It’s time for another interview! This time, we’re excited to bring you Sébastien Legrain – better known here on ZBC as “Sebcesoir”. He has kindly taken time out of a very busy schedule “down under” to provide fascinating insights into the work that he does with ZBrush. Get ready for some really useful tips!
I'd like to begin by getting to know you a bit better. Could you tell us more about yourself?
I’m a French artist, born in north of France in 1977. I’ve always been attracted by arts and drawing, and especially fascinated by computer graphics since first seeing them when I was child in movies like “Tron” or on the Dire Straits clip “Money for Nothing”.
You've worked for Microsoft and Ubisoft. Where are you at now and what is your title?
After working in Paris (on “Top Spin” 1 & 2), Montreal (on “Rainbow Six: Vegas” and “Farcry 2”), I have now moved to the opposite side of the world at Brisbane in Australia. I’m lead character supervisor at THQ. My role is to help other artists to adapt to next-gen technologies, and especially to work with ZBrush. I do some coaching and a few ZBrush demos related to characters, mechanical sculpting, or environments techniques. I’m also in charge of the character aspect of my project regarding character modeling pipeline, quality etc… And of course, I’m still deeply involved in production to make characters and props for our game.
Can you say anything about your current project?
All I can say is it’s an action game, involving a lot of architectural and mechanical work in ZBrush as you can see in the screenshots. It’s a very ambitious and challenging project, that’s why it’s so exciting -- but difficult in same time!
I have the chance to work with great people and meet amazing artists from all around the world.
What has been your favorite project to date?
All projects I start to work on become my new favorite! This is simply because I learn new things. On “Top Spin” it was characters pipeline; modeling and texturing humans. On “Rainbow Six” I improved those skills and developed mechanical and architectural sculpting in ZBrush. On “Farcry 2” I learned more about pipelines, next-gen shaders and modular assets work.
Following this rule, my current project is my new favorite: it will allow me to develop my mechanical workflow even farther to produce great pieces, and has allowed me to discover a new universe I’m now fan off.
Also, I think it will be a great opportunity to experiment with the new features of ZBrush 3 in production: TransPose for validation purpose, MatCaps for rendering, texturing and marketing, and 3D Layers for design changing requests.
I’ve been kindly allowed to show you 2 screenshots of my actual works. You can see how (thanks to retopology and mesh projection) I could reuse and improve an old skull to fit to my new real-time constraints and save a lot of time this way.
Download QuickTime turnaround (1.7 MB)
What does a typical workday involve?
While involved in production, I still spend most of my efforts in character work: using Maya to make meshes, then doing a lot of texturing and sculpting in ZBrush. But as a supervisor, I now have to spend a lot of time on organization, discussions with other character artists to follow their progress and assign them new tasks, give from time to time some technical advice and write technical documents, send mails and go to some meetings with other leads or for external events. As you can imagine, a working day is not enough to do all that!
When working on a character, what is your typical workflow? (Overall process, stages, etc.)
It might be very different if I work on characters or mechanical elements. For characters, after making a base mesh in Maya or Max I reuse a base ZBrush model containing basic sculpted details (subtle muscle information, SubTool eyes). I change the proportions to match the particular face I’m doing. I then texture this simple model. Finally, I do all the fine details: eyebrows, hair, imperfections, micro details, and a final texture tweaking. I generate my normal map in ZMapper and then export my model out of ZBrush.
Always using the same base mesh allows powerful and efficient pipeline building in Maya or Max. (Skinning transfer, optimization spread out on all targets etc…)
For mechanical elements it’s different: the base mesh used to create details in ZBrush is different from the real-time model. In that case, mesh projection and retopology become precious new tools. I also take advantage of the new MatCaps to bake wonderful materials.
Photorealism is something that you obviously take a great deal of pride in. Any "secrets" that you'd care to share with the community?
Well now, most of the techniques I’ve been using to make characters are known… I would say that mastering photorealistic characters is more a matter of practice and skills than technical tricks. I’m still learning a lot of things from other artists, especially from Ryan’s blog…
Like I always say: spend most of your time to achieve the cleanest and most realistic base shapes. Use photo references if you’re not confident in direct sculpting; use image plane and transparency to get proper proportions.
The extra detailing is very easy to do at the end, and it just the cherry on the cake. It won’t make your character look better if you have improper proportion of volumes.
Don’t forget any aspect of your character, especially ears: their shape is very important from any angle and can affect the personality of your character because they have very visible outlines. A beginner’s common mistake is to pay too much attention to the front view and the middle of the face, but what makes a difference with a perfect face is when you watch it from any angle and any part has the same attention to details and shapes.
A little tip regarding MatCap rendering: I’ve noticed that most of the time when I created MatCaps I didn’t pay enough attention to the specular highlight. It’s a fundamental element of a convincing material. Don’t forget that you can put more than one specular highlight; you can have multiple highlights with different falloffs; it can give great results. If you can’t find a color bright enough in the material you’re capturing, don’t hesitate to pick that color on a different element like the sky or the sun light. One thing I do in addition to the reference picture is to drop a color swatch on my document so I can grab any color I need.
