Introduction: The Engagement Box (from 3DS and ZBrush to Reality)

About: I am a video game environment designer by day. I am a prop builder by night.

  In this Instructable I will give a detailed overview of how I created a jewelry box in 3DS Max and Zbrush before having it printed by Shapeways.  I designed the jewelry box with the intention of proposing to my girlfriend with the ring inside.  The box was designed in the Art Nouveau style with flourishes reminiscent of the Elven scenery of Middle Earth. I wanted this to be very personal, so her face was sculpted onto the lid with the help of a friend from a series of candid profile images. 

Step 1: 3DS Max 1: Rough Shape

  Work began in 3DS Max 2012 where I started by drawing a simple subdivided Plane.  I applied a FFD 4x4x4 modifier and began to pull back the corners to give the front a rounded appearance.  The Shell modifier was applied next to give the box some height with some subdivision segments.  Lastly, I selected the front row of polys on the top of the box and performed a Hinge From Edge operation that created the rough rounded shape at the top of the box.

Step 2: 3DS Max 2: Shape Refinements

 I needed to cleanup up some of the extraneous faces that were made from the Hinging operation and weld the vertices where they connected at the back of the box.  I also needed to straighten out the rear edges so they would be flush with the back of the box.  I selected the problem edges and used the Straight command under Loop Tools/Curvature.  This straightened out the edges but also created a disruptive shape between the front and back of the box.  I was able to smooth this out by selecting the problem edges and applied the Relax command (also under Loop Tools/Curvature) until the top had smooth contours.

Lastly, I applied the FFD 3x3x3 modifier to raise the top center of the box and create the space where the face would later be sculpted.

Step 3: 3DS Max 3: Lid Shape

  I needed to prepare to separate the lid from the bottom portion.  I wanted the lid to taper to a point in the front, so I selected the vertices of the lower half of the box and performed a series of FFD deformations until I got the shape that I liked.  I used the Space and Relax commands to even out my edge loops.  I then selected the polygons that I wanted to comprise the lid and detached it as its own object.  I then applied the Shell modifier to both parts so they would both become parts with exterior and interior geometry with width.

Step 4: 3DS Max 4: Loop Refinements

  I added additional loops and refinements so the mesh would subdivide more cleanly when applying the Turbo Smooth modifier.  Each part was then exported as an .OBJ to Zbrush for detail sculpting.

Step 5: 3DS Max 5: Facial Construction

  I wanted the box to feature my fiance's face on the lid.  However, I am not a character sculptor and work mainly with environments.  I tried numerous solutions.  My first attempt was a disappointment that looked nothing like her and my second attempt was even worse. I enlisted the help of a fellow Gears of War artist Mark Morgan (who was responsible for many of the games cool beasties and characters).  Mark arrived at a solution of morphing the geometry of a stock character model to match her facial proportions.  I had surreptitiously snapped some profile pics of her with my iPhone and he used these as the alignment images.  We had to compensate for the slight foreshortening in the front view but the end result was a perfect match.

  This head model was then exported as an .OBJ where it would subdivided and tweaked in ZBrush before integrating it into the main body of the box.

Step 6: ZBrush 1: Sketch Base

  With the proportional construction finished in Max, it was time to begin sculpting in Zbrush.  I imported the lid .OBJ and saved it as a Ztool.  I then imported the bottom part of the box and appended it to the lid Ztool as a sub-tool.  I began loosely sketching the design that I wanted onto the box with the Standard and Dam Standard brushes*.  This "sketch" served as a guide that I would refer back to when sculpting that parts that follows the line art.  You can see the face shape roughed into the front of the box.  I imported the Head mesh .OBJ, appended it as a sub-tool, and used the Transpose tool to position it over the face rough.

* I am enclosing images of the brushes that I find most useful in each step for Hard Surface sculpting in ZBrush.  I highly suggest creating your own sub palettes for the tools you use most since the default interface can be rather cumbersome.

Step 7: Zbrush 2: Building Decor With Shadowbox

  I wanted to begin detailing the box by sculpting the hair that would be flowing over the top of the box.  The easiest way (IMO) to create objects from scratch in ZBrush is to use the Shadow Box.  Shadow Box creates objects from profile shapes drawn on each axis plane.  I began by appending a Sphere as a sub-tool and entered the Shadow Box editor.  Before doing so however, I increased the Shadow Box resolution to insure that I had adequate geometry.  The round profile of the sphere was projected onto each plane of the box where I would edit them with the masking tools.

