Research Blog – History of Digital Sculpting

Although I am doing the VFX specialization, I am sticking to mostly the modelling side of things so I wanted to research an aspect of modelling that heavily influenced the VFX industry. That is why I chose sculpting, it is really hard to talk about the history of any particular aspect of modern visual effects, as the industry changes so rapidly. But build on my research I will also be briefly looking into traditional sculpting for films and how it has influenced digital sculpting for films.



Sculpting has been imperative to VFX since the very early days, most creatures or monsters that where part of films before the digital era wouldn’t have been possible to make without sculpting. Sculpting was was imperative in the design process of a film as well as from a post production stage. Talented sculptures would often make maquettes (small scale sculptures) to assist in the design process making changes according to the producers or directors demands . From There they would make several different scales of the sculpture with different amounts of detail depending on the needs of the film.

Although this allowed films to integrate elements that wouldn’t be possible otherwise, it was a painstaking process not only in the creation of the model, but also in its animation as it would have had to been animated by stop motion. This old method of creating effects still has its place but it a slower process and in many cases harder to make look realistic.

It has to be considered that traditional maquettes where often scanned for creating highly detailed organic models.


The introduction of digital sculpting in modern VFX is a hard one to research as its adoption was very fast, and it is a one man show in terms of software as Zbrush is the leading package. Zbrush was first launched commercially in 1999 with version 1, it had some industry recognition but it wasn’t part of any major industry pipeline.

Its first major part into a major industry production was with the beta of Zbrush 2, being a key part in the pipeline for the last Lord of the rings Film. “it quickly became one of the key software components of our modeling pipeline. The revolutionary nature of ZBrush leads to Weta Digital creating a new approach to modeling hero creatures, digital doubles and props for film 3 in the trilogy. Throughout our work on “Lord of the Rings” we have been extracting displacement maps from high resolution geometry. For films 1 and 2 we were obliged to use 3D scans of physical maquette to obtain this high resolution geometry, a time consuming and expensive process, because software didn’t exist that could sculpt geometric detail to the level required.”



George Lucas’ special effects company Industrial Light & Magic announced that they had adopted ZBrush into the studio pipeline. And whatever ILM does often establishes the industry standards and trends.

What made Zbrush explode into the industry was the ability of exporting normal and displacement maps from the high detail sculpt. These maps could be added to a lower polygon rendering model which would be controlled by an even lower polygon animation model. This allowed the control of animating a lower polygon model with rendering a highly detailed model, this information could be obtained previously from scans but this greatly sped up the process. Newer releases of Zbrush have brought more powerful tools, most notably more traditional modelling tools, the ability to redistribute topology along the model and bigger integration.

There are other packages and even traditional 3d packages such as Maya have their own version of digital sculpting, but Zbrush is without a doubt industry standard and has no major competitors.


Digital sculpting has blurred the line between creating 3D objects in real or in a computer, giving more artistically inclined modelers more creative freedom. It had become a key tool in the concept stage as changes can be done quickly and it allows for a deeper critique than if it was a 2d concept, in some cases it has completely replaced 2D  concept art, as it IS fast and flexible for the fast environment that is VFX.

It has also influenced greatly organic modelling pipelines, and to a lesser degree hard surface modelling, with the ability of producing bakes of displacement and normal maps. Most models are easier to create and also of higher fidelity.



May 2005: ZBC Hits 50,000 Member Milestone. (2016). Retrieved 8 May 2016, from

Okun, J. & Zwerman, S. (2010). The VES handbook of visual effects (pp. 4-13). Amsterdam: Focal Press.

Pixologic :: Interview :: Zack Petroc. (2016). Retrieved 8 May 2016, from

Pixologic :: Pixologic :: Industry :: Films and VFX. (2016). Pixologic :: Pixologic :: Industry :: Films and VFX. Retrieved 8 May 2016, from

The Evolution of VFX in Movies: The 60s Till Now. (2015). Digital-Tutors Blog. Retrieved 8 May 2016, from


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