Take us back to the beginning and outline what the definitive moments were in your early years. What got you started in the world of film and special effects?
I had quite a few of those “moments”. My father was always into art. In fact I don’t remember a time where I didn’t have pencil and paper at my disposal. He encouraged me through his passion to explore different mediums. He is also an avid film buff and I can remember being taken to see many movies as a child.
I am of the “Star Wars” generation and although it did have a great impact on me, it was not the film that made me want to travel towards what ultimately became my dreams. “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “Gremlins” were the films that made me realize I wanted to do this. I loved CEotTK from the stand point of special effects and Gremlins for the insane animatronics. Gremlins was the first film in which I saw an animatronic character come to life. Gizmo was real! That had a profound effect on how I perceived the universe from that point on. I just had to know how they did it.
That path of discovery led me to Dick Smith, Rick Baker, Rob Bottin, Steve Johnson, Chris Walas and a whole slew of other amazing artists that would then and still do provide the basis for who my artistic heroes are. Looking back now on my journey I can truly appreciate how fortunate I really am. On a side note, I now own one of the aliens from Close Encounters as well as a Gizmo.
In what ways did you find it a challenge trying to break into Hollywood after growing up in Toronto, Ontario Canada?
Toronto is far away from Hollywood, and that was especially true during the early 80’s. There was a fledgling film community but it certainly wasn’t what it is now. Today we’re labeled the “Hollywood of the North”. Times have changed and there are now more productions and qualified staff as a whole in the business.
I’ve always considered myself blessed to have grown up at the time I did in Toronto. After all, the scene was just starting and I was young. For some reason this meant people gravitated towards me and more importantly, helped me out. I mean I was short, fat, pimply-faced, full of energy but most importantly: innocent. My ignorance to the inner workings of the business and a wide eyed optimism served me well.
Makeup came instinctively to me. While I did not have a glorious makeup career, working mainly on TV shows and commercials, I do look back fondly on those days because they served as an incredible teaching platform for what was ahead. This is true both from a professional standpoint as well as in the realm of personal relationship building. I am a firm believer that you must retain both qualities as an artist. The proverbial team player; never were there truer words on the CG side of the business. So my transition into the film industry wasn’t bad.
However, my transition into the CG side of the business... well that’s a whole other story.
In those days Toronto had a bustling comic book industry with some major shops in the global spotlight. What characters inspired you most?
I’m a Batman guy and in particular Neal Adams’ envisioning of him. Neal was the first guy in my mind’s eye that took Bats and gave him street credibility. Not that the Adam West version was bad; I loved that show. But it was tongue in cheek humor. Neal made him ultra-cool and more importantly set the ground work for Dark Knight. I don’t think you could have had Dark Knight without Neal’s version.
I did for a blip get into Spawn but at that point it all just became too commercial for me. While I loved the early designs, that wasn’t enough to keep me around. I remember Frank Miller making a huge impact on me with “Ronin” and “Elektra”, both amazing graphic novels. Those really made me rethink the whole spectrum. Later of course came “300” and I would eventually get to supervise the modeling at Meteor Studios for the movie. Talk about full circle!
You recently completed a piece for Photoshop Magazine. What are some of the benefits for illustrators when using ZBrush?
Today I’m employed as a Character Designer. I love what I do! I get to sit behind my computer at my home studio and come up with madness. Using ZBrush and Photoshop together is like peanut butter and jam. They go together so well.
My workflow is all about forward movement. I like striking while the iron is hot. Variations are the name of the game and I want to get as many out as I can in a day while maintaining a professional grade to them. I have found that the more I hem and haw, the less likely the works will hit the mark.
ZBrush allows me the freedom to go wherever I want without the fear of a lost cool concept. Of course this requires a little tech know how at the front end, but once the process is in place... well it just becomes process. In this way ZBrush keeps me on track with the sculptural, color and rendering aspects of the image creation.
I use Photoshop to take my rendered passes and composite the image together. Having said that, I can see a day where even that work flow will exist completely within ZBrush. After all, BPR Filters are extremely powerful.
In respect to features, you also recently took part in a hugely successful User Group Meeting hosted by Pixologic and the Gnomon School of Visual Effects where you highlighted the use of Layers and FiberMesh. How are these features enabling you to push even further than before?