  The best way to edit each plane was to first isolate them by Ctrl+Shift clicking the surface I wished to drawn on.  After I had isolated a single drawing plane I began using the Masking Curve to begin drawing the chunk of hair.  I drew on each isolated surface until I had the desired shape.  

Step 8: Zbrush 3: Refining Decor With Hard Surface Techniques

  Once I was satisfied with the shape of the hair chunk, I used the DynaMesh* function torecreate the mesh with a completely uniform distribution of  quadrangular ("quads") polygons.  I then wanted to shave away and refine some additional edges to make the chunk more natural.  For this I used the Clip Curve tool (Shift + Ctrl drag).  I wanted to be able to select and discreetly edit the areas I had exposed from shaving off the polys.  I Right-Clicked on the work space while the Clip Curve was active and selected the Poly Group option from the menu.  This created a new poly group that I could select and isolate every time I used the Clip Curve.

  As I began to arrive at a more pleasing shape I used the hPolish, Flatten, and Trim Adaptive brushes to smooth out the mesh into a more polished design.

  I wanted to keep the brush strokes clean and uniform so I activated the Lazy Mouse (L) option beneath the Stroke pallet.  Lazy Mouse functions as if the mouse cursor was dragging a string behind it with the active brush attached to the other end.  This allowed me to control the direction of my stroke with as little jittering as possible.  

  I decided that I wanted to indicate some rough hair strands before I moved onto the next step.  I selected the Rake brush, changed the impression to ZAdd and increased the Lazy Mouse stroke length.  A couple of strokes created the result that I desired.

DynaMesh is a great tool for rebuilding an object into a clean model of quads when creating your rough shape.  However, DynaMeshcan and will obliterate finer details so I try to limit its use to the early phases of modeling a particular shape. 

Step 9: Zbrush 4: Transposing and Blending Decor

  Now that I've made a basic "hair chunk" it was time to duplicate it into a series of parts that I could shape into the full head of hair.  I duplicated and mirrored the hair into a series of sub tools.  I then appended the face mesh and used the Transpose tool to move the hair chunks into an area that approximated the scalp area.  I used the Transpose tool again to create masks by holding the Ctrl button while dragging.  After blurring the mask a few times I was able to use the Transpose tool to create soft bends in the contours of the hair.  I sculpted the flow of the hair by alternating the use of Transpose with the Move and Move Elastic brushes.  

  I needed to add some extra body to fill the spaces between the hair parts so I used the ClayBuildup and cleaned it up with the Trim Adaptive, Flatten, and hPolish brushes.  I decided to merge the finished hair with the face mesh. To do so, I selected Merge Visible from the sub tool palette.  This created a new tool comprised of all of the hair and face parts.  I appended the Merged Tool and duplicated it.  I then performed a DynaMesh operation on the duplicate to create a solid mesh of quads.  I set the resolution a little high (512) to retain as much detail as possible.  Loss of fine detail is inevitable when using DynaMesh (although you should never really add fine detail until you are done using DynaMesh) but I was able restore the original detail with a combination of Project All and the Z Project brush. 

  I turned off the visibility of all other sub-tools so that only the Merged Hair/Head sub-tool  and DynaMeshed sub-tool could be seen.  I then selected the Dynameshed sub-tool and hit Project All on the sub-tool palette.  Doing so projects sculptural detail from the visible source mesh onto the currently selected mesh.  The results were mostly good but there were some jaggy polygonal artifacts.  Luckily, these were very easy to clean up with the ZProject brush.  This tool is like a manual approach to the Project All operation.  Basically, the way it works is that it pushes (ZSub) or pulls (ZAdd) your working mesh into the shape of your source mesh.  I was able to paint that original detail back into my mesh by alternating between the ZSub or ZAdd with the Alt key. 

One final step was to pick out some additional detail with the Rake and Pinch brushes and create areas of focus.

Step 10: Zbrush 5: Extraction Techniques

  Once I had established a focal point with the head and hair I proceeded to sculpt the rest of the detail.  I used the "sketch" model to determine how and where I was going to begin sculpting.  I kept the Sketch model in one sub-tool layer and the smooth original model in another so I could refer back to the sketch for ideas.

