Character Creation Module 01



Welcome to the class!!

A quick note, if I mention “Forum” in any of the class notes or videos, I’m referring to the forums that existed when this class was available in a live format.

Over the next several weeks we will be covering a large amount of information, from basic terms and titles, to advanced workflow techniques and production pipeline philosophies. I’ve developed this class with a modular syllabus in mind to make it easier for you to refer back to when needed. You can always go back and review any material and are encouraged to do so.

We will be utilizing a combination of notes, images, web links, and videos throughout the class. The majority of the foundation information I present will be via the videos I’ve created. They will stream as part of the content of each module. For example, the videos for this module can be found here, under their corresponding topics. We will begin with a few basic videos on setting up and working within your ZBrush environment, then transition to advanced ZBrush and form development workflows. Our Rhythms and Gestures of the Figure module contains six new videos, and several sculpt-overs all aimed at helping you elevate the feeling of life and realism in your characters.

The assignments are there to help you with your time management as the class progresses. Personally, I always benefit from a bit of outside motivation and prefer to have defined deadlines. When following the assignments, please try not to jump too far ahead. The most common shortfall of a character design or design sculpt is not spending enough time understanding its foundation. I’d rather have you spend too much time trying to fully understand the topics covered in any given week than breeze through them without fully challenging yourself.


*Please remember, these videos and lecture notes are for current students ONLY! They contain images of several other artist’s work and are NOT meant for any other type of distribution. Your username and login are only for your use and Zack Petroc Studios, Inc. reserves the right to revoke your class privileges based on the misuse guidelines outlined in our terms and conditions.


Module 01: Driving the industry forward

A snapshot of the present and a look into the future of our evolving Industry

Where would you like your art to take you in three years?

Watching our industry evolve over the past ten years has been an amazing experience. It has included the evolution of amazing software like ZBrush and Mudbox, the transformation of the Internet into a viable distribution network for creative ideas and an explosion of interest in what we do (thanks in large part to the Game Industry).

With several thousand artists graduating each year in the field of 3D an industry evolution is immanent! The number of graduates world wide with some form of 3D degree is staggering. Simply put, there are not enough jobs to accommodate our growing numbers. The information presented in this module is intended to help you define your goals, predict new trends and make sure your art is growing in a direction that will keep you at the forefront of our industry.


Defining key roles

I’d like to begin by clarifying a few roles and titles you might come across in a production environment. I have to admit, when I first started in the entertainment industry, outside of the director, I had no idea what most of these people did. As a side note, all these roles vary from project to project and their responsibilities often overlap. I’ll be referencing some of these titles in the weeks to come.

Director (feature film)- This one is a bit obvious. They are typically at the top of the creative food chain and are responsible for giving direction on all aspects of the project as well as unifying all of the components that go into the final product.

Production Designer (live action film)- In many ways, they are responsible for developing the overall visual design of the film. The production designer’s role varies greatly depending on the structure of the project. They can run the entire crew of concept designers, traditional sculptors, set builders, etc.

Production Designer (animated film)- This varies from studio to studio, but the more traditional structure puts them in charge of the “forms, shapes and lines” of the designs.

Art Director (live action film)- Among other things, the Art Director is typically in charge of the visual quality of the sets and implementing the Production Designer’s vision; reports into to the Production Designer.

Art Director (animated film)- Again, this can vary, but the Art Director on an animated feature often holds the top title and responsibility for the visual integrity of the film. They also tend to focus more on color and are responsible for creating the color script. (The color script is a compilation of images that sets the tone and mood for key sequences in a film.)

Visual Effects Supervisor- The “VFX sup” is typically in charge of the overall quality of the visual effects in a film.

CG Supervisor- The “CG Sup” often reports up to the VFX sup and has several responsibilities which can include writing new pipeline functionality, defining and streamlining the pipeline, and managing the integration and organization of digital assets.

Producer (feature film)- A producer is akin to a project manager. They can even have influence over who is chosen to direct and what overall tone the film should take on.

Executive Producer (feature film)- They can have the same responsibilities as a producer or just be a monetary contributor. This term can also apply to someone who owns the rights to a previously developed property that is being translated into film.

Executive Producer (video games)- This title is sometimes given to the person who is akin to the Director on a feature film.

“How do these titles really impact the future of my art and career?” you ask.

