Exclusive Interview with ZBrush Master Jonathan Sabella

Jonathan Sabella is a professional character artist working in the film and game industries. He specializes in character and creature work with a keen interest in anatomy. His previous education includes a Bachelor of Fine Arts and Post-Graduate study with successful artists from companies like ILM, Digital Domain and Image Engine. He also happen to be a Digital-Tutor who's produced some very informative videos on using ZBrush like Creating an Aged Portrait and Techniques for Sculpting Like the Masters. We recently sat down with Jonathan to see how he first got interested in studying anatomy and what changes he's seeing take place in the film and game industries.

How did you get into the study of anatomy?

I was always interested in the figure from a young age. Growing up in an Italian American family there was always an underlying reverence for art, especially for the art of the Renaissance. My early understanding of what an artist did was through the lens of Michelangelo and Leonardo’s work. I had a strong idea in my mind that art wasn’t just about making marks, but understanding why you were making those marks. So, I think from that early beginning I had a thirst for learning how to make better drawings and eventually sculptures.  As I got older I think that personal interest just naturally continued forward with me over the years into college, post-graduate study and now my personal studies.


Why is it important to know human and animal anatomy as an artist?

It’s important because what we see as a living creature in front of us is the result of a very complicated and beautiful underlying structure. What is on surface of a human or animal body is the influence of everything below. To create a convincing representation an artist needs to know the placement and relationships of those forms. Without knowledge of anatomy an artist will struggle to make something believable and natural. Knowing your anatomy allows you to understand what you are seeing and why you are seeing it when you look at a figure.

It is essential, I believe, not only to know the bones, proportion, and individual muscle bodies, but to also familiarize yourself with their origins and insertions. The name of a muscle gives you common language to discuss it with others and a way to easily find more information on it, should you require it. In addition to knowing a muscle’s name, having an understanding of where it starts and ends is important because it will help you understand how the muscle changes form and location when the body is in another orientation or pose.


What’s the relationship between human anatomy and animal anatomy?

The study of the relationship and differences between human and animal anatomy is called comparative anatomy. By having a strong understanding of human anatomy, one can immediately see direct correlations between different kinds of life on Earth. We share a remarkable lineage with animals that, when examined, shows how similar we really are despite the wide variety of shapes and sizes life comes in.

Even animals that seem very different from us have the same basic building blocks. If you can’t find a one-to-one match, you can often find vestigial remnants of things in one species to another. A good example of this is the dolphin. Dolphins are mammals, but they don’t have legs. Instead, their pelvis has reduced in size to almost nothing. Although it is really not used anywhere near the degree as in a human, dolphins still have the ancestral remnant of a pelvis.

Figure created for Digital Tutors course Techniques for Sculpting like the Masters in Zbrush.


Learning anatomy by studying classical sculpture is something you stress within your teaching. What is the best and/or easiest way for aspiring artists go about doing this?

There are a lot of great resources online now for studying art and art history. One cool resource I always like to go back to is called the Google Art Project. It’s an online collection of art from around the world. Much of it is very high resolution imagery. Of course reading is important and probably our most abundant resource. I’d also suggest exploring art visually through resources like that, if you can’t make it to a museum, and then finding books perhaps at your local library, which can further feed your interest on a particular artist or time period.


Why is having a good knowledge of art history important as a digital artist?

Art history is important for a couple of reasons. First, I think it’s important to look at the work of the masters as inspiration for contemporary works. Artists have been depicting the figure for long before digital art was an available medium; however, the problem and techniques for solving the problem are still the same.

Second, I’ve also found that art history has paid other dividends for me during day-to-day production work. Having art history as a point of reference and a sort of general catalog of images in your mind can sometimes make communicating a lot easier. If an art director or producer mentions something like art nouveau or art deco as a style they’d like to integrate into a character or creature, it’s good to already have the point of reference and possibly be able to pull up examples you feel might be helpful.

If I'm designing a creature I'm thinking about the story behind it and how it lives and interacts with it's environment.


What type of references (human, animal, plant, etc.) would you use for creating a completely new, imagined creature?

