Wednesday, March 6th, 2019 Posted by Jim Thacker

Check out the new features in ZBrush 2019

Pixologic has unveiled ZBrush 2019, the next major update to its digital sculpting software.

The release adds a non-photorealistic rendering toolkit, new alpha modelling functionality, a universal camera, support for folders, and updates to the ZRemesher retopology system.

The update also introduces subscription licensing for ZBrush, although perpetual licences are still available, while the update itself is free to existing users.

New non-photorealistic rendering capabilities
Of all the features shown during yesterday’s announcement stream on Twitch, the most unexpected was the new non-photorealistic rendering (NPR) toolkit.

NPR was the only major change to the software not listed in the teaser image Pixologic posted last week – although it was hiding in plain sight, the entire image having being rendered to look like a vector graphic.

ZBrush 2019’s new NPR capabilities make it possible to set up toon shading effects. Image: Brett Briley.

Unlike other DCC apps, Pixologic’s implementation of NPR is more of a kit of parts with which non-photorealistic and natural media effects can be achieved, rather than a single all-in-one toon shader.

Significant components include the ability to display flat shadows in real-time renders, and a “completely recoded” outline system, available via the Material palette.

Pixologic describes the new outline system as being able to achieve an “almost pencil-like quality”. Users can also change the colour of the outline via the Cavity colour of the material.

Some of the range of effects possible with ZBrush 2019’s new NPR filters.

Mimic print effects and natural media via the new NPR filters
Together, the two features enable users to create a toon-shaded effect, further supplemented via “huge” changes to the filter system in the BPR (Best Preview Render) system.

The update adds 19 new post-process effects that can be layered on top of base renders to mimic the look of print or natural media.

Two significant filters are Displace, which can be used to add a fuzzy, hand-drawn quality to outlines, and Texture, which overlays a custom texture image over the base render.

The latter can be used to apply custom hatching effects to the shadow areas of renders, with the option to fine-tune the results by adjusting alpha masks or blending modes.

Other filters generate Ben-Day dots and screentone effects.

For natural media effects of the type associated with applications like Corel’s Painter, the Overpaint Color filter converts the base image into a squared grid based average underlying colour.

Although it initially looks like a simple pixellation effect, by adjusting the size, shape and orientation of the squares – it’s possible to turn them into anything from long stripes to randomised shapes – the filter can be used to mimic a range of natural media, from charcoal to oil paint.

With a bit of ingenuity, the new NPR filters can be combined to mimic a range of real-world media: the image above shows part of a scene by Pablo Munoz Gomez, rendered to look like an oil painting.

More fiddly than in other DCC tools, but also more flexible?
Our initial impression is that ZBrush’s NPR functionality is that it’s more versatile than that in many DCC applications – there are some great examples of how far the effects can be pushed in the online gallery of images created by beta testers – but that it may take more tuning, in more different parts of the UI.

However, Pixologic says that ZBrush 2019 will ship with a range of presets, available via the Lightbox browser, and as users share their own settings, it should become easier to get started.

Another question, already raised in some community forums, is why a modelling application like ZBrush needs a relatively specialised set of render effects.

During the livestream, Pixologic creative development manager Joseph Drust discussed potential benefits of the NPR toolset for artists who don’t generate final renders in ZBrush, suggesting that it provided another “take” on existing models, helping to suggest future changes.

For artists for whom ZBrush is their primary – or only – DCC application, it also opens up the possibility of using the software as an illustration tool.

Examples shown in the stream suggest that it is possible to get some quite nice effects from very simple base models and a bit of Polypaint work, if you apply the new filters creatively.

Unlike many applications, it’s also possible to continue to sculpt a model while a toon shading effect is being displayed, opening up new, more interactive ways of creating illustrations.

The new Snapshot3D option in Spotlight makes it possible to extrude 2D alpha shapes into 3D forms.

Convert 2D alphas to 3D forms with Spotlight’s new Snapshot3D system
Another major feature announced during the stream is the new Snapshot3D option within the Spotlight Dial.

It turns Spotlight from a texture projection system into a modelling tool in its own right, extruding a 2D alpha image to create a 3D form.

It’s backed up by other, quite extensive, changes to Spotlight, including a new bounding display for the alpha being applied, and new pivot point and snapping options for positioning it.

There are also new controls for scaling and flipping alphas, or combining them via Boolean operations, making it possible to quickly build up complex shapes from simple 2D primitives.

