Series 1: The Rock Project (Mood, Reference, Usage)

In my last post, I introduced ‘My Thoughts on Teaching and Mentoring.’ In this post and the first of the Series, I outline the “Rock Project,” the first assignment that hones in on the fundamental skills for digital sculpting with ZBrush.

My pedagogic philosophy is that smaller, lower pressure projects allow my students to fully complete projects with high quality and true learning. I never want them to bite off more than they can chew, just for the sake of a ‘challenge,’ particularly since they are in a safe, learning environment of the classroom. I often reiterate to them that there are no short-cuts around “Muscle Memory” which can be highly technical if looked at from that viewpoint. And therefore, art should be viewed as fluid and should not be compromised by the technicality of the tool sets.

So, on this first Rock Assignment, I posed the scenario of a Studio Environment where I act as an Art Director and have my students play the role of 3D artists creating a Rock that will be used by Designers/World Builders for in-game use. I want them to propose possible directions that I would ‘Approve’ prior to their initiation of the Rock sculpt in ZBrush.

STEP 1: Asking the right questions. 

I implore my students to engage in a dialogue with the Designers/World Builders, or even the AD. Having a creative, mutual respect for what the Designers/World Builders do and aim for, encourages team camaraderie between cross-disciplinary team members. (NOTE: In some cases, an Artist might also be the Designer or World Builder – it all depends on the Studio environment – and in this particular scenario the Studio Environment is comprised of various disciplines with full teams for each.) The following are just some of the questions that can and should be asked:

  • Who will be using the asset? (i.e. – World Builders)
  • How will the asset be used? (i.e. – single rock asset or POI/point of interest, cluster of rocks, spanned within a scene, etc.)
  • Is there an established footprint for the asset, or particular constraints?
  • What type of environment does the rock belong to? (i.e. – desert)
  • What might be the largest scale/size of the asset for its usage? (i.e. – some Designers/World Builders might plan to scale an asset up or down for its usage; perhaps aim to provide 3 versions of a single asset – Small / Medium / Large – to ensure proper usage of that asset)

A key notion that I verbalize to my students is: always attempt to create with scalability in mind. This helps with repurposing an Asset in a World within the Production Pipeline and helps to ensure design consistency. With that, even digital file folder-structures and organization play an important role when Modularity and Scalability reign supreme.

STEP 2:  Mood Boards and Reference Sheets.

Once the questions are asked, pulling Mood Boards and Reference Sheets together is the next step. This serves as a guide to the possible Art Directions that the AD will ‘Approve’ for production. The Mood Board allows me to see the artistic decisions of my students who are offering suggestions for the Mood. I like them to engage in conversations about how or why a Mood is being chosen. Is the Rock jagged? Is it in a hostile environment, or just a garden? Sometimes the World Builders or Designers might already have some of these settings established, but in the event it is not decided upon in a real-world Studio scenario, at least my students can participate in the artistic conversations that could occur (practice role-playing these dialogues). I like to see the creative thought process and imagination of my students during this Mood Board step.

The first set of images is a sample of a presented Mood Board pending AD Approval. The second set of images are selected and Approved Rock types with the AD’s notes.


Now that we’ve gone through the exercise of selecting the Moods, we move on to picking out the Reference Sheets. The Mood Board conversations go hand-in-hand with ensuring that my students are thinking of and using the most interesting silhouettes and shape forms, demonstrated through the usage of Reference Sheets. In many cases, reference gathering entails Google searches, which can absolutely suffice and is often the quickest method of reference gathering. But, I ask them to be aware that many other people could have used or referred to the same online references, which can lead artists to make similar, unintentional interpretations. And even in other instances, artists could look at other artists’ completed work, which has already been interpreted by the artist himself, and that can lead to indirect plagiarism. Therefore, I personally recommend that when possible, going outside and seeing real life in person is always ideal. Take Pictures!

For instance… here are a few photos from Lost River in New Hampshire that I took for a particular project I was working on. I went ahead to gather real-world reference myself. The rocks were formed thousands of years ago when the Glaciers were melting. If you take a closer, live look at them, it sparks the imagination and leads the viewer to imagine that these could be ancient, monolithic structures. When you gather the real-world reference yourself, it really becomes an experience and a memory that is Your Own. And, through that, you can share something completely original and fresh as you use something like this as a starting point for interpretation through your own creative mind’s eye.

  Franco_Galletta_RealWorld_3   Franco_Galletta_RealWorld_2   Franco_Galletta_RealWorld

I stress that when a single asset is created with Modularity in mind, it should look different from every angle, and it’s priceless to be able to see for yourself just how different a Rock could look from a multitude of vantage points in nature. Therefore, when creating the Rock asset, I have my students think about how a Rock might look when rotated, enlarged or shrunken, placed on its side, or even placed into a replicated cluster of a rock formation.

Below is a sample of placing the images gathered into a Reference Sheet to utilize for the Sculpting process. It’s best to keep all the collected reference images into 1 sheet (i.e. – 2000 x 2000 pixels). This is helpful for zooming in and out when looking at the image. And, another best practice is to grab the highest resolution of the image to ensure that there is no degregation of the quality when zooming in. These images can also be placed directly onto ZBrush canvas, utilizing Spotlight.  


STEP 3: Getting into Sculpting.

In my next post, I’ll get more in depth into the actual Sculpting process of the Rock asset and what we get for some results in ZBrush. Just from a simple object, I’ll illustrate what my students learn from not only a technical standpoint but also an artistic standpoint within Sculpting.

But before I close out for now, here is something that I think is a nice example of how real life inspiration captured by photography is translated by the artist and what actual, final output made it into the Game. This proves how important reference truly is, from seeing something (tangible or ideally, live, with your own eyes), to taking your own photography, and then interpreting what you see for artistic creation……

      Franco_Galletta_MoodBoards_Dwarven_Culture_1 Franco_Galletta_MoodBoards_Dwarven_Culture_2 Franco_Galletta_MoodBoards_Dwarven_Culture_3

With all that is highlighted above, these steps set the stage for moving forward with a smooth transition to the Creative process of Sculpting with a clear vision in mind. I can’t stress enough how important and significant this step of the process really is, which helps facilitate the dialogues between the  Artist and his teammates. Most importantly, it helps facilitate clear and concise communication about the artistic decisions to the AD.

For now, stay tuned for the next post! I’ll be diving into ZBrush for this Rock Assignment!