DC artist and Gnomon graduate James Marsano explains his ZBrush and Maya workflow on his sculpts of Suicide Squad's Harley Quinn and The Joker.
For many comics fans, James Marsano has the ultimate job: he creates the statues of the superheroes that throng the shelves of their dens and bedrooms. A freelance sculptor working for DC Collectibles, James has created a string of figures based on the film adaptations of DC's characters, including Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, the upcoming Wonder Woman movie, and the Warner Bros. production of Suicide Squad, for which he created the statues of Harley Quinn and The Joker.
We asked James what goes into creating a collectible sculpt, how his studies at Gnomon prepared him for the work, and his advice for other would-be DC sculptors.
How long did you get to work on the Suicide Squad statues?
I started in November , and for Harley, there was a deadline in December for a toy fair, so I got roughly a month. I was working on a few other projects during that time, but Harley was my primary task.
What reference material did you get to work with?
Typically, I don't know anything about the films before I start working. For Suicide Squad, I received character turnarounds of the actors and promotional images with the actors in pose.
How specific is the brief you're given?
It varies. For Harley and The Joker, I was given their character personalities from the film. I find that working off a single image [as with Joker] gives me more artistic freedom, because then I have to figure out the rest, whereas with Harley, [the instructions] were very specific, especially about the pose, so it took longer.
DC Collectibles' statue of Harley Quinn from Suicide Squad. The original digital sculpt was created by James Marsano in ZBrush, Maya and Marvelous Designer.
Talk us through the process of sculpting Harley Quinn.
I began with a very low-res model piece [that had been supplied], so I had to up-res it and fix the proportions of the body in ZBrush. I don't work on a character in a specific order – I tend to go around [in passes] – so initially, I got the asset just good enough that I could start posing her with Transpose Master.
After the pose, the head was the most important thing. We needed the expression to look right. After the head, everything else follows: the T-shirt; the look of the jacket.
Harley’s props like the collar, belt, and some of her bracelets, were done early on to save time. It meant that I could just pop them in and pose [the character] and it would look detailed.
I focused on the hair and jacket last so I could spend my time doing those wrinkles!
Did you use any software other than ZBrush for the work?
I used Marvelous Designer for the jacket. It was the first time I've used it for work, so had to quickly figure it out in just a few days. I ended up using some of the templates [that come with the software] and altering them to fit a bomber jacket. In the end, a lot of the work was done in ZBrush. The cloth simulation [to ensure the jacket drapes realistically] was done in Marvelous Designer, but the styling of her jacket and the seams I did by hand.
I also used Maya for some of the props, like the baseball bat and the gun. You can't really see it on the statue itself – you can't take it out [from under Harley's jacket] – so I just modeled what would be visible. I also resurfaced the shoes in Maya to get a cleaner look, then merged them [back into the ZBrush sculpt].
See James discuss his work in a video interview from DC's YouTube channel.
What's the poly count for the finished sculpt?
The final total, with all the SubTools, would probably be 100 million polys – but since I have to decimate everything in the end, it just has to be watertight and print-ready. Every time I finished a piece like the collar or the gun, I decimated it [in order to be able to carry on working on the sculpt interactively].
I popped the props onto the character after it was posed so it was easier to manage; otherwise, ZBrush would freeze. Sometimes I worked on two different files: one for props and one for Harley herself.
Does the need to fabricate the model create any technical restrictions?
We needed to keep decimated models to around 30-50MB in size, which is around 200,000 to 500,000 triangles. Otherwise, they would create errors during printing.
Also, everything shrinks by 5% when printed, so you have to exaggerate the details in the sculpt. The head shrinks too, so we actually made it [an extra] 5% bigger.
Everything has to be waterproofed – there can't be any holes or weird floating geometry [in the mesh] – and I had to thicken up the hair so it can be molded and cast. Looking at The Joker, his hand is so close to his head that if you were to [strike that pose] yourself, some wisps of hair would go through your fingers. I had to make sure the hair was there, but that it didn't get in the way of printing.
How do you prepare the ZBrush sculpt for printing?
In addition to making sure the poly count is right and the geometry is waterproof, we also make sure the parts of the model and the male-female keys are Booleaned perfectly, leaving a little bit of tolerance [to allow for slight inconsistencies during fabrication]. We also limit the undercuts on the model and make sure that flesh parts are separate to make painting and prototyping easier.
Our prototyper and painter Jason Wires used a program called [Materialise] Magics to ready the meshes for printing. He uses a [Stratasys] PolyJet 3D printer to fabricate the model, then he can mold and cast the pieces in resin and paint the prototype.
Do you need to texture the model yourself?
I unwrap the models to make sure the UVs are in the correct order and direction. For example, I UV-d Harley's jacket to make sure the lettering was in the right place.
I also did some PolyPainting for her face just to show the filmmakers. And I did some KeyShot renders here and there. It wasn't necessary, but it helps to get approval.
Did Harley Quinn actress Margot Robbie like the statue once it was finished?
I didn't get to meet her, but I heard she mentioned it. It's cool – and very rare – to hear about things like that. Just knowing that she liked the statue was very humbling.
How many other statues have you sculpted for DC? Which is your favorite?
I've done nine statues in total, plus a few action figures. Of the ones that have already been released, my favorites are probably Harley because I learned something new, and Armored Batman because it was [so unusual] – it was a hard-surface project with a lot of details from head to toe. But each project is different.
How did you originally get to work with DC?
Shawn Knapp, Senior Art Director at DC Collectibles, contacted me six months before I graduated from Gnomon. We were mutual friends with a few other sculptors, and I guess he saw my work. He insisted that I finish school, and come to work with DC right after. I’ve been working with them ever since.
What advice do you have for young sculptors hoping to follow in your footsteps?
Just keep practicing. If there are things you aren't very good at, focus on those. And keep trying new things. I didn't know how to use Marvelous Designer before [the Harley Quinn sculpt]: I just Googled it and applied it in my pipeline.
[If you want to work on collectibles], make sure you learn how to do human anatomy well. It also helps if you can do a lot of different styles too.
How well did your time at Gnomon prepare you for the work?
I took the fundamentals from Gnomon: knowledge of ZBrush and Maya, and some things about rendering. When I was at Gnomon, it was like my second home: my peers were my family, so if I didn't know anything, I'd just ask around.
If you could go back to Gnomon, what advice would you give the younger you?
Stay focused on your goal and don't quit. Just finish things and it will all be fine.
See James's work everywhere comics are sold, including DC's online store
Hear James discuss his work for DC at Gnomon's 3D Printing Lab event
Read an interview with James about his time at Gnomon on CG Channel
Watch online ZBrush training from The Gnomon Workshop
Browse Gnomon's courses in digital sculpting
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