Portrait of Neill Blomkamp | An interview with Ian Spriggs

We had the pleasure of interviewing Ian Spriggs, character artist responsible for the Portrait of Neill Blomkamp that swept CGSociety a couple of weeks ago. Ian has been in the industry for 10 years and has worked at studios including ILM and Mr. X prior to working with Neill. To stay updated on Ian's amazing portfolio of work, be sure to check out his website or CGSociety Portfolio

Can you tell us a little bit about what your first project was, as well as some of the challenges you faced while landing it?

My very first project out of school was at Starz Animation in Toronto working on Veggie Tales. It taught me the basics of modelling, and at that point I realized it is what I want to do. It wasn't until I started working at Mr. X VFX that I started modelling characters, which is what I enjoy most. I think it was the complexity of the anatomy that drew me into character modelling, because no matter how much you know, there is always more to learn. I think having a solid demo reel really helped land me those jobs, and I believe that, for a demo reel to stand out from all the rest, it needs to have personal work in it. 

How did you connect with Neill? What kind of pressure was there beginning work with him, and what skills helped you?

We actually first connected online. The company saw the portraits I had been doing and reached out to me. To begin with, it felt a little surreal to be working for someone whose work I admire as much as I do. The more I worked with Neill, the more I understood how he got to where he is. He is an unbelievably creative artist and a phenomenal story teller. He has the ability to draw you into any world he creates. I think that he puts a lot of trust in his team and lets them do whatever it is they are best at. He also supports their personal work. I think that is what has helped me the most is having a platform to do what I love and to challenge myself to try and keep up with his wild imagination. 

He sounds incredibly inspiring. We'd love to know the story behind the concept image. Is this an existing photo you were inspired by or an original photo? If the latter, what was the day like when capturing the image and how many photos did you take before landing the perfect one?

I am always drawn to the masters of art, like Caravaggio and Rembrandt. For the portrait of Neill, I wanted to have strong lighting like that of Caravaggio. I think lighting is one of the best ways to create a mood. For this portrait, I wanted to keep the lighting simple and strong, with little distraction. Having the background and clothes black keeps you focused on Neill. This is also how I wanted to portray him, focused. I set up a space in the office with black walls and black drapery, with light entering the space from one window on the right. We tried a few variations of poses until we got a pose we both liked. We took photos for about 30-40 minutes before we found the right one. In renaissance paintings, it would always cost more to commission an artist to have the sitter's hands in the painting, as hands are challenging and time consuming to represent well. So in a way, hands represent wealth and power. With Neill being on of the top directors out there, I decided that he had to have both hands in the portrait, front and center. 

What software did you use? Are these the same tools that you use for your traditional studio projects?

For all my portraits, I use Maya, Mudbox, Photoshop and rendering with VRay. The difference between my personal work and studio work is that usually in studio work I model in t-pose and I always keep a clean file with everything named correctly so that it is easy for someone else to pick up and understand. My personal work, however, is just for me so I can do whatever I feel like. For example, I start lighting before sculpting, I don't bother to model if it is not in frame, or create shaders that might only work for single frames. I don't think there is a correct way of working, but I do think there are two ways of working: as a technician and as an artist. I try to jump back and forth between the two depending on what I need.

Can you talk a little about the importance and process for your use of Maya for an organic sculpt such as this? How did you combine the use of Maya and Mudbox?

I use Maya and Mudbox for all of my portraits. I have a rigged basemesh I use to start my model and, once it is posed, I block out the clothes focusing on all the major shapes. After this is done, I transfer it over to Mudbox for sculpting. As long as I have a good photo reference, it usually doesn't take too long to model. It is when I start to texture in Mudbox and start test rendering in Maya that it requires a lot of back and forth. My first texture pass is never right, and the more I get into rendering, the more I see that I Need to change the model, too. It is never a linear workflow. I find that Maya and Mudbox are pretty compatible with each otehr. I keep the two programs in sync with each other (e.g. same cameras, same objs, same textures), so that I can jump back and forth easily.

Can you give our users a look inside some of the steps behind creating such a photorealistic render? What kind of process went into creating his hair, for instance?

When it comes to rendering, I don't usually think of it as steps to create it, I see it more as undoing. I get the model, textures, lighting done as quickly as possible. I usually keep the same setting as my last portrait and get a test render as soon as I can, knowing that it is going to look awful. Then, I start to fix what doesn't look right - if there is skin that isn't the right color, I try to fix it in Photoshop. If the sculpt isn't creating the shadows the correct way, I go back to Mudbox and resculpt. If the lighting isn't working, then I start playing around with the settings. It is kind of like untangling knots until you can't see any more to untangle. It is the same process for the hair, too, block it out then start fixing it. I work in as small chunks as I can, though. For example, instead of saying that I need to fix the whole head of hair, I just focus on fixing the hair line, then I just focus on random hairs sticking out. Everything is manageable if you make it simple enough.

What are some key components to your execution of the finer details like the lines in his hands and the wrinkles in his jacket?

I remember when I first started doing 3D character modeling, my modeling supervisor would constantly be giving revisions on my work. He would come to my desk and say "for the next day, I only want you to work on the tear duct and nothing else." At first, I thought it was a bit overkill, but after doing this several times, I started to realize that I wasn't really looking at the reference, I was generalizing what I imagined the feature looked like. Subtle line changes and volumes made such a difference in the final model. I think that when it comes down to the details, you need to take your time and have patience with them. Over the course of my career, I would guess that I have probably modelled between 150-200 characters. Repetition helps, but since each character is different, I always check back to the photo reference to make sure that I'm not letting my imagination get away.

Why is it important to do these personal pieces when you may be pushing 70/80 hour work weeks? Do you pick up new techniques or learn anything new about your process?

Personal work is the most important thing you can do. Don't think I can ever see myself not wanting to do my own art. It is entirely your own voice, whatever you want to say you can say it through art. Working for a company can be great and a huge learning experience, but you are working to make someone else's dream come into existence. It's important that you don't forget about yourself. Working for Neill has been a life changing experience. I am challenged in ways that I haven't been before. I am getting so much out of this learning experience and have become a better artist for it, but I would not be working for Neill if I had not done my own portraits. My work being visible online on various sites is what helped me get this job. Doing what you love at home will directly affect what you will be doing at work. Everyone wants to get paid to do what they love, so you have to start doing what you love first.

That's fantastic, and a piece of advice that is so important for our readers to keep in mind as they navigate the professional art world. So, final question. What was Neill's reaction upon seeing this piece? Were you nervous upon showing him?

Haha, yeah, I was a little nervous. I felt like I was putting myself on the line, but he loved the portrait. He showed his entire family, his mom even shook my hand and thanked me :)
He said he will even 3D print it 20 feet high, and I'll be sure to share the photos when he does ;)

Article by Anna Cicone.

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