This week we continue our conversation on Digital Sculpting. It's my pleasure to share with you, an interview with the multi-talented and very skilled Joseph Menna. Joe is in many ways like me. He is classically trained as an artist. He put in his time doing it in the old tradition and we both share educational histories that trace back to Rodin. However, there is one major difference between us, and that is that besides being a very talented traditional artist, Joe is one of the industries top digital artists as well. He's done work for Bowen Designs, DC Direct, Hasbro Toys, and more. And now he talks with me a little about the digital revolution and the future of this industry. Strap in tight, this is gonna be an awesome ride!!
AP: When did you start using digital sculpting programs?
JM: I started getting involved in digital sculpture production around 2001. I was working as a classical sculptor doing life sized figures, portraits, and enlargements in clay at a once famous and now defunct East coast fine art foundry. The modeling department was run by an Eastern European academic sculptor and our shop was totally old school. I had just come off of 10 years of straight up hardcore academic training at home and abroadso I was totally at home working monumentally, even if the pay wasn't so hot. All I did was sculpt life sized and over figures and portraits in clay as a ghost sculptor for “famous” artists who couldn’t draw a straight line to save their lives. I also did monumental enlargements when they came in (for those reading this in the NYC area, one of the last ones I did was the giant hand sticking out of that building on Union Square). One day the front office guys came in and said we had to abandon all of our traditional enlarging techniques since the foundry was going to go digital in short order and we would be reduced to becoming simple finishing techs. They brought in a scanner and a large 5 axis milling machine (the kind they used in Detroit to do full scale car body prototypes) and wouldn't let the traditional guys learn the technology. I responded in protest against this transition by sculpting by hand, a 30 foot tall monument of folk hero John Henry, Steel Driving man for a private commission opportunity that came my way. The digital crew and foundry couldn't get the work out fast enough at this point for this particular gig so I was given a shot to do it myself. I chose the theme of John Henry to show I could out do the digital crew with my eyes closed.Needless to say, I was dead set against using computers to make sculpture. The project worked out and I was committed to continuing my career as a maker of public art with my own two hands.
As the years passed by, the foundry gave me the early opportunity to see various big name artists exploiting the new technology for high profile shows and commissions. I took this as a personal challenge and figured I'd try and learn this digital thing since it was becoming increasingly evident that it was going to take over the monument business (which it did). I had a family to feed and taking care of them was my primary concern. I started teaching myself and was able to get after hours access to the software at work and in a few weeks was rolling a long with it. I don't know if it was my experience growing up with video games or what, but I actually picked it up very quickly and found it totally compatible with my sculptural sensibility. I started looking for work with my new skills in the sculpture arena as I had no interest making models for movies or video games like one of my sculpture buddies from Russia had begun doing. At the time, I saw digital sculpting as a way for me to better take care of my family, but only if I could find the right opportunity. Unfortunately, back then the printing technology for small stuff really wasn't up to speed so I didn't yet see toys or comic statue work as a viable opportunity for me. It took a few years for the rapid prototyping technology to match the kind of output I could generate for large scale pieces. Once the RP tech began to produce quality outputs at an affordable price, it all began to fall into place.
AP: What are some of the advantages of digital sculpting?
JM: The first thing to remember is that digital sculpting is just another tool. I think the main advantage lies in the front end design and composition phase of making commercial sculpture. In my experience I have yet to work for a company that said speed first, quality second, but at the same time I know bottom lines need to be met or these same companies will be out of business. When engaged intelligently, digital sculpting can accelerate any company's time to market cycle and that is always key. It speeds up all phases of production from design, to revisions, to prototyping, and manufacturing. If completed successfully, the final product should be indistinguishable from something made completely by hand. More importantly it should be worthy of being called a work of art. If not, you hired the wrong guy or gal to do the job.