Most creatures that you see in movies or games are some mixture of things that already exist in nature. The key to making something like a monster is to inject your designs with as much reality as possible. If I’m designing a creature I’m thinking about the story behind it and how it lives and interacts with it’s environment. From there you can select elements from life that visually reinforce those themes. Once you’ve gathered what you feel is appropriate and interesting inspiration, the task is then to skillfully combine those ideas together with your anatomical knowledge.


Can you give us a brief example of how this works?

Sure. Let’s say someone gives you the task of designing an alien monster that’s being transported from another planet, but of course it escapes and hunts the crew of a space ship. I’m using this as the example because the first thing you’re going to think of is probably the classic H.R. Giger Alien. It’s hard to beat that design and you probably will want to make something that still fits the requirements, but doesn’t share a lot of qualities with Giger’s alien.

That design is very monochromatic, so maybe the first choice you make is to have your creature be very vibrant in color. Maybe the colors draw you to poison frogs, perhaps it uses poison as an offensive and defensive adaptation. That is your first selection, and let’s say you like the texture of the frog’s skin as well.


Next you can make a choice about if the creature will be quadrupedal or walk on two legs. Perhaps you decide that two legs is a good choice because it implies intelligence. Now you essentially have a giant bipedal poison amphibian. I’d then suggest to start playing with the silhouette of your creature, try to bring something unique to the shape language. Maybe it’s very thin and fast with long limbs. With the creature being thin you can take advantage and show some of the bony landmarks and ribs, give it more of a skeletal quality, introducing more humanoid elements.

Once you’re at that point, you can start thinking about ways to break up the creature with unique features and story elements. You could starting looking at strange deep sea life for ideas or tiny insects that aren’t so familiar to us at large scale. That might give it a bit more of an otherworldly quality. Since the creature is to be a predator maybe you like the imposing quality of the rows of teeth sharks have. From there you can keep adding subtracting, iterating and refining. The task being to take all your selections and make sense of them anatomically so they mesh together believably.


In your career you’ve worked in both the film and video game industries. What similarities and differences have you experienced between working as a character artist in both?

I think in recent years the job of a character/creature artist in games and film has really become very similar. Realtime engines can now handle a lot of polygons and even in some cases displacement maps, which is bringing game character work much closer to film. A few of the output maps and meshes are still different and games still use considerably less total texture maps, but the process of sculpting high polygon assets is very much the same.

Sabella_AgedPortrait copy

Image from Jonathan’s Digital-Tutors Course: “Creating an Aged Portrait in ZBrush”


What are the best personality traits one needs to be a good digital sculptor?

I’d say the things that can help you be successful as an artist are probably similar to what would make you successful in a lot of other avenues of life. I feel having a general positive outlook on things helps a lot. Part of our journey as artists involves facing new challenges and problems. Being able to be positive and believe that you can find a good solution if you work hard is pretty key.

Another thing that I think can help everyone is being kind. If you’re enjoyable to work with, people will likely want to keep working with you. Films and games take a lot of effort and are team sports. We all perform our best when we are happy and feel supported. Other than reading books about art, I have also over the years tried to incorporate other information I feel can help my art practice. I’d highly recommend the book The Happiness Advantage if anyone is interested in learning more about how to do their best and function at their highest capacity.


If someone is saving up to buy digital sculpting software, what are some things they can do in the mean time that would help them practice/prepare?

There are actually a few free digital sculpting softwares available such as Sculptris, which is a great option if you are just getting your feet wet and want to see if you enjoy sculpting digitally. Aside from learning where certain buttons and functions are, most of what you need to be a good digital sculptor is analog: figure drawing, practicing observation, reading, sculpting in real clay. All of these will enhance your digital work whether you’re just starting or a veteran.


Where can people find you online and follow your work?

I’m always happy to hear from people and have had a great number of experiences talking with artists who have enjoyed my courses. You can find my main website at: http://www.JonathanSabella.com or I’ve recently set up a Facebook page where I like to interact with others directly and share knowledge, book recommendations and other interesting information at: https://www.facebook.com/JonathanSabellaArt