The Cuvier's dwarf caiman
This is my end-term 3 Project for PixlVisn Media Arts Academy, where I tried to replicate a caiman in a photorealistic manner.
I found texturing the Caiman to be a very good exercise because it checks all the boxes for an organic creature pipeline - complex hard surface elements, subsurface scattering in some regions and also transparent features.
Reference is King!*
Having references always at hand is the most vital thing when it comes to creating believable CGI. Without this connection to the real world, it's tough to finally come up with something which looks pleasing to the eye.
I usually do an extended web search and have a look in books and watch documentaries and movies. If there's time, I also like to speak to experts on the given topic. Even if they have nothing to do with CGI, I appreciate their knowledge as a great source of inspiration.
When it comes to collecting references, I use PureRef to gather and organize the material. It's a perfect piece of software that gives you an unlimited canvas on which you can organize, group, and label images.
*This is actually a Quote by Michael Wilde
Before starting with the texturing process, I like to do a detailed plan to break down all the tasks and try to foresee any upcoming issues.
Here I am analyzing the object's surface nature and trying to associate different texture maps to specific regions of the model. I like to start with the displacement maps because they will define the shape of the model. I find it very impressive how modeling and texturing are so close to each other -painting displacement maps are actually like sculpting the surface.
Displacement Painting & Detail Sculpting
The Displacement Map is usually the first map that I create, and it's also the most important because all the other maps depend on it, and it enables you to achieve a stunning amount of detail.
I paint the displacement maps in Mari utilizing a non destructive node-based workflow. This gives you so much flexibility and the possibility for quick look iterations.
The over sculpt is a process where the surface detail created via the displacement map gets even more complex by an additional layer of sculpting. This is achieved by applying the displacement map in Zbrush on a layer and making the details created by the map even more prominent. One could find over sculpting tedious, but it’s quite enjoyable for me when I see the surface come to life.
Then I export the resulting over sculpt displacement map and the standard Zbrush displacement and the one out of Mari and combine them in Maya. Here I then do a displacement Lookdevpass using a simple Clay render.
Once I'm happy with the look of the displacement, I start gathering as much information about the surface as possible in the form of Utility maps and finally bring them into Mari again.
You can use quite a few software packages to generate these Utility maps. I usually go with Zbrush, Arnold in Maya, Substance Designer, Mudbox, and Knald to create all kinds of Utility maps like Ambient Occlusion or Curvature. The more variety, the better because you will have even more information at hand for the upcoming texturing steps.
Base Color Creation
After all this groundwork, the coloring in Mari is a fairly straightforward and enjoyable process. Once again, I like to utilize a Node-based procedural workflow. Using the variety of Utility maps as masks for different base colors, you can achieve a unique coloring of the surface. On top of this, an additional pass of Hand Painting can be added to get even more breakup and detail.
Shading & Asset Turntable
After all the maps are exported out of Mari, it's time to bring everything into Maya and do the shading of the model. The final step for me as "the texturing department" is to do an Asset Turntable. This Turntable should be in a way that it's texturing features could easily be reviewed by others. Usually, I show the model in an indoor lighting situation as well as outdoors to see how the shading reacts to different lighting scenarios.
Now the Asset can be handed over to the Shot department.