  Using the Mask Pen, I began drawing a loose mask that I would use to create an "Extraction".  An Extraction is a mesh that has been extruded from a shape masked onto your base geometry.  After determining a general area with the Mask Pen, I began to clean up and sharpen the shape with the Mask Curve.  The depth, edge smoothness, and surface of an Extraction can be modified in the SubTool palette.  The resulting mesh will be displayed as a preview until you decide to make it final.  The mesh will then be added as a sub-tool to be modified.  You can see that I used an X-Axis mirroring operation to give it symmetry.

Step 11: Zbrush 6: Extraction Refinements

  Masking and poly groups are automatically applied to the inner and outer surfaces of newly Extracted meshes, leaving the edges of the sub-tool open to tweaking.  I  typically like to apply a very slight Inflate operation to the edges to each extraction to give them definition.  I then UnMask the sub-tool and use Transpose,Move, and Move Elastic brushes to tweak the shape of each piece.  This allowed me to pull the edges into refined corner shapes or further imbed the design into the main body of the box geometry.   

Step 12: Zbrush 7: Extraction Integration

  After I refined the shape of my extracted sub-tools, I underwent the process of mirroring them using Mirror and Weld and then using the aforementioned techniques of the ZProject brush to integrate the shape of the Extraction into the main body of the box.

  Most of the brush effects in ZBrush can be applied with symmetry.  You can activate Symmetry and the preferred axis under the Transform palette or simply hit "X".  I activated Symmetry on the X-Axis and began painting with the ZProject brush on the base mesh with the extraction visible in the background.  This began transferring the detail from the extraction to the lid of the box.

Step 13: Zbrush 8: Building Up Detail

  By this time, I had established a rhythm of techniques that I was very comfortable with repeating.  It would be wildly redundant and tedious to describe (and read) the process of creating each and every piece of decor that went into the creation of the final model.  I referred constantly to the sketch base model and repeated the process of masking, extracting, and tweaking as described in Steps 7-12 until I had well over 60 different deco sub-tools.  I took this one piece at a time working slowly away from the head until I had completed the design of the lid of the box.

  Once I was satisfied with my design, I used the Project All* and ZProject brush techniques described in Step 9 to blend them into a single airtight mesh that composed the lid.  After everything was projected I decided that I needed to accentuate some of the edges to create more visual rhythm and contrast.  I selected the Pinch brush with the Symmetry activated and brushed over some areas with a low Z Intensity until I had the desired effect.

*  Project All can sometimes crash or take a very long time to process if you are projecting too many sub-tools at once or if the sub-tools are too high poly.  It is often better to project shapes in clusters rather than all at once.

Step 14: Zbrush 9: Final Details and Decimation

  The lower part of the box was much easier to do after I had my technique down.  I simply followed the designs on my Sketch mesh and repeated Steps 6-13 until I had achieved a completely detailed design.  Again, I had created so many decorative sub-tools (over 30) using the same techniques it would be redundant and wasteful to describe each one.

  Once the bottom part of the box was finished I needed to lower the poly count to under 500K before I could upload my model to Shapeways for printing.  ZBrush features a plug-in called Decimation Master that allowed me to select the desired poly count and recalculate my meshes accordingly.  Decimation Master does an amazing job of removing polygons while retaining edge detail.  The resulting mesh will be built from a somewhat tangled web of triangular polygons that will be difficult or impossible to edit later so I needed to be sure that I was absolutely satisfied with my design.  I was, so I ran the lid and the bottom mesh through Decimation Master until each was model was just under 500K.

  I then exported each model as an .OBJ and imported them in 3DS Max where I exported them as .STL (stereolithograph) files that could be read and processed by Shapeways.

Step 15: Painting the Print

  I received my print(s) in less than 2 weeks and was more than satisfied with the results.  I wanted the jewelry box to be metallic in appearance rather than ceramic.  Shapeways does offer 3D printing in metal but it was far more than I could afford and I was already spending quite a bit.  I opted instead to paint it like I had with my other props.

  I primed the box with a base of black PlastiKote spray paint.  After it was dry I gave it a dusting of Testors Titanium and Gun Metal metallizer spray paints.  The edges were picked out and high lighted with Rub-N-Buff silver leaf.  I lightly dabbed it on with my finger and polished the box with a soft rag until the metallizer paints and silver leaf became reflective.

Step 16: Presented and Accepted

  The final result was presented as a surprise with the engagement ring inside on Carolina Beach one evening last July.  To my lasting joy, she accepted my proposal and we are in the planning stages of a fall wedding.  So rarely has a project been so satisfying.  Do something you love for someone you love.

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