Wednesday, November 9, 2011


Just for fun. Testing some free rigs out there.
MooM is a great rig for "broad" style animation. Alice is well suited for more subtle animation. I tried to pick an audio clip (from Dumb and Dumber) that suited their implicit characters.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Advice for Young Artists

The latest issue of Artistik Magazine features an interview I conducted with Kamal Siegel, who teaches at my school as well as teaching at Digipen and running his own business, Digital Double (see the previous post). Since the magazine only ran about half our interview, I present it here in its full form. I believe it's great advice for today's animation students and those considering entrepreneurship.

Interview with Kamal Siegel - May 5th 2011

Kamal answers questions about how he started his business, Digital Double and how he developed his musical style among many other interesting things about his personal journey as an artist and business person. For more about Kamal & Digital Double visit:

How do you keep motivated as an artist?
The biggest source of inspiration to me is my surroundings. I love people and nature. I love seeing the cars drive by and the buildings being built. I love watching the gardeners mowing outside and the sweet smell of freshly cut grass. I love looking at people at the coffee shop and trying to capture them in drawings. If you keep your eyes open you’ll find no shortage of inspiration.

On a more technical side, however, it’s very important for me to complete things that I start. If I don’t, those unfinished projects weigh on me like an anchor and keep me from moving forward. And while I derive some motivation from completed projects, the times I REALLY get pumped are when I’ve completed something I’m proud of. It’s rare, but when it happens, it’s very energizing. 

How did you come to run your own 3D graphics business?
There’s a story about a dream that inspired me to start the business that you can read up on
But in essence, I took it one step at a time. I learned about running a business, did the paperwork, opened a bank account, did my state and federal taxes, etc., and managed to survive while operating at a loss for the first three years. It wasn’t easy and it took an enormous amount of time, effort and sacrifice. And it still does. 

When I first started running the business I had a part-time job which helped financially. During that time I gradually grew the business from home until I eventually got laid off a year later. The feeling? Imagine a baby bird that’s never flown being booted out of its nest with two choices: Fly or die! I managed to flap my wings hard enough to crash land with some small injuries and survive. Soon after, thankfully, what was then a side business picked up enough to sustain me and my wife with a little one on the way followed by a second child and I’m happy to say that the business has been keeping a roof over our heads and food on the table for seven years now.

What are the pros and cons of entrepreneurship in this industry?
The biggest advantage of being independent is creative freedom. Much like the difference between being a captain of a ship and being a member of the crew is that the captain gets to pick the destination and the route. The crew is there to help meet that goal but often has very little to no say in that decision. That independence and responsibility is thrilling. 

The flip side of that is that if the ship ever sinks, so does the captain. The crew can escape on one of those little row boats, but the captain sinks at the helm. So it’s a huge risk you take when going into business for yourself. For example, Uncle Sam won’t be sending you an unemployment check when you lose your business- he’ll just ask you to pay your dues and wave goodbye as you sink. 

Another obvious “con” is that you are constantly looking for work. Projects come and go. Some weekly, some monthly and some that you’ve invested a lot of time and money in never even get off the ground with no check awaiting you on the other end or even a thank you. People think that running your own business will free you up, but the honest truth is, you will be consumed by it. Weekends become no different than any other weekday as you’ll be working through them just as hard as you do during the week. 

Is it difficult to survive as a small business owner in today’s economic climate?
Yes, very difficult but the economy has very little to do with it and I would say medium sized businesses struggle as well. The recession, if anything, has helped our business. The real difficulty is the unfair competitive landscape that the global market has created. There is nothing wrong with competition of course, but what has happened is the rules are different from one nation to another, making for an unfair playing field. 

We hear a lot about foreign competition threatening the livelihood of domestic 3d graphic artists. What is the best way to leverage yourself against such competition?
Keep learning! Outsmart the competition. Be lean and mean (keep your overhead low and invest in your people). Find creative new ways of doing things that allow you to crank out better quality work at a faster pace so you can keep the same rates you did before while shortening your turn around time. 

