5 Nov 2018

CGTrader interviews: Neil Blevins

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Neil Blevins is a 3D artist that needs no introduction – his multi-decade spanning career in 3D art and design has seen him working in a multitude of mediums, including feature films at Pixar, creating art for fascinating books and video games, and becoming one of the most prominent digital concept artists in the world. We had the absolute pleasure of chatting with Neil about his career, inspiration and the 3D industry. We hope you enjoy this interview, especially Neil's message at the end, which has many gems and sound advice, coming from a distinguished industry professional.

Neil, tell us what drove you to become a 3D artist?

The short answer: I found that 3D was the best medium that allowed me to achieve the images that were in my head as quickly as possible.

The long answer: I started off drawing and painting traditionally. When the computer started becoming a thing, I started playing around, but it was all pixel-by-pixel art. I eventually tried POV-Ray and was amazed with the checkerboard and the chrome sphere on top. I got completely sucked in. There was a very strong community on Compuserve back then. People were posting their artwork and talking about it. It had a nice comradery and competition for many years.

I ended up getting a job in California and moving to there. Since then, I went into Photoshop and other pieces of 2D software. I am using 3D as a basis for what I’m going to do for my concept art and, after doing a 3D stage – sometimes a very simple 3D stage – I do a lot of photo manipulation, photo bashing, hand painting over top, basically using the best, fastest method to get across my idea.

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How much easier is it to start 3D modeling today, especially with the tools we have now?

The tools have become tremendously better than the tools that we had back when I started. But learning how to see as an artist and visualize stuff, how to translate your ideas is still based on the exact same things it was 20 or 30 years ago – it’s not necessarily easier to make art.

In the past, if you were the generation before me and you wanted to do an organic model, you would use nurbs to stitch together a really complex surface. I tried nurbs and am very glad that I didn’t end up doing much nurb stuff, because it was a real pain in the butt.

I did polygon and subdiv modeling, and still do it to some extent. That was a lot easier. But now, with 3D sculpting software you can, for the most part, not worry about topology, and just start throwing together some voxels or starting with a really simple mesh and pushing and pulling it to get your final result.

Now, a lot of people try to focus on the part that is still hard, which is to figure out what the thing should look like, coming up with an idea – one that’s interesting, connects with people and is still unique. It’s one of the most fun parts of concept art.

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Do you have some background in computer science?

Kind of. There were no 3D schools back when I started, so I had to choose whether I wanted to go the computer science route or the pure art route. I decided to go the computer science route, tried it for a year and didn’t like it at all. When you reach that level of school, you really have to be excited about what you’re going to do and I really wasn’t. So I transferred out and got my degree in fine art, which suited me much better.

The funny thing is, when I really got into 3D, MAXScript happened in 3D Studio Max, which was my main 3D application. There are many ways to use MAXScript to speed up boring stuff that you don’t want to do by hand. So I used my computer science knowledge to do some MAXScripting. And it was far more interesting to me, because it had a direct application, and I knew that it would make my image look a lot better.

I still have the MAXScripts available for people who want to use them. I had programmers tell me that my MAXScripting is horrible (laughs). I always tell them that I am not doing it to make beautiful code, I’m doing it because it helps me do stuff, and I release these scripts because they help other people do stuff as well.

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Has your computer science experience impacted your 3D art?

I am interested in procedural stuff – a lot of that that is math underneath. It was always helpful to understand that. When I joined Pixar 16 years ago, it was more computer science oriented. Understanding how everything works is really helps to understand the art. Every bit of info about how what you’re doing works under the hood actually helps.

You have worked in many visual mediums, including movies and print. Which one of them was the most interesting to work with, and how does your approach to visual storytelling change from one medium to the next?

I think of all these different mediums as being really similar to each other. At the end of the day, you’re trying to provide an experience that the people would like. I tend to be a still image kind of person - in some ways I am a traditional painter. I am very happy that most of the time I get to make the still image of what the scene will look like, and then someone else will bring it to life by adding those extra elements such as camera movement and animation.

The still image can be translated into any number of different areas.

When it comes to film, there is a whole group of people that do all the parts after my part to bring it to life in true filmic form. I have to think of them, but most of what I am doing are art fundamentals of composition and color, and design.

