Fall 2012

September 15, 2012 12:03 am Published by

From Clay to Zbrush: A Presentation by Cesar Dacol, Jr.

Article by Floyd Archie Buchanan
Cesar Dacol, sometimes called a Zbrush guru, came to Portland at the invitation of Cascade chapter of SIGGRAPH on August 24, 2012; for a lecture titled “From Clay to Zbrush.” When you Google Cesar ( pronounced “say-ZAR”) you find numerous entries about him and his work: his own blog, a Youtube channel, and references to him as instructor for Gnomon workshops, among others.

With a background in anatomy and traditional sculpting, he has worked as a Lead and Modeling Supervisor, contributing to feature films such as ”Journey to the center of the earth 3D”,” 300″, “Barnyard” and “Fantastic Four.” Cesar was born in Londrina, Parana, Brazil. Beginning at the age of thirteen, with thanks to “an interesting father who let me get away with way too much,” he started his career in the makeup effects industry. Cesar transitioned to computer effects in the mid 90’s. Cesar Dacol Jr. worked in the film industry for over 25 years. Currently he works as a Director of Character Development for the feature film industry, is a beta team member for Pixologic’s ZBrush, and is an instructor for CGSociety’s CGWorkshops.

The talk began with Cesar relating some of his personal history and a pivotal moment that lead him to where he is today. He told his audience that people working in the film industry don’t just go watch movies. They constantly analyze the movie; looking for the movie’s magic tricks used to produce the movie. When Jurassic Park came out he was prepared to sit through the movie and mentally tear it apart. Two things happened when he watched it; he was totally drawn into the movie for its entertainment and he had no idea how the effects were done. This happened at a time when he had his own studio and a crew of twelve producing special effects; creating a lot of commercial work.

For the next three years he found himself talking with directors and studio people who used terms like models and nurbs and he had no idea what they were talking about, but after each visit he researched. He eventually realized it was time to go back to school and began attending Sheridan College, one of two top colleges in the world at the forefront of the CG movement. He was totally ignorant of computers. At Sheridan he learned computers and the programming that was needed, to accomplish the tasks that he needed to perform. But, when he emerged from Sheraton, he had a new vision: games. Rather than return to the film industry, he entered the game industry. It was a culture shock. Instead of spending his days creating and working on his feet; he spent his days in a cubicle working on games. It was, in his words, about as far away from sculpting as he could possibly imagine. After two and a half years he realized he needed to return to films.

In the film industry there is no loyalty. It is not about the work you have accomplished in the past. It is about the work you can accomplish in the present. These statements were the introduction for Cesar’s main message for the evening. “Everything in life starts and ends with you.” If you find yourself sitting on the couch night after night, then you made a decision to do that, but don’t complain that life isn’t taking you where you want to go. If you want to travel a different path, then you have to make a plan for that path and carry it out. Nobody can prevent you from doing anything. We are our own worst enemies. We are the ones who look in the mirror and tell ourselves how much we suck. Stop that negativity. Start figuring out what you can do instead of what you can’t do. Then positive things can start happening. The way to begin achieving things is to make a plan, put it in action. Cesar repeated this phrase several times and had his audience repeat it with him. Make a plan; put it in action. This is the message Cesar tries to impart to all his classes. He stated that his classes are as much about reaching out to his students to get them to find the best in themselves as the classes are about the technical details.

Cesar began his “From Clay to Zbrush” with a description. He brought a block of clay and sculpting tools with him. He said that working with clay and sculpting on the computer is the same thing with one exception: absence of mass. The computer mimics all the creativity of art, but provides none of the tactile feedback that working with clay provides. The only tactile sensation comes from the mouse and keyboard; which is a tool in the creative process, but not the same as actually touching your creation. He described scientific studies and personal experience which point to the value of actually providing yourself with some actual mass to work with while creating on the computer. Keep a block of clay at your computer while you create.

Cesar discussed the differences between linear and dynamic workflow. With linear work-flow you start at one end and finish at the other. There is not much room for change once the process begins. Dynamic workflow allows for change as a project proceeds. From this distinction he moved to the meaning of Shape and Form. The armature of a real sculpture is the same as a skeleton in a human. It is the foundation which provides the form to the physical structure. The skeleton is the foundation. You have to get it right. The skeleton provides the form to a character. Everything that resides on the outside is the shape. It is the silhouette.

The work-flow process, in an artistic environment, usually begins with the production of thumbnails. Thumbnails provide the starting point for discussion between the artist and the client, who has an idea he wants created. Cesar demonstrated the powerful abilities of Zbrush for creating large numbers of thumbnails in a very short time. This enhances the work-flow process. The process works like this:

  • Start with your initial shape; change its color to black so that you can better see the silhouette. This gets back to the distinction between shape and form.
  • Add a layer in the layers panel. Modify your initial shape. Do not concern yourself with poly count or the “niceties” of proper modeling. This is rough work.
  • Continue adding layers and making creative modifications to your shape.
    When you have created about ten layers, you actually have created about 200 different shapes.
  • The layers are interactive. As you turn on, or off, the visibility of each layer, it combines with the other visible layers to produce a new shape. A snapshot can be taken with Zbrush’s snapshot command. It is this process of trying various combinations of layers that produces large numbers of thumbnails rapidly. Cesar said he has done this with while clients watched him work.
  • After a final shape has been chosen it can be colored with the red clay normally used for sculpting in Zbrush. This may reveal very distressed poly shapes from all your pushing and pulling of the shape without regard to modeling technique. Cesar finished his presentation by demonstrating a new Zbrush feature, the remesher. With the click of a mouse, Zbrush totally remeshes the entire model back to nice square polys.

The audience had questions and finally they applauded Cesar. They left knowing they had heard from an accomplished master of his craft. Overall, the night was a success and we appreciate Cesar coming and sharing his expertise with us.

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