Can You Animate with Zbrush?

ZBrush is the most advanced 3D sculpting software in the world of digital animation. Artists and game designers use this software to create characters that will eventually be part of an animated production. 

animate in zbrush


Later versions of ZBrush have animation features as a means for artists to effectively present and test out their work. The Timeline feature allows for:

  • Animated rotation/zooming between camera angles
  • Testing model movements between morph targets


The timeline feature in ZBrush gives animators and video game designers the ability to see in real time how their model will behave when animated.  Read on to see how this powerful software is a top tool for digital animators.

Animate In ZBrush Using The Timeline Feature

ZBrush does have some animation capability, but it’s not what Pixar or Rockstar Games are using for their final products.  When we consider the idea of animating let’s think in terms of two types:

  • Animation of the final product (Video game, movie, etc.)
  • Animations for working presentations (pitching model to art directors or clients)


Zbrush does not do the former, but it is capable of the latter.  Basic animations in ZBrush are possible for more practical, communication type purposes like:

  • Reviewing artwork
  • Presenting design progression
  • Testing out details


These animation tools support the artists much in the same way PowerPoint animations enable a sales executive.  They allow them to present their work in an impressive manner.  This is done in ZBrush using the timeline feature.  The timeline feature provides the capability to:

  • Animate poses
  • Store camera positions
  • Sync animation to music
  • Import audio to test blend shapes and lip sync


These simple animations allow artists to communicate their work clearly and solicit the feedback they need to ensure a model will meet the quality standards of a client.

Create Animated Presentations

This is where storing camera positions comes in handy.  An artist can set several views and place them in order on the timeline.  They can then create an animation that moves from one camera angle to the next.  This creates animations in which the camera is:

  • Rotating around the model
  • Zooming in and out
  • Panning


A well put together animation will give the viewers a good view of all the details in the model, from all angles.

Test Out A Character’s… Characteristics

The character being sculpted is intended to be a living, moving character in the final production.  While ZBrush is heavily equipped for the sculpting and creating aspect, it also provides this feature to do so with the end goal in mind: animation.

As an artist sculpts a face, they can define morph targets and animate between them on the ZBrush timeline.  This will allow them to see how naturally or unnaturally a character’s face looks when moving through pretty basic motions like:

  • Talking
  • Blinking
  • Changing facial expressions


It’s extremely helpful for them to see not only how the model looks in each state, but how it looks in motion while transitioning from one to another.  They can see how things like UV maps behave when being morphed and distorted.  Simple animations like this at the forefront ensure a high quality end product for the actual animation production. 

Walk Through The Design Progression

Though the timeline feature enables a few nifty animations for presentation purposes, it also doubles as a helpful working tool.  Pixologic is the company that develops ZBrush, here’s what they have to say about the timeline feature:


“…the timeline can also be used to store and switch between your model’s states for fast, easy control while working.”


So as an artist works, they can switch back visibility of certain features or Sub Tools without worrying about impacting other Sub Tools in the workflow.  While it’s called a timeline, ZBrush is favored by many artists for its nonlinear workflow.  Here is a practical example of what’s possible because of that.

What is ZBrush Best For?

Consider ZBrush a tool in the digital artist’s toolbox, and as far as tools go, it’s a very effective one.  Effective at what, you ask?


Creating digital sculptures.


ZBrush users find it most effective at sculpting organic figures like characters or other biological creatures.  Things that need to appear to have come from nature, not a factory.  This could include stuff like:

  • Faces (human or other)
  • Full character bodies
  • Fabrics and textiles


It’s not only good at the organic stuff, though.  It can still perform booleans and is capable of model symmetry, so rigid, “unnatural” looking art can be created as well:

  • Machines/robot characters
  • Weapons & tools
  • Armor


What really gives ZBrush the edge over other digital sculpting products is its ability to mimic clay sculpting in real life.  It is a very different software than the rest, and that is what makes it so effective.  Artists are free from the constraints of linear workflows and awkward mouse input.

ZBrush was developed for use on a 3D sculpting tablet, so artists can sculpt with a stylus with pretty much the same amount of dexterity as they’d have sculpting clay with traditional sculpting tools.

This level of dexterity allows for insane levels of detail at an equally insane speed.  The power of this tool is that it gives all the creative power to the artist, rather than limit it.  This means that the quality of the final sculpture is really up to the artist’s skill, not the limitations of the software… kind of how it should be.

As for animating, though, ZBrush is still pretty basic.

Consider this analogy.  Say you’re on a movie set, live-action…not animation.  You have a whole crew working on the production.  Among this crew are the camera operators, the lighting crew, the sound engineers, etc.

In digital animation, this part of the crew would be a separate animation software. Not ZBrush.

Then you have the actors, makeup & hair stylists, and wardrobe designers.  This part of the crew is what ZBrush equates to.  The software allows one artist to create a character.  That 3D model is then exported as a digital file readable by whatever animation software the production house or game design company is using.

All the animation that goes into the final production is not what ZBrush does.  ZBrush is best for creating the digital, 3D works of art that will later be animated in a different software.

What Else Can ZBrush Do?

While ZBrush is very popular among 3D animation producers and video game developers, the sculptures created in this software are not always destined for the big screen.

ZBrush has always been a powerful tool for creating still renderings and life-like images, and it’s ability to write out 3D models make it very handy.  Some other uses include:

  • Story illustrating
  • Digital renderings
  • 3D printing
  • Jewelry design


ZBrush is becoming a very useful tool for illustrators.  The ability to create a character and “take snapshots” of it from different angles is far speedier and more consistent than drawing each image from scratch.  This feature is called non-photorealistic rendering, and it’s very handy for comic books or graphic novels.

Of course, ZBrush is highly capable of incredibly detailed renderings of still images… and it’s only getting better.  This is useful for concept artists.

The read topology function in ZBrush is actually starting to become useful in the manufacturing industry as well.  It lends itself nicely to 3D printing, and inversely can be used for molded products like jewelry or plastic figures.

What ZBrush Doesn’t Do

So, while ZBrush is an Academy Award winning tool in the world of animated arts, it is not a full-blown cinematic or video-game animation software.

Below is a quick tutorial video for animating in Zbrush:


Click the following link to learn about the best software for medical 3d animation.

Doc J

Dr. J has worked in biology all his life and holds several advanced degrees and certificates in biology, anatomy, scientific illustration, 3d animation and motion graphics. He has always had an interest in teaching others the wonders of biology using the latest advances in graphics, including visualization, digital microscopy, animation, illustration, VR and interactive media.

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