My guest this week is an amazing artist who's work I've seen for some time, but hadn't put a name to. Adam Ross is a digital sculptor and creates some of the best looking stuff out there (digital or otherwise). This week Adam and I talk about Comic-Con, traditional vs digital sculpting, the tech side of digital sculpting programs and more. It's a great read, so pull up a chair and stay a while.
AP: It was really great seeing a lot of your work at SDCC this year. I'm sorry I didn't get a chance to meet you. Did you enjoy this years Con? What were some of your favorite things this year?
AR: Thanks so much for the admiration of my work! There were a lot more pieces at SDCC from Idol Workshop than I even imagined. It seemed like everywhere you turned at the Sideshow booth, there was one of our pieces. Hopefully we can meet up at next year's con, or even at NYCC, if you're going :)
This year's con was either very different from the past 6-7 years, or I crossed over into SDCC veteran territory, LOL. Last year, I believe the big film release was Star Trek if I'm not mistaken. There's always a BIG movie dropped in the lap of con goers. This year, I'm figuring that was supposed to be Tron: Legacy....which I'm hyped about...but didn't seem like it had the energy around it like other movies in previous years.
Some of my favorite things were smaller in nature, Weta Workshop had some KILLER Wind in the Willows product, District 9 pieces, and MORE from Dr. Grordbort's. It was good reconnecting with those guys from back in my Gentle Giant days. Greg Broadmore and I had met previously back then, but we haven't made the connection in the past 3 years of con going because we've both grown beards!!! LOL. We had that "AHA!" moment this year, which was pretty damn funny.
There's ALWAYS the Sideshow Collectibles booth, it *never* ceases to blow me away even though I'm one of their sculpting vendors. Since I work digitally, I rarely get to see my work until it's a finished piece. SDCC is the place to be to see how your work is received, and in my case, I usually see it for the first time the same as the fans do.
I'm looking forward to Sucker Punch from Zack Snyder, that film could either be one of the greatest films of all time, OR it could be and uber flop. I'm hoping for the former, because it would be a bigger disappointment than Final Fantasy if it's the latter case :(
AP: Did you always have an interest in art? What were some of your early inspirations?
AR: I always have had in interest in art. As a child I was a cardboard Picasso, at least in my 6 year old mind I was. I was always making vehicles out of cardboard and whatever I could find in our family woodshop. That progressed into clay as I got older, Sculpey and Super Sculpey, and grew into figurative pieces. Some of my earliest inspirations were movies like Jason and the Argonauts, Clash of the Titans, and Jurassic Park. The first two galvanized my interest in sculpture, the third solidified it as being in the digital medium, long term.
AP: I heard you started out as a model maker and fabricator. Is this true and if so, how is it you got so good so fast at mastering the complexity of the human figure?
AR: In some ways that's true, but only in my first professional gig. Prior to that I had classical training using earthenware clays that I mixed myself in college. We used kilns, studied the masters, the usual art school shabang. Once I transferred to SCAD (The Savannah College of Art and Design), I quickly changed gears and went digital. Back then we just had Maya, Max, or Lightwave....there was no ZBrush or Mudbox. That really limited how detailed you could go on your work, from a physical detail perspective. You could always fake the funk with texture maps, but true geometric detail was a long way off. This meant that in my first gig out of college, at Gentle Giant, we were pretty much relegated to modeling the hard surface components of a sculpt (e.g. armor, guns, and bases). ZBrush didn't get widespread attention until around version 2.0-2.5 as far as I was concerned. I picked up a copy when I was charged with building the digital department at McFarlane Toys. We teeter-tottered between Z and Mudbox, eventually settling on Z once 3.0 and 3.1 were released. Prior to that, I had picked up sculpting in wax like the rest of the sculptors at McFarlane, and found that while I didn't particularly enjoy the medium, I was still able to work on my organic sculpting skills, and at least keep them from becoming *too* rusty. After ZBrush 3.0, I was able to go back to the medium I preferred, and actually get much of the same detail out of my work that I was previously only able to achieve traditionally. Since then it's gotten back into a rhythm, each release allowing me to push that envelope even farther. I still have tons of problems with my figure sculpture, and look at a number of other guys like Tim Miller and Mark Newman and say to myself "Damn, I've got a looooong way to go." I never really feel on par and never ahead of the game, just enough to get through today....and yesterday's work is garbage, to put it nicely ;) LOL
AP: How long ago did you start using digital sculpting software? Did you learn it on your own or did you take a class?
AR: I started back in 1999 when I first transferred to SCAD. I first learned Lightwave, then Maya. ZBrush, Mudbox, Freeform, etc didn't come until years later. Even though I took classes, I have to say that I pretty much taught myself everything. They only offered classes in Maya back then, so everything after that I taught myself. I'm usually so busy that I end up learning out of necessity instead of leisure. There are so many guys out there who know almost every facet of programs like Z, and I feel like I'm far behind the times when it comes to that.....but somehow I get it done!
