Between Cute and Creepy: Magdalena’s Mandrake Babies

  • Game
  • Interview

I’m always inspired by fantasy books and films. Mandrake roots make common appearances in witchcraft and fantasy myths, and they’ve always been there, in the back of my mind, as a possible theme. So this was a great project! I wanted to try something a little out of the ordinary and a bit fantastical — but still grounded.

I’m also a huge Harry Potter fan and I’m highly inspired by artists like Iris Compiet and Audrey Benjaminsen, who tackled this subject matter before, very successfully, in their drawings. 

According to legend, when the mandrake root is dug up, it screams and kills those who hear it. In the Harry Potter books in particular, it is a magical plant with a root that looks human (like a baby when the plant is young), and is only capable of killing when matured. Here’s the scene from the second Harry Potter movie: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

This was a great excuse for me to try and sculpt a crying baby — which in itself is an enormous challenge — and go one step beyond realism, into fantasy. I liked the idea of making a plant-like creature, because that gave me the opportunity to use a lot more color than on human skin. 

I wanted something a bit more punchy than just green and beige though, so I widened my search beyond brownish, ginger type root plants that most mandrake illustrations represent. I liked the idea of beets, which have a nice rich red and purple undertone, or radishes with their red exterior and white interior.   

While looking through those references, I also came across a lovely photo of leaves changing colors between green, red, purple and pink. I am fairly certain the photograph was doctored in Photoshop slightly, but I liked what I saw, so I decided to use it as my main color scheme for the project.

It fit well with the fact that a real mandrake plant actually has light purple flowers, too. I usually like to choose one single image as a general color scheme, because the colors in one photo tend to be well harmonized (unless it’s something crazy and garish, of course).  

As to why I decided to make two expressions — thus making my life more difficult — I’m not sure. I really liked the idea of a crying child but also wanted to try and sculpt a happier version of it. I mean, the baby can’t always be crying and trying to kill people; it must have some good days, too.

Once I sculpted the happier face, I also thought it would be cool to make the flowers emit some sort of pollen, so you could feel it was excited and optimistic. It’s a root, so it can’t just jump around to show the happiness, but it can do something, however subtle.

Artwork by Magdalena Dadela

When it comes to personal projects, my workflow is fairly varied and organic. I tend to jump between different packages, stages of ‘production’ and I like to experiment. The three pieces of software I used here were ZBrush, Substance Painter and Marmoset Toolbag.

Modeling the Mandrakes

I began with sculpting my Mandrake and roughing in some surface detail.

The Mandrake in ZBrush

Once I was happy with that I went to Substance Painter to apply some quick color onto it. I could easily do that in ZBrush, but the procedural materials Substance Painter offers are too tempting and just speed up the process.

With the new version of Substance Painter, you don’t have to worry about UVs either, as it will unwrap the model for you on import. Before doing this, I made sure my mesh was no longer a crazy Sculptris Pro mass of uneven triangles so I quickly zremeshed it. I also unwrapped my heads in ZBrush with some more edge control using polypaint because I found Substance Painter was creating a seam in the middle of the face that I did not want. 

The rest of the model, however, was auto-unwrapped in Substance Painter.  It works great, the only downside being the lack of control over resolution (note: on this project, Magdalena used Substance Painter 2019.3. There have since been updates to the Automatic UV Unwrapping function). So in the end, one has to compensate with different-sized maps. Luckily, my model is cut into multiple pieces with a different material applied to each part, so it’s easy to adjust texture size at any time.  

While working on the base color in Substance Painter, I decided that I needed some additional sculpted detail in areas around the shoulders and face in particular, so I exported my mesh from Substance (yes, it was triangulated at this point), and re-imported it back into ZBrush for some additional detailing. 

Texturing the Mandrakes

One thing I really wanted to incorporate into the textures on this model was a feeling of veining and cell-like patterns. The Mandrake’s belly is a large area I felt was particularly great for that. I used a combination of techniques but my favorite tool turned out to be 3D Worley Noise combined with the cracks dynamic stroke available in the new version of Substance Painter under Tools.  The Worley noise creates a very organic feeling with the invert option turned on, giving the cellular effect more depth. 

The cracks look sharper but are easy to apply in varied sizes across the mesh. I like the almost alien skin feeling this gave me. I followed the same procedure on the face as well as the legs. 

The rest of the skin texturing was mostly just layers of hand painting which I discussed in an earlier tutorial on skin painting on Substance Academy. This time, I also used a lot of custom brushes I imported directly from Photoshop as .abr files.

While doing more research into my plants I came across a great variation in edge color especially on petals of plants like parrot tulips, pitcher plants and some orchids or on the leaves of Caladium better known as Elephant ear. I wanted to give the same richness to the leaves of my character without overwhelming it or taking away from the face. That meant holding back and making the patterns less busy and less sharp than they are in real life. Once again, I used a lot of crack and cell effects as well as some dynamic stroke gradient hue dots for color variation.

When it comes to the flowers I decided to go simple and base them directly on the mandrake in real life with its tiny purple flowers.

I did add an additional light above the flowers to make them stand out a bit more in the final renders instead of adding details in the texture.

Because the project was time restricted, I wanted to use a combination of hand painting and ready-to-download materials from Substance Source. There’s plenty of great organic resources already there, and no need to reinvent the wheel. I used European Beech Bark as well as Moss Ball Vegetal Wall on the arms and legs of my character, combined with simple hand painting.

Ever since the beginning of the modeling process, I also knew I wanted to reuse as much of the texture from the sad face on the happy face as I could. I used the same topology on both heads as well as the same UVs. That way, I could copy and paste all the layers between the models. That’s one of the great features of Substance Painter — one can just select the layers and copy onto the next material.

Obviously some changes had to be made, stretching artifacts had to be removed, but I could reuse most of the textures between the two meshes. I did however decide to make the happy face slightly brighter in places to make it feel more cheerful.

Overall, I had great fun with this project and am very happy to have been given the enormous creative freedom to do what I wanted. It was fun to be able to play around with Substance Painter and experiment on something I have not done before.

Babies are definitely always a tricky subject matter, because they can easily become too scary, but we weren’t aiming for a human baby from the start, so if it is a little creepy… all the better.


Magdalena will be live with Wes McDermott next week to discuss the mandrake babies. Tune in on our YouTube Channel!

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