André Holzmeister is a multi-awarded Brazilian director and CG Generalist. Today he is working at Huge Inc. Studio in Brooklyn / New York, and his recent past endeavors were as Co-Founder and Animation Film Director at The Kumite, and as Art Director at TFG game studio. With a versatile breadth of work, André relies on high-powered tools to execute any and all designs, including Corona Renderer for final renders.

Check out what he had to say about his process, methods and tools of choice below:

How do you describe yourself professionally?

Today I am a Director for advertising animation/VFX films and experimental projects, but my background is as a generalist CG artist, so for every film that I direct I try to put my hands on some practical part of the project. I love the crafting nature of our work!

Do you prefer working on animations or stills?

It is an interesting question because at some point in time I thought I would be an animator… that was my goal back then… Pixar or Disney some day ;)

But my career opportunities always put me into a lead position for the whole project, and I never could evolve my animation skills to the point of truly considering myself an animator, at least not up to the level of getting an animator role inside a big studio. Now I really like being a generalist, because I can choose what part of the process to have hands-on involvement with. Sometimes that’s modelling, sometimes that’s animation - or sometimes I even have to take on rigging, an area in which I consider myself really weak. Art Direction, Look Development and modelling are my strongest areas nowadays… Look Dev is something I always do for the projects I am involved with.

I would say that I like to work on animations in a professional studio environment with more resources as a Director, but that for personal projects I prefer to do still images. I am always making stills, it is faster and feeds my artistic hunger to share my ideas and artwork. It is really a place where I try new approaches, and where I can take many more risks. I like that, because sometimes I try to develop an aesthetic that I am not really familiar with, and that becomes a really great exploration and learning process.

What are the differences in designing a character for an animation rather than for a still?

Oh, there is a long road between the two, from a technical standpoint. For stills, you really do not need to bother much about anything, not even polycount, because as software and hardware gets better you can render millions of polygons with tons of 8K textures. If you need to pose the character you can use ZBrush to pose it, and that’s it.

But if you design characters for animation, then you need to follow all the best practices, like basic rules of topology for deformation, and follow the studio’s rules for naming conventions so that you do not mess with the TDs (Technical Directors) as those guys are tough haha - you don`t wanna mess with them! The TDs will tell you how the character work must be done, things like: whether textures have to be UDIM or not; whether to use regular bitmaps or Ptex; the way you should model the cloth to be ready for rigging or simulation; if this will be better done in ZBrush or in a tool such as Marvelous Designer; and so on.

So in my experience, getting a character ready for animation takes much more time than creating a character for a still. If you decimate your model and use ZBrush for opening UVs, and auto-retopo tools such as ZBrush ZRemesher, then you can save a great deal of time for stills - but an animated character will not work that way, and you have to do everything by the book. Also, if the character is really complex, with lots of cloth simulations, then it will take even longer.

From a character design standpoint there are other things to consider too, like functionality… what does the character have to do in your animation? Based on that, you have to ask: Does his body let you do those movements? Are the legs long enough for an athletic movement, if that’s how the character has to move? All this has to be accounted for when you are designing for animation.

Tell us about some of the projects you have worked on?

One of my latest big projects was Malak and the Boat, which tells the story of a little Syrian girl fleeing from the war by crossing the Mediterranean Sea, a refugee trying to get to Europe where she can be safe. It is a very sensitive matter these days, as hundreds of thousands of refugees are trying to get to Europe, and there are many challenges they have to surpass to get there.

This project was a huge undertaking for me because the CGI was really the work of a one-man-band, at least after the creation of the concept which was the work of 180LA agency and the House of Colors design studio under the leadership of Adhemas Batista. After that phase, I had to create the film myself - modelling, rigging, Look Dev, animation, lighting, shading, render setup, comp, editing, color grading... all of it! This was because the project had no budget, but I truly believed that we could deliver an impressive film artistically, and most importantly, deliver a great storytelling piece that could raise awareness of the most vicious conflict of this decade. So what moved me to take on this project was first, it is for a good cause, and second, the possibility to take control of the creative process.

On the news, everybody is already expecting to see this kind of story, and people become used to it so that it doesn’t have as much impact any more. However, when you take this story and bring it into a beautiful animation done in a fairytale style, and show just how cruel this can be for a kid, then you bring a whole new perspective to the events and it has a powerful impact again because of the medium used to deliver it - nobody expects to see this sad, true story in animated form, and that helps bring more awareness of the very real problem.

3D design can become very technical - how do you manage to keep the process, and the end result, something artistic?

That’s because I always think about the art as the very first step of my work. Only then do I start to think about how I will achieve it technically, questions like what is the best software combo for that particular project, or very often. for that particular shot or task.

Alembic has opened the door for small studios, shops or individuals to exchange files and assets between many packages, things that needed a whole TD department not so long ago. Now, modeling and texturing can be done in 3ds Max for example, then rigging and animation in Maya, then back to 3ds Max to light and render, all in a very reliable pipeline.