AP: What were some of your early challenges with digital sculpting programs?
AR: Wrapping my mind around precision modeling, when I need parts to fit together seamlessly. In sculpting, it's a very straightforward process. In digital, you can't just shove two pieces together and have it work, there's such a thing as tolerance between pieces, even when you're sculpting/separating organic sculptures. Now we have programs specifically dedicated to cutting up pieces and allowing for tolerance, but not back then. HOWEVER, it's still a skill that should be mastered and is necessary when creating pieces like the bike for the recent WWII Logan show piece I did with Morpheus Prototypes, for their SDCC booth. You can never overlook things like that. So many art students want to skip classic training and anatomy to go straight to abstraction....and it shows. Picasso (which I am not!) mastered classic skills before treading down his own path...he knew the importance of foundations. This is no different.
AP: People tend to associate craftsmanship with something made by hand but it's obviously a big part of your digital workflow, too. Can you give aspiring digital sculptors any advice for achieving the type of high quality that typifies your work?
AR: Play with clay, study classic art books. Study the masters. Bernini is one of my favorites, FYI. Don't refer to others' work to correct your own....it's like a bad photocopy of a bad photocopy. In this business, in order to get dynamic looking pieces, we often have to break bones on purpose or stretch the human body beyond it's natural tolerances to "make it work" as Tim Gunn would say. You need to know the foundations in order to break those bones and stretch that body so that it still looks legit. Like a magician, you're using the art of distraction through foundational knowledge, if that makes sense.
Learn the *basics* of rapid prototyping. Learn how to make your models water tight, learn what you can and cannot get away with on each type of printer, as they all vary to some degree. It's a whole other skill set you must acquire in order to be able to successfully bring your digital pieces into physical reality. Don't depend on RP bureaus to get it right for you.....if you don't, your employer doesn't like having to spring for another $2k bill to print out another!
If you think you've pushed the piece far enough, go another 15%. You'll be surprised at how often it'll take a piece from cool to awe inspiring. I rarely like my work beyond 15 minutes after finishing it, so if I like it for 30 minutes, or a day, or even a week, I know I did something right.
AP: Does an artist hoping to break into the statue and toy world need to develop the same skill set needed to make models for games and film or is sculpting for prototyping and manufacturing a different animal altogether?
AR: Yes and no. Sadly, I think that because of time constraints or company requirements, skill sets are divided up into "you're the figure modeler", "you're the armor guy", "you're the boot guy", etc etc. Guys easily get pigeon holed into a certain type of modeling. There are a number of guys who kick MAJOR ass when modeling a body, but always need someone else to model the hard surface pieces. While the same is almost ALWAYS true in traditional sculpting, the ability to do both and do them well is a VERY powerful draw to get work. Otherwise, you have to be fast as hell and accurate to boot, if you're just able to do one aspect of a piece.
One aspect that I look for in digital sculptors is what I call the "MacGyver Factor".....lame? Well, it simply means that I can show someone a basic set of ideas or techniques, then they're able to grow those into a much more robust toolset and even mix them together to solve future problems without my intervention. This doesn't just apply to sculpting in a digital medium, I think it applies to life as a whole. We don't teach it anymore in schools....it's what got us to the moon, but the lack of it is now what keeps our feet cemented here on Earth.
AP: It seems as though (from what I've read and seen online) that you need more than just Zbrush to complete any sculpture for production. What are some of the other programs that you use and what are the benefits and drawbacks of those programs?
AR: Most people think that because it's digital, then it's always precise, always right....it's most definitely not. Programs have unforeseen problems just like a traditional sculptor might find a bad batch of clay or wax, a malfunctioning wax pen, or a broken tool they have to fix. It's also just like traditional sculpting in the way that each piece of software isn't and end-all-be-all tool. You have a toolbox and each tool serves ONE function the best, and several other tertiary functions adequately.
I use Maya for roughing out a base mesh and for all of my hard surface modeling like armor, weapons, or vehicles. I use ZBrush for all of my organic sculpting. I use Magics to cut up all of my parts for print and put in fittings. I have a 2nd tier of programs that I call in to fix mesh problems that I run into, such as MeshLab (FREE) or AccuTrans (for batch file conversion so I can get a client what they need). Each has it's drawback, some cannot handle large files (like AccuTrans), but they can batch convert 90% of what I throw at them. I tend to look at them not as drawbacks, but having limited purpose. A lot of software companies are trying to be the one-stop modeling software, but they sacrifice the innovation that made them the best at their one major area. It's unfortunate, but a reality. That's why I'm *constantly* up on what's new and what's coming down the pike. What's perfect today may fall apart tomorrow, you need to be in on these changes when they happen, to stay competitive.
AP: How have you seen attitudes towards digital sculpting change over the years? Do you think digital will overtake traditional sculpting as the preferred method for companies?