The resulting 3D forms can themselves be combined using ZBrush’s existing Live Boolean system, making for a quick and intuitive-looking hard surface modelling workflow.

Pixologic says that ZBrush 2019 will ship with a library of readymade alphas for Snapshot 3D, although users can also import vector shapes created in other software.

Group SubTools into folders to speed up edits to models
The other major new features in ZBrush 2019 – the folder system and the new Universal Camera – were less of a surprise, having been shown publicly at ZBrush Summit last year.

The former – a long-awaited addition – makes it possible to group SubTools into folders, in turn making it possible to move, scale or duplicate entire chunks of a model in one go.

It doesn’t seem to be possible to nest folders, but you can merge the contents of separate folders into one, or even merge the contents of a folder into a single SubTool.

The SubTool Master plugin and Live Boolean system have also been updated to work at folder level.

New Universal Camera replicated real-world lens properties
The new Universal Camera, enabled by default, replicates real-world camera properties like focal length and field of view, making it easier to match 3D models created in ZBrush to photographic backplates.

Camera settings can be exported directly to KeyShot, ZBrush’s de facto third-party renderer; and to other DCC applications via the FBX ImportExport plugin.

It is also now possible to set up and save multiple camera views for a project, to lock the camera to prevent the view shifting accidentally while modelling, and to undo changes – the camera supports 14 undos/redos.

Left: an unmodified Live Boolean source model. Centre: retopologised output in ZBrush 2018. Right: the result using ZRemesher 3.0 in ZBrush 2019 – around a third of the poly count of ZBrush 2018.

ZRemesher 3.0: improved speed and accuracy of automatic retopology
Of the existing toolsets, the biggest change in ZBrush 2019 is to the ZRemesher retopology system.

The new implementation – officially ZRemesher 3.0 – updates the base algorithms to reduce remeshing times and the poly counts of topologised meshes.

Pixologic didn’t put figures on the speed boost, but on the demo assets shown in the livestream, final poly counts were around a third to a fifth of those generated in ZBrush 2018.

The remeshing operation also now pays more attention to the curvature of a 3D model when determining polygon flow, helping to preserve sharp edges on hard surface models.

That holds true regardless of whether a model is divided into Polygroups, which should help when remeshing imported CAD files.

Pixologic says that the new algorithms also generate fewer errors on parts of models with very dense triangles, such as curved surfaces generated via Live Booleans.

For backwards compatibility, users can still select the algorithms used in ZBrush 2018 although, outside of the ‘problem’ areas of a model, the polygon flows they generate look pretty similar.

New(ish) ZColor and Intersection Masker plugins
The update also incorporates two plugins released at ZBrush Summit last year.

ZColor enables artists to manage colour palettes when Polypainting sculpts, while Intersection Masker automatically generates a mask where two objects intersect: previously a lengthy manual process.

The remaining plugin shown at the Summit, new UV unwrapping tool UV Peel, doesn’t seem to have made it into ZBrush 2019.0.

With ZBrush 2019, Pixologic has introduced new monthly and six-monthly subscriptions, although perpetual licences are still available, and the update itself is free to existing users.

New subscription options, but perpetual liences are still available
The other major change in ZBrush 2019 is to the licensing conditions, with Pixologic introducing new monthly and six-month subscription options.

While many in the CG community view subscriptions with suspicion, their introduction having been the first step towards a rental-only model in other software, Pixologic’s FAQs state fairly categorically that the firm “will continue to offer perpetual licenses for all [of its] products” and that all existing licences are perpetual “and will remain so, with exactly the same benefits they have always included”.

The one bit of wiggle room is the statement that while free upgrades to perpetual licences are guaranteed for a year, they “may continue past that at the sole discretion of Pixologic”.

However, given that the firm’s track record on that front is unparalleled, at least among commercial CG software developers – for existing users, ZBrush 2019 is yet another free update – we imagine that most people will be inclined not to read that as a hint that further changes are imminent.

Pricing and system requirements
ZBrush 2019 is available for Windows Vista and above and Mac OS X 10.10 and above. The update is free to existing users.

New perpetual licences cost $895. Subscriptions cost $39.95/month or $179.95 for six months.

Read an overview of the new features in ZBrush 2019 on Pixologic’s website

Watch Pixologic’s Twitch stream showing the new features in ZBrush 2019 in more detail

Image credit: Images used on the homepage of the website for this story were created by Zhelong Xu.