Generally speaking, digital sculpture lets one to literally give form to any shape or sculptural idea imaginable, allowing for enormous creative exploration and flexibility. I am a big Renaissance and classical drawing guy so the ability to immediately express any idea or shape that I can imagine "in my head" is essential to my process. Returning to a practical perspective, working digitally permits me to turn revisions around for art directors very quickly...although they might not always agree! Further, it allows me to enjoy an active freelance career at night and still maintain a full time sculpting job during the day while still managing to make time for my wife and three kids (My wife is the best artist I know, by the way and check out www.juliannamennaart.com to see what I mean!) So with my schedule the things that I like most about digital are no set up, no clean up, just sculpting and drawing 24/7. Other sculptors use every technological short cut in the book to make their lives easier: silicone, resin, polymer clay, and a whole bunch of other stuff Michelangelo never heard of. Working digitally is my Santa's little helper. I've already spent 10 years in school and almost another 10 in the foundry making plaster piece molds, giant rubber molds on multi figure monuments, etc. At this point in my life, my time is very precious so I need to spend as much of it as I can just creating.
AP: Conversely, what are some of it's disadvantages?
JM: Unless one is a compete technophobe, I honestly don't see any disadvantages. Is electric guitar less able to make music than acoustic? Ask Zakk Wylde that question and see what it gets ya!
I do see dangers of its misuse, though, especially by those with little or no actual sculpture experience (i.e. most of the people out there using it!). There are a ton of people who are a whiz with the software yet never made any “real” sculptures. Further, I can't count the number of times I've seen fantastic drapery or skin texture wrapped around a structurally vacuous piece lacking any semblance of sculptural integrity. To quote one of my early figure sculpture teachers, “You can’t polish a turd”. To be fair, I’ve seen many people working in traditional media at all levels guilty of the same sins. I'm a product of the Russian academy and for us it was always about form and expression first. Details were something to come later and only then to be added more or less according to one’s taste or the needs of a project..but if the "bones" aint there...the rest is worthless.
AP: You've done some incredible work for Bowen and DC Direct. Did you start as a digital sculptor for those companies or did you transition from a traditional to a digital guy?
JM: Thanks, man. I’m really lucky to work with the amazing companies I have so far. I feel especially proud to be working for DC Direct right now and working with them is the thrill of my career as a toy and collectible sculptor. I have to say though the unsung heroes of this biz are the art directors behind the scenes who's names you'll never see on the boxes. It's their vision as much as anyone else's that drives these projects so we sculptors can't take all of the credit! I've been a traditional sculptor for over 20 years and still am. I simply choose to use digital tools for the execution of my commercial work. It's still my traditional training and experience that drives every nanosecond of what I do. That being said, I started trying to get into this biz by showing my traditional sculpts on boards like the Shiflett Brothers’ forum and ConceptArt.org. I really didn’t think the statue companies were doing anything digitally yet, save places like Gentle Giant who weren’t answering my unsolicited emails! At that time the RP technology was still a bit rough and it wasn't as cost efficient to do small scale work digitally. I got some connections with an in at Hasbro and got a shot to digitally sculpt the Iron Monger toy for the first Iron Man movie line. Next I proposed what I believe is the first digital sculpt produced by Bowen Designs, a Mephisto statue based on the work of Big John Buscema. Randy was fantastic to work with and like so many others, I owe my real start in this game to the break he gave me. Once I had a few more pro gigs that were digital, it just seemed the right way to market my skills to get professional work since it was really beginning to pay off. As an aside, 15 years ago I actually interviewed to be a penciller with DC and Valiant and even though the latter showed promise, I gave it up to continue my sculpture studies abroad. To finally return to the world of comics is a dream come true.
AP:What kind of advice would you give to someone wanting to start sculpting digitally? Some Do's and Don'ts, hardware and software recommendations?
