ZBrush started out in life as a painting app, with the unique selling point of its 2.5D approach resulting in paintings with limited depth helped out by some fun brushes and a clever lighting system. In just over a decade Pixologic has completely transformed the package, with each new release adding to the toolset and refining what came before.
Although aimed squarely at character artists, ZBrush has found a home on the hard drives of artists from various disciplines, including environment and texture artists. As each new version is released it draws in more fans and becomes increasingly powerful, as well as being able to tackle more and more complex and diverse tasks.
ZBrush 4 R3 Cycle
Up until recently we were all happy being able to build a base model out of primitive 'Zspheres'. Skinning the frame with sculptable polygons was the click of a button, before the real fun began. A quick scan of Pixologic's online user gallery (zbrushcentral.com) shows just how powerful the tools are for sculpting, painting and fine detailing models.
Later versions added better render quality, hard surface polishing and the dynamesh tools, which negate the need for perfect topology.
Another recent addition, shadowbox, proved to be an ingenious method for model generation; where you draw the silhouette on three sides of a cube and the software would remove digital clay, leaving just the solid model in the middle.
These days it seems that the main buzzwords in 3D software have moved away from the old 'wow' features such as Nurbs, dynamics, simulations and even GI or HDRI. 2012 carries on what was started in 2011, with a significant focus being put on how applications talk to one another.
Cinema 4D has long had a great pipeline for working with renders in After Effects and now it looks like the trend is taking over. Autodesk started touting 'Interop' last year and Pixologic has had Go-Z for a while.
ZBrush 4 R3 continues its support for working with other software, making it easier for any given user to slot into a pipeline. Go-Z works in both directions, so if you were to use Z spheres to build a prototype model you could skin in and click the Go-Z button. A popup will ask which application you want to use, click the appropriate button and it will launch, with your model centred in the viewport.
In much the same manner, if you want to fine-detail a model you built in Modo you run the command and the modo model will be opened in Zbrush 4 R3.
Where this is really clever is in the mapping. If you spend some time adding fine details, painted textures and so on, you run the Go-Z command and all the maps will be sent too, not just the original mesh.
So character artists wanting to do high-end renders of their creations can click a button, open in their chosen software and get amazing results in far less time.
ZBrush 4 R3 seems to have ironed out some of the niggles from the previous release. Sending a mesh to Maya, Modo, Cinema 4D and Lightwave all works very well and repeating the process doesn't break the link like it did in the past.
One aspect of character creation has always been elements such as hair or stubble for humans, grass for environments, and fur for creatures and monsters. It wasn't too much of a problem to swap to a third-party application for this. Maya, Max, Cinema 4D and others all cater for it. Pixologic, however, has removed the need to turn to another application and in ZBrush 4 R3's biggest new feature we're presented with Fibremesh, a full suite of tools for generating, controlling and styling fibres.
The implementation is reasonably intuitive (in Zbrush terms anyway), fast and flexible. Fibres can be grown from any mesh or subtool. The areas to be used for fibre generation can be designated using the standard masking tools, which have been improved so that shrinkage and expansion of the mask works more predictably and is more surface curve-aware.
The resulting fibres are comprised of real geometry, rather than than spline based fibres seen in other applications. This means you can use the whole range of Zbrush 4 R3's sculpting tools to manipulate them, strand by strand.
Grow your fibres
What makes this so powerful is that you can then grow a second set of fibres from the initial set, meaning you can very quickly create extremely dense and complex fibre systems. This one ability is unique, giving the user the option to make things like fir trees, with accurate foliage. Controlling the growth and attributes of the fibres is done in much the same way as other tasks in ZBrush, with a drop down panel containing the relevant tools.
A number of sliders give access to the settings, with instant visual feedback in the viewport. Considering the amount of polygons that can added to the scene with fibres, that is an impressive feat. Pixologic obviously learned some clever tricks when it got its hands on Sculptris, which led to the addition of dynamesh.
Not just a one-trick pony
ZBrush 4 R3 isn't all about Fibremesh though. Although Fibremesh is by far the biggest new attraction there is a whole host of tweaks and additions.
Along with a few refinements to things like alphas and the aforementioned masks, there are new options for rendering, including support for micromeshes.
This has been built so high quality renders can be created with furry or hairy creatures, but it also has benefits for any HD meshes.
A selection of new brushes have been added. Again, these were obviously intended for use with fibres (such as the assortment of grooming brushes) but seeing as the fibres are standard ZBrush geometry they can be used on all parts of the model.
Among the many other refinements, one worthy of mention is a revised .JPEG exporter, giving users the power to make adjustments to renders before exporting to their chosen image editor, such as Photoshop.
Slumming it in the GUI
There is one flaw with ZBrush 4 R3 that takes a lot of getting used to and that is the GUI.
In general, interfaces work in much the same way, no matter what software you are using. Even though the tools might differ you can probably find your way around relatively quickly.
The problem with ZBrush is that it was created around the time when the legendary Kai Krause was king of the GUI and non-standard, quirky and frankly annoying user interfaces were common.
It's taken a decade for some apps to leave those days behind but there are a few that haven't and ZBrush 4 R3 is one of them.
Although the GUI is versatile and adaptable, with undockable and foldable palettes, it can still feel like there is a lot you don't use, just because it isn't laid out logically. Or at least not how you would expect.
The original version started it all and wasn't too bad but each new release adds to the tools, which overall has meant more and more folding, moving and docking of commonly used tools.
If you've been a user for a few versions then you probably don't notice this as much as other people as you will have grown with it but I would not want to be a newcomer to ZBrush 4 R3. I imagine the learning curve to climb before being fully comfortable with all the tools is a pretty steep one.
That is really a small price to pay for the quality of the tools available though, and a week spent configuring everything to the way you like to work is a fair price for the results you can achieve.
The flexibility of the GUI saves it from being a complete abomination. It's also nice to see that when creating a new document the whole available screen is used, not just a small central part.
Written by Rob Redman
$699 Single user license for one platform (Mac or PC) 50% discount available for a second licence for both platforms. For more information visit the Pixologic website.
Minimum specs MAC:
- Mac OS X 10.5 or newer
- Intel CPU
- 1024MB Ram (2048 recommended)
- Monitor: 1024 x 768 resolution monitor (1280 x 1024 recommended)
Minimum specs WINDOWS:
- OS: Windows Vista/Windows 7
- Cpu: P4 or AMD Opteron or Athlon64 Processor (Must have SSE2: Streaming SIMD Extensions 2)
- RAM: 1024MB (2048 MB recommended)
- Monitor: 1024x768 monitor resolution (32 bits)