Yes, it is important to know what these people do if you are working under them, but more importantly, if you are trying to define where, or what, you want to be in three years, you NEED to know what that role actually entails! The difficulty of this situation is that you have to invest exorbitant amounts of effort to secure any one of those positions. The sooner you get started the better, but this also makes in even more important to not start down the wrong path.

The key to utilizing the above job descriptions is not just to be able to navigate your current or impending work environment. The real lesson here is diving into the life of someone who is doing one of those jobs and truly examining if that is an experience you want to aim your own career towards. Your impression of someone’s job is often much different than the reality of it. I spent several years thinking I wanted to be a production designer. The description of the job seemed very appealing to me but the more I leaned about the actual day-to-day activities of a production designer, the less interested I became in the role. The best advice I can give is to find a mentor who is already in that position and have discussions with them about their job. If you don’t have direct access to someone start finding articles on-line. It’s amazing how much information you will be able to find through a quick search. Many of them will be open to answering a question or two via email. Another useful step, after you’ve made contact with one of these folks, is to find out where they want to be in three years. It is likely that this person was once in a position similar to where you are now. The beauty of this scenario is that they have already spent several years of their life getting to that next level. Live vicariously through them! Ask them what the pros and cons of their current position are. This can give you a great amount of insight into how you would react to that same situation. The answer to where they would like to be in three years is almost like looking at your “future-self”. If they say they wish they would have done certain things differently, or set their sights on a different goal, chances are that information could save you from spending years of your life heading down the wrong path. In my case I was fortunate enough to find a Production Designer who told me he wished he had starting developing his own creative properties several years ago. That information allowed me to quit focusing my efforts on finding a Production Design job and start my journey into the world of content creation.

It is possible to get ahead of the curve!!


Predicting Future Trends

The Entertainment Industry is changing. In the not so distant past as a creator you had to find a distribution network to bring your idea to an audience- from feature films, to graphic novels, if you wanted to transform your idea into something people could access, it meant partnering with a company or individual with the ability to fund and distribute a “release”. Those days are over! The Internet is an extremely viable and accessible way to distribute creative content of all kinds. As recently as five years ago I would have needed to utilize some kind of educational institution to distribute this information. They would have had access to students and I would have needed to use their contacts and facilities to get this information to them. Those days are gone and it’s worth saying again, welcome to the class.

Right now the potential of Internet distribution is extremely untapped and in many ways unknown. The amazing thing is that we all stand at the forefront of this revolution!! Anyone with Internet access can click on your website to view your creative efforts. We just need to start exploring ways to get them to do it. If you make something entertaining and inspiring people will take notice. Throughout the coming weeks, we will be looking at ways to improve your creative decisions that are aimed and making every piece of art you make more entertaining!

So, how important is that idea to your career? Depending on your goals, it could completely redefine your future. If you are a student or recent grad, you are approaching this industry at a time when THOUSANDS of students graduate each year with their sights set on the same job as you. Unfortunately, the number of jobs available has already been usurped by the number of “educated” individuals trying to secure them. In some ways, this is a terrible time to graduate! But, as the universe often does, things will find a way to balance out- like the “frog-egg” story point in Jurassic Park that allowed some dinos to transform into males so their species could reproduce.  Nature will find a way…… in fact, it already has. Small groups of artists are already starting to band together, create content, and use the Internet to distribute it.  No sex change required! Handheld apps are a great example of this phenomenon. If you are currently seeking your dream job, I would suggest spending an equal amount of time trying to create it. Find a band of cohorts and start that journey. Somewhere out there is a handful of people determined to use the Internet to create a live-action Pixar. Others are creating animated comics the likes of which the world has never seen. Some are creating video games that will become known world wide. And they will do it soon.

If you already have a job in this industry then you know exactly how unpredictable it is. I love what I do at Disney and I hope to stay there as long as they’ll have me- but sometimes change is unavoidable. Personally, I like to have options. I want to create my own intellectual properties to grow my art at my pace while I’m learning from some of the best story tellers in the world. I want to have my cake and eat it too.


What The Hell Is An Outlier?

This statistical term refers to an observation that is numerically distant from the rest. In recent years it has grown to refer to a person who excels with great success, distancing themselves from the average.

There are many factors that play into a person’s ability to become an outlier. Some qualifiers are based on luck but many are based on perseverance and hard work. Lets take a minute to talk about how this term refers to us and to the Entertainment Industry.

