Bringing Corals to Life: Building Dynamic Rigs for Animation in Maya

Creating animations for scientific visualization often requires the use of custom rigs in order to manipulate the complex models we often encounter in our work. Standard entertainment industry tools and techniques that are often appropriate for characters and creatures are usually insufficient for visualization which means that we are required to build our own rigs. Building custom rigs demands a deep understanding of the Maya rigging and animation toolkit. This tutorial takes you through my process for creating a rig to animate a coral polyp that blends direct keyframe control with organic Maya Nucleus dynamic motion. The chapters in this tutorial go step by step through the process from building the virtual skeleton, to skinning geometry to the joints, to creating custom controls and attributes, and incorporating nDynamic hair curves into the rig. Along the way I demonstrate best practices for keeping the complex rig neat, orderly, and easy to use. The tutorial also covers using Maya shelf buttons and a limited amount of MEL scripting as a way to increase the speed of rig set up and reduce the tedium. The emphasis of the tutorial is on helping you understand Maya rigging technology so that you can design custom rigs for your own projects that will facilitate your ability to create compelling scientific visualizations using Maya.


  • Understand the need for creating custom animation rigs
  • Learn the how to create a skeleton for a multi tentacle organism using joints
  • Understand the various options for skinning geometry to a joint skeleton
  • Learn how to skin geometry to the skeleton and the benefits of different skinning methods
  • Understand skin weighting, influence objects, and blend shape deformers
  • Learn how to to use Forward and Inverse Kinematics
  • Learn techniques for creating ergonomic animation controls
  • Incorporate nDynamic hairs into Inverse Kinematic controls
  • Learn how to create custom Maya shelf buttons from snippets of MEL scripts

Modeling & Rendering Organic Structures in ZBrush & Photoshop: Branching Coral

Pixologic’s ZBrush and Adobe Photoshop are a popular combination for creating digital illustration. This tutorial is a step by step demonstration of how to create a compelling illustration of a coral colony. Starting from generating a 3D model of a coral polyp, you’ll learn how to build increasingly complex organic structures. You’ll see how the speed of your digital sculpting workflow can be increased by creating custom insert mesh brushes. You’ll learn how to texture, light, and render ZBrush models and how to build a Photohsop composite from render passes generated in ZBrush. This tutorial will inspire you to develop your own illustration process by learning intermediate to advanced ZBrush techniques and Photoshop techniques.


  • Develop an appreciation for coral approaches to modeling branching organic structures
  • Learn how to create a coral polyp model using ZSpheres
  • Understand the uses of insert mesh brushes
  • Learn how to quickly construct complex organic structures
  • Learn how to establish a composition in ZBrush
  • Learn how to paint textures on to a model
  • Learn how to render passes from ZBrush for use in an Adobe Photoshop composite
  • Learn how to create a digital painting in Photoshop from ZBrush renders

The Making of Apoptosome

A behind-the-scenes look at how we created our 2013 Apoptosome Assembly animation for Cell Signaling Technologies, with step-by-step tutorials that cover key concepts including research and pre-production, construction of complete protein models from available 3D structural data as well as missing data, and compositing techniques used to avoid split-attention issues.


  • Finding structural data in the Protein Data Bank and using the data to
    reconstruct complex 3D models in Maya & Molecular Maya.
  • Finding structural data in the Protein Data Bank and using the data to reconstruct complex 3D models in Maya & Molecular Maya.
  • Dealing with incomplete or controversial scientific information
  • Learning how to rig and animate multi-domain protein models
  • Using compositing techniques to increase clarity and viewer’s learning  experience

Intermediate Scientific Visualization with ZBrush: Drosophila Head

ZBrush is the perfect software choice for creating highly detailed and accurate models of organic structures. In this tutorial, Eric Keller demonstrates his entire process for modeling the head of the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster . The tutorial teaches you intermediate and advanced ZBrush modeling techniques with clear explanations of the techniques involved. Brush customization, creative masking, and fibermesh techniques are explored as well as several approaches to using reference imagery. The tutorial includes a discussion of how to optimize the layout of the ZBrush interface.


  • Learn how to collect and import reference images
  • Build the fly head model from a single sphere
  • Learn how to use polygrouping
  • Learn advanced ZSphere techniques
  • Learn how to generate masks to accurately sculpt compound insect eyes.
  • Learn approaches to creating organic details
  • Understand Fibermesh settings for creating realistic hairs
  • Understand rendering in ZBrush

Generating ZBrush Texture & Displacement Maps for Rendering in Maya: Brain Coral

One of the biggest challenges in creating compelling animations for scientific visualization is rendering highly organic detailed structures. This requires an understanding displacement texture map generation and application. In this tutorial you will learn the processes involved in incorporating Pixologic’s ZBrush and Autodesk’s Maya into a scientific animation workflow. The demonstration uses the example of a highly detailed brain coral model. You will learn how to create UV texture coordinates for a model, and how to use ZBrush to generate texture, displacement, and normal maps. You’ll learn how to edit the texture maps in Adobe Photoshop and how to incorporate the maps in an Autodesk Maya 2015 shader network and how to render the model using the mental ray plug in for Maya. The tutorial finishes with discussions on troubleshooting displacement maps and a brief overview of using vector displacement maps.


  • Understand what displacement maps are and how they are useful for rendering detail in Maya
  • Generate UV texture coordinates for ZBrush models
  • Learn how to create and export texture maps using ZBrush plugins
  • Learn how to export models from ZBrush and import them into Maya
  • Learn how to build shader networks in Maya using displacement maps
  • Learn how to render a brain coral model using mental ray for Maya
  • Compare different types of displacement maps including vector displacement maps.