ZBrush 3.5 R3 Review: A New Paradigm in Sculpting Digital Clay

March 28, 2010 11:22 pm

Tags: 3D, Pixologic, product reviews, Ricky Grove, ZBrush

ZBrush 3.5 R3 Review: A New Paradigm in Sculpting Digital Clay

“There are some people who are kind of mathematical or very scientific about the way they do things. I'm more organic about it. I just want to get in there and start pushing stuff around and do something. And that's what I liked about ZBrush. It was so much like sculpting. When I made my first skull it was based on the modeling of a simple head or something and started with a sphere, and the fact that you could just push and pull the sphere and cut into it and add to it turn it around and look at it and light it and paint it. That was so cool. That was so much like sculpture, you know.”

-Rick Baker, Special Effects Make-Up Artist

When Pixologic was founded in 1998, it's main goal was to “simplify the science behind generating computer graphics.” At that point, Pixologic could learn from mistakes made by more established CG software companies who had been in business for over a decade. You see, part of what drives so many away from modeling, animation and 3D computer graphics is the massive learning curve that comes with the graphic user interface (GUI) of the application. A friend of mine who was learning one of the major 3D modeling programs years ago told me that it felt like “learning to pilot a submarine all by yourself.” Why make the interface an obstacle between the imagination and the work? Instead, create a software program that helps you to be more creative. One that actually makes it easier for you to be creative.

Enter Pixologic and ZBrush 3.5 R3.

ZBrush 3.5 R3 (Release 3, henceforth referred to as “ZBrush 3.5”) is a sculpting and painting tool that simplifies and aids artists in creating 3D models, 2D images and 2.5 Pixols in virtually limitless combinations. Built around “a principle of circularity, the menus in ZBrush work together in a non-linear and mode free method.” Rick Baker, a multi Oscar winning special effects genius, took to the basic organization of tools in ZBrush which, as he points out, was a lot like his traditional method of sculpting using an armature and building up from there like clay. In fact, you are actually working with digital clay when you create something inside of ZBrush. The difference is that you have far more possibilities with virtual modeling because you can work in layers, use elaborate sculpting brushes not possible in real life and can revert to an earlier version of your project at any time.

Main UI for ZBrush

The amount of new additions to ZBrush in the 3.5 version are so numerous that Pixologic released an 89-page document listing and explaing all of the new additions. Hard to believe that this release is a “point” release, since usually these types of releases are geared towards refining features added in the previous major release and in minor tweaks. The big changes are usually reserved for a major release to a new number. That Pixologic chose to add so many new elements and functionality to ZBrush 3.5 is nothing short of amazing.

I can't possibly cover all of the new features added to 3.5, but let me highlight some of the major ones and then talk about my experience using this outstanding program.

What's new in ZBrush 3.5?

  • Zspheres 2 is a major upgrade to the basic building blocks of ZBrush
  • HD Geometry allows for model creation with a billion polygons
  • New Brushes like Planar, Pen and Polish and new modifiers for each brush
  • Zsphere Sketch Mode allows for 3-way creation of models without restrictions
  • New Texture and UV management
  • New GoZ file format which allows for quick integration with other apps
  • Surface Noise allows you to apply procedural noise to your sculptures non-destructively
  • Lightbox browser allows you to search your computer for ZBrush content
  • Full 64-bit system integration and increased use of multithreading
  • Floor Grid and Axes to enable better orientation in 3D space
  • New Auto Groups with UV added which allows for auto-grouping by mesh and UV

How ZBrush Works

The main ZBrush interface is unlike most Windows-based UI's in that it's designed to allow you to use the interface creatively, by moving functions at the top of the UI to a main area on the right side for quicker access. Depending upon what you want to do in any given project you can combine any number of “palettes” (ZBrush term) like tools or transforms for quicker content creation. Essentially, you can re-design the entire interface since everything can be moved and then save that custom interface for future use.

