• Jack Zhang continues to surprise us with another power-encrusted image, complete with a well-deserved CGChoice Award.

    CGSociety :: Tutorial
    30th April 2009, by Jack Zhang

    Jack Zhang brings us his workflow tutorial for 'Two Mighty Kings', an image he won a CGChoice Award and an Excellence Award in EXPOSÉ 7.

    First I would like to thank CGSociety for giving me the chance to present my latest work, the ‘Two Mighty Kings’. As the author of this featured article, I’d like to present my content with a different approach. In this article, I will share not only how I create the image, but also some of the tips that I believe can help artists save their time in a challenge.

    ‘Journey to the West’ was the first idea that popped in my mind after reading the announcement of the new CGChallenge. It’s hard for someone who was born and lived in China for 16 years not to remember the famous legendary ‘Monkey King’. At first, I thought of making all three followers, the monkey, the pig, and the sea monster, fighting with couple of characters. I quickly abandoned that idea.

    It’s simply too much for me to handle within two months. What I learnt from the previous challenges is to keep my idea as simple as possible. So I thought of making just the monkey, fighting with one giant monster instead of several. And that was my early concept.

      Tip: ONE 
    Think about my real priorities.

    I’m sure we all agree that a great image causes great visual impact to the viewers. And the impact is caused by composition, light, color, pose and facial expression, etc.

    Personally I believe all legends/myths are equally interesting. No legend is ‘better’ than another. So why bother spending days choosing my subject if I know that the image will not be judged by either viewers or judges based on which legend you make?

    After the last challenge, ‘Uplift Universe’, I learnt my weakness: composition, light, and color. So I set my focus on those when I worked on my first concept. I grabbed a couple of elements from the web, put them together and created a quick concept art. It nailed down more than half of what I need: pose, light, composition. This five-minutes-quickly-put-together concept helped me greatly during the entire progress.

      Tip: Two 
    Concept is the key.

    Make a concept art before I start the real work helped a ton. A concept art helps to build up a prevision of my image, forcing me to think about many important factors such as composition, light, camera angle at the early stage of my work. I find that more I put consideration in pre-pro, easier and smoother my work in progress will become, thus less time I will take, and better result I will get.
      Tip: Three 

    Think about how my weakness against my subject.

    I usually think about how my subject affects my image and the level of difficulty of my work. Unlike a personal project, the time for a challenge is fixed. I only have certain amount of time to experiment and to execute. Therefore I try not to let myself run into things that I’ve never done before. Because without enough study and practice, it is very likely that I might run into something I don’t know how to make and get stuck and lose my time.

    For instance, if I want to do some sea monster legend, then I probably have to deal with water. No matter if it is an under-water scene or an above-water scene, I will have to deal with either under-water lights or wave and splashes. I’ve never done any cg water before and I don’t know how. To avoid the risk of getting stuck due to lack of skills and knowledge, I probably will consider changing my subject to something less water-involved.

    I started with the giant monster. He’s more important than the monkey king due to his massive size. I’d like the viewers to focus on him when they take their first glance at my image. The idea at the beginning was vague. Something like a giant lion-head, or a Minotaur, or anything with massive silhouette would do. Then somehow I started modeling a big gorilla. It didn’t take me long to realize how much King Kong inspired me subconsciously.

    King Kong was translated into Chinese by the way it is pronounced. The word ‘king’ does not get translated in the Chinese. Then someone replied in my thread, saying having king monkey and king Kong fighting together is such a wonderful idea. I slapped on my forehead, “darn it! It’s true, they are both king!” And that’s where the title of the work, the two mighty kings, came from!

    Modeling the Kong wasn’t really hard. I modeled simple gorilla then rigged and posed him. All the mechanical details where modeled based on the pose and from the chosen camera angle.

    I also modeled a set of gears and a set of pipes so I can reuse them on my character to save time.
    I need to know where I can cut to save time.
    Anything back faces the camera will be invisible to the viewers and those are the areas I can ignore.
    Let’s take a look at the mighty Kong from the camera, gorgeous isn’t he? Then check out the back of him.

    Once again, time is one of the key factors here. If I was making a character for turntable or animation, I definitely need to complete him. But that’s not the case I was dealing with.

    Back then I had two jobs, working for EA during the day and teaching at a private school during the night. This given situation didn’t allow me to spend much time to work on the challenge. That’s why I always make a break down list, assigning each of my tasks with a specific amount of time, in order to monitor my progress and to make sure I get things done on time

      Tip: Four 
    Do a break down sheet and assign time to each task.

    A break down sheet helps me to know better of what I need to do, how much time I have for each task, and how far I progress. I give more time for things I’m not confident with, like lighting and color for this challenge.