Yes and thank you for that. I had a blast and can’t express how cool it was to have one of my heroes, Rick Baker come up to me and be excited by my workflow. It’s not every day that you manage to teach anything new to a seven time Academy Award winner.
Layers to me are an integral part of my workflow, along with morph targets. Like I said earlier, my workflow is about constant forward progression. I dislike anything that bogs down the artistic flow. This is especially true of copying. I find the endeavor a technical one and by its very nature, laborious. So I was constantly frustrated by the thumbnail process. Although extremely powerful, it is unfortunately one that causes too much turmoil! You see a drawing or thumbnail, once accepted by the client, causes issues as it puts me into copy mode. I must now convert the thumbnail into a 3d form and that is time consuming.
Out of my frustration came a solution, although not all at once. It was a gradual process that I refined. Even as I show it to you now, it took some time to figure out the back and forth. That being said, I knew that once I had figured it out I needed to share it with everyone. I use it not only to create designs, but also to come up with variations in faces, heads, horns... you name it.
FiberMesh. is a relatively new thing to me. That being said, I have embraced it with both arms and I’m not letting go. Hair is an integral part of character design and it was just a matter of time and evolutionary process for it to show up within ZBrush. (Or at least, I had secretly hoped it would.) Before FiberMesh, the only way was through cheats and hand painting in Photoshop.
I can tell you that I am currently taking the material I created for the UGM and turning into a full blown program at my new online school, Phoenix Atelier. I’m sure that the workflow I will show will evolve like everything else I do, but I am excited by what I am able to achieve at this point. Very quickly, I might add -- which is fantastic as time is a huge factor with everything I do.
What is Phoenix Atelier?
Phoenix Atelier is a brand new online school that I have founded with a simple goal: To help dreams come true through education. This is my legacy. It is my way to give back to an industry that has given so much to me. Our structure is curriculum-based with 8 week structures. It focuses on the complete artist; not just the fundamentals.
You’ve been using ZBrush for quite some time. What would you be doing if you were not in film?
Indeed, feel privileged to be a long time user. Film is my job and I love what I do, but I have many other facets to my life including an online FAN show called “The Squid Zone”. My wife and I have a foundation called “Saving Graces” which is set up to help children afflicted with Anti-NMDA Receptor Encephalitis. I love fishing, have a high interest in flying... I guess the answer is I’m not sure.
I would be living every day to its fullest as we are not guaranteed tomorrow. I almost learned that one the hard way, so I don’t take anything for granted.
Your reputation as a “go to” character design lead and director precedes you. From what or where do you draw inspiration?
Inspiration for me is a moving target. There are different things motivating my daily progress. My wife and children motivate me on many complex levels, whether it’s from the rudimentary father providing for their well-being to the incredible strength and courage of my daughter as a survivor of NMDA-r.
From an artistic level, I must admit that there isn’t much “new” artwork that I draw from. I do think there are incredible artists out there and I can appreciate their work. The thing that is difficult for me is that I see the influence of other artists in just about everyone’s work. (And by the way, even I fall into that category.) So I tend to fall back on my childhood favorites.
This is for two reasons. Firstly, if I’m going to be influenced it might as well be from the original source. Secondly, in the period I’m attracted to the art seems purer, less commercial and with more intent and stronger narratives. My work is far from matching that of my heroes, but I keep trying. I do find myself constantly looking at comic book artwork and children’s literature. These artists are telling stories in every frame. They are truly amazing sources that inspire creativity in me. I also do tend to look at a lot of old Rick Baker, Chris Walas and Steve Johnson work. I still marvel at their talent.
What are some of the associated challenges with remaining fresh and relevant in such a competitive market?
As I mentioned earlier, it’s very hard. The thing about designing is trying to come up with something you’ve never seen before. The problem with that notion is that you are limited by your grey matter. In other words you must have recorded it at some point in order to draw upon it. Imagination is difficult to hold onto. Most of us have had it summarily beaten out of us at a young age through mantras to “keep your feet on the ground”, “don’t daydream” or worst of all to “get real”. Consider yourself lucky if yours is still intact. As adults, we may even have to go out to special retreats to learn how to think outside the box.