Clients are willing to pay more if you can make a case for the value added you bring to the table. And most important of all, uphold the highest standards for quality and professionalism. Be the best in your business. The industry has no tolerance for mediocrity and sloppy behavior.

With all the administrative duties of running a business, how do you still make time to develop your art skills?
It’s going to seem trivial but I made a conscious decision a long time ago to not have a TV in the house. My wife and I both agreed it was waste of time. You wouldn’t believe how much time that freed up and how surprisingly fast I was able to fill that time up with more important things to do. 

But that wasn’t enough. So I made another decision to always carry my sketchbook with me wherever I went depending on the occasion, some large, some small. This way I could draw from life or from my imagination any time. Later I invested in a laptop, specifically a tablet pc that allowed me to draw directly on the monitor. I still use it today. It’s an HP Pavillion tx 2500. The beauty of it is that the tablet technology it includes is by Wacom so it has pressure sensitivity and I can draw directly into Photoshop. So I could use it as a digital sketchbook and on top of that do a lot of my personal 3D work as well. 

Recently I decided to get an iPad for my digital sketching, which, while not pressure sensitive, made it easier to carry around and a lot more convenient. So I use it regularly to keep sketching and drawing from life. And I’ve realized pressure sensitivity is actually somewhat overrated. You can see some of my iPad paintings on

In essence, the more mobile you can make your creativity, the easier it will be for you to continue honing your skills. All it takes is a pocket sized sketchbook and turning off the TV

You are also a musician. Tell us how you came to develop your musical style.
I play the guitar, so I started with the first string and plucked at it with my index finger. As I plucked that first string with my index finger I discovered that there were certain note sequences that worked well together. I later found out that what I had discovered was called a “scale”. No joke. And it was that slow process of discovery that I used to learn how to play. 

So I’m self taught, but I learned a lot by listening to other musicians I admired and my close friends. It’s possible the style is partially influenced by growing up in Chile (where I was born and raised), and partly by the music I enjoyed listening to at the time (Michael Hedges & Will Ackerman).

In short, I literally did it one finger and string at a time and spent about an hour or two each day (seven days a week) practicing. I’ve been playing the guitar for fourteen years now and I keep discovering new things. Last year this happened to me: While playing the piano I discovered something new and I got all excited and told a friend about it: “hey check it out, if I start a piece of music at a different part of the scale, it sounds like a totally different piece of music even though it’s the same scale, and in a nonchalant kind of way he said “um… yeah, that’s called a mode, Kamal”.

Who are your heroes?
For me they are among my friends and family; my co-workers, clients and people I work for are amazing people. When I see generosity, leadership, happiness, optimism, creativity, collaboration, honesty, excellence in others, I’m inspired by them and I become an instant fan. 
People that take chances, people that go outside of their comfort zone to create something new, people that give the world their all and don’t ask for anything in return, people that follow through with their commitments; these are people I look up to and I’m thankful to be surrounded by every day. Look around you. You don’t need to read about someone in a book, or watch a movie about them to find a hero. They are among us every day. Seek them out, learn from them and be with them. It’ll rub off on you.

What would be one word of advice you’d like to share with all aspiring artists?
It’s taken me 24,485 drawings to get where I’m at today as an artist and I’ve produced thousands of 3D models and textures in the last 12 years of my career. So my advice to you is: make art and make a lot of it. You will only get better through practice. 

Don’t waste your time doing the bare minimum each time. Do the best possible work you can do. And scope your projects so that you can finish them. You’ll be really pumped when you see the cool stuff you can create and will pour that inspiration into something even cooler next time around. 

Carry a sketchbook around with you and use it. Draw, draw, draw! I’ve done 7,886 sketchbook pages, and counting. Try to catch up while you’re still in school. You have no idea how much more time you have now than you will later. Take advantage of it. Turn off your cell, turn off the TV, turn off the video games, no more parties, and tell your friends you’re too busy unless you’re getting together to collaborate on projects.