    Oh, and I usually push my own deadline two or three days before the challenge deadline so I can really make sure that I submit on time. Realistically estimate my time budget is also important.
      Tip: Five 
    Keep making sure I am on schedule.

    I usually check my progress every three days. No one can be productive every day. Sometimes I lose the creative sprits, sometimes I get sick, or have to spend time with love and family, or perhaps rushing a freelancing work, it’s normal.

    I regularly check my progress based on the time sheet I made for myself. If I’m on or even ahead of the schedule, great, if not, I’d hurry up and get back the time that I lost.

      Go to page 2

    The lighting set up was quite simple. In fact, it might be totally wrong in the eyes of a professional lighter.

    So according to the concept that I made at the beginning, I believe that my key light is my backlight. That backlight needs to help me pronouncing the silhouette of Kong, so I put two spotlights behind him on each side. The front of the character needs a bit light too since it would be too dark if my only lights are on his back. So I added a directional light in front of him. And… that’s it. That was my light set up. Moreover, there are three points lighting system in the eye sockets and the mouth of Kong, but that’s not a big deal.


    Good UV maps take significant amount of time to make. Considering my texturing skills are not that great, I decide to avoid any unwrapping, or texturing, with the goal of letting the shaders to work things out this time.

    There were six shaders helped me on achieving the 2D paint effect result.

    The first three are the shaders that I created specifically for this challenge.

    I was inspired by many references that other artists posted in their WIP. They are light-based procedural shaders, no textures were used, therefore they take quite long to render. Each of them took me about average of 9 hours with my close-to-5-years-old-station. The other three shaders are quite common. They are AO and Lambert shaders. The first Lambert shader with better contrast was used to nail down my lights and the second Lambert helped me to keep the volume of the character.

    I’m not a shader expert at all. But if you are one of them and believe there’s a better way to make those shaders, please feel free to let me know. I will be more than happy to learn from you, or maybe even buy you a lunch.

     Tip: Six 

    Know where to cut corners.

    Nobody cares how I did it as long as I did it. There are many working methods I can choose from. Using my strength, avoiding my weakness, and finding the best solution that works for me are my universal thinking patterns.

    For instance, sure, the shaders take long to render, but I can sleep during the rendering. If I decide to unwrap and texture my characters, I would have no choice but to sit in front of my computer all day long. Time saving + less work = happiness.


    I used default mental ray in XSI, followed by those settings. They are really simple, I mean, REALLY simple. As a character artist, rendering is definitely not my strength.

    This is where I start to paint. Honestly, for someone who has studied engineering, painting is not something that I’m good at. Luckily the shader passes helped me a lot. The six shader passes were combined together with some basic layering and masking work. Then I retouched the light and color a bit by painting them over. This is my first time to actually paint something. I’m pretty happy about the result of the flaming eyes and the mouth.

    Only Kong and the monkey are 3D elements. Everything else is resulted with hand painting and free photos that I found online. Here are some steps showing how the image turns from one character to near completion.

    During the retouch, I had a terrible accident. It was five minutes before I decided to stop and go to bed, and my .psd file corrupted during saving. Half of layers lost 90% of the diffuse information and the other half's masks are lost.

    Latest backup that works was 15 days ago and the time was close to midnight. I decided to recreate what I did in the past 15 days. It took me more than five hours, and I actually made it! (If anyone in my studio complains about no more coffee the next day, now you probably know who’s behind all that.)
      Tip: Seven 

    Save backup files regularly!

    I hope you learnt from my mistake. Never thought things like this can actually happen to a .psd file. Make sure you have a backup file from yesterday and a WIP file from today. It really helps.


    Final Image
    I hope you enjoy the presentation, as well as the final image.

    I’d also like to give my special thank to Joel Dos Reis Viegas and Carolyn Laplante, who gave me great help on lighting and coloring. As well as Donglu Yu, who gave me huge support everyday during the challenge and never fail to believe in me.


    About the artist
    I’ve been working in this industry for four years now. I’m currently working for Electronic Arts Montreal as a character modeler. CG takes a huge part of my life. I like to spend most of my off-work time working on personal projects. I also enjoy participating in the CGChallenges here in CGSociety. I like to experiment with different styles on my personal work and create images that tell stories. I also taught in a private school as a modeling and demo reel instructor. I love giving presentations and hope one day to give my own presentation in the ADAPT conference.

    Related links:
    ‘The Two Mighty Kings’ on CGTalk Choice award
    Jack Zhang CGPortfolio
    Flower Messenger’ on CGTalk Choice award
    ‘The making of Flower Messenger’ on CGSociety features
    Joel Dos Reis Viegas
    Carolyn Laplante
    Donglu Yu

    Discuss this article on CGTalk

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