When I’m doing video game work, there’s this whole other set of stuff you have to worry about: if I’m doing a shooter, I have to design cover objects, so people can hide behind cover objects and not get shot at.

There are small things you have to consider, and they are different in each medium, but it’s all about the story telling, and a lot of it has to do with design: ‘how do I tell the story with the prop or the set or the vehicle?’

That is universal no matter what the different things are. Most of the things I do end up translated into 3D, whether its a video game or a film, so I always try to think in 3D.

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If you were starting out as a digital artist today, how would you go about it?

It’s a very different world now.

When I was coming up, there were only a few large companies that were doing most of the work. I had to move to California from Montreal to do the kind of work I wanted to do.

Now there’s a lot more small companies, more jobs, but there’s not as much money flowing into the industry as back then. Things are also much more international: the good bit is that you don’t have to move away from your home country to do this kind of work, the bad thing is that California has just a fraction of the jobs that used to be here when I started, with everyone moving to other places to take advantage of tax incentives.

I would advice learning the basics of composition and color, line and drawing. These are the fundamentals that artists have been learning for hundreds of years. Those will never go out of style.

I would definitely go to one of the schools that teach 3D, but I recommend not going to a school that’s going to bankrupt you. The advantage of going to school is learning to work in a team and working with a bunch of other people that really push you to reach that next level. It’s healthy competition. Also, you are getting access to better hardware than you have at home, because you probably don’t have a render farm at home, and there’s usually a render farm at the school.

You can also do a lot of learning on your own. There are hundreds of Gnomon and Gumroad tutorials available. I learned a lot at home, on my own time. I never took 3D classes at school.

The fundamentals of marketing yourself are somewhat similar. There’s social media – put your artwork out there, it doesn’t matter if it’s bad. Get comments, get critiques, then put out more artwork. Work the long game: it’s going to take you years to become good enough to get some sort of job.I know that you want to get there immediately, every one of us just wants to be there, but it’s just going to be about slowly and incrementally getting better and better over time.

After that is done, apply everywhere. Realize that you are going to get rejected 99.99% of the time. I have received TONS of rejection letters. And every time it happens, it makes you sad for a bit, but you need to keep trying because that’s the only way this thing is going to work.

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What would you say is the most underappreciated area or skill in 3D design?

Match moving. For those that don’t know, matchmove is the process of matching the camera or characters to live action film. My wife did this years ago, and it is the backbone of so much visual effects work.

It’s not 3D per-say, but paint and roto are also very under appreciated: it is quite difficult to get good at them, and it’s absolutely vital for what you have to do. Mocap cleanup and low-poly modeling are also very underappreciated.

A lot of people want to do a hi-res model and have somebody else handle the boring part of making it actually work. But I think it's important that you know yourself how to make something low poly, so you can clean up your own mess. If there's time in the schedule (and there isn't always), you should help out the next person in the pipeline as much as possible.

At the end of the day, especially if you’re going into gaming, VR or AR, it has to work inside the engine, so you must know how to make stuff lower poly. Never add extra polys where you don’t need them. If it’s going to take you 10% extra time to make something that has half the number of polygons, take the extra time to do it.

Believe it or not, the stuff we would make for film at Pixar was reasonably low poly in the grand scheme of things.

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Are there any new 3D software developments you are excited about?

There are still some very cool areas, but now it seems as though software development has slowed down – the pace at which new stuff is getting added to the big players’ software is nowhere close to what it was when I was younger, and its a real shame. Now it’s just about creating rental-only software.

The biggest innovation I have seen recently have been the creation tools in VR and AR. I’ve been very excited about Medium for the Oculus Rift. I have sculpted traditionally with clay, and poly-modeling had some of its aspects, but it still wasn’t the same. Mudbox or Zbrush are way closer, but still not the same as having the model in front of you. And now, having stuff like Medium is fantastic, because just having the model in front of you and being able to look around it is so important to tell whether the thing looks good from multiple angles.

I did a couple of classes where I showed some people the Rift. There were people who absolutely hated doing 3D, and after a few minutes in Medium they went ‘okay, this is pretty cool, this is closer to the real stuff’. And these were people who were sculpting traditionally for thirty or forty years.

