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With experience in human anatomy, Lookdev Artist Phu Nguyen wanted to step outside his comfort zone with an entirely new beast. Phu’s dedication to research helped him understand the leopard’s structure and movement with impressive accuracy. By keeping every muscle separated in Zbrush, Phu controlled every single detail. Don’t miss out on his breakdown, which includes:

  1. Feline Inspiration
  2. Skeletal Structure
  3. Muscle Building
  4. Complex Skin
  5. Hunter’s Pose
  6. Lighting and Final Render
  7. Finished Product

Hi, My name is Phu Nguyen. I’m a Lookdev Artist working for Vinata Animation Studio in Saigon. I started as a 3D Model and Texture Artist for outsourcing studios within the gaming industry, then I move to BlueR studio for Film and TVC. Working on that team pushed me to improve and helped me understand how each department (concept, model, animation, lookdev, comp, etc.) can connect to create a beautiful product from start to finish.

1. Feline Inspiration

For the first half of the course, our goal was to study a random animal and create a sculpture of him/her from the inside out (bone, muscle system, skin). I started gathering reference images about Panthera, no specific type- just a bunch of images of tigers, leopards, jaguars, and lions. The two main books I liked the most were:

  • Animal Anatomy for Artists, The Elements of Form by Eliot Goldfinger
  • An Atlas Of Animal Anatomy For Artists by W. Ellenberger, H. Baum, and H. Dittrich

I also take a look at some artwork from other artists, especially my lecturer, Gael Kerchenbaum, and Jun Huang. This research helped me compare proportions and shapes between each type of Panthera. I decided to pick the Leopard (Panthera Pardus) because of its elegant shape and movement. After that, my reference board was born! The hand drawing anatomy references on the board were from a Lion, since it was difficult to find the Leopard’s paw. The Leopard and Lion are basically the same, but with different proportions. I can adjust it while sculpting.

To improve your understanding of animal anatomy, check out the foundational Animal Drawing CGMA course.

2. Skeletal Structure

The first step for me was to become better acquainted with the bone structure and muscle system. I did this by drawing these systems on top of the reference photos.


I’m always looking to learn and experience new things, gain new knowledge, and improve my skills as an artist.


It seemed easy on the surface but ended up being tricky. This was the first time I had the time to dig into the project. I was new to this animal’s anatomy, but my knowledge of human anatomy definitely improved my understanding of the leopard. I mapped out the two structures side by side, which helped me throughout the rest of the project.

I started by sculpting the Skull first, the most important part of the creature. It had to look right, feel right, and have the right proportion.  The reason is that you can use the skull to measure and build up other bones to make sure the whole skeleton system has the right proportion.

While sculpting in Zbrush, my main priorities were proportions and blending primary and secondary shapes together. To me, the sweet spot is when primary shapes are more visible, while secondary shapes help make the primary ones look less boring without taking over. Then, I added some surface detail to make the model look more realistic and interesting.

After finished the skull, I moved to work on the skeleton systems. I intend to split every skeleton into individual substool, so I could easily adjust and posting later on. I used Insert Mesh Brush and Dynamesh for creating and blocking the primary shapes of every bone. When it was done, I used Zremesher to nail the topology, then Subdivide the mesh to add secondary shapes and details.

3. Muscle Building

I used the same method to build up muscles on top of the skeleton system. At this point, everyone had their own workflow. Others merged everything, which was more efficient, but I kept every muscle separated. In my opinion, this makes the creature look more realistic because everything overlaps each other in the right way, casting shadows inside creases and corners rather than just a simple brush stroke.

When adding muscles, I wasn’t too concerned about proportions. I was focusing on the anatomy of the animal. Since every muscle was separated, I could easily move/rotate/ re-sculpt every wrong one without affecting the others.

After adjusting the proportion and overall shapes, it was time to start detailing the ecorche. This step can be totally skipped, but I already had plans to render this ecorche later. So I just went for it! However, keeping everything separated raised the polycounts and slowed my computer down. When I was detailing, I couldn’t work seamlessly between every substool. So for the purpose of detailing the ecorche and adding skin, I decided to merge down everything into a new file.

Then, I approached the retopology stage using Zremesher. I subdivided and projected the old model to bring the details into the new one. Then, I started sculpting. The main brushes I usually use are dam standard, clay buildup, h-polish, and move. These’re just basic brushes in Zbrush.

While detailing, I kept fixing the proportion for the animal, building up volume and shapes for the muscles, creasing conner to make it more appealing and adding muscle fiber, a bone landmark on the surface to make the ecorche feel much more believable. At this stage, I kept everything in a separate layer to easily turn down the intensity or adjust each layer independently without affecting other parts.

How is human anatomy different? Master bone and muscle sculpting in CGMA’s Ecorché course.

4. Complex Skin

Things got much easier once bone, muscles, and proportions are well established. I used the ecorche as a base mesh to add skin on top. First, I created a Morph Target of the current mesh. Then I made a Skin layer and started sculpting on it. Whenever I wanted to put an area back in the original mesh, I used Morph brush and start painting that area.

At this point, I collected more references about the real-life leopard, studied them from a different perspective. How does the skin fold? How does bone landmark appear? Which muscles are visible? Which muscles are covered by the skin? Etc….

The more I understood the anatomy, the more realistic this animal could become. Areas like the paws, face, and ears have very complex shapes and details which you can’t simply sculpt by imagination.

5. Hunter’s Pose

My first attempt at posing aimed at creating a complex aggressive pose to express how dangerous this creature is. But when I was doing that, I ran into lots of trouble like mesh bending or broken, plus losing detail. I had to resculpt some area and it was too much time-consuming. The reason for all those issues was because this creature was still in ZBrush, it didn’t have proper topology and rigging. So when I tried posting it with only the transform and move tool, it was way too easy for me to mess up the whole mesh. That first attempt was really a disaster for me, so I quickly dropped it.

My second attempt was much more simple. I found some references when leopard goes hunting. I loved the slow walk they used to stalk their party. They look so dangerous and terrifying! On the other hand, the walking pose is much easier to pull out with less effort and risk. So I decided to go for it.

Same as the skin, I created a new layer for posing and sculpted on that. I still needed to resculpt some areas to make my favorite details fit with a new pose, but it was not much work as the first attempt. I’m quite happy with the result.

For final rendering, I created two bases. I created the first base in ZBrush by sculpting some rocks and placing them around to add a little more complexity to the scene. I used Zbrush Fiber mesh for the glass. I also reused the skull in some bones of this animal to decoration and add story for this. or my second base, I only wanted a simple base which had been modeled in Maya and ZBrush. The idea was to create an illusion of a photograph of three figures standing next to each other.

6. Lighting and Final Render

I like to use a lot of lights in my scene, especially the spotlight, because it gives me more control. This way, I could show off want I wanted to highlight, and hide what I didn’t like. I chose a backdrop that could bounce the light to help the scene feel more believable and realistic.

I also used a different light set for every scene to make the mood and look every one of them feels right, not be over burned or darkened in some areas. The key thing is every light set needed to have the same intensity to maintain consistency between different camera angles. By doing that, I can trick the viewer to believe that this creature is always in the same environment with the same lighting setup.

I used Arnold for rendering. It’s a little slower than other render engines, but the result is quite good and works well for me. Because these models were decimated mesh in ZBrush and had no UV, I only used aiShader to handle the lookdev. Only the backdrop uses texture. And the shader is very simple, just some base color variations sit on top of SSS (subsurface scattering).

Read “6 Steps to Create a Realistic 3D Character: Mursi Man” to see how lighting can enhance any form of anatomy.

7. Finished Product

Final Thoughts

  • Besides working for my current studio, I also do personal projects in my free time. I’m always looking to learn and experience new things, gain new knowledge, and improve my skills as an artist. That’s why I decided to take the CGMA course Sculpting Anatomy: From Animal to Creature and I learned so much.
  • The biggest challenge is building up the muscle from the skeleton because every one of them has quite a unique shape. There’s a ton of muscle stacking up onto each other, layer to layer. And every one of them has to connect to several bones in the skeleton system.
  • For a first-timer like me, getting lost in all of those details is unavoidable. So, thanks to Gael Kerchenbaum. With his feedback and guidance, I was able to punch through the confusion, complete the project and end with a pretty good result.
  • Besides learning about animal sculpting, I also improved my lighting, rendering, and compositing skills during this project. Thanks for your time! See ya!

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RELATED PAGES

To improve your understanding of animal anatomy, check out the foundational Animal Drawing CGMA course.

How is human anatomy different? Master bone and muscle sculpting in CGMA’s Ecorché course.

Read “6 Steps to Create a Realistic 3D Character: Mursi Man” to see how lighting can enhance any form of anatomy.