That said; (and this is very important) always remember to take a break and prioritize your time accordingly. Spend time with your significant other and your kids if you have them. Take time to be with family, even if they’re out of town. There is more to life than just work, and it’s in these areas where you will derive your inspiration so it’s extremely important for your own creativity that you take the time to enjoy all these other aspects of life. Maybe take on a sport, hobby, art or craft that’s really different. You’ll learn something from it, it will inform your work and you’ll be a better artist for it.

Digital Double

Being a college professor means you occasionally get to do something fun. Here's some footage from a field trip to the motion capture studio at Digital Double in Redmond, owned by Kamal Siegel, a professor in my department. This is me doing my best Andy Serkis impression. Just monkeyin' around. What you see is raw unwrangled data, so the arm pops and knee buckles are par for the course. Digital Double uses an optical system, BioStage by Organic Motion, a system that uses 14 cameras positioned around a set draped in highly reflective material, such that the nonreflective subject is isolated as a 3D silhouette and the skeleton is drawn as bones down the center of said silhouette. For this reason, bunching up the limbs near the trunk can sometimes result in the data becoming garbled (explaining the momentary arm pops when they linger too near the torso for too long). The myth is that motion capture saves time: in fact, motion capture animation takes twice as long to wrangle as keyframe data created from scratch. Where motion capture really shines is as reference footage in 3D. As an animation student, you can learn more from analyzing mocap data than any other form of reference.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Amazing Mr. Bickford

Today I visited one of my all-time animation heroes, legendary animator Bruce Bickford. Turns out, he lives about 5 miles away. His house is exactly as I envisioned it would be: a sedimentation of years and years of obsessive creation manifested in teetering piles of works past and future.

If you are familiar with the auteur, he specializes in a unique variation of surrealist animation, made famous in the Frank Zappa films Baby Snakes, The Dub Room Special and The Amazing Mr.Bickford. After breaking with Zappa, Bruce went on to create his magnum opus, Prometheus' Garden, and then dissolved into obscurity, feverishly working in solitude for some 25 years on perpetually evolving personal projects. He was the subject of the award-winning documentary Monster Road, which I have yet to see. Gazing in awe at the vastness of his unseen work, I can't help but wonder if the majority of it might never see the light of day. He seems more interested in creating than finding an audience, which flies in the face of everything I previously surmised about the artistic impulse. Here was one that seemingly enjoyed the act of creating, more than the result or the accolades of his achievement. Either that, or it's simply compulsion.

Far from being the antisocial recluse I expected, I found Mr. Bickford to be charming and sociable, more than willing to share anything and everything about his process with me. The pictures adorning this blog post were not only permitted, but encouraged; he even invited me back to take more on a day "when the light is better."

Bruce showing his model of the Double-R diner he made for a "Twin Peaks" art show. (Twin Peaks was filmed around here and you still meet the occasional "Peaker" - tourist obsessed with the show.)

Inside the Double-R, a clay recreation of the diner interior.

When I arrived, Bruce was hard at work on an upcoming graphic novel to be published by Fantagraphics. I asked if a publication date was set. He laughed and said that at some point he just had to stop, and that would be when it was finished. I get the feeling he's been noodling with this for far too long.

The madman's desk

He's currently inspired by viking ship prows.

We discussed the possibility of building these hallucinatory images in CG
Bruce went on to show me boxes of files, all overflowing with story ideas waiting to be brought to life. Most of his stories from the past couple decades dealt with the eccentric inhabitants of a fictitious village in the woods above his house. He has an intern from my school doing wire armatures for the village rooftops he's laboriously piecing together, clay tile by clay tile.

Explaining one of his myriad stories

The intricate clay tile rooftops for his village
Bruce will talk with a calm, measured demeanor about a story of a boy that morphs into some kind of demon-monster and eats himself. I realized that much of his seemingly stream-of-conscious work is deliberate and meticulously planned - a trait he picked up from his collaborator Zappa?
I asked Bruce why he started animating. He said he's always wanted to make movies. I asked if he watches many movies. He said the only movie he saw this year was "Drive," which left him disappointed. He said he saw it because he likes cars and expected more action.