Basically, ZBrush allows you to work in a variety of ways. The most basic of which, is to pick from a series of basic shapes, like a sphere or a cone, and then sculpt that shape using a huge variety of brushes to the desired shape. You can also use ZBrush's unique “Zspheres,” which are blob-like constructions that you can add to in order to create a basic armature or shape for your model. Then, by clicking a single button you can convert it to pixels and subdivide to your heart's content.

The Zspheres palette

ZBrush allows you to “transform” the Zspheres, add materials to the shapes and paint directly on the shapes in real-time. Very much like sculpting in real-life, Zspheres can be combined and manipulated to such a degree that the shapes can take on incredible detail and look remarkably organic.

One of the main concepts created by Pixologic to aid in the fast and organic creation of sculpted objects is the idea of “pixols,” or 2.5D. Similar to pixels, pixols contain additional data like Z, or depth information, and materials data in addition to the standard color info. Working with pixols is like working in 2.5 depth, where sliders in the Draw control palette allow you to adjust the interaction of depth, color and materials to a very high level of detail. And with the ZBrush real-time render engine, you can see the results immediately.

2.5D sketch function in ZBrush

In addition to an incredible level of control for sculpting your virtual clay, ZBrush 3.5 also allows you to pose your creations using real-time lighting, cameras and capture video of the interactions. You can even add fog to a scene and adjust the FOV of the camera you are using to view the scene. I suspect that version 4 of ZBrush will be adding to this mode as there are some limitations, although resulting images can be breathtaking.

The materials collection in ZBrush 3.5 is superb, allowing you to blend 3D objects with 2D images and create objects with an amazing variety of textures. MatCap is a mode in ZBrush which allows you to create a surface material AND a lighting environment by simply painting from an existing image or picture you have chosen. This feature alone is worth an entire review as it saves so much time and helps you create images of great depth and contrast.

Finally, Pixologic has made great strides in improving interactivity between other CG apps and ZBrush 3.5. The creation of the GoZ file format basically gives you a two-click method for working with programs like CINEMA 4D, where you click a button inside of ZBrush to export in the new format which contains much more ZBrush information (and smaller file size) than the obj format. Then, once the file is exported to another application, you use another button in that application to export back to ZBrush. At present, only Maya, CINEMA 4D and Modo are supported with GoZ, although the obj format allows for import/export to just about any 3D app.

Over 35 brushes can be used on included stock models

“What I love about ZBrush 3.5 and ZBrush in general is that it doesn't try to copy what the competition is doing but rather try and remove any barriers between your mind and the screen”

-Joel Mongeon, freelance modeler. CGSociety.com

Pixologic is an organization committed to making artists out of all of us. They want to help you not only master their ZBrush software quickly, but to design the application so that the artist can focus on creating and not interpreting through a myriad of buttons and modes. They also support the user with some of the best training and tutorials of any application I've reviewed. Their ZClassroom portal, their extremely active ZBrush Central forum community, ZBrush Wiki and release of several free plug-ins (UV Master and Decimation Master, in particular) are indications that this company is serious about customer support.

The pirate by George Krallis [Geographics]
ZBrush - 3ds Max - Photoshop

I found the installation and authentication of ZBrush to be the easiest of any CG program I've reviewed to date. The help functions inside the program are easy to use and very helpful. The interface takes a bit of getting used to, but I found that once I used a tool or a palette once, I knew where it was the second time. After a week or so, I was able to use the program very quickly and efficiently. On my Windows 7 64-bit computer, ZBrush performed like a champ with zero crashes and very fast response times.

ZBrush 3.5 R3 is one helluva program. I originally heard about it from friends who were using it to add detail to their existing models. But, after spending a month with this magnificent program, the possible uses are much deeper. From designing jewelry, to intuitive organic modeling, to recoding your 2.5 sketch project inside of ZBrush, this application is now a permanent part of my 3D toolkit. I cannot recommend this updated program any higher.