It is indeed a unique time in our industry (a lucky time if you will). We now have access to more potential distribution networks than ever before.  From online comics to hand-held game apps, as creators, we can now easily distribute our intellectual properties to mass audiences. Spending time with a small group of friends developing an intellectual property might be in your near future. I truly believe this is a coming revolution. You could be teaming up with an independent group of friends or a team of co-workers as your company transitions into paying you for content creation instead of asset delivery. This also means your creative abilities, from design to content creation, are what will propel you to the top. The sooner you begin the journey to master those skills, the sooner you can gain more control over your career and path as an artist.


The Idea Of Finite Or Infinite Success

Many people believe success is finite. Simply put, they think every time you succeed, you have taken a bit of success that could have been theirs. I believe success is INFINITE. The more successful you are, the more you inspire me to improve and the more opportunities you create for EVERYONE. I encourage everyone in this class to use the forum to share their knowledge and creative feedback whenever possible. In the end, it will make us all better artists.


The Real Benefit Of What We Are Creating

Essentially, we will be creating a digital character design. In addition to the many inherent benefits of working in a digital media, such as saving variations, working with layers and scalability, we will also have the added bonus of using our design as a direct template to generate our production ready mesh. It’s also important to realize that our initial design sculpt is NOT meant for a production pipeline. If your character has hair or fur, we will be sculpting those elements as solid masses or with the new ZBrush plugin, but it is still only meant to represent the design intention. These will act as visual guides and are not intended to be pushed through the pipeline. Each studio will have different criteria when it comes to how they generate hair and cloth. We will be talking about the most common approaches to prep your model for those pipelines as the class progresses.

Remember to avoid thinking of the production model as long as possible. The initial steps of our process are about the design, that’s it! Let the VFX Sup and a Producer figure out if it can be done within the budget. If you limit yourself now then from this point forward everything will only become more restricted. If you are working for a client you can always present options- some which are more simplistic. Go big first, then pull back.


The concept of rough-to-fine

The rough-to-fine concept is something we will be exploring throughout the coming weeks. Essentially, it involves starting your creation with global ideas and concepts, then refining as you progress towards specific details. Bare in mind that you will probably not know the best answers to all your design problems until your character is much more realized, with some indication of all its key components (i.e. proportions, costume, hair volume, color, posing). With that in mind, when you first transition to 3D, you want to spend as little time as possible refining details. Think global. Think big shapes, rough ideas, overall intentions. Think refinement not perfection.

If this concept still seems a little abstract to you, don’t worry, we will come back to this point in the weeks to come.


How Do You Start A Design?

There is not one correct answer for this question. Every accomplished character designer I know has a slightly different process. However, their independent approaches also have many similarities. The majority of them, including myself, always start by sourcing as much reference as possible. Looking for both inspiration and benchmarks, your search can encompass films, books, web, personal photos, etc. The one pitfall to watch out for when beginning your search is to not be fooled when looking at inspiration from other artists. When I first began, I found myself looking at artists whose work was readily available, but ended up taking me in the wrong direction. Cutting to the chase, if you are looking at other cg artists (including some of my work) you are not setting the bar very high. This is still a young industry and there are less than a handful of truly accomplished craftsman in the entire field. You’ll often hear people reference older, more traditional artists, with good reason- because they’ve stood the test of time.

Below is a list of a few artists whom I’ve found inspiration from for character design. They all possess different qualities but they are all masters of their fields and above all, can convey “character” through their character designs (I’ll save anatomy references for next week). I’ve included some who are well known and a few who are a bit obscure.

These folks all start by gathering reference and understanding the character they are trying to create- an approach that seems to have worked out for them so far.

Iain McCaig -His website has been under construction for about three years……that’s even longer than mine was. He also has a book “Shadow Line, The Art of Iain Mccaig”. It’s probably not the best example of his portfolio, but there are a few good images inside.

Nicolas Marlet


A quick google search will turn up several dozen images. You can also peruse “The Art of Kung Fu Panda” book. What I find most inspiring about Nicolas’s sketches is how each one conveys a different sense of character and emotion. The personality of each design is unmistakable. Because the majority of his designs are extremely stylized and somewhat simplified, they tend to get straight to the point of what defines specific character traits. They are also a great source for gestures. You can easily pick one of his designs for an evil, foreboding character, and apply that essence to a less stylized design.

J.C. Leyendecker

There is a great book called “J.C. Leyendecker” that has a nice collection of his work. The book has countless references for cloth and drapery as well as an endless amount of incredibly well executed, subtle facial expressions.