Realizing that our imagination will serve us best is a tough concept to grab onto. If you’re extremely imaginative, your imagination is more often than not composed of images based on the mixing and matching of metaphors or images from within your mental database. So basically, you’re stuck with what you know or have processed/seen.
Or are you? My idea of using layers is about speeding up happy accidents. In fact, the more of these you have the better off you will be.
Designers overall don’t like this idea as they are control freaks. I know because I’m one of them. Over time I have learned to condition myself and have come to understand that happy accidents is what I am always seeking in design. Isn’t that the point of variations? To exhaust all the known in order to arrive at the unknown is the real journey. Happy accidents are what you are after.
At the end of the day, you have to learn it all in order to forget it, inform your brain and then call upon the elements you think will serve the design best. If you are like most, then you have a folder with hundreds of images you think are inspiring. I venture to say that you probably have not looked at any of them more than once or twice since you’ve saved them to your 100, 200, 300 gig (or larger) folder. Does that sound like someone you know?
To me, if it’s good enough to save then it’s good enough to study. Sculpt it! That way you will not only have the image saved on your computer, you will also have it stored in your mind. Even if scientists are right and you only use 1/5th of your brain (and by extension, the knowledge stored there) you are way ahead of the curve!
Do you have any advice for young artists trying to break into the business?
Practice, practice, practice...
There’s no excuse for failure these days. The internet is the ultimate level playing field. There are no borders or doors closed to you. Art is a relative thing but I guarantee you will find an audience. It might not be the audience you had imagined or predicted, but you will find a group that your work will resonate with.
Remember that art, like anything else in life is evolving. Don’t limit yourself based on foolish beliefs. Your views of your own work and self are far worse than anyone else's. More often than not the self-limiting reflection looking back in the mirror is the enemy. Give yourself a break and allow room setbacks. Through your failures you will learn.
Heed the advice of elders; they have been there before you and their advice is wise and will make your journey shorter. Be kind, be helpful and humble. The elevator to the top will eventually come back down to the basement and you will pass all the same people on your way down.
Above all pass it forward and don’t hoard information. Try to help others achieve their dreams. You will take a lot more from the experience of assisting others rise and feel better about taking part in something outside of individual pursuits.
Tell us more about The Squid Zone and how the site came to represent so much.
The Squid Zone is a labor of love for me. I’m not a reporter or cinematographer, but as I mentioned above the internet has no boundaries. When I was a teenager in love with film I read about all these amazing people working within the industry. Once I started working in it myself I discovered the people I was reading about compromised maybe 1% of the real workforce behind the magic on the screen. There are literally armies of dedicated professionals all doing their jobs seamlessly behind the scenes in order to bring us the films we love. Yet we never see them on DVD’s, nor do we ever see their names being touted as Oscar winners.
Over the years, I have had the pleasure of sitting down with many gifted artists, technicians and business men/women who have all played integral roles to the process. Each of these people has their own amazing life stories and journeys.
Then it came to me: Squid Zone. The term “squid” is a derogatory way to describe fan boys. I ALWAYS, had a problem with this. I AM a fan boy, in fact everyone I know working in this field is! We’re all fans because otherwise we wouldn’t be doing this. So I decided to take the Squid back and making him cool!
The Squid Zone is a weekly show where I get together and talk to industry professionals, some of whom you will know and others you will not. The mix is to keep the history alive through a medium where people can tell their stories, share their experiences and hopefully enlighten and inspire those wanting to work within the field. We will be talking to Actors, Producers, Directors, Makeup FX, Computer Graphics, Comic Book Artists, Illustrators, Toy Sculptors, Character Designers and basically anyone who works within the medium of entertainment.
It has been a learning experience and we’ve made a few mistakes along the way, but we’ve learned a lot as well. During the interviews, we take the guest on a course to talk about their early days all the way through to their life as it is now. At the end of the interviews I get each guest to sign a t-shirt. Many have gone beyond that to actually donate goods that are all auctioned off monthly at our Saving Graces foundation to help children get the therapy needed, as well as to educate the general public.
Thanks for taking the time to sit with us and highlight a little bit about what makes you tick.
I thank you all for not only allowing me the public forum to voice my feelings and perspectives, but also for giving me a medium with which my creativity can prosper. It is not every day that you can sculpt your way to dreams coming true.