Download QuickTime turnaround (3.2 MB)
All of your characters have a great deal of detail. About how long does it take you for a typical figure?
For a human face in production conditions, it takes around 4 to 5 days for a skin pore precision model with texture and material. But if it has more complex features it can be a bit longer. For a full character, it would take almost the same time for a basic sculpted body with texture.
Your gallery website incorporates the ZBrush logo into the banner, so you obviously focus on ZBrush. About what percentage of your work involves ZBrush? How do you use ZBrush in your work?
That’s an interesting point, I hadn’t really paid attention to it before you mentioned it but I spend more and more time in ZBrush; especially since the release of ZMapper for ZBrush2 and of course with ZBrush 3.
I use other packages mainly to make my base meshes, generate my UV’s and to export my real-time model. Most of my work (proportion changing, sculpting, texturing, rendering) is done in ZBrush.
For my personal illustrations, 90% of my work is done in ZBrush including the rendering.
Doing more and more work in ZBrush allows me to work very fluently without having too many forward/backward exchanges in different packages for a more streamline workflow. And I don’t have to worry about extreme polycounts.
One of my personal favorites that you've done was the Lord Marshall from "Chronicles of Riddick". How long did that project take?
If I remember it took me around 2 weeks to complete? Even if it’s starting to be quite old work, it was very interesting for me to do the armor’s details. Even today, I really like the helmet part...
Your website also includes some architectural work. What was it like working on that compared to the figures that you usually do?
To be honest, when I was asked to do environmental normal maps on “Rainbow Six” I was a bit frustrated because I thought it would be very boring and I couldn’t use ZBrush for that. I still gave it a chance and started to play around with primitives, smart resymmetry, radial sculpting. After building nice (but basic) elements, I managed to combine them to make more and more detailed ones. After I time I realized that I could achieve extremely complex pieces much easier and faster than any other way.
It then became very interesting, and it was finally a great opportunity to explore a totally different workflow. And some of those techniques can be used for characters in special cases, like armored figures.
I still really love to do environments and particularly gothic stuff. I really want to do more, but time is missing…
How long have you been using ZBrush?
I tried ZBrush 1.5 a long time ago, but without success. I couldn’t wait to pay around with ZBrush 2 after seeing the first beta screenshots. As soon as it was released, I managed to spend a whole week to see how it could fit into our next-gen pipeline (it was for the pre-production of “Top Spin 2”). Since that time, I’ve never stopped using it.
It was a really great chance for me to follow ZBrush’s evolution, from when it was a rather confidential tool and to see how it quickly became a major software in the CG industry.
I also think its sculpting philosophy -- the 2.5D technology and the fact it can handle millions of polygons -- result in a revolution for the computer graphics fields.
What inspired you to learn ZBrush?
Like I mentioned previously, it was the first ZBrush 2.0 beta screenshoots. They were totally different from anything I’ve seen before. So detailed! Also I was never comfortable in making human characters with traditional modeling (polygon editing). I had the feeling that ZBrush would be a much more intuitive tool to make organic stuff and I was right!
I then discovered it was as powerful for mechanical elements.
What is your favorite feature in ZBrush 3?
More than a single feature, I would say its entire philosophy: for me, ZBrush 3 succeeds in getting rid of most technical constraints.
Thanks to the retopology and the great transfer tools, you’re not restricted to any topology anymore. Even with multiple meshes, you can now project texture on different UV layouts.
Most brushes have been dramatically improved (wrap mode, roll, etc.) and are now accessible in direct 3D sculpting for more fluent work.
ZBrush 3 also gets rid of constraints in terms of production: being able to re-use and re-adapt previous production’s assets sets up a workflow that will accelerate your work.
Finally, features like MatCap, turnaround movies and TransPose are very precious helpers to showcase your work in the best conditions in terms of rendering, display and posing. They can make a big difference during a validation process…
What artists particularly inspire you?
For my work, I always look at what other people do on forums. ZBrushCentral is a great resource for me. Personally, I really love traditional sculptors like Michelangelo, Brancusi (I put my tribute to his fascinating “Sleeping Muse on my website) and Rodin. I also often check what is done in the FX industry, like clay sculpts.
How do you like to spend your free time?
I spend most of my free time with my girl going out; especially now that we have so much to discover in Australia and Brisbane in particular. It’s summer here and we have some of the most beautiful beach’s very close, so it will be a good opportunity to have some quality time between two projects… and feed some kangaroos! Below is a photo I took of Brisbane last night. I thought it could be nice to illustrate, since Australia is not well known.
The skull and armor images above are courtesy of THQ Games, with special permission for Sébastien to share them in this interview. The project itself is still top secret, and these images can’t be found anyplace else.
Thank you to THQ for consenting to share these images, and to Sébastien for the interview!