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. Here, we’ll talk about the tools and community that surround 3D animation.
We have a lot of folks familiar with traditional animation in E3C, can you tell us a little about what you do in the realm of CG animation?
I work as a 3D modeler. What I do is I create character sets or props using a program like Autodesk Maya. This is the beginning of the pipeline for 3D animation. I personally work with the production designers who come up with the concepts and the aesthetics of the show. From there I hand them off to a rigging department to prep the models to move, and that’s about as far as I will explain as I primarily deal with the sculpting.
Would you say that there’s a pretty clear link between sculpting in 3D and Sculpting in the Real world?
In CG you’re working with polygons which are kind of like the plasticine of the computer world. You have tools that let you pull and pinch like you can in the real world. The interesting thing is the sense of scale. You can set something in the program to be one to one with the real world, but you can also pretty much set any unit of measure you want to fit the scale of the project. That’s what’s great about working in the digital world: the only thing that’s limiting your flexibility is your own creativity.
It’s often the barrier of cost that turns people away from 3D art, though sometimes people are just put off by a skill barrier.
Outside your work do you get a lot of chances to use your tools and “sketch” in 3D?
Right now I’m exploring other tools outside of work, especially in CG. Over the past year I’ve been learning Blender, a open source 3D animation tool. It follows the same type of conventions as any professional in 3D animation would be used to. I wanted to learn it as it’s a good tool for those who want to get into 3D animation. There is a lot of difficulty from other users who want to get into the 3D animation industry but they can’t afford to. For instance for say Maya a year ago a licence would cost over $5500 us. In contrast Blender is maintained by people in their free time, and can be downloaded for free.
Back to the topic, I’m also learning ZBrush which is a program that is an important tool for any modeler to know. There is a difference between the two! It is nice that anyone can download Blender for free, but it’s not exactly an industry standard. Then you have ZBrush, which over a period of 15 years has slowly become an industry standard tool kit for a 3D Artist.
It sounds like with Blender being open source, even if it’s not a standard, you’re very much pro having an accessible tool to help get people in the industry.
It’s often the barrier of cost that turns people away from 3D art, though sometimes people are just put off by a skill barrier. Everyone has a different learning curve and an open source tool allows for people to get that experience in creating something in 3D without a steep cost. Just like any other tool I’ve learned you need that time to experiment.
So in getting that experience, what’s your approach to learning a new tool?
For example when I was learning Maya, what was available at the time were video tutorials on the Autodesk website. There had been plenty of manuals that had been kicking around, and they even have these manuals in public libraries. Before I’d be lucky if 3D magazines have had supplementary DVDs with tutorials on them. These days I’ll go over to YouTube too as there’s a plethora of really good video tutorials starting right at the simple “make a geometric shape” to the most advanced features.
Over the course of many years I have tried to get my hands on anything I could. It is a newer tool for doing creative art so you have to put in a bit of legwork yourself.
That’s the value of experimentation. You see it on any discussion forum for any program, people just encouraging people to experiment with the tools.
From using an open source program to saying one of your big resources is youtube it sounds like there is a big community just willing to share their knowledge.
Oh yeah! It’s incredible. Some of the video tutorials are mindblowing in terms of organization. You get a few that are not so great, you know, maybe focused less on teach and more on showing off. But there are still quite a number of video tutorials on YouTube that cover everything that you need. The last time I went on YouTube, it’s a bit outside 3D art, I had the program ArtRage and really wanted to do some digital painting. The tutorials were great as I was able to get familiar with the functionality of the program and know how to use the tools. After about a week I knew the basic functions and could experiment.
It seems like when you find a new tool or program to learn you gather a lot of inspiration from experimenting and picking it apart.
Yeah! It’s pretty interesting just trying to understand certain features. Then you get friends and coworkers who work in the same industry who want to show you things. Again you have people online who want to share information about techniques in the program. It’s great to have a whole community that is invested in learning and sharing. Even if it’s just sharing mistakes.
There’s always that moment where you have a great end result and then someone is able to point out, “This is awesome, but you could have done it quicker this way”.
Oh yeah I’ve had a lot of moments like that. That’s how I learn though. That’s the value of experimentation. You see it on any discussion forum for any program, people just encouraging people to experiment with the tools. It’s the same as in figure drawing when you experiment with white chalk or charcoal. You get really really fascinating results, even results you never would have even considered before experimenting with a new tool. It just blows my mind!
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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.