Neil Blevins

CGSociety :: Artist Profile

4 November 2011, by Paul Hellard

Neil Blevins grew up in Montreal in Canada, a time he says feels like a lifetime away. He always did a lot of drawing and painting, and what is different with Neil is that after becoming obsessed with early videogames, his focus shifted towards how the images came to be there.

The mystery was solved somewhat with his deep interest in computers. “I started off making images by programming the x and y coordinates of each pixel,” he describes. “When the mouse finally became a common thing, I was shocked at how cool it was to be able to click a pixel to make it a specific color, something we all take this for granted now, but back then it was miraculous.”

Blevins has been a long time contributor to the Ballistic publications. He graced us with 'Shadow of a Soul' and 'Fallen Angel' in our original Ballistic yearbook EXPOSE 1 in 2003, then had 'Alternative birth' in EXPOSE 2. The original ELEMENTAL includes images ‘Fallen Angel’, ‘White Room’, ‘Alternative Birth’, ‘Mouths To Feed’ and ‘Hatred 4’. There was also 'Earth Dweller' in EXPOSE 5, 'Planetary Defense' in ELEMENTAL 3, 'Gas Walker 1' in EXPOSE 6 and now 'Day's End' (above) in EXPOSE 9 with an Excellence Award.

He is available to discuss his career and artworks with you now in his own 'Meet the Artist' thread on the CGSociety forums. Click the image of Neil at the right hand side of the screen to go there now and leave your questions and comments.  He will answer them when he logs on, at the end of his day, for a week from today.


Making Days End

Blevins is quick to admit that for the past several years, he has been on a sunrise/sunset bender. He has to stop everything to go out and watch the start and end of the day if he gets the chance. He is taken by the intense light, the odd sky colors, the sense of stillness in the air. “I spend a lot of time dreaming up alien worlds, and yet sometimes our own planet is so alien,” he explains.



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Assorted personal works.
“Whether it's odd sea creatures living at the bottom of the ocean, or our own sun reacting to the atmosphere in interesting ways. I've been doing a lot of images trying to capture that feeling, some are more studies based on real sunsets, and others are made up, this image being the latter.


So the dual sunset came first, then the large shapes of the towers, they started off as blobs really, silhouettes with no real function, initially I considered making them rock, but decided to go on the tower route instead.

Modeling them was tough, since I wanted to make them very detailed. I based their design mostly on a series of spaceship hull test images I had been working on at the time. Thanks for the award, it was an unexpected surprise!”

Neil moved into 3D through an early raytracer app called POVray, and after getting a fine arts degree, he found his first industry job at Blur Studio in Venice, California. While there he produced graphics for feature films, videogame cinematics, ride films and TV shows.

Always looking for new challenges, after three years working at Blur, Blevins moved on, and came to San Francisco to work at Pixar, which is where he is today. “My first film was The Incredibles, I worked on Up, and I'm now working on a future film project,” he says.

“I've done a number of different jobs at Pixar. I tend to stay on the sets team, where I model, shade and paint sets and props, but I've also worked on the FX team, and I've helped out the art department a few times doing preproduction 3D tests.”

Blevins’ home studio was recently emptied out because he and his wife recently had a baby girl, and she has the studio as her bedroom!
“So now, my studio is just a lonely computer sitting next to the dining room table. But I do still have a huge collection of art and reference books on my shelves. All the high shelves of course, so the little one can't reach them. Hopefully one day we can move out of our house, get one with more bedrooms, so I can have a studio again.” Blevin’s work office is mostly covered with toys, primarily Sideshow Toy Statues and Ashley Wood Robots.“

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Frames and studies from 'The Incredibles' ©Disney/Pixar

Neil understands he is in a great place to work. He says he made it into Pixar with an odd mixture of talent, hard work and luck. “A lot of people think that talent is the key, but I would say hard work is the most important aspect. And that's where loving what you do comes into play. If you love making artwork, if you are obsessed, you will spend a lot of time doing it, and you will get better at it through practice (not to mention your body of work will grow rapidly),” he adds.

Luck and timing also have a pretty big role to play. “I know some incredibly good artists who didn't get the job they wanted simply because they didn't apply at the exact moment when the company was looking for someone with their specific skills,” says Blevins. He mentions a few things you can do to influence luck.

“Apply everywhere, if you don't get in, apply again when you have more work to show, you never know when your timing will be right. Show your work online, make a net gallery of your artwork, talk to other people at conventions like SIGGRAPH, and participate in social media groups specific to art like CGSociety. I got my first job because the head of the company saw my artwork online and saw me participating on Compuserve, and asked me to join up.”

Blevins’ work has a flavor of Zdzislaw Beksinski and JMW Turner meets Star Wars, with a Giger throwback, I might suggest. “I guess most recently I've been focusing more on 2D painting than the 3D work. Painting is just so much more immediate and you can make something fast and rough that still looks cool. Rough 3D to me always just looks unfinished, whereas rough paint can have a lot of vibrancy and emotion to it,” Blevins says.

He has so many books and images of natural landscapes, photos taken on nature trips. He also finds huge inspiration in film and other artist’s work. “I also try as best as I can to open up a random art book and look at it right before going to bed,” Blevins says. “That always gets the juices flowing. Music is also an inspirational force, I like to put on the headphones and go into my own little world with music.”


