I started my college education wanting to be a traditional 2D animator. That was back in 2004 and it was during the worst time for that industry. After I graduated, I found there was not much out there for me. That’s when I decided to go to Gnomon School of VFX. That was one of the best decisions I ever made. There, I met many great instructors that were currently working in the industry. I was unsure of which discipline I wanted to specialize in, then I had my first Zbrush class. That class made me want to be a modeler and I fell in love with digital sculpting. My first industry job was at a small game studio in West Hollywood but Miguel Ortega (my Zbrush instructor) and I kept in touch and he gave me an opportunity to join his team as a junior modeler at Cafe FX. My first film was John Woo’s Redcliff and I am so grateful to Miguel for giving me that chance.
After Cafe FX, I worked at Meteor Games and then got a job at Hydraulx. There I was able to learn so much and really grew as an artist. I got to work on many film projects per year and their fast-paced workflow pushed me to be better and faster. I then worked my way up to Senior Modeller and even Modelling Supervisor on a couple of shows. After that, I did a bit of freelance work and ended up at The Mill Los Angeles as a lead artist.
What are a few of the main responsibilities of an asset lead on projects? Is your time more spent delegating tasks and overseeing or working on the project directly?
The responsibilities of a modeling lead at The Mill are many. You have to mentor, organize, delegate, educate, quality control, as well as work on the box making hero assets. I am also responsible for pipeline, training, enrichment, and research and development within the department as a whole. Leads wear a lot of hats there. But that’s what keeps it so challenging and fun.
You worked on that amazing Superbowl commercial, Kia ‘Hero’s Journey’. How did the pipeline for that piece look within your department, and specifically as a lead?
This one was super fun to work on. I also had a great team and it was awesome seeing the other assets come alive. The modeling pipeline matched a feature pipeline exactly, except for the quick turnaround. We would first get a list of known hero assets to get started on before the shoot even starts. Once we have an edit and reference photos from the shoot, then we can start refining and really thinking about what we need to create to make all of the shots work. As a lead, I would work on my assets and also assign my team to assets, making sure that the schedule makes sense. I worked closely with my CG lead and producer to ensure that we are all on track for delivery. I also acted as a liaison, communicating the notes from clients to the individuals on my team.
What assets were you responsible for, and how did you approach their creation?
I personally modeled and textured the hero humpback whale asset, concept modeled the original hero iceberg (eventually a lovely matte painting shot), the redwood tree as well as other smaller bits here and there. We modeled everything in Maya and Zbrush and textured in Mari and Substance Painter. For the whale specifically, I made a custom barnacle brush in Zbrush as well as our own fur system for the whale’s baleen in case he opened his mouth. This guy was especially fun to texture since whale skin has so many interesting blemishes and markings. Also, it was a great challenge to be able to find nice opportunities for specular breakup when there would be an extra gloss layer for the water covering his skin at most times.
How much time were you given to complete each asset, and was this a typical time frame for you?
Time frames in commercials are tight. 2-3 weeks for a hero asset is pretty good. Sometimes we have more but usually we have less. We tend to model to the camera if the timeline is shorter. That way we don’t waste any time on a part that will not be rendered. I will typically use a lot of time management skills to make sure that I can hit the deadline for my asset. I have to keep in mind that my role is very early in the pipeline, so things need to be done quickly and correctly. All of the other departments are waiting on you so it’s good to know how long things take you to do.
Great! Switching gears a bit, I notice you also sculpt your own detailed animal models for practice. What motivates you to continue creating sculpts like this amidst a busy professional schedule?
Well this is all motivated the desire to get better and to express myself artistically. I used to give myself a lot of excuses for why I was not doing any projects at home. I was always too exhausted and was creatively unsatisfied as a result. In order to get where I wanted to be skill-wise, I had to push myself to study and learn. I also made a huge push when I had the opportunity to teach a class at Gnomon. That pushed very hard to make sure I knew my stuff. As far as animals, I have always been fascinated by the natural world and to be able to create artwork that involves animals is really what I love to do.
In what ways does your personal workflow vary from your professional workflow, if at all?
These two worlds are very different. You have to think so far ahead into the future when you are in a production pipeline. I plan a lot while I am in production, making sure to never waste any time that I don’t have. I also have to think of the other departments needs and must have my asset squeaky clean before I can deliver it to them. When I work on personal projects, I am always exploring, using whatever I need to create and don’t worry about topology, symmetry, naming conventions or scale. It’s very freeing and I keep it pretty loose while I sculpt and use the dynamesh function in Zbrush recklessly without worrying about if it will be riggable. This works just fine since I will ultimately be in control of the final pose.
And lastly, for those hoping to become a lead artist one day, what advice or resources can you offer to help them become more versatile artists?
To be a good lead, you really need to be able and open to both learning from and teaching others. I would say if you are passionate about modeling and texturing and have good organizational skills, then this is a good fit for you. Great artists and management don’t always mix well and I think sometimes we lose sight of that fact. Definitely chase your passions and see if it makes you happy to delegate vs doing the work sometimes. Make sure you have the right balance because too much of the management side could drive some people crazy.
In order to be a more versatile artist, you need to be open to modelling all sorts of things. Not just robots or cars, for example. This will make you a truly valuable member of the team as well. Someone that can be trusted with all sorts of tasks. I personally started my career focusing on hard surface assets and that really helped me be a better character artist now. It’s all about experience and showing your value to the team. Also be open to learning outside of your department. The more you know about thee other parts of the pipeline, the better and more trusted artist you will be within a team.