Myths and merits of digital sculpting in the collectibles industry – Sideshow presents at ZBrush Summit 2015

We are excited to announce that Sideshow has been invited to present at this year’s annual Pixologic ZBrush Summit, a prestigious event dedicated to the leading industry standard in digital sculpting tools. There, our team has been asked to demonstrate how we use state-of-the-art technology to design statues and busts, sculpting techniques for 3D printing, and engineering for production.

It’s been an exciting journey for us over the past decade, as Sideshow’s in-house sculpt division has transitioned from primarily traditional sculpture to embrace digital tools and technology – and we’re honored to share what we’ve learned along the way. Sideshow sculptors Matthew Black and Walter O’Neal took some time out to chat about their experience and process. Here are a few of the top takeaways we had on the myths and merits of digital sculpting in the collectibles industry:

1. Sideshow sculptors work best using a variety and combination of traditional mediums and digital software

Walter: Between in the in-house artist staff and our extended freelance community, we use polymer clays, oil based clays (for larger pieces), tooling waxes, carving waxes, and various digital sculpting programs such as ZBrush, Maya, SFolidWorks and a great deal of Photoshop for art direction purposes.

There has never been a stigma or bias against using one medium over another. That being said, over the course of the last few years Sideshow’s internal sculpt team has really been inspired and excited by all the advancements in the fidelity of digital sculpting, and the majority of the work coming from our group today is either entirely digital, or has significant portions of it that were sculpted digitally. Digital, traditional, they both have their strengths and weaknesses, so we’re really striving to use each process for what it really excels at and in doing so marginalize the drawbacks of the other. I think we’re really starting to hit our stride in marrying the two.



2. Digital sculpting software can be easy to learn…

Matthew: I have been in the industry for 16 years, most of which I worked only in wax. For years I was reluctant to learn ZBrush, simply because it seemed as if I would be somehow starting over. Nathan was one of the first in-house members to start using it as part of his work flow, and that encouraged the rest of us to invest time into learning. Once I finally bit the bullet and signed up for my first class, I was hooked. It was really easy to learn, much easier than I thought it would be. In the last couple years we have had such an overwhelmingly supportive management team that has allowed us to acquire all the tools needed to make the transition.

Nathan: The transition was daunting at first, as I am mostly all thumbs with computers and really didn’t even know how to copy paste things. I feel that the interface is really pretty user friendly for traditional sculptors and an amazing tool to have at our disposal.


3. …But is difficult to master

Nathan: I think most traditional artists (myself included at one time) have had the opinion that digital is the easy way out, or that there is a magic “do a good sculpture” feature in ZBrush. This is simply not the case. If you do not posses a solid understanding of form, through either life drawing or sculpting in the real world, your work will suffer.  All you have to do is browse through the myriad of beginners work to know that starting with a raw poly sphere is no different than starting with a lump of clay. I think ZBrush has the potential to make the beginning sculptor vastly overestimate their ability, and I feel I still have a long way to go before I am really adept at the program and know all its bells and whistles.


4. Working digitally is a flexible process, which allows quicker revisions

Matthew: When we have a specific character in mind, the first step is always research. The who, what, why, when, how questions. Once we establish the motivation and backstory, we proceed to pose studies. After a team review in which we decide on what pose makes sense, we then go full bore towards completing the sculpt. That’s not to say we don’t change our minds during the process, and re-pose, or swap out elements. It’s a flexible process, and it is much easier to make these kinds of edits working in digital.



5. It also streamlines collaboration

Walter: To tag team on a traditional sculpt in wax or clay, the artists both have to physically be in the same room with it, which either means getting both artists together or shipping the piece back and forth between them. Or we could mold & cast multiples of the piece so they both have copies of it to work over, but then we’re introducing generational irregularities into the process since no two castings are ever exactly identical. It can be a bit of a hassle.

When working digitally though, we can blast that file anywhere across the planet in a matter of seconds through the internet, and have multiple sculptors working on the exact same file, at the exact same time, in several countries all over the world. The difference between the ease of those two processes is clearly night and day.

Matthew: Take Skeletor for example, Nathan and I teamed up to have him ready to show at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con. It was a real hustle, and using ZBrush allowed us to simply put the entire sculpt onto a thumb drive and then quickly pass parts back and forth as many times as we needed. He could be building the armor, while I fleshed out the chest, then he could pass his parts to me, and I could key the parts in place. It is a much more dexterous work flow. If we had sculpted the same character traditionally, it would have taken twice as much time.

6. Perfection comes from focusing on the imperfections

Walter: The advantage of the digital medium is math, and math leads to precision. Everything we generate digitally is mathematically precise in regards to specific lengths, angles, ratios, which allows us to cleanly manipulate the minutia of those things. Add to that the ability to work in symmetry and build both sides of an object at the same time to be exactly identical, and it’s easy to see how working digitally can speed up the sculpting process.

However, true symmetry isn’t something that happens often organically in nature. Everything is off just slightly. One of our eyes might be set just higher than the other, one ear might be lower, our nose might slant slightly, teeth are rarely 100% straight, etc. All of these minor imperfections actually happen naturally when working traditionally, whereas in a digital program we’re going to have to try to introduce that type of slight asymmetry or add it after the fact – otherwise the piece might end up looking plastic, clinical, and just oddly unnatural.



7. The 3D printing process is complex, and amazing

Walter: Once a digital sculpt is finished, it must be digitally cut-up and keyed into the dozens of component parts that all puzzle together, then each of those parts must be processed and prepped for print. All of the parts are exported as separate files, and another program turns those files into paper thin slices that the printer stacks on top of each other to build into component parts. The actual printing process can take several days to yield all the parts we need for any single project. Once all of the parts are printed, they need to be cleaned of residual support material and sanded to have any visible build lines from the print process removed, checking to make sure all the parts fit together and correcting any issues. At that point we’ll have a completed sculpture ready for mold/cast and paint.



8. In the end, it’s not the methods we use, but the results that count

Walter: Art essentially boils down two things in my book: Ideas, and execution of those ideas. For the longest time I think we’ve been mostly impressed by the virtuosity of execution. It almost becomes a magic trick; “How did that person make this object? I have no idea!”

I think the magic starts to lose its luster when the answer became the overly-simplified note of “computers.” Saying art was done with computers almost becomes a dismissal, and it short sells all of the talent and creativity of the individuals who imagine the piece and bring it to a finished state. To get the most out of these programs, digital sculptors need to be virtuoso craftsmen in their own right, and the difference can immediately be seen between the work of those who have mastered their medium of choice and those who have not.

The goal in my eyes should always be the pursuit of the magic trick. We don’t want to tip our hand to let anyone possibly surmise how the piece was put together, thereby breaking the illusion of the image. There are certain remnants of sculpting traditionally (rake marks, tool marks, fingerprints) that can ruin the illusion and clearly demonstrate how the piece was made. Similarly digitally sculpted pieces have their own artifacts (build lines, overly decimated pixelated surfaces, reuse of standard parts, etc.) that clearly spell out how those pieces were made. I think the most successful pieces on both sides of the digital and traditional fence are ones that deftly navigate past those artifacts to preserve the illusion and give that touch of magic. Those are the pieces that excite me no matter how they were made.


If you want to check out our panel, it’s not too late to register for the ZBrush Summit 2015! Learn more on the official website.

Are you a digital artist interested in joining our team? We’d love to see what you’ve got.
Email [email protected] for inquiry.