*~~,,Magesty,,~~** by [calum5]
ZBrush - Poser - Photoshop

ZBrush 3.5. R3 for Windows retails for $595 (and is worth every penny). The Mac/Apple OSX version is 3.12 (perhaps my only gripe with Pixologic is not getting the updated Apple version out sooner) is also at $595. If you want to own both PC and Apple versions, there is a nice discount of 50% for one of the applications when bought together. And all upgrades are free to registered owners (another very cool thing about Pixologic). The trial demo is free for 30 days and is very much worth your time.

My sincere thanks to Pixologic for providing this application for review.


The main Pixologic site has all the information you'll need. And here's a link to Renderosity's ZBrush Forum which also links some nice tutorials and free stuff.

Recommended System Requirements for ZBrush (Windows):

  • OS: Windows XP SP2/Windows Vista/Windows 7
  • CPU: Pentium D or newer (or equivalent such as AMD Athlon 64 X2 or newer) with optional multi-threading or hyper-threading capabilities
  • RAM: 2048MB (4096MB for working with multi-million-poly meshes)
  • Monitor: 1280x1024 monitor resolution or higher (32 bits)

You can find more information about system requirements (including MAC) here.

Be sure to check out the following:

All supporting images are copyright, and cannot be
copied, printed, or reproduced in any manner without written permission

Ricky Grove [gToon], Staff Columnist with the Renderosity Front Page News. Ricky Grove is a bookstore clerk at the best bookstore in Los Angeles, the Iliad Bookshop. He's also an actor and machinima filmmaker. He lives with author, Lisa Morton, and three very individual cats. Ricky is into Hong Kong films, FPS shooters, experimental anything and reading, reading, reading. You can catch his blog here.
March 29, 2010

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Article Comments

DRAKELOT ( posted at 11:32AM Mon, 29 March 2010

Just love this program ... xcellent review !!!

calum5 ( posted at 7:52PM Mon, 29 March 2010

Another spot on review,my thoughts..BUY IT NOW AND CHANGE YOUR CREATIVE LIVES!!You will learn the interface and then come back to thank Ricky (and me) ha ha..Proud to have a sample used in this review also:)Thanks cal.

gToon ( posted at 12:29AM Tue, 30 March 2010

Thank YOU for letting us use your incredible artwork in this review. Showing what can be done with this great program makes the review so much better. Very kind of you.

IO4 ( posted at 12:41AM Tue, 30 March 2010

Great review! I've never used it, and only heard of it, but it's great to know something about the programs available out there.

DemonMage ( posted at 7:28PM Tue, 30 March 2010

I kinda chocked on the $600 price tag at first. And I'll admit I was scared of the interface and thinking WTF have I gotten myself into here? But I'm really liking the freedom now that I've got the basics down. Well worth every single cent. BUY this program.

Oskarsson ( posted at 8:27AM Wed, 31 March 2010

It has changed the way I build content for the market here... and only in a good way. The best application out there, no contest.

gToon ( posted at 10:43AM Thu, 01 April 2010

thanks for your comments, IO4, DemonMage and Oskarsson. I appreciate it. I know what you mean by choking on the pricetag as I reacted the same way at first, but considering this program is so innovative, well-designed and backed by a company committed to improvement/support, it's more than worth the money. As Oskarsson points out, it will change the way you create. I just wonder what Zbrush 4.0 will bring. Can't wait to see what they will come up with Ricky

OriginOfWaves ( posted at 12:33PM Mon, 05 April 2010

All hail to the almighty ZBrush

macfan123 ( posted at 8:29AM Mon, 12 September 2011

ZBrush 4 on Mac platform is useless. I believe that ZBrush did not run well on the high end MAC with Quad core 2.2 GHz i7 processor, 8 GB memory (I have quad code 2.2GHZ I7 processor, 8 GB memory, 1GB AMD Radeon HD 6750m). Displaying only Sphere and rotating it, my I7 processor became maxing out (100% CPU utilization) & extremely hot (around 100 Celcius/212 Fahrenheit - I measure this temperature using utility tool) and the fan is rotating like crazy. This is really disappointed. ZBrush on Mac platform is useless & I regret buying ZBrush.

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