Alphonse Mucha

I would recommend the book “Alphonse Mucha, Masterworks” if you can get your hands on it. There are several great examples of subtle anatomy and an abundance of great hand poses. I also love the way he integrates the characters into the environments and uses limited color palettes.


Some references for photos of real world objects

DK Eyewitness Books

This is a great series with large, clear images on a variety of topics. The only downside to this series is that it is so readily available you have to be sure you don’t base any given design too strongly on any one reference as it might read as too recognizable.

Please feel free to respond to share your favorite online references in the forum. I’ll gather some of the best and add them to a post under your Master Class link for easy access.


Setting up your ZBrush environment

I have included a few quick-start ZBrush environment and tool overview videos. Created with the less experienced ZBrush user in mind, they showcase my fundamental work flows  for setting up your ZBrush interface, as well as a few brush settings and tips and tricks for developing form.

Video: Setting up your ZB environment_01 (Basics)

  • Hotkeys (Ctnl+Alt)

  • Box mesh

  • Clay tubes, Standard, Move, and Inflate brush

  • Smoothing (shift release)

  • Pinch brush with Lazy mouse

Video: Setting up your ZB environment_02 (Basics)

  • Transpose tool

  • Polygroups


Defining Your Character Design for the Class

For our class there are two main approaches to finding a character design you would like to tackle.

The first option is to use one of your own ideas; a character concept you have always wanted to explore. The only requirement is that the character you choose must have a back-story. You will be posting a brief synopses of your character’s back-story in the forum so your fellow students and I can use it to help you improve your design decisions, so make sure you have one! If it is a character you have always wanted to do and it has a back-story, GREAT!!

No matter the origin of your starting point, you need to start by understanding the personality of the character you want to create. Remember, your design does not have to be final by the time we start our next module, in fact, it might be better if it is not. This will allow you the flexibility to improve upon it as we progress.

Regarding the time-frame, I would like you to decide which option you are most interested in and ideally, have a good bit of reference gathered before you begin the next module. In the next module, we will be focusing on design decisions and looking at some good and bad examples of well known characters. This information might help you to refine your creative intentions. Here are a few questions I always ask myself before I start any character design.

What are the three strongest personality traits of my character? i.e. ravenous, seedy, manipulative, puny, putrid, sensual, regal. The more descriptive you can be the better. I’d avoid easy ones like good, evil, scary. The more specific you can make them, the more in-depth your design decisions can be to evoke them.

What is your character’s back story? What type of world does your character live in? It is time to do the research. In an ideal situation you’d know the entire outline of the story your character will appear in. In a production environment this might begin with a discussion with the director, or if a director is not yet tied to the project, you might even need to get this information from a producer. You might also get this info from the “scriptment” or short outline of the story that can include overview thoughts, story beats, and specific dialog.

We are not all great draftsman and frankly it doesn’t matter. Don’t worry about how well you can draw. Feel free to make simple sketches or use existing images when it comes to blocking in your design.

One last tip is to think of real world actors who could play this role. Even if it is an alien, if your character has speaking lines, what actor would do the voice-over? You’ll want to collect a few images of that actor too. Some animal faces convey personality too. If you can find them, they are another great resource to throw into the pot.

Video: Character Photo & Image Reference

  • Three defining characteristics

  • Images from books

  • Actor and other facial expression images

  • Sketches


Assignment: Here is your assignment for this module.

  • Choose your three strongest character traits. If you plan to post your project in the forum you will want to list the character traits in your first post.

  • Understand the backstory and motivation of your character.

  • Gather one or two inspirational images and a brief character synopsis in the forum to give me a sense of your design intentions. These can also include your own sketches.



I will always close each module with a list of relevant reference materials. Some references will be listed in multiple modules when they are applicable to various topics:

J.C. Leyendecker by Laurence S. Cutler and Judy Goffman Cutler

Shadowline: The Art of Iain McCaig by Iain McCaig

Alphonse Mucha: Masterworks by Rosalind Ormiston

Story by Robert McKee

The Visual Story, Second Edition: Creating the Visual Structure of Film, TV and Digital Media by Bruce A. Block

Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need by Blake Snyder

Invisible Ink: A Practical Guide to Building Stories that Resonate by Brian McDonald

Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting by Syd Field

Making Comics by Scott McCloud


Good luck!!!