Michael Lei has an extensive career as a 3D modeler and currently works at DHX media. In this career he has discovered the importance of knowing the tools of your community, and always searching for something new to learn. In fact with his huge range of experience we have two distinct topics for two distinct articles from just one interview.
You can learn about about the tools and community that surround 3D animation in Part I.
You seem to really chase after new tools and techniques. I find as you work with a singular tool you get more and more proficient but, not to sound disparaging, it can breed a bit of complacency.
Yeah that’s always true. I try to not be in that zone of complacency, because even if you get into that state the world still changes. People change. If I don’t change then I haven’t really learned anything new. I remember it being pointed out to me, and I don’t mean this in a sardonic way, but if you’re not learning what’s the point of living? When we live we’re supposed to learn new things as we go about our day.
So it’s not all just sitting down and learning new tools. I try to open up a sketchbook and just doodle and learn what comes naturally that time of day. I just want to learn new things and I do not fight myself about that. This is how you find new avenues of creativity. Whether it’s learning a new software that compliments maya, or experimenting with using the eraser as a marking tool in your sketchbook.
It’s really neat to see that your approach is the same between physical and digital mediums. Clearly there’s always the benefit of having a traditional mediums.
See those are the things I learned in school. I went to an arts highschool and we were encouraged to explore different avenues, and for me I was always most comfortable in the drawing aspects. Not just in highschool, but then in four years of university I learned so much about the art of drawing. And not just things like anatomy, but also how to make a mark on the paper. That was an eye opener for me.
Learning about other styles than the realist styles opened my eyes. I pretty much threw everything I learned early away, and started fresh.
And then with each thing you learn you can apply it to all the things you learned before?
Yeah! Like I’ve learned to look at an object with an eye for structural form, and from that I have a better understanding of how light falls and casts shadow. That’s really helpful when working in 3D or in a sketchbook.
With everything you’ve said so far it sounds like embracing change is a big part of your philosophy. You went to an arts highschool and focused in on drawing. Then expanding on that in university. Then ultimately you end up working in 3D modeling.
Lemme tell you something about my life. Ever since when I learned to draw I was fascinated with artists like Robert Bateman and Ken Danby. Robert Bateman being a wildlife painter, and Ken Danby being a realist painter. I studied those, and of course also the old masters during highschool. I was very much influenced by those artists work, but I very much put myself in the corner of being stuck in the realistic approach of drawing.
Then after highschool I needed to change. I wasn’t learning anything more out of what I studied in highschool, or even what I studied going to the library on my own time. I needed to learn more about art itself. When I applied to university I told myself that I had to relearn art acknowledging the works of Piccasso, and acknowledging the works of the abstract expressionists. Because there are things that they have learned, and that they have experienced, that I haven’t learned or experienced.
It’s easier to collectively keep the motivation going when you surround yourself with people with special skills and talents.
Learning about other styles than the realist styles opened my eyes. I pretty much threw everything I learned early away, and started fresh. Then midway through university, I think my third year, that’s when the 3D animation industry was coming along. With the success of the first Jurassic Park everyone was jumping on board with 3D, and that really was the beginning of the industry in the 90s. It would take me a while to get to the point 3D could be a career for me, but that’s when it became an avenue to look into.
Seems like multiple time you’ve broken yourself down and reassembled yourself into something better.
That’s a perfect way of describing it. I have seen myself do that. I fall apart and then pick myself back up. Re-evaluate what’s important.
It’s a tough process though.
Oh yeah. Having the motivation to pick yourself up and learn new things is so important. I’ve seen people who have lost that motivation and it’s a little bit sad to see the result. It’s what nice about communities. It’s easier to collectively keep the motivation going when you surround yourself with people with special skills and talents. And we all have special skills and talents. It’s a really conducive environment for creativity.
Which is why it’s more rewarding than just dusting off your hands and saying “Well, all I can do about that”.
That motivation away from complacency becomes its own reward as it leads to inspiration. Sometimes I get it from watching movies, sometimes looking at art in books, sometimes from talking with friends or strangers, and sometimes taking a walk in the public gardens on my lunch break. It’s good to challenge yourself and keep the blood flowing.