JM: My first bit of advice for a lot of the newer sculptors I see on the forums is to learn everything possible about traditional sculpture and drawing. There is no substitute for a strong classical foundation. For me this path was realized by my studies here with Russian academy masters followed by a few years of post-graduate studies in St. Petersburg, where I finished my education at one of Russia's greatest art schools, the Stieglitz State Academy of Art, formerly known as the Mukhina Institute. I had previously gone to some of the best schools for figurative art in this country but nothing compared to my experience in Russia where it seemed like every teacher's teacher had studied directly with either Bourdelle or Rodin ;) (For more info on studying in Russia, check out www.academicart.com. It's a link to a school in Long Island City, Queens and they have amazing teachers there plus offer programs in Russia). This is just my experience, though. Most of the best guys I know of in the "biz" are self taught. Their drive and talent took them to the top. No school is going to give you that. Beyond waxing nostalgic here about my school days, hands on experience in the trenches is essential. Learn how to make molds, make castings, and produce finished sculptures IN A PRODUCTION ENVIRONMENT. Whether this means at a model shop, foundry, toy company, or in your own studio, you have to know the ins and outs of making manufacture-able (I think I made that word up!) product at a professional pace. The problem with most digital modelers trying to become sculptors is that most of them know nothing about how to do basic things like splits and address draft issues, let make articulated figures, etc let alone make things look and feel solid. Sculpture is not about making an image. It is a tactile art that is essentially about creating a poem comprised of shapes, weight, movement, and mass. You can't get this by just pushing light around on a screen.
For those who've already mastered their craft, getting into the digital stuff is just a question of trying out different sculpting programs and finding which one or combination of them is right for you. Get the best computer you can afford, the software you've settled on, and go from there. Like anything else, it’s just a matter of dedication and practice. I really think the tutorials on Adam Ross' blog are an amazing resource for newbies and vets alike and he is amazingly generous with the time he puts into sharing with the community.
AP: What do you think the future of this industry is going to look like - a mix of digital and traditional sculpting, Mostly digital with a few traditional guys filling some needed role, or all digital?
JM: At the risk of sounding glib I have no idea what's down the road here. I'm more concerned that there is even an industry at all in years to come for ALL of us to work in. I'd like to think that as creative artists, we are all in this together so it shouldn't be an either or scenario but rather a how do we best make sure that we have a playground to enjoy for now and many years to come. The traditional vs. digital thing is an artificial dichotomy and really doesn't benefit anyone IMO.
AP: I've seen some amazing stuff online, from a huge number of people. Do you think there's enough room (for jobs specifically) for a person who's just getting started?
JM: I think there's always room for good work. Good work sells itself but you gotta pay your dues. Schelp your stuff around to the cons, hit the forums, send the unsolicited emails...something will eventually give!
AP: Should traditional sculptors start picking up digital sculpting as soon as possible?
JM: No, not at all…in fact they should never pick it up. No future in it, trust me. By the way if any exclusively traditional folks are getting offered nasty, offensive digital gigs, ignore them and just pass them on to me...I'll take care of them for you ;)
Seriously though, it's a question of personal choice...and preferred business model. This IS commercial sculpture we are talking about here and there are undeniable advantages to adopting this stuff into one's workflow. Personal work is a whole 'nother can of beans that's not for bums like me to open!
AP: As a digital artist, how important do you think it is to have a traditional background?
JM: As a traditional artist who can work digitally, I think having a traditional background is the only way to fly.
AP: I've been applying to a number of places and one of the questions I get asked a lot is "Do you sculpt digitally?" I've taken this as a sign that I need to get started. How difficult do you think the transition is for someone who has never sculpted digitally? Will my experience as a traditional sculptor be helpful or will it hinder me?
JM: Your traditional skills will definitely help you. I wouldn't recommend trying to sculpt digitally without them ;) The ease of transition depends on if you honestly want to learn this stuff. If you feel you HAVE to learn it but deep down aren't open minded about it, don't even bother trying. I've seen some amazing talent get forced to take the plunge against their will and the results are never good. If you really do want to give it a go, then believe me, it's no where near as difficult as knowing by heart all of the shapes and forms of the human figure in all of their symphonic complexity plus the million other things you need to know to be a sculptor !!!! If you've got the chops and drive to be a great traditional artist, you should be able to handle anything. As long as you are making great work, it doesn't matter if use paint, pixels, or polymer clay to get there. In the end, all that matters is if you can call it art.
Thanks for having me, Al. I appreciate the soap box!
Well, I think that was a really great read, what about you guys. Wanna continue the discussion? Leave comments and questions below and we'll keep this conversation going. Come back next week for part 3 of Sculpting Digitally, when I talk with my friend Scott Spencer.