Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Head of a Merchant

Check it: Head of a Merchant is an exercise I did last night to test out Sculptris.
Sculptris is a free, independently-made digital sculpting app that started making waves this past summer. Naturally, it was promptly bought out by Pixologic (of ZBrush fame). Schucks, competition quelled in the Sculpting App realm ... for now. (But look out for still-indy darkhorse 3d-Coat!)

Both 3d-Coat and Sculptris offer something industry leaders ZBrush and Mudbox do not: dynamic tessellation. DT (I may as well make it an acronym now, lord knows it's coming) is the automated refinement of the surface based on localized detail. In other words, all you do is sculpt; the software subdivides the surface on the fly as necessary to support the added detail. What this means to you, the artist, is: no more back-and-forth to Maya to extrude appendages; it all takes place in the sculpting package. The polygons multiply rather than stretch.

The upside of the Pixologic acquisition: we can probably expect dynamic tessellation in the next release of industry-leader ZBrush. Which means always-the-copycat Mudbox is sure to follow suit. Their work is cut out for them, though: both use a quad-based subdivision algorithm, which may prove tricky when trying to emulate the relative ease with which Sculptris tessellates on the fly (Sculptris works on basic triangles, the building blocks of all CG).

But I digress. My thoughts on Sculptris: fun! Until it crashes. Yes, it crashes a lot (hey, it's a Beta program built by one guy, give him a break), but it restores the last session, so I never ended up losing anything (other than the time spent rebooting). Some of the brushes are better than their ZBrush counterparts! (Undoubtedly another reason for the hasty acquisition.) It only outputs to OBJ; no normal-map conversion, so it is not ready for prime-time as a production pipeline tool (except for previs). But as a toy, what a toy! I've never had so much instant fun with a sculpting app before; almost no learning curve! Very intuitive. If you're looking for a great app to practice sculpting, head on over to Pixologic and download the still-free (for how long?) beta version of Sculptris.

Here's a few more shots of the semi-stylized Merchant. By the way, I've come to realize the meaning of "stylized" - a term that's often bandied about by Art Directors. It's a balance between the way things look and the way they
should look. Certain features are exaggerated as a way of conveying a deeper meaning or subtext. Similar to caricature, but "stylization" is a broader term that conveys information about the artist as much as it does about the subject.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Drawn to Life

Among the challenges I've faced this year, I was brought in to turn around a college Game Art program that had fallen into neglect. First, I did the easy stuff: updated the software, hardware, curriculum and instructors. Then I had to tackle the hard part: trying to raise the artistic level of the students. To this end, I've had to go to great lengths to organize life drawing workshops in an effort to get the kids drawing again.

Game Students are an odd bunch: they are willing to devote hours, months even, to the tedium of piecing together an elaborate mod or game level in their favorite engine. But getting them to keep a sketchbook for five minutes a day is a Boss-level effort. What I've noticed among techie-type art students is that they feel that drawing is somehow obsolete, or at least a waste of time. What they have yet to realize is that every technical art process, from constructing level designs to texturing to animating, exists in its purest, most distilled form in the act of drawing.

This I repeat to my art students: drawing is not about learning how to draw. That's a side effect of drawing, yes; you learn to draw, but that's not the main reason we, as creatives, do it. Drawing is about learning to see, to observe, to organize information and re-present it through an abstract medium in an act of COMMENTARY. A drawing is a comment. A comment is the expression of an opinion. This is the essence of all art, from dance to writing to acting: teaching oneself how to express an opinion on a given subject. To relay an observation about life to the audience. 
In a gesture drawing, start with an observation that interests you: it could be the curve of the back of the neck, or the way a specific wrinkle in the drapery falls. Get that observation on the paper, exaggerate it if you have to, just convince your audience to share in the same observation. Drawing is an abstract medium; you decide what to leave out. If you begin a drawing by deciding what the drawing is about (what comment or opinion you're making) then the task of what to leave out becomes obvious: leave out anything that does not support your comment.
This is why quick gesture drawings from live models are the most important type of drawing to practice. Having to make a statement in under one minute forces best practices. In a quick gesture drawing, you don't have time to fall into the trap of noodling over details that don't convey the essence of your statement; you have to think while your hand is moving. If you get caught up in doubt or over-analysis, the model moves and the essence is lost forever. You learn to "feel" the drawing, not just see it, and express it in the very moment of observation. If anything, the audience for a gesture drawing is yourself; you are recording a fleeting observation so you can see it later. And the fact that the subject matter is a living, breathing person aids in this effort. The natural tendency in humans is to empathize with others; so when you see a model straining in a difficult or off-balance pose, hopefully that empathy is expressed in the quality of line that you record on the page.
Here are some recent drawings I've done at our sessions. Most are 1 to 5-minute gesture poses. 

