review diary - escape studios 'zbrush for 3d artists' part 4

Waving goodbye to the Zbrush course - bon voyage my friendSo its been an even longer gap since I posted regarding my travels through the ‘ZBrush for 3D Artists’  course by Escape Studios. So much so, that a whole new version of ZBrush appeared, even though the naming convention ZBrush 4 R2, doesn’t sound that different, this was a major release of the product, which along with some other features brought a new modelling paradigm called DynaMesh to the mix. DynaMesh makes initial mesh creation much simpler, and obviously has it’s roots in the Pixologic purchase of Sculptris, the free sculpting software which if your reading this and haven’t tried, stop reading this and go and play with that instead.

Obviously a new modelling element in ZBrush does affect the impact of the training offered, and it has changed the workflow enough, that instead of writing up the rest of the chapters of the review as an incentive for you to decide to get the training I am just going to do a wrap up on the course, which I have now finished. ZBrush has changed enough with the new release that its really hard to recommend this or in fact any training that doesn’t deal specifically with the new release.

This isn’t Escape’s fault, its just in the time since the training was released, as well as the time its taken me to do it, ZBrush has changed significantly with two major releases within a year, ZBrush 4 and ZBrush 4 R2, (with another minor update due in early December - phew!)

So what was left in the course?

The fourth module dealt with using ZSpheres to create a human hand, which used ZSpheres and ZSketch to both define the shape, pose and form of the hand, using modifiers to the ZSketch brush such as Bulge and Flush, and was much more enjoyable, and gave finer control than the method used for the Gas Mask in earlier modules.

As the course had developed, you were left to your own devices for certain elements to move the model onto the next stage, which was fine, but due to work commitments, I tended to not do this and move onto the next course. At key points, you are supplied with updated meshes, if you hadn’t been doing your homework.

This module, also showed how you could set up unit calibration within ZBrush, so you can get a sense of scale

One pleasant element and helped my confidence with ZBrush immensely, was during one break of six weeks (As I said busy) I came straight back into ZBrush, and was keeping up, so the training was working, and muscle memory seemed to have lodged itself in a deep part of my psyche. This was a huge relief, and made the majority of the struggles with the training worthwhile. 

Module Five dealt with more fine detailing issues, and dealt with a layer workflow, there were some really useful elements within this module, such as making masks, how to create your own alphas to emboss text in your sculpts and learning how to use the projection master plugin. 

It also really suffered from predominantly being created in ZBrush 3.5 as the layer palette is different enough in version 4 for the lessons to be ultimately frustrating, as there is no getting over the fact that you have to do things differently to what your being shown, which add’s an extra level of abstraction which isn’t fun when all you want to do is learn.

The sixth module looked at topology and how to adapt, again this was all shown in ZBrush 3.5. I came to this just after getting myself acquainted with Dynamesh in ZBrush 4 R2, which had just been released. The module looked at two workflows, one for films and one for games, both useful to know. There were useful little hints, using morph targets and Project All, but what I came away with was that your better at doing retopo in another application, in my case its a good reason to keep modo handy, as its modelling tools are better than those shown in Maya, but all of a sudden Silo 3D and 3D Coat look more interesting.

The seventh module deals in depth with texturing (at last), the introduction to image plane was great, and as an alternative to spotlight it was news to me, remember I’m still newbish to ZBrush. This was an excellent module and showed really good use of subtool master to control colour parameters, but there were still elements that have been rendered redundant by the inclusion of Dynamesh in the latest release.

However, there were still a lot of really good things in here, such as learning about how cavity masks can be used to create textures, and then an excellent use of the trim brushes to use as dry brushes, which took me right back to my days as a teenager painting up Games Workshop characters - bliss!

It was disappointing that rendering within ZBrush, really wasn’t touched on, especially with the marked improvements in ZBrush 4 (which have been exponentially improved on with a good 32bit workflow in ZBrush4 R2), and I know that the course is aimed at 3D artists who use other applications, but for some cases going to another application isn’t always necessary, and it would have been good to see more about how to use ZBrush as a standalone app.

A big question that I had is why is texturing the second to last module. If your following the course linearly, one of the key elements and imho one of the main selling points of ZBrush is left to near the end of the course. I always felt I couldn’t get stuck in properly with ZBrush until texturing had been addressed by the course. What would seem logical, is to move texturing to the third module, that way, you may not have all the ZBrush skills, but at least you have the basics.

The final module dealt with exporting into other 3D apps, and as usual this meant Maya. This module was 25 sections long, and to be perfectly frank, although, you find out about useful tools such as UV master, the first 14 lessons of hard core, baking and exporting maps, and creating workarounds based on old hardware and software are pretty much redundant when you find out about Multi Map Exporter in Lesson 15. While useful for completist’s, the first half of this course should be an addendum or deprecated. There is good stuff in here, but to be perfectly honest, I skipped a lot of the maya specific elements, as the one thing course has made me do is really hate Maya, and as my core workflow is cinema and modo dependant, both of these are also covered by Go Z, the only thing that seems to bemissing is creasing, but there are ways round that.

To sum up, this course is really starting to show its age, so much so, that a approx 30% of the course, whilst technically useful from a nuts and bolts perspective is redundant with the workflows offered by the newer releases of ZBrush. 

What the course has done of course is open the application up for me, and made me not regret my purchase of ZBrush one jot. ZBrush is truly a unique application, and the course did show a lot of what you can achieve, but alas not all, rendering as mentioned being a good example.

To be fair pruning 30% of the course wouldn’t do it any harm, there is almost too much information, I now realise I have issues with online courses that are over 10 hours long. Any longer, and I feel the training gets in the way of actually using the application. Where this long form is applicable is when your actually dedicating yourself full time to a course, which is Escape’s core business, and the course does show if you do sign up for an Escape course over a fixed time period you really are going to get your moneys worth. 

This is probably true of Escape’s mentored online courses as well, but I again there’s a commitment there which I would love to give, but am just too busy to offer. This means I learn adhoc, and with so much information within this course its hard to retain if your not using ZBrush on a daily basis.

If Escape are going to do continue with these online courses, their learning tool really does have to adapt to mobile formats via apps, or non plugin based streaming options. The number of times I could have caught up on the course, but wasn’t at the right computer, or to be honest didn’t want to sit at the computer, but would have happily watched it on my iPad instead, show that if you don’t have a cross platform offering for your online content, watching that content becomes a chore.

This has been a great if somewhat challenging learning experience, and Escape online courses are by far the most in depth on specific’s of software workflow’s that I have seen, and are a good precursor to the full ‘Escape’ experience. So its a shame then that a lack of an update, and an edit to a more compact ‘online’ form aren’t applied to this course.