A lot of innovation in 3D these days is sort of happening in the VR space. Even though your final result isn’t VR, you can use VR and its advantages to create something that could be used for a regular game of film project.

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Do you think VR and AR will impact the 3D industry in a major way?

About VR 20 years ago, VR was going to be the next big thing, and then it kind of petered out. Now, VR/AR is the next big thing again, but it isn’t being adopted as quickly as people were hoping for. I think we will see AR and VR becoming more important, just at a slower pace. I am hoping that it will continue in a forward momentum, and we’re not going to see another crash like last time.

Your website is a treasure trove of 3D knowledge and educational content. What would you suggest our audience to check out?

First, when you go to my site, you’ll probably see way too much stuff there. I have around 100-120 tutorials on various subjects. I’ve tried my best to organize it in an understandable way.

A lot of the earlier stuff on the website – the non-3D stuff – are lessons that are more general and applicable to people. I start off my website with one lesson, which is sort of talking about my process for making my artwork and my concept art, it’s right at the very top of the page. If you are going to look through those CG education tutorials, the best thing would be to watch that first. There is an up-to-date text version that you can read, or an older video version on my YouTube page if you want to watch it.

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Where do you look for inspiration?

The reference gathering portion is one of the most exciting parts. I have over 200,000 images on a separate hard drive – everything from nature photographs to other people’s artwork. I like taking my own photographs.

There’s lots of nature in the work that I do. I did a book project with a bunch of other artists. It all took place on a desert planet, so we took a trip to Utah, which has lots of giant rock formations, and I took thousands of photographs. I used them not only as elements in my concept art, but also as inspiration and reference. So I’d say nature is probably my number one source of inspiration, especially nature photographs that I have taken myself.

When it comes to other artists’ work, the inspiration comes from seeing amazing artwork and saying to myself ‘yeah, I want to make something that’s as cool as that’. A lot of times when I’m working I’ll have other artwork up, but it’s not like I’m using elements of that work. It’s more that if I’m making my piece of artwork, and its not as good as the work these other artist have done, then I need to keep working on what I’m doing.

Your thoughts on 3D marketplaces. Are they useful?

They are tremendously useful, especially now, as the industry’s fragmented into a lot more smaller companies. In a big company, you have a group of people that just model or shade stuff. When you’re a little company, you don’t have this big team of people. So, having access to pre-made models is really important.

On top of that, you have the whole previs industry. In some respects previs and concept art have a lot of strong ties. A lot of times the first thing I do is just get a whole lot of pieces of pre-made stuff and throw it together as the basics of the final painting that I want to do. Then I replace every single aspect with my own stuff. It’s the same with previs.

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Have you considered selling your own assets?

Absolutely, I am totally down with making some assets and seeing how they do different marketplaces. It is quite possible that you might see me on CGTrader during some down time. I think it’s great that there is the opportunity for people to do that full time or at least on the side to get a little bit of extra cash.

Thank you, Neil, for a wonderful and in-depth interview. Do you have any message for our 3D community?

I think that it is very important for the community to stick together, help each other. It is very important for us to stick up for things like work practices and not get abused by the industry, which increasingly seems to be trying to get more for less. There’s a lot of people out there that want to take advantage of you, or their business model works only if they do take advantage of you and you don’t stand up for it. So stand up for yourself and each other so we will have a strong long term entertainment industry that we can all make a living from.

As somebody who’s been around for a while, I see things from a different perspective, because I am somebody who wants to do this for the rest of my life. Getting into the industry is one thing, but the chance to continue working in the industry long-term is a different thing. Realize that you are going to retire one day, so save up for retirement. Decide, whether you do want to have a family and kids. If you want kids, maybe that will direct you into a different part of the industry that does not require you to move to a new location every six months. Realize that your desires are going to change over time, so think and plan ahead for the long term. Because there is a long-term that we all have to live through.

The biggest thing I want to encourage is working together, getting everyone on the same team – we’re all trying to do cool stuff and make a living at it. I hope some of this interview helps you. People helped me at the very earliest. Help people below you, help people at the same level as you, get everyone together – we’re all trying to do the same thing.

All artwork used in the article was created by Neil Blevins and used with the artist's permission.