Saturday, September 25, 2010

I'm Back

Anyone wondering why it's been so long between posts should know that I just moved my family to Seattle, and after a four-month interruption I've just set up my new studio in my new house. I've got a great wifi workstation setup and a huge garage to do concept and background work in all kinds of traditional media. We are digging the Pacific Northwest and I am eager to get back into Sinister and my other projects after being away for so long. The evergreen forests and magestic mountains make for excellent reference for the kind of Highland/Bavarian landscape I'm crafting for The Ballad of Sinister. Stay tuned for new posts soon!

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Tragic Plight of Hollywood VFX Sweatshops

I just completed six years tour of duty in the front lines of the Hollywood Visual Effects industry. Like any returning soldier with shell shock, I find myself horrified with what I saw there.

At first I was nestled in the comfortable surreality that is Disney Feature Animation. Sure, my name is in the credits of movies that will be treasured for all time, but it was disparaging to witness the human cost of working in such an "enviable" job. The more famous the company, the more people will do anything to work there, which makes it a buyer's market for the employers, which gives them little incentive for retention. Turns out: the big companies, though financially stable compared to startups, really offer no more job security than their "unstable" indy counterparts. During my Disney tenure, I survived so many senseless mass layoffs, that when my time finally came all I could feel was relief.

In fact, when I finally got the E-ticket to leave the mouse house, I was giddy with excitement. I had for so long been isolated in a cushy job (a rare feat in my industry) that I was excited to come back from my slumber and see how the world had progressed in my absence. After all, I had been part of the proverbial "first wave" of the CG bandwagon, which really came to fruition when hardware capable of running 3D software became consumer-friendly, circa 2000. By that time I had a Master's degree in Computer Art, and I felt like there was no reason someone with my rare technical prowess shouldn't own their own company in no time. So here I was, a recent Disney graduate, ready to take on the World. But the World was not ready. The greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression was now irrevocably underway (this was just after the housing collapse of late 2008/early 2009), but that wasn't the main problem. After all, during times of recession, entertainment industries flourish, with so many newly unemployed customers suddenly having more leisure time for movies and games. But that didn't stop the big Hollywood companies from using the fiasco as an excuse to raise their bottom lines. Job cuts ravaged Hollywood, even the giant studios that were making record profits. I was one of those casualties. But that, too, wasn't the main problem.

The main problem was bound to lead to the collapse of my industry even if a recession had not taken place. Sure, the recession provided the perfect scapegoat for the Hollywood fatcats to accelerate it, but the problem was in place long before any actual recession took place. The visual effects industry was primed for a downfall almost from the time it was born.

Thing is, outsourcing to nations that don't have unions or labor laws was discovered to be a viable option by entrepreneurs in the entertainment industry, made possible by the equally recent innovation of the internet. India, for example, created tens of animation and VFX houses almost overnight in 2000 when hardware became affordable. At first, there were grumblings in the Hollywood industry, as jobs began to be shipped overseas, but in general there was complacency, everyone trying to act politically correct and not defensive. Besides, these early overseas houses couldn't brag the quality of U.S. animation.

Fast forward to 2010. With a decade of practice, India's animation companies are now every bit as good as Hollywood houses, at a tenth of the price. If I was an entrepreneur, I'd be stupid to go with a Hollywood house. Just sayin'.