I have worked like this in many projects, to take advantage of the astonishing speed and high quality that Corona Renderer can deliver. One good example of this pipeline was the Romeo Reboot project, we created that with this very pipeline and it worked like a charm, Corona did an awesome job of rendering the Cyclops Giant with lots of displacement really fast.

This kind of pipeline combined with Corona Renderer’s fast results let me keep myself in a comfortable place, leaving me more time to be creative and artistic in exploring lighting, searching for different options, such as experimenting with the game-changing Corona LightMixer directly in the Frame Buffer. Adding glare and LUTs are also features I use very often - I am used to working with RAW files for photography, so having all these controls in the Corona Frame Buffer is the perfect workflow for me, and cuts out a ton of time from the post work!

Tell us a little about the above image of Wolverine.

I wanted to be true to Logan’s character - I like the uniform and all, but the guy would never use that if he was a real dude! The model is mainly ZBrush, and texturing for the head was done in ZBrush’s Spotlight. For the clothing, I used Substance Painter and Quixel Suite.

Logan was always my favorite character because he is really an anti-hero, very human and yet so primal with all the rage he contains inside him. I like the code of justice he has, it makes a lot of sense to me, and his ferocity is also something that I really loved to see in the books. Now the new Logan film has shown that in a really great way.

The skin was a challenge for me, as there are not that many artists rendering skin with Corona, so I needed to test everything by myself without any guides or tutorials, with just the general info in the Corona help documentation about SSS for reference. That was a great starting point, but a long way from the finish line. After a lot of tweaking, I really liked the results.

Every rendering software has its particularities regarding skin shaders, and what you learn from one does not transfer to another without a lot of adaptations, but a good starting point when you are trying to make good skin for your character is to correctly set the scale of your scene. This will help you figure out the distances and measurements for fine-tuning the SSS. You’ll need to consider how deep the light should scatter through the skin’s surface, how to bleed the light on the back of the ear, and all that gets much easier when you follow the physics of the real world.

Having your maps right is the key - good displacement maps, and a good amount of skin detail is what really matters. You can force it a little as the SSS kills a bit of the detail, but do not go too far. You’ll also need maps to control the radius of the SSS, so that we have more light penetrating the skin in areas with soft tissue like the ears, nose, lips and eyelids, and you’ll need good colormaps for the Sub Surface layer - I like to go more towards an orange than right to the red, it gives me a more natural look. Last, you’ll need good, detailed Specular and Roughness Maps.

Are there different needs or expectations from clients, depending on where they are in the world?

I have been working for lots of different markets, and one thing all of them demand these days is higher and higher quality. The workflow varies a lot, and deadlines too, but high quality is always expected. We artists need to make the client understand what they can expect from the budget they give us, because we are going to be questioned about this at delivery time.

And let’s be realistic, the budget is usually lower than it should be! The good thing is that the software and new techniques are speeding up some workflows.

What projects, personal or commercial, are you currently excited to be working on?

Along with Mateus de Paula, I directed a film in a joint venture between Huge Inc. Studio and Lobo. The film is for Hublot / Ferrari, celebrating 70 years of the Scuderia Ferrari and the launch of the amazing Hublot Techframe Ferrari 70 Years Tourbillon Chronograph. You can watch the finished movie here:

If you could go back in time, what advice would you give to the “younger you” as you were starting out in 3D? Is that the same advice you'd give to someone starting out in 3D today?

Well, I would like to tell the younger me to seize the moment when the time comes, without hesitation! I have lost a few great opportunities because I did not feel prepared for the task.

For example, I had the opportunity to work with Disney Channel on creating new IPs right at the beginning of my career, about 15 years ago. This came about because I always create a short backstory behind every 3D illustration I make, and I was awarded a CG Choice Award for my image called “The Great and Dangerous Pirate Red Beard.” I wrote a small story about him, and the visibility that CG Society gave me back then got the attention of someone at Disney Channel.

However, I felt that I was not prepared for such an undertaking, as back then I wanted to be a 3D artist and I felt like it would be a step onto a different path. Now though I see clearly that this was actually the path I ended up taking anyway, and it would have been much better to take my chances with that project! This little story is a lesson I learned, and ever since then I have been very quick to decide my future and jump at any opportunity.

As for advice that I would give to anyone, in CG or any artistic field: do not work for the money. Money only comes as a consequence, and instead you should work for love. Love your craft and you will always deliver more than expected, and this way new opportunities will come naturally. I have never worked for any company, I have always worked for myself, and the companies that hired me were lucky to have me there giving 200% of myself to every single project that I was a part of, and that opened many doors for me.

The last piece of advice, of course, is to never stop learning and to make personal projects in any time that you have, because this is the best opportunity you have to show the world what you want and exactly what you can do if they let you!

- André Holzmeister