Talking to Modeling Supervisor Scott Spencer at Gentle Giant is a bit like getting a glimpse into a toy workshop that exists somewhere beyond the looking glass, and way down the rabbit hole. This is a toyshop designed for the geek, artist, visual effects afficionado, and toyfreak. All in one. I'm talking about an alternate universe that exists in a dimension between the digital effects production pipeline, the toy maker's workshop, the most tricked out model shop you can imagine, a production facility and Peter Pan's playroom all rolled into one.

Indeed, this is no ordinary toy manufacturer, and these are no ordinary elves. Led by a visionary owner with a child's soul, this unique world of talented modelers, painters and artists of all kinds is using traditional and digital hardware and software -- of course including ZBrush -- to redefine graphics creation and the production pipeline.

Scott Spencer, lead digital sculptor, takes your infatuated Pixologic guide on a tour of his wonderland.

Started as a toy company by Karl Meyer, Gentle Giant Studios originally produced cake toppers, pencil toppers, and other sculpted toys designed here and manufactured overseas. The pipeline resembled most sculpting pipelines where the primary tools were were created with wax resin and clay.

But Meyer knows a great toy when he sees one, and when he purchased the company's first scanner and 3D printer in 1997 — toys by any stretch of the imagination — he started evolving his company into a whole new realm and Gentle Giant quickly became the go-to facility for scanning and data collection for film, television and games.

Their world changed again when, about five years ago, VP of Operations Brian Sunderlin started hearing a bit of buzz about this new application called ZBrush: "It sounded cool, but it was new and we all just wondered where it would go." It didn't take them long to figure out their path, and a couple years later, the digital pipeline Brian envisioned as involving Freeform, Maya and Pro Engineer, was newly helmed by Scott Spencer, whose primary digital tool was ZBrush.

"At GGS we specialize in creating 3D models for animation in feature filsm, video games and toys. We combine traditional sculpting techniques with digital scanning, 3D modeling and rapid prototyping. The addition of ZBrush to our 3D pipeline has given GGS a new level of creative design capabilities that allow flexibility from concept to final model. Whether working on a model for feature film, video games or toys the talent of our artists are realized and enhanced by this incredible innovative tool."
- Karl Meyer, Owner and President of Gentle Giant Studios

Hired a year ago as the studios lead digital sculptor, you could say that Scott pretty much won the work lottery. Imagine being able to come to work where you get to create models for top games, television shows and motion pictures, and being able to print your models either for your desk, or perhaps a marketable product you can actually buy. Doesn't get much cooler.

As his first task at Gentle Giant, Scott was charged with discovering whether ZBrush could contribute to the company's modeling pipeline. He says, "I did a Grindylow a character from Harry Potter which is now a figure from Gentle Giant Ltd. The whole idea was for me to show that ZBrush was an effective sculpting tool for creating recognizable characters from concepts or photos. The guys were so thrilled with the results of this test it became a product."

In addition to creating collectibles, Gentle Giant is changing the way studios approach character creation. As Scott illustrates, Gentle Giant is creating both character models and texture maps for the upcoming game "Golden Axe. We are tasked with creating models of characters and props as well as the associated normal and color maps."

When they start working with studios, Scott says, they usually work with "the art department or art lead. In addition, we usually have a dialogue with the character leads, as well as any other TDs in the pipeline who deal with the assets we provide." The workflow is as follows: "We are usually supplied concept art from which we generate a very basic sculpture mesh which is just an all quad box model that we use to take the character to completion as a fully rendered detailed digital sculpture. We can pose and output the character on a 3d printer creating a physical maquette from the ZBrush sculpture," allowing the art department to see the character both in the digital and physical realms.

"Once the model is approved by the art department, we work directly with the character leads to develop the optimal edge flow. Using off the shelf retopologizing tools we create the base topology to spec. Then using in-house tools we then transfer details from our sculpture mesh to the animation ready mesh. We are never locked into a topology even with a finished sculpture, we can continually change the underlying model preserving our multi-resolution Ztool."

From here, Scott lays out the UVs and embarks on the color mapping process, providing the client with displacement, normal, color and diffuse maps with the low resolution geometry.

Scott talks about another recent project, where he worked on Pumpkinhead. We "worked with the newly-redesigned creature suit to supply the model to the visual effects team in the UK. My department concentrates more on creating models, high-resolution details, displacement maps, and color texture maps than supplying scan data. Pumpkinhead needed an animation-ready mesh for visual effects shots they were using in the next two sequels. Working on that model was a blast for me since I grew up on the Winston film and have always adored the design. That long lanky creature has influenced me to this day in my own designs."

And the pipeline just gets cooler from there. Scott and his talented elves can take the assets he creates in ZBrush, repose them as necessary, and create a product. As he says, "We can develop the high resolution and in game models then pose and output said mesh to create product tie ins. Its fantastic for fans to be able to hold an actual part of the game world in their hands." How cool is that? Using ZBrush, Gentle Giant is able to provide a high-quality physical product from the asset used in the original property.

Scott continues, "ZBrush also allows the concept designers to become the modelers. You no longer have to rework concept art until approval then hand off to another artist. With ZBrush sculptors can develop the design and when said design is finalized the final geometry and maps are take directly from the digital concept sculpt. Then when marketing time comes around we can mold and rework the original data as a theamed tie in, action figure or collectable figure."

In the way that Gentle Giant blurs the lines between game production and toy production, ZBrush is shifting the way artists at Gentle Giant think about design. First off, Scott's department of six sculptors includes one whose career was built with wax, resin and clay, but who is now using digital clay to realize his designs, "It is amazing to see how quickly traditional sculptors adapt to working in 3D with ZBrush, and how those hard-earned skills transfer over so seamlessly! Especially when you put them in front of a Wacom Cintiq and let them sculpt on screen!!"

ZBrush is also infiltrating the company's 2D concept artists, who develop concepts for "everything from in-house product to assets for other companies. One nice thing about being a digital sculptor is that you are not isolated from the design process. ZBrush is an incredible tool for concept design and it allows us to quickly develop several iterations on a theme with the speed of a few tugs at the digital clay."

The sky's the limit for this enterprising company: "I see us filling a void where studios can come and utilize our sculptors trained in ZBrush to create their film or game assets. We are also in a unique position as ZBrush concept sculptors: After the digital maquette is approved, there is no “cleanup or reinterpretation to use the sculpture in a game or a film. The approved form is the exact same sculpture that will appear on screen. The digital sculpture can then be re-tasked to serve as product for promotional items. It's really amazing how the line between 3D and the real world blurs here. We can output anything you can create on the computer."

With ZBrush, Gentle Giant's digital sculpting department is redefining the entire production process and pipeline. "It’s a great time to be a sculptor. We are able to work on things as diverse as film, video games, design maquettes, and premium figures. If it is sculpture (digital or clay) Gentle Giant can provide it. We are expanding beyond the scanning and data collection that was the traditional base of Gentle Giant Digital and into asset creation and full service design and realization."

Sounds like heaven for a lover of all things related to visionary software, art, technology and toys. Can't wait to see where ZBrush and Gentle Giant will take us next.

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