Pros: Transpose and real-time posing; mesh extraction. Subtools. HD geometry. Local subdivision and layers. New brushes. Precise controls. Multi-threaded multiprocessor support.
Cons: No equivalent Mac version yet. Fairly steep learning curve. No animation capabilities.
ZBrush allows you to sculpt and manipulate 3D models and paint and work with 2D images, but also combines both concepts in a unique ‘2.5D’ workspace.
Some of ZBrush's functionality can be compared to organic modellers and high-resolution sculpting applications like Mudbox and Modo, but the very individual workflow and tool techniques mean it’s an application that you’ll either love or hate.
The new release has a host of new features, not least that it can take advantage of multi-processors and is multi-threaded for speed. Sure enough it gave a speed increase of 25 per cent in our test on a 2.6GHz Intel Core 2 Duo system. Unfortunately version 3.1 is only currently available for Windows (we tested it on Vista), with ZBrush for the Mac dawdling at version 2.0.
There’s also the ability to apply real-world texturing, shadows and lighting by sampling directly from a photo or image using the MatCap tool. Samples are built up from various areas of the reference photo, creating a new lighting environment from the cumulative result. It will only capture basic material properties such as diffuse colour and specularity, though, not transparency or procedural colouring effects.
Real-time posing and deforming is another new facility, accessed via the new Transpose feature, with topological masks used to isolate body parts and object elements and an action line applied to control the transformation.
This works moderately well in practice, but you’ll often need to use the associated mask blurring feature, which allows you to adjust mask intensity gradation around areas of your model prone to significant distortion. However, this is easily achieved by Ctrl-clicking on the masked area.
Other features like 3D layers and local subdivision – so you can add detail only to areas you need it most – are also useful. This seems to be a trend in sculpting packages, with Mudbox also offering similar facilities.
However, ZBrush also introduces HD Geometry with this version (above), which allows you to divide a model up to one billion polygons and work on an individual area at this high subdivision level. This isolated work mode means that the system can still be responsive while dealing with ultra-high resolutions. Clicking the Sculpt HD button renders the HD geometry and the results can be very impressive.
Modellers are also well served by Subtools, which let you break down a single mesh into numerous independent and therefore manageable elements. The mesh extraction feature makes it quick and easy to create new elements such as clothes from existing surfaces using selection by masking, visibility and layers. There are also several new brushes including the lazy mouse setting for jitter-free brush strokes and steadied control, as well as precise brush controls like gravity.
As before, experienced modellers will need to approach ZBrush with an open mind, but this version offers superior organic modelling, high speed and very high quality paint and materials facilities. Novices may need to consult the online help facility though, as there’s definitely a steep learning curve involved.