My guest this week is a gentleman I met while taking an anatomy course with Andrew Cawrse. Scott Spencer is a very talented digital artist who has worked for Gentle Giant and is now in New Zealand working for Weta. He's worked on such movies as: The DaVinci Code, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and X-men 3. This week Scott talks about Zbrush and the world of digital sculpting.
AP: When did you start using digital sculpting programs?
SS: In about 2003. I started seeing work from ZBrush and I felt this was the tool I had been waiting for to bridge the gap between clay and the computer.
AP: What are some of the advantages of digital sculpting? Conversely, what are some of it's disadvantages?
SS: You have the huge advantage of the undo button. You can make mistakes and then simply remove them. I feel this cuts the learning curve in half at least for new artists. You can create so much more work so much faster you gain experience quickly.
The disadvantage is that it becomes very easy to indulge in bad habits on the computer. Using symmetry is a big one. It helps to start a sculpture with it mirrored, but you can really kill the life in a sculpt by having it too symmetrical. 3D also suffers from not actually being 3D... What I mean is you are looking at the world in the computer through a software camera not your human eye so some programs can distort this view. You need to develop a feel for what software cameras distort and how much. This is especially important if your work will be milled or printed on a 3d printer. As time goes on the cameras are getting better and ultimately I believe we will see stereoscopic displays that render actual 3D objects in space at your desk.
AP: When we first met, you were working for Gentle Giant and now you're down in New Zealand working for Weta. That's gotta be some ride you've had. How are you enjoying your time down there and what kind of work are you doing now (if you can talk about it)?
SS: Oh its incredible. New Zealand and Weta are truly amazing places. I work with so many intensely talented people who are all some of the kindest and most humble people I have ever met. I learn from them every day and its impossible not to love being here. I am thankful to Richard (Taylor) for bringing me down and to Karl Meyer and Brian Sunderlin for their mentorship and guidance. Gentle Giant Studios was an incredible place to work and I still send artists their way.
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?
SS: The biggest most important do is take figure drawing classes and sculpt in real clay. You need to really experience the form in real life before you start working in 3D. I know absolutely incredible digital sculptors who have never touched clay but every digital sculptor I know who does work in clay gets better faster, I feel your hands learn form much faster by touching it and making it in the real world. This experience translates seamlessly into your ZBrush work. The same is true for the observation skills you gain from life drawing. Consider it yoga for artists. It can only help elevate you and your work! I try and work from a model every week for at least 3 hours. It keeps me grounded in reality and I hope helps me continue to grow.
As for hardware and software get the best computer you can afford but don't break the bank. RAM is the most important part, get as much RAM as yuo can within your budget.
AP: I've never sculpted with Z-brush, but one of the things that has intimidated me the most is the use of a lot of technical jargon. For someone like myself, is it as complicated to understand or does it get simpler once you start up?
SS: The learning curve is so steep at the very start but once you get on it you realize it looks far far worse than it is. When I first started out I was a makeup effects guy that worked in a garage slinging clay and plaster. I knew 3D was the future but I went and looked at the books and I was completely lost. So much jargon it terrified me. I simply got some intro books and started surfing forums and quickly the pieces fell into place. You will start to understand what everyone is talking about pretty quickly! It seems far more complex than it really is.
AP: In traditional sculpting, you get what some artists call "Happy Accidents", but with Z-brush you have short cuts like templates and symmetry tools. Do you think that the look of digital sculpture will have more of that spontaneous feel to it in the future?
SS: I think ZBrush has already introduced tools like the claytubes and rake brushes that help give your work that gestural spontaneous feeling. The important thing is to allow people to create at the speed of thought. Once you get that, the accidents will happen. I already find I have created ways to invite happy accidents with the ZBrush tools. The problem is a blessing though. That undo button is so easy to press sometimes you need to just experiment with not using it. I will often do sketches where I wont use control Z just to let my mind wander over a design and not get caught in the loop of rethinking myself.
AP: In the film industry, we saw a big push for more digital FX a number of years ago, and in the last few years some directors have started to return to a mix of practical and digital FX. Do you think digital sculpting will have a similar ebb and flow or is it poised to take over completely?
SS: I think it will overtake manufacturing- it already has in many companies. You still need solid sculptors working the software and you need to be able to work in wax to finish the piece that comes off the printer, but the vast majority of the process is accomplished in 3D. I think as printers improve the wax phase may be removed completely. We did some pieces back at Gentle Giant that went from 3D print to mold.
In the entertainment industry it will all depend on what a director wants to see. Some directors can appreciate the imagery you create with ZBrush and they like the rapidity and immediacy of the ZBrush design process... Others like the physical presence of a maquette on the table. Its all about being able to fulfill whatever medium is appropriate for the client and the project. Clay will never ever die.
AP: Should traditional sculptors start picking up digital sculpting as soon as possible?
SS: Yes, if anything use it as a tool to help sketch out ideas in the middle of the night. Ever wake up at 4 am and want to sketch a maquette? Don't you hate waking up with WED clay all over your sheets after a middle of the night impulsive sculpting session? I do! Well roll out of the sack and do a quick maquette in Zbrush!
AP: As a digital artist, how important do you think it is to have a traditional background?
SS: Extremely important, but that is my personal take. There are sculptors and painters who are amazing who have only ever worked in digital media. I will repeat though, every artist I know who takes up working in traditional media gets better faster.
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?
Your traditional experience will help you. I did two training classes for Weta sculptors before I started working here. After a year, just about all the traditional sculptors were working in both ZBrush and clay. That was with a one week class and a lot of personal work at home. It's not hard to learn, you just need to take the time and use the best tools. I have two books on ZBrush that may be helpful as well as an online class at gnomononline. I also have an intro to ZBrush 4 DVD in the works to release with the new version of ZBrush.
My books are:
ZBrush Character Creation ( second edition is in the works for ZBrush 4)
Erik Keller also has a great book called Intro to Zbrush
I want to thank Scott for taking the time out of his busy schedule to do this interview, it was most enlightening. I hope you guys reading it enjoyed it as much as I did.