first approach to defining who Jezebel is was to develop the character through quick sculpting of her hands and clothes. I believe that these elements are crucial in telling a character's story. By creating these quick sculpts (which take no more than a week) I can determine if it's worth delving deeper into this character's story.

The first and most natural mood that emerged from the sculpts was a character that blended influences from the Brothers Grimm's tales and H. P. Lovecraft's books. This character conveyed a sinister and mysterious secret about a woman and her relationship with a creature.

At this stage of the project, most of the time is devoted to gathering references. If the focus is solely on collecting references at this point, the production process can be faster and more efficient.

The Face and the Head

I'm not a fan of portraits or extreme photorealism; my main goal is to tell a story in the most believable way possible and to define my personal style.

However, when it comes to the face, I always start by searching for references of a specific character to determine basic proportions and features before making the character more personalized. I begin sculpting with a good base mesh and divide the face into different poly groups to facilitate sculpting the details. To create skin details, I use the XYZ alpha skin packs, which allow for an organic workflow that adapts well to the final result I want to achieve.

One of the first elements I define is the eyes. I start with a simple base mesh modeled in Maya and find the sculpt of the sclera particularly interesting. This detail, combined with a good texture, gives a lot of personality to the character. One of the goals of this project was to return to working with XGen. This is why at this stage, I work on the style and volume of the hair through several tests to understand how it interacts with the hat.

The Outfit and the Dolls

The outfit and embroideries are the parts of the character that hold the most secrets and revelations about Jezebel's story. The initial sculpts were critical in defining the style and certain workflows. In addition to Jezebel's main outfit, I also focused on the outfits of the three dolls, trying to differentiate them from each other with various details and decorations which is why the reference work had to be thorough. The most significant challenge during the process was defining the design and determining the appropriate level of detail for the story without overwhelming the character.

Since there was no defined concept at the outset, the process involved many back-and-forths. However, once the right combination had been found, sculpting the clothes became the most interesting part of the whole process. In this project, I did not use Marvelous Designer, except for creating support alpha. Instead, I opted for a classic ZBrush sculpt as an exercise in the theory of folds, trying to bring each material to life through volume, tension, and surface details. I believe this is also an essential exercise for both classic Marvelous Designer workflow and sculpting.


From personal experience, the biggest danger in a personal project that thrives on scraps of time while working in the studio is losing interest during the technical steps. In order not to fall into this black hole and stay motivated, I always try to vary the approach and use the programs in a creative way and look for new ways to tell my story while balancing the time available.

For the organic parts, I used a classic workflow. The UVs were created in Maya and ZBrush, and the bakes were done in Substance 3D Painter. In the texture phase, I started with a basic skin texture transferred to my mesh with R3DS WRAP 4D. The work in Substance 3D Painter was focused on finding the desired skin tone and adding details that make the character more unique and integrated into the story. For instance, I added light makeup to give Jezebel a creepier look.

For the clothes, I tried a different approach. I have always wanted to experiment with a new workflow that mainly focuses on Arnold's materials and learn more about the look dev process. With this approach, it was very interesting to balance and detail the many elements present in the scene, and it gave me the opportunity to spend more time improving myself in XGen.


The lighting and rendering phase was done in Maya and Arnold. The general mood is one of the first elements I dedicate time to when collecting references. It is of fundamental importance to have a clear idea early in the project about the final image's mood in terms of light and composition.

Once I reach this point, I spend a lot of time placing and balancing the lights in the scene. To make this process easier, I tend to use as few lights as possible. I dedicate a lot of time to this phase, going through many tests because I want to achieve the desired feeling directly in the render and limit the post-production phase to simple touch-ups of the background and slight adjustments of light and tone.


It was one of the projects to which I devoted the most time because, starting from the initial sculpts, I wanted to deeply understand Jezebel and tell her story as completely as possible. At the same time, I wanted to look for alternative workflows, experiment, and find creative solutions, which is also required in production.

This process always takes up more time than expected, but in the end, you have much more than just an image for the portfolio. I think it is essential to leave something personal in each of your characters and tell something about yourself. If you get stuck on an element, take breaks with other relaxing work, such as an anatomy sculpt or sketch, and then return to the problem with a different perspective.

Diego Sain, 3D Senior Character Artist

Interview conducted by Theodore McKenzie

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