Iguana to Dragon: Transforming a Beloved Pet Into a 3D Character image

Iguana to Dragon: Transforming a Beloved Pet Into a 3D Character How artist Alexey Kashpersky uses ZBrush to craft lifelike renditions of his iguana, Tamerlan.

Alexey Kashpersky is an award-winning digital sculptor who grew up in Ukraine and specializes in scientific and medical visualization. He is also well known in the ZBrush community and in 2016, he won the official ZBrush “Image of the Year” award for his artwork “Reptile Queen.” 

Now based in the U.S., Kashpersky is a creative director at the 360 agency Dagr Nott & Associates (DNA), which specializes in VFX, scientific and medical animation, as well as AR/VR. We talked with him about his medical animation work, his somewhat famous iguana, and how he used ZBrush to turn it into a dragon for a sci-fi short he is working on called “Dragon and Me.”

Kashpersky: I have always been a dreamer with a passion for nature. My university education allowed me to morph from a dreamer to a creator over time. Improving my skills in classical drawing and sculpture, as well as 3D graphics, allowed me to get my first job as a 3D sculptor in 2006. Soon, I was able to turn my hobby into a full-time job and later become a scientific and microbiology artist.

Being a creative director at DNA is a great fit for me as I have always been interested in life science and biology. I happily studied biology books for students two to three years older than me. 

I moved to the U.S. in 2013 after winning an international World AIDS Day competition with a visualization of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). ZBrush played a key role in developing the virus characters, and those works were printed in more than 30 magazines and books around the world. Winning that competition opened many doors for me, and I got a lot of offers.

Kashpersky: Dragons and dinosaurs are my all-time passion, and I was known as “that dinosaur guy” when I was a child. Iguanas are the closest thing to one of those majestic ancient creatures. They are wild animals, but they can also be kept at home as pets. I got my first iguana when I was living in Ukraine, but I had to say goodbye to him when I moved to the U.S. because you can’t bring that type of animal on a plane. 

It was a hard decision. I dedicated the artwork “Reptile Queen” to him, and I still feel like a betrayer. Years later, I lost my job and decided to start my own medical animation studio with my business partner, which took years to become successful. On top of that I had a health issue that required very complex and expensive surgery, and my state of mind was not in a good spot.

Feeling I would benefit from a companion animal, I bought my dream iguana, Tamerlan. He is an albino, so Tam is mostly blind, and since I was hurt as well at the time, I think it enabled us to build a bond that is much stronger than one would expect. 

Kashpersky: Yes, I started the Dragon and Me account for fun and definitely did not consider it a serious thing. Soon, though, thousands and thousands of people started following us daily and I realized by posting my interaction with Tam online, I am sharing good energy, warmth, and positive emotions with people! 

Kashpersky: I am working on a short film that is a fairy tale for adults in the visual style of Frank Frazetta and Boris Vallejo, but it also has a sci-fi flavor to it. This is a story about a man who suddenly encounters unusual and supernatural things and must make a choice that will affect his entire destiny. The dragon will be a secondary character and companion, and the focus will be on the dragon-human relationship.

I have something life-like and realistic in mind, but it will still be considered magical and unique. What matters most is the story that touches the viewer, so they hopefully find something within themselves and empathize with the hero. That is my goal. 

The script is finished, and I’ve started working with a composer for the music. I am proud to combine my strengths with artists in other fields to create a unique experience. It’s going to be magical!

Thanks to sponsorship from Maxon, I was able to add to my savings and get some scenes filmed already, including some drone shots, which you have to have if you’re making a movie about a dragon. The first four minutes have already been comped and I really like the look so far.

I’m also working on a very complex scene where the dragon literally emerges from under the water. I have never done water simulations before, and it has been an interesting experience. 

Kashpersky: Getting the model right was a great challenge from the very beginning as I knew I would not have the budget or manpower to handle the complexities of close-up scenes with the dragon interacting with a human. 

Scenes where the creature sits on a human or lands on someone’s shoulder are the most time-consuming and expensive. My solution was to use live footage of my iguana for the closeup scenes and my 3D dragon model for the rest of the scenes. 

After 10 months modeling in ZBrush using 300 reference photos, the resulting 3D model is as close to the real-life animal as humanly possible. I worked obsessively in my spare time, trying to capture all the little details and nuances of my iguana to create a digital reproduction that is as close to the actual animal as possible. 

It was so intense that my wife almost forgot what I look like. But she was understanding and respectful of my dedication and goal. I am thankful for that. Now, when someone sends me a message saying it’s the most detailed 3D model of an iguana in the world, that’s all I need to hear. 

Kashpersky: I have a whole room in my house dedicated to shooting green screen footage, which I think I will 3D track and then merge with Unreal Engine environments. It is not going to be production-level quality, but good enough for me to accomplish what I want.

We have the model ready and rigged, and we are currently working on a library of animation cycles and simple movements. I am also sorting out a workflow for combining 3D footage and live video from the camera and my drone. Additionally, I’m working on a spinoff plot story that will make sense as a series of YouTube shorts but also will make sense in the context of a longer story in the future.

Kashpersky: I would never have gotten this far with this project if it weren't for the help of my friends and colleagues. My wife, Elena Kashpersky is the 2D artist on the project. On the consulting side I want to thank Alex Riazanov, Paris Hall, Loucas Rongeart, Marcus Ottosson, and Dan Katcher. Truong helped with rigging. Olha Parchuk and Jason Snyman shared their animation skills. Samuele Vona is the composer, and Jonathan Symmonds is CEO and co-founder of Sophoria Academy. 

Finally I am very grateful to everyone who has been supporting our project on Patreon, as well as sponsor subscribers on Instagram. Your belief in my dream is an invaluable motivation to me. 

Sebastian Becker is a senior writer at Maxon.