The Tyrant Lizard King
On a warm morning in early summer, a male Tyrannosaur patrols his territory looking for a high point where his mating call can be heard from miles away.
I've been enamored with dinosaurs since I was a child and my dad would take me to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City to see the fossils. I knew I had to create a Trex, one of my favorites, as a digital model, bring it to life with a rig that would allow it to perform, and give it a realm fit for The Tyrant Lizard King.
Inspiration was not hard to come by. I started this project last summer after having rewatched Jurassic Park at The Hollywood Bowl. I dug up all kinds of treasures from my childhood including Phil Tippet's short film Prehistoric Beasts, the paintings and illustrations of James Gurney, and the complete works of Ray Harryhausen. If you look closely, Rory, the animator, added a little homage to Willis O'Brien's brilliant work on the original King Kong.
Seeing this project through, from concept to completion, was one of the most rewarding challenges of my life. This required me to apply every lesson, tool, tip, technique and magic trick to create something that felt real and would inspire the six year-old me. I was lucky to have the talented Rory Pang handle the animation for me. I took care of everything else, from pre-viz modeling, texturing to look dev, lighting, rendering, and compositing. this is a testament to the quality of education that I received and the work I put in at Gnomon School for VFX and Animation.
Creature Creation - Modeling
I've been doodling dinosaurs since I was old enough to hold a pencil but this was my first crack at sculpting in 3D and creating something lifelike. Having that foundation Really Paid off
Early Keyshot renders of the Zbrush sculpt. it was important to get the underlying anatomy right before applying details like scales, ridges, and wrinkles.
Texturing and Look Dev
I used Zbrush's poly paint to create some early color concepts to see which one fit the creature's personality. Most of the reference for patterns was borrowed from the smaller birds found in the north east of the United States like red bellied woodpeckers and gold finches. The design for the final red concept, which was later done in Mari, was inspired by a cardinal.
With every Look Dev pass I was a step closer to create skin that felt believable. I was really happy with how the colors were looking; since it's a male, I wanted to give him a more vibrant color pattern like many modern birds. The scales still felt a little flat and the gloss map wasn't quite working the way I wanted it to.
Creating a Kingdom - Environment Building
Creating an environment that felt prehistoric meant choosing fauna that helped tell that story. Fossils of broad-leafed ferns are often found in the same locations and rock strata as these dinosaurs so those were the plant assets I wanted to focus on. creating a landscape that felt vast, rugged, and expansive was equally important.
The final matte painting reminded me of some of the awe-inspiring views I would see deep in the mountains of Colorado. I loved it so much, I ended up being slightly bummed out when so much of it was covered up by the mid-ground and foreground. But it served its purpose and brought the quality of the overall piece to the next level.
The Return of the King - Final Composition
As the assets and shaders started looking right, it was time to get some test compositions working. Everything was getting closer to the feel I was going for but assets like the mountains were still being developed and you can tell the gloss map was giving me quite a bit of trouble. I was starting to worry I would have to settle for good enough.
It all managed to come together in the end!
The base modeling of the tyrannosaur was primarily done in Zbrush before being sent to Maya retopologized and UVed. Rigging and animation was also handled in Maya as well as the final scene assembly. Textures were painted in Mari then brought into MudBox (which handles UDIMS better than Zbrush) for more detailed work on the displacement map. Look Dev was originally done using Vray but it became clear that, if I wanted to render the entire 400+ frames of the sequence in a timely manner, I would need a GPU based renderer; so I went with Redshift for the final render.
Modeling the environment included utilizing Speed Tree assets, building mountains in World Machine and Houdini (which is excellent for scattering trees), using Substance Painter to generate a variety of maps, and creating procedural shaders in Maya's node editor. Once I had several different terrains rendered, I brought the images into Photoshop to create the background matte painting. The final comp was done in Nuke... I think that covers everything.
A Special Thanks
To all the students who inspired me and the teachers who put in countless hours helping me make this a reality. They include my classmate Rory Pang for taking care of the animation, Beau Janzen for helping me with the Rig, Tran Ma, James Scauff, and Jared Krichevski for helping me push the realism in the model, Jason Doss who helped me write macros in Python to streamline my workflow, Marcos Shih who taught me how to matte paint, Martin Hall for help with the comp, Robby Brahnam who helped with migrating shaders from Vray to Redshift, and Miguel Ortega who pushed me every step of the way into making this the absolute best it could be. I stand on the shoulders of giants.