Bruce's famous downshooter

The dining room. Every space is completely overtaken by his work. The sticks glued to the carboard are the skeletons of his soon-to-be clay village.

He has boxes of these delicately carved leaves.

Some of the castles you see sitting around are another of his obsessions: he held one up and remarked that a variation on this same castle has been in every one of his major works since the beginning.

Bruce may be notoriously lackadaisical about getting his work out there, but make no mistake; he's been incessantly building a vast library of work for himself outside of the public eye. He seems to have no qualms about exposing it, he's simply waiting for someone to show an interest. If you are someone with the resources to assist Bruce in getting some of his stories out there for public consumption, please message me so I can put you in contact with him. He's a one-of-a-kind, and when he's gone there will never be another Bruce Bickford. It was a great inspiration to spend an afternoon with him.

If you'd like to get a taste of Bruce's extraordinary work, YouTube has many teaser snippets, such as this and this and this.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011


Demonstration of pantomime for my animation students. Uses The Goon rig by Sean Burgoon.

Here it is after the initial blocking phase. You'll see I animated on one's or two's for the fast motion parts, and just hit the extremes and storytelling poses for the regular-speed parts.

And here is the same sequence, with stepped tangents switched to Maya2012's new "Auto" tangent type. As you can see, not bad right out of the box. Much more intelligent than splines. Great time saver!

Finally, after several polishing passes, you get the result embedded at the top. This is a playblast using Maya's new Viewport 2.0. Screenspace ambient occlusion in realtime! Great for contact positions. Maya's improvements in the last couple of versions has been kind to animators.

By the way, for my animation classes I use How to Cheat in Maya 2012 - awesome reference for beginning Maya animators - as well as Uncle Richard's Almanack (Animation Survival Kit).

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Botbuilding 101

I began this study when I assigned my modeling class a "Mech" project. I figured it was a more interesting way to approach "hard-body" modeling than, say, modeling from blueprints of a car or existing product. Students were asked to come up with their own concepts. This way, I could ensure that they were exercising their conceptual facilities, not just their technical modeling skills (nothing against technical modelers, but these days that skill is so easily outsourced). Since my approach to teaching involves participating in every assignment --teachers should always do the assignments so they know what the students are dealing with-- I developed my own bot. First, a doodle on a piece of paper:

As you can see, my first instinct was the old "big-guns-as-hands" approach. I changed them to hand-like clamps with the first ink sketch, simply because I thought they would make a nicer silhouette. I decided early on that this was going to be all about design, not realism or backstory. This freed me up to exaggerate design elements without concern about how "practical" they were.

For my second draft, I sought to emphasize the rhythmic quality with repeating forms.

This was developed into a front and side image plane to bring into Maya:

And a low-poly cage was developed using an image plane:

Sometimes it was easier to add it as a projected texture to a plane that I could rotate to build the offset parts:

And the resulting low-poly mesh:

Laboriously, I laid out UV coordinates for all 50+ parts, then added a procedural bump texture in Maya to see how it looked:

In Mudbox, I put down the first base layer of rust.

Back in Maya I could see all the texture stretching due to the smoothing of the subdivision levels. After refining many UVs and model parts, I returned to Mudbox for the next layer of diffuse texture:

After a couple more round trips to Mudbox, here it is rendered in Maya with Spec, Normal and Diffuse maps:

I'm all botted out for now, but to really make this production-quality would require another layer of texture for asymmetry (currently, most parts reference the same texture on the left and right sides, so this wouldn't hold up to cinematic scrutiny). There are lots of places you could go with this, rigging-wise, but this makes for a good base mesh to work from. He's game-ready at the lowest LOD, and since all his parts are swappable I just might get around to adding some big guns back in. Some day.

Sunday, September 4, 2011


From renders

Mudbox Video

A game-ready character based on this got3d model. Started as a classroom demo for the Modeling II class I was teaching. I was testing the Mudbox-to-Maya workflow for a game pipeline. The polygonal hair will be replaced by sim hair for the hi-res version, and eyelashes will be polygons instead of cards.

Here she is back in Maya at little over 13k triangles: