Saturday, September 24, 2011

DAZ for Cover Art

In my never-ending quest to write about interesting tools available to the self-published author, I'd like to spend a little time talking 3d rendering software.

Specifically, I'd like to talk about DAZ3D.  DAZ is 3D rendering software that gives people like me (who can barely draw competent stick figures) the ability to make art like this. 

Wood Elves by Maraich
Sort of.  See, here's the thing, Daz has what we shall nicely call "a steep learning curve."  Or maybe, I should say art in general has a steep learning curve.  Though both of these ideas go hand in hand.  Daz is equipped to allow you to make any little change you need to for successful art, so it's complicated software.

The premise is deeply seductive.  You see images like the one to the left, and they're beautiful.  You watch the intro video and see how Daz works. It's 3d rendering software with props.  It's like the ultimate dress up game.  You buy the dolls (characters) you like, and the clothing you want them in, and the props around them, and then arrange them however you like.  Almost everything is practically infinitely customizable.  You can take their base objects and make your characters, places, and scenes come to life.

It's brilliant.  If you're anything like me, you can barely produce legible handwriting, let alone draw anything.  But with Daz, all you need is the ability to move sliders left and right.  I can do that!  You can do that!  And if you're like me, upon seeing what was possible, and looking at your cover art, which isn't terrible, but you'd like to spiff it up, your credit card leapt out of your wallet and began entering the numbers all by itself.  (The basic software is free, the characters, props, clothing, etc, all costs money.)

So, I bought characters, I bought clothing, I messed around with sliders, and produced...

Graveyard 1 by Keryl Raist
Well, it's not precisely Revenge of the Sims, but it's not good either.  And I'm not alone in doing this.  So have a lot of other self published authors.  Complaints about atrocious CGI (computer generated image) cover art isn't precisely rare in our field. 

See, there are things you learn while you learn to draw that a lot of us who aren't artists don't know much about. Shadows for example. The software handles the shadows, but you fine tune them.  So for example, the shadows on the clothing look fine, but Sarah's (the girl character's name) hair looks off.  Likewise something weird is happening with the shadows on the ground.

If you can actually draw you probably know something about posture, poses, and facial expressions.  I've had problems with the shoulders.  Chris' (the guy character) shoulders are too stiff.  He's supposed to be relaxed and comforting.  Sarah's supposed to look like she's about to spring up and attack something that's scaring her.

As my husband said, it looks stiff and cartoonish.

But this is all fixable.  (Hence the steep learning curve comment.)    After many hours online reading more about how 3d renders work, and more hours spent adjusting sliders, I got to this.

Graveyard 2 by Keryl Raist
Better.  The ground still has some odd shadowing, but the background lighting now clearly says, "Sunset."  Chris looks a bit less stiff, but I've got the camera so you can't really see his face anymore.  His clothing looks better, but still isn't perfect.  Sarah looks like she's about to burst into tears, and that's just not right.  She's supposed to be scared, not sad.  Amazing what a 15% change in the curve of the lips will do.  Her hair no longer has those weird lines, but the reflection is a bit too sharp.

The big issue right now is posture.  Sarah's shoulders are doing a better job of conveying 'scared' but her arms are wrong, and in real life, the knife would fall to the ground if she was holding it that loosely.

Real artists use life studies.  There's a reason for this.  It wasn't until I actually held a knife that I realized how tight the fist needed to be or that the thumb was way off.  Meanwhile, if you're so scared you're about to attack, that sort of bent arm/fist just isn't happening.  On top of that (though you can't see it in the picture) I had the weight on her legs wrong, which adds to her looking 'off.'  I'm taking a picture of my husband holding a staff soon, because Chris' grip looks better from shot one to two, but I have a feeling the arm is off.

Graveyard 3 by Keryl Raist
And so the changes continue. Chris' shirt looks better, but the lighting makes it look a bit shiny.  Sarah's hair still isn't quite there.  Her facial expression is better, but not quite right yet either. The hand holding the knife is better, so is the arm with the fist, but the actual fisted hand still needs a little adjustment on the bend.  I'll probably end up messing with Chris' arm holding the staff a bit more, too.

Then I'll probably re-light the whole thing three or four more times to just see how different combinations work.

So, do I recommend DAZ?  Yes.  Doing this is a whole lot of fun.  But it's not easy.  And it's not quick.  When it comes down to it, we see so many thousands of tiny details that we never really notice, until we run into an image where they don't look right.  Then we still don't notice them, but we do realize the image isn't right.

I'm not ready to start publishing my images as cover art yet.  But I'm pretty sure one of these days I'll get it down.  I will learn to really see the details.  In the meantime, I look at the images others have created with Daz and feel hopeful that one of these days I too will produce something worth putting on the cover of my book.  One of these days, I'll get to the point where I can do things like this:

Spirit Quest DS Version by Maraich


  1. Even that last one looks CGI. I suppose there are CGI covers out there that don't scream CGI, but I have yet to see one, to be honest.

  2. What if you opened it on Photoshop and used one of their rendering techniques... like water colour? I wonder if that would take away from the CGI look.

  3. @ Nicole. I have played with Photoshop and their different filters, with some very interesting results. The pencil sketch and pen and ink versions look very good, but not like cover art for a fantasy novel.

    I intend to write more about how making a good image works, and there will be a section on post render work in Photoshop.

    As I said to JR, I don't mind if it looks computer genned, but I do want it to look good. So that's the goal. Decent cover art.

  4. @J.R. What about the last one says CGI to you? Honestly, I can't see it. And I'd like to know what you're seeing. The follow up question being, do you consider it "bad" CGI art? Stick a title and author name, maybe with some letterbox framing, on that and would it look unprofessional?

    Most art work is CGI these days, in the sense of being from Illustrator, Photoshop, starting with a digital photograph, etc...

    So I guess my point is I'm not trying to erase the fact that this is a computer generated image, I just want it to be a really good one.

  5. OK, I am just starting with DAZ Studio. I made some simple test animations and renders. But I realize that there is still a whole lot for me to learn about it.

    But I am sticking to it because I know I can do this.

  6. Good luck to you RickyG. I'm still working on it, too, but I think my stuff gets better every time I have at it. Youtube has some good help videos if you're looking for more tips.