AR: At first, traditional artists believed that digital would put them out of work. Only the short-sighted companies acted on this and let traditional guys go. Smart ones saw that it's only another tool to add to the box, not replace ones already in there. Commercial product is about how quickly and cheaply you can provide the absolute best possible product to the fan base. Digital pushed that forward exponentially when used by the right hands. There have been fewer of the right hands than the wrong hands, unfortunately, and this has tainted the view of sculpting in the digital medium for years. Only since the advent of software like ZBrush and Mudbox has this begun to be debunked. We're actually pushing polys into REAL details, fine ones, and we're achieving comparable results that are more often times not discernible from their traditionally created counterparts.
A number of companies and digital artists have also preyed upon these fears held by traditional artists, and put up a veil of secrecy around how they do what they do, and even pushed out other aspiring digital artists. That's been a goal of mine for some time, which is why I try to be as open of a book as possible to anyone honestly seeking knowledge on this medium. I want digital art to be judged on the merits of result, not technique, and I think that wall has really started to come down in the past 2 years to a large extent.
I believe that digital will continue to grow in the coming years, but our hang up at the moment remains 3d print quality. RP technology is always just behind what the digital sculpting software is able to achieve, but they're rapidly catching up as this medium gains a larger foothold in the industry. I don't think that this medium will become the preferred method for *all* companies, but it sure does help those with a smaller, more tight knit business model. All that being said, I think it's just as worthwhile for those sculpting digitally to know how to sculpt traditionally and vice versa.
AP: With the new advances in 3D printing, the doors for bolder digital designs seem to be wide open. Is there still something you'd like to create digitally that just can't quite be outputted yet, or are we to the point that if you can think it, we can make it?
AR: I think we're pretty damn close. From my perspective on the battleground, here in the middle of the fray, the biggest problem to perception of what printers can achieve is lack of knowledge about the tech on the bureau side of the equation, and lack of ability to clean these pieces correctly on the other. It takes the right people on all sides to achieve a great result. It takes the knowledge of the sculptor to know what he or she can get out of a printer based on scale of the piece, it takes the skill of the bureau to know how to orient pieces on the machine to get maximum layers on a part and where to place and omit support structures to not frak up details, and, possibly the most important part of the digital-to-reality equation, having the right guys clean up your pieces. You need someone whose passion lies in finishing work, not reworking. Think of them like the make-up artist to a supermodel. The supermodel may just look like an attractive girl next door with no warpaint on, but the moment the make-up artist goes to work, their job is to bring out the best in the piece and smooth over any minor abnormalities. Granted, you can't put lipstick on a pig, but the good guys in the biz know what your original intent was and take the time to bring all that out.
AP: I know this is usually a loaded question, but I'm sure people would like to know - Are there artists (digital or otherwise) in this industry that you look to for inspiration? Do you still get excited about meeting other artists at conventions and stuff?
AR: Oddly enough, I look to 2d artists for more inspiration than anyone else, as they are usually the ones I work with to create some of these pieces based on iconic covers or drawings they've done over the years. Travis Charest is a BIG one....the WWII Logan piece was based off of his style (and ironically Adi Granov did a cover not too long ago which sort of mirrored what I wanted to do with the piece going back 2 years, so I borrowed some elements from that). I would absolutely shiz my britches for a chance to do some pieces, one-off or otherwise, with Travis....SPACEGIRL?!?! Another guy, which I know a lot of others look to, is Adam Hughes. He has captured the mantle of the foremost "modern" pin-up artist of our time. I'm lucky enough to run in some of the same circles as he does, and we run into each other from time to time, but I'm sure he just knows me as Mark Brooks' friend, or "that guy that I see with Tim Miller at SDCC" ;P
AP: Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. Is there anything you'd like to say to your fans or young artists trying to follow in your footsteps?
AR: One other thing relating to "who do I draw inspiration from?" Sculpting-wise, I don't really look to any other modern sculptors for inspiration per se. There are other guys that I have a lot of respect for and respect for what they do, but I try not to compare too often. You just end up putting a governor on your throttle and get chained to the ground. It's good to look around quickly and see where you stand so you have some targets in mind. If you look around and find folks running in front of you, make them your short term target, but the goal is to leave them in your wake wondering "WTF just happened?" You'll inevitably be at every place in the race during your life, so just remember, it's the broad brush strokes that matter, you'll be blown away one day, then back to blowing away everyone else the next. Always learn, always question, and trust but verify. You'll find those who take umbrage to it, you'll find those who will inevitably "circle jerk" around whoever is top dog for the day, those people aren't your targets, they're not even in the race.....they ride coat tails. You're better than that, and people are always watching, so let your work do the talking, NOT the message boards.
Thanks *so* much for the interest in the interview, it never ceases to amaze me that people actually have any interest in what bounces around inside my head, and being a Southerner, it's a miracle that I didn't write a volume or compendium for each answer! ;) Thanks for the great opportunity, and if you or anyone else reading this has any questions or comments, relating to sharing of knowledge or just to say hello, please feel free to give out my email address! :)