Hercule: Creating impressive Comics with ZBrush image

Hercule: Creating impressive Comics with ZBrush Olivier Thill, co-creator of the French comic “Hercule”, talks about the realization of this project featuring a half human and half alien mercenary.

Olivier Thill is co-creator of the new French comic “Hercule”. After the first volume was released on October 24th by Edition Soleil, he had some time to speak with us in an exclusive interview and answer questions about the project. Many of you may recognize his name may because Olivier -- better known by his ZBC nickname, Luxo -- was previously interviewed for his work on the preparation of another comic: “Henk”. In the year and a half since that publication, Olivier has continued to refine his technique for using ZBrush in comic-style illustration. We couldn’t pass up an opportunity to touch bases with him regarding this new 12 issue venture, the inspiration for which is drawn from the mythological Twelve Labors of Hercules.

I’m currently working as a freelancer at TeamTO, an animation studio in Paris on various productions. Between productions, I use the time to go back to comic creation. I originally come from the Fine Arts and made it into the Meliès animation/VFX school in Paris. I had also wanted to attend a film school but found myself discouraged by the limited focus of productions and all the constraints which came with them. Things like budget, time, etc. With comics, I can bypass all these restrictions and have real freedom in my choices.

First up is Jean-David Morvan, who is on charge of the script and conceived the original idea for the comic. I must admit that I’m really lucky to work with him because for several years now he has been one of the most prolific comic writers in France. Many of his comics are found in the fronts of various bookstores.

Then there is Vivien Chauvet, alias “Looky” who also comes from comics and has six titles to his credits. We both originally came from the same school and found each other again thanks to this project. His work focuses on the design, look and feel of the comic and the organization of the content panels.

He also helps in the creation of some environments and does part of the character posing.

Hercule is a powerful mercenary, half human and half alien thanks to cell transplants. He doesn’t fear death. In fact, a part of him is already dead: Haunted by a crime committed against his wife and children, he redeems himself by following orders from the Officers, no matter how insane they might seem. Hercule has no choice but to hunt aliens that come to planets colonized by humans.

His first mission is to kill the Nemean lion whose ship crashed and protects its seriously injured mate. In order to heal, the lion needs the blood of the humans living in the area.

The battle between Hercule and the lion will be challenging physically but will have an emotional cost as well when it awakens painful memories in the mind of our hero.

Yes, there will be a sequel. In fact, we have already signed with the editor for three albums and are in fact planning nine beyond that for a total of twelve.

Each volume will be based on the Hercules mythology. We will do our best to be close to the original mythology while adapting it to our very specific universe.

It is entirely thanks to Henk that the Hercule project is possible. Looky saw the Henk interview and my work at ZBrushCentral and contacted me directly, renewing our mutual contact lost a few years ago. He was already in touch with Morvan and the editor at Soleil for other projects and told me they were looking for a specific graphics style for a new project. It was to be very distinctive stylistically and more mature. Of course, this project was Hercule. So it is thanks to ZBrushCentral that I have been able to be published and undertake this long story!

The feedback I had was simply fantastic, even if the project is still ongoing. I had proposals for publications in the US, but I wish to finish more of the project first.

I intend to finalize the script, as well as the character design and creation by year’s end. Then I will be doing only production in January and February, depending on my work between Hercule and TeamTO. Speaking of TeamTO, I don't hesitate to show my project to some of their filmmakers to have their feedback. They are quite critical, which makes me pretty confident. I really want to do this project right and the professional critiques don’t scare me!

Henk will be a one-shot rather than an epic story with a complex scenario. That is not my goal.

Yes and no. It is true that I work a lot without caring about the time spent on it. Yet I have very little stress and I'm working with great pleasure. The more it progresses and takes shape, the more I'm motivated. That leads to very interesting things. So it's not really my Twelve Labors!

In fact, few people have noticed that my drawings were actually 3D models and renders. I had some feedback that the look was a little strange, especially in the amount of small details but really nothing about the 3D aspect.

After all, I must admit that the goal is actually to hide this 3D nature of the characters and/or environments. Many projects with 3D content have failed, but mainly because the 3D was really visible or too plastic; too typical. In my case it is very far from that. ZBrush can push details to the limits, altering the perfect aspect that tends to make 3D feel fake. I’m ultimately able to create an aspect that looks traditional.

The characters are all 3D models. Some objects like the spaceships are also in 3D. All outside environments are 2D, done by Looky who accomplishes this part with great ease and produces a high quality result. But 3D is almost everywhere!

Yes, Hercule is clearly in the tradition of French comics, with deep work on the images. It's a choice we made, even if here and there you can find some speed lines. But it’s nothing similar to what I did with Henk, where everything is much more pronounced.

As I mention earlier, Morvan is really in the script part and the decisions stage, specifying what happens in which panel. Then Looky comes next and does the design/layout for the panels. There is of course a lot of back and forth between them resulting in changes based on their discussions.