For his professional projects at Pixar, Neil is usually given lots of reference from the art dept including drawings, paintings and photo reference. He'll then get some of his own reference, show it to the art director, and then start the modeling and shading process.

“I'm more of a procedure kind of guy. I do a lot of my creative thinking when I'm not at the computer, I improvise in my mind, then come up with the steps I want to accomplish. I usually come up with a rough idea in some random location, like while I'm on a hike, in the bathroom or driving home from work. I then try and quickly get that idea down in rough form. Then when I feel I've captured the basics, I'll do research in books, the web, to find anything that can help me push my idea further,” Blevins explains. So while he’s in front of the computer, Blevins is more process based. “But there are always exceptions, like I'm modeling something and realize that it won't work, or looks ugly, and I have to either improvise on the spot, or move onto something else until my mind has a chance to deconstruct the problem I face. Perhaps I'll be doing a painting that just isn't working. I'll throw a radically different color scheme on it to see if it sparks any ideas,” he says.

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Wall•E set builds

Pixar has many tools that are super useful, and Blevins wishes more of them would work their way into commercial 3D packages. “I'm really glad to see Ptex taking off,” he says, “as I'm really excited about seeing the format become a good alternative to UVs.”

“I use 3ds Max for my personal projects because I love how it blends instantaneous action with proceduralism,” says Blevins. “Maya is great at just hammering away on a problem, but if you change your mind on something you frequently have to do the work over again. Houdini lets you create a complex procedural system where you can make infinite changes and always go back, but isn't as good for just pulling and pushing points around. 3ds Max feels like the perfect blend of the two, giving the best of both worlds.

“Mudbox is great for sculpting, and I really like how it's interface is super easy to learn and use. Photoshop is the Swiss army knife of paint packages and once you know some of its oddities and how to work around them, you can just do about anything.

“I use Brazil for my personal rendering because I feel it really solves the problems that I come across everyday, which is primarily because it was written by production artists who themselves encountered those same problems, and wrote software to deal with it,” says Blevins.

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Wall•E final frames

Every artist prefers a particular work pattern to work the inspirational invention out of their mind and onto the screen. Like many digital artists, Blevins starts off with a simple 2D pencil/pen sketch. Then he'll scan it and bring it into Photoshop to create a simple 2D rough to work out the colors and light and dark shapes. “I'll make a very simple 3D scene to get my perspective right,” he explains. “I'll take that simple 3D scene and do a quick composite in Photoshop, merging the 3D geometry with paint and various fog and grunge layers.” This gives Blevins his template, which he begins to decorate in 3D with modeling detail, texture and light. “Every night, I do a render and then slap the result into my Photoshop comp, to see my progress in context. I keep doing this till all the elements are there, and then it's all about tweaking, change small things in 3D, maybe painting overtop of things if it's faster to paint a detail then build it in 3D.”



”This is super important in my opinion,” begins Blevins. “For my work, color choice is one of the most important things. I know some people like to start off in black and white, and then colorize afterwards, so at the beginning they can focus on value contrast. And that's fine. But I feel that color is so important that it should be a part of the work from the very beginning, and I'll use a greyscale layer in Photoshop to check and tweak the value contrast as I go along. I have a folder that is filled with nothing but color schemes, simple square images that contain three to five colored stripes, each a different size, since it's not just about what colors you pick, but how much of each one is necessary to balance out the others. I'll flip through these images as inspiration, just like any other sort of image, once I have an idea in my head, I'll go to these images for a good color scheme that I feel works with the mood and emotion I'm trying to achieve with my piece. Or create a brand new one. Of course I'll alter and refine the color scheme as the image progresses, but the color schemes give me a great starting spot.”





“Light and shadow is the second part, the value contrast of the image, which I place at an equal importance to color. When I do my 2D rough I'll play with this to get the maximum impact. Then when I go into 3D, I'll try and achieve a similar light and dark balance using traditional lighting techniques.


Most of my lighting is a variation on three point lighting, a key, a fill/bounce (usually a skylight) and a kicker to bring out the edges of the object. Placement is also something I spend a lot of time thinking over, should the key come from above, from below, is more frontal lighting going to work. Maybe keep things silhouetted and have almost no key light, or a key light really far from the side. Once I do my render, I'll then push the lighting further in 2D by making masks and using SoftLight and Overlay layers, again, I could get these effects in 3D, but since my final result is usually 2D, it's faster to do the tweaks as a 2D process after the fact. I will then make my image really small on screen, and swap between my final image and my original 2D rough, and see how close I get. It doesn't need to be exactly the same, but it helps me to make sure my visual idea is still clear, especially at a small size.”



Blevins is of course more than happy to keep working at Pixar. They have a stable of really interesting projects coming up. “At some point I may like to try my hand at live action or games again. I did some of that at Blur, and those mediums have their own set of challenges that I'm sure I'd find interesting. And maybe later, I'd be interested in teaching,” he says. “For my personal work, once I have a little more free time, I'd like to continue to push my 2D painting, and maybe expand a bit into somewhat more narrative work. But we'll see, no real master plan for my life.”


”Online forums such as CGSociety have been so important in my personal growth as an artist, and getting into the industry. I've met so many cool people, have had great discussions, have learned a lot, and a huge thank you to all the people who've visited my site and portfolio over the years to see my art, to read my tutorials or download and use my scripts. I've appreciated your feedback and look forward to getting back to a larger web presence in the future, but right now my primary focus in on being a good dad to my baby girl!”