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Creating a Folklore-Insipred Character in Arnold, Maya &ZBrush

Robin Isola has shared a small breakdown of the Banshee project, explained how the character's face and hair were created, and spoke about the texturing workflow.


I’m Robin Isola, an aspiring Character Artist and currently Groom Artist. From a young age, I was always attracted to visual storytelling. I ended up studying 3D and cinema at Artfx, a school of visual effects in France. There I took an interest in characters and creatures and started practicing all the aspects of the making of those.

The Banshee Project

The genesis of this project is a fun one. I was practicing some sculpting while listening to Heilung, an experimental folk music band. And one of the performers was on stage, dressed up in costume with a set of straps hiding the top part of her face, and it was such a striking look. It inspired the basis for this character that I further developed, pouring in my own influences, fantasy, and folklore on top.


I started using a base mesh that I had done, and worked on primary shapes and anatomy variations such as the down-pointy ears and reducing to 4 fingers on hands and feet. I then moved on to carving the smile and posing on a set of layers so I could switch back to a neutral character when needed for detailing using symmetry.

All the assets and accessories were also done in ZBrush, retopologized either with ZRemesher or manually in Maya then imported back for further detailing. A notable exception would be the dress and belt, which I blocked out using Marvelous Designer, to get a nice realistic feeling in the way the fabric felt and wrapped.

I already had clean topology but I decided to re-map my UVs with Maya on several UDIM tiles to improve the resolution, laying them out by individual meshes, while keeping the texel density coherent between the different assets.

I did the skin details using various brushes (J.Hill pores brushes for ZBrush, for instance) and a few custom alphas I made myself. I split my character into 2 different files later on, so I could work on the face with more resolution without resorting to using HD geometry, which doesn’t always work well with layers.


The hair was set up later in Maya, using XGen core with several descriptions for each part (top, back/under, braid, sides, hairline, peach fuzz, and a few extra stray hair descriptions).


I already had a clean topology but decided to re-map my UVs with Maya on several UDIM tiles to improve the resolution, laying them out by individual meshes, while keeping the texel density coherent between the different assets.


I decided to use ZBrush for texturing, which I’d never done before, usually preferring texturing software such as Mari or Substance 3D Painter. I chose ZBrush because, at the time of starting this project, I didn’t have access to licenses for Mari and SP.

I took the issue in stride and turned it into an interesting challenge. It was a tedious process, not having access to many procedural techniques to speed up the workflow. And I couldn’t rely too much on the look of my texturing inside ZBrush, so it was necessary to always go back and forth between the Maya scene and ZBrush. I made heavy use of the surface noise and masking features of ZBrush to replicate some of the more organic aspects. Such as skin pigmentation and imperfections, scratches and strokes on the wood mask, etc.

Lighting/Look Dev

The look dev was probably the most complex I’ve done so far, given the number of different surfaces. I experimented with Arnold's Layer shader node, for areas such as the face where I had a combination of skin, blood, and paint/makeup. I made a series of masks in ZBrush for this purpose.

The scene was set up and lit using Maya and Arnold, with a set of 4 area lights working alongside an HDRI set at a very low intensity serving as a fill light, giving a richer feel to the shadows and lighting environment.

I also decided to have fun with a little "cinematic" shot, remaking the entire lighting which had another HDRI with a medium intensity. A spotlight using a gobo to fake the sun of an early morning going through leaves and three other subtler area lights to complete the look.


I find that when working on realistic characters, the details can only work as well as the main modeling work. Essentially, if it doesn’t work with neutral lighting and a basic grey shader, the details will add very little to a flawed foundation. So I made sure my work was hitting all the right notes before even starting the detailing, texturing, and look dev.

I started the project in February and finished it around two and a half months later, working on it in my spare time. The complexity of my original intent did take a bit of a toll after the first few weeks. So I decided at some point not to dwell too long on the details of less important areas. I had a clear idea of my final image and didn’t need to spend too much time on what wouldn’t even be noticeable in the final picture. That included areas such as clothed parts of the body or the hands and feet for instance. I do have in mind at some point in the future to do a 2.0 version of this character, finalizing every aspect to please my perfectionist tendencies.

For anyone interested in doing that type of work, the willingness to put in the hours to hone your skills will definitely pay back in kind after a while. Keep practicing the essentials, have fun and definitely be curious about other artists' workflow and tips. Always ask for feedback when in doubt and don’t fear to show your work to people!

Robin Isola, 3D Character Artist

Interview conducted by Theodore McKenzie

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