Then comes the implementation phase with a mix of work between Looky and myself for the environment, the posing with ZBrush (and Transpose Master!), the compositing, the rendering and ultimately the final assembly.

But it's really a team effort with plenty of back and forth between us.

The 3D was a selling point to the editor for this project. We didn't want to do a one shot album and wanted to minimize the risks. It's also why we have a dedicated writer!

The big advantage of working in 3D is the productivity gains that it can bring over the long term. The first volume requires a lot of work to prepare the characters and the various assets: spaceships, environments, props and more. That took a period of approximately 3-4 months. But once the preproduction is done, it is very fast to produce each page. There’s also more freedom to test out different changes without risks.

For your information, we can produce approximately four pages per week. That is really fast for a production that has so many small details!

It begins with a sketch by Looky. Next comes sculpting with ZBrush and sometimes a little Maya for some hard surface parts.

I then start the texturing/painting process where ZAppLink is mandatory for me! It allows me to work with Photoshop and have a lot of flexibility for this task. Of course, I'm doing a lot of back and forth between ZBrush and Photoshop. I’m also in constant communication with Looky and Morvan to get feedback on my work.

After that comes the posing in ZBrush. Like I mentioned indirectly before, I bless TransPose Master. Without it, I don’t think that this project could have ever been done. My Tools have a large number of SubTools and posing is a real pleasure with this plugin.

I have to say that the posing is first done on low resolution meshes without renders, like we do in animation with animatics. As with everything else, there is considerable back and forth between the team to validate this step.

Then comes the final render. The technique here is the same as for Henk. I prepare all my layers by using various MatCaps. One simulates the inking, one for the shadows, one for the specular highlights, etc. With each pass I use ZAppLink to send the ZBrush screenshots in Photoshop... all without using the BPR! My final images are only composite images made from ZBrush screenshots. They’re not even renders!

Finally, in Photoshop I composite all the ZBrush-created layers to create the final "render".

Of course we do edit the final images, but it is mostly quite small details. This is mainly to enhance or improve something, such as a corner of a mouth to create a better smile.

In fact, before finding ZBrush I had been thinking about the creation of comics, but without much conviction. Then I discovered TransPose Master and it triggered various things. In addition, thanks to the freedom of creativity when working with ZBrush, its accuracy and the fact that it brings this traditional feeling to the digital world, a project like this became very possible to jump into without fear. In fact, it’s the opposite of fear!

In addition, ZBrush’s MatCaps allow me to produce the final "rendering" without waiting for hours like other rendering engines require!

So yes, this project would not have been possible without ZBrush!

In truth, I always come back to my old habits and haven’t really explored all the possibilities that ZBrush offers to me. Although recently I tried the new IMM brushes with the TriPart option -- especially those by Etcher -- and it's awesome!

For the Hercule project, these additions weren't available yet! Right now, it is important for me to work with SubTools. I prefer having a lot of SubTools rather than a single Tool. The reason is quite simple: Transpose Master! So for my needs it's better to minimize the insertions and maximize the SubTools.

However, it is important to keep in mind that these additions bring a lot of alternatives in various creation scenarios. It is one of the greatest strengths of ZBrush to have multiple ways for achieving a result and not be limited by one solution.

In fact, it's not really a "function". It is simply the ability to use ZBrush with a pen tablet and have access to the pressure sensitivity. It becomes instinctive to create with ZBrush and it perfectly transcribes the artist’s sensitivity. It's a whole; not only the tablet of course, but the tablet with ZBrush that is able to create this feeling. I’m able to feel like and artist, rather than a technician!

Well, I'm rambling but it really is TransPose Master which makes this comic possible. Without it, no complex model posing would be feasible. Nor would I be able to do so much variation in poses.

No, I don't think so. When cinema made its debut it didn't make traditional theatre vanish. In addition, in the context of Hercule (or Henk) people don't necessarily realize that it is 3D. So they don't ask themselves if it's better or worse. (Note from the editor: This attitude also parallels what can be read in various reviews and reader feedback.)

Also, some authors use 3D as an assistant for their drawing, as a way to have better perspective or for some environments. But they don’t use it as a replacement for their pens. In a way, it's more an addition to a toolset than a replacement.

You just have to start or nothing will happen! In my case, it simply hit me; I didn't see it coming! This was thanks to ZBrushCentral exposure and the Henk Interview!

The internet is a fabulous tool to be seen by a lot of people, but before reaching this stage you must forge ahead without questions... or nothing will happen anyway.

It is a little bit early to give an accurate answer, but it seems to please people and sell. What is certain is that the use of 3D is invisible to most people.

I will make an early bet that we win!

Thank you very much for the opportunity of this new interview!


Thank you to Edition Soleil for the publication of these images and comics panels, and to Looky for the publication of some of his sketches.

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