Let's not blame India, or even Hollywood execs; they are merely making the rational choice in turning to overseas labor. The problem was created long ago, during the Reagan/Bush/Clinton eras, when international boundaries were dissolved to allow companies to be freely multinational. This had the secondary effect of emasculating the unions, to the point that they are now pretty much symbolic puppets. After all, what are we going to do to raise wages for the working man? Have a strike? A sit-in? Wouldn't that just send the last of the remaining jobs to the Philippines? 

After I left the Big D, I worked in Hollywood visual effects boutiques for a year. It was there that the true horror of the new State of the Industry was revealed to me. When I arrived, I found workers complacently accepting hourly wages lower than non-degree jobs, with no overtime provided, expected to work 50-plus-hour weeks, no benefits, no health insurance, no creative input, no nuthin'. Keep in mind, these are artists with degrees, many of them at the graduate level, like mine. Also keep in mind that all the top-grossing films of our era are effects films, which should lead one to believe that effects artists should be sharing in these unprecedented profits.

To further their humiliation, these artists were scrambling for short-term contracts on TV shows and movies that offered no set dates of employment, as production schedules were always shifting. In fact, they spent much of their time "on hold" for a company; a promise to the company that they will keep their schedule clear by not taking any contracts from any competing companies, so that they would be available when needed. They were not being paid to be in these "on hold" positions. They did it under fear of being "blacklisted;" if you break your hold, you were rumored to be deemed unemployable by the VFX houses that apparently demanded allegiance, even though they offered none in return.

Then it dawned on me: the only way we could compete with the Third World was to become the Third World! We were rolling back the clocks to the pre-union era, when corporations held all the cards and workers kissed their boss's gold rings, thankful for the chance to serve their corporate overlords. Maybe this phenomenon is happening all over, but it is most apparent in Hollywood, where everyone in VFX is in their twenties - no offspring, no responsibilities - so they can afford to live like serfs for a few years to get their names in credits. And when they burn out at the ripe age of 28, Hollywood doesn't mind: the vocational schools all now offer VFX degrees, and are continuously churning out starry-eyed youth to take their place. The American Third World has arrived. Albeit with student loan debt.

It's a sad thing to witness the glory of a technological revolution with all its promise, and yet see the industry it spawned being killed in its infancy by unregulated corporate greed. America brought the world the light bulb, the automobile, Jazz, the airplane. It is sad to see our culture of innovation give way to the immediacy of quarterly profit. Yes, companies headquartered in America will continue to make great films. But when the bulk of the work is done in other countries, can we really take credit for them being "American" films?

I never heard one of my twentysomething coworkers pontificate about the prospect of full-time employment, so conditioned they'd been to expect nothing but short-term, non-benefit contract work. No wonder the burnout age for Hollywood artists is 28. 

Made me think of the words of wisdom of onetime president George W. Bush, who insisted that there were jobs Americans "aren't willing to do." Well, maybe housecleaning, Mr. Bush. Maybe cleaning latrines. Maybe. But Animation jobs? Visual Effects jobs? These are exactly the kind of jobs Americans ARE WILLING to do. Very much so. And when you send them all oversees, are we to be a nation of managers? Because there's a reason many of us did not go to school for MBA's. Many of us have no desire to be managers. Or administrators. Or coordinators. Some personality types demand to be artists and craftspeople. And we will continue to be artists despite the poverty. As we've done in the past.

For a heartbreakingly brief period of American history, you could be an artist and NOT have to live in poverty. But that light was snuffed almost as soon as it was lit. So now, as artists re-align themselves with the poverty that has historically been their calling, I ask: could there have been another way? Could unions have acted more strongly and decisively early on? Also: since the soul of an industry lies in its artists, does our soul now reside overseas? Can America never again stand on its own? Are we watching something, so recently full of life, now rapidly dying? Is it too late to revive it?

There are two solutions as I see it: give tax incentives to American companies to keep jobs local, or revolutionize the Third World such that they must adhere to the same labor laws we do as a condition of participating in the same economy. I think we need to do both. And fast.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Updated Portfolio

I finally got around to organizing my portfolio into meaningful subcategories. Not a huge change, but it took forever to update all the links. Hopefully it will be easier to navigate.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Derby Girls

Some logo ideas for a friend's roller derby gear company. I'll give the link when the site goes live.