Maddie is a talented concept artist and teacher known mostly for her ZBrush work. Coming from a practical background, her skills come from familiar ground – Fangoria, a love of monsters and sculpting for fun!
She has taught classes for Gnomon since 2006 – we particularly recommend the ‘Introduction to ZBrush 2021’ video course. Todd and I both cite this as the breakthrough moment for both of us, making what previously had been indecipherable to us accessible and understandable. The way she comes across reminded us of Dick Smith, with a generous nature coupled with a thorough understanding of the subject.
Maddie graciously invited Stu and me into her museum-like flat in London, where we chatted for hours surrounded by an eclectic collection of curios and oddities; it is a little bit ‘Ripley’s Believe It Or Not’ and a little bit Smithsonian, with a dash of Natural History thrown carefully in. We talked about everything, concentrating on how digital sculpting has become a permanent part of the special makeup effects world.
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Digital sculpting is like sculpting with a safety net; you can’t really break the software, though you can certainly crash it. But that’s part of the beauty of learning it. When you don’t know what you don’t know, you’re able to push boundaries, and one of the many beautiful things about ZBrush, for example, is that if you crash the software, it automatically saves what you were just working on. Your work is recoverable, not lost.
Saving iterations or working in layers gives sculpting plasticity that it otherwise wouldn’t have. Making a digital model allows you to use them in a visual effects pipeline as well as make 3D versions in the form of prints and can be used also make illustrations. Desktop 3D printing has come a long way and put these now affordable tools in so many people’s hands.
Despite this digital world, Maddie still likes tactile work and bounces between the two. Pushing clay around is always going to be there.
Maddie pointed out in our conversation that the learning curve for ZBrush looks far steeper than it actually is, so if you are unfamiliar with the interface, she carefully shows how to navigate it and even customize it to your liking in her Gnomon Intro course. Everything you know that matters about traditional sculpting is still totally transferable. Maddie says,’ Make the leap because you will open up a whole new toolset, and you don’t have to stop being a practical sculptor. ‘ We concur.
Maddie cites Bill ‘Splat’ Johnson in Atlanta as a huge influence on her. Working for him gave her a start by working on shows such as ‘Eight Legged Freaks.’ Bill continues to inspire young talent in the Atlanta area. Todd met a young makeup effects aficionado by the name of Ethan Ray several years ago in Atlanta, and his skills as a young teenager reminded him of a young Rick Baker. Ethan is in college now, and he has been working with Bill. We wouldn’t be surprised to see Ethan accepting an Oscar someday.
Todd spent several years earlier in his career as a visual effects animator. He and Maddie dove into a bit of 3D jargon that might sound as alien as Swahili if you aren’t familiar with it. We promised a little glossary to help iron out what was mentioned in the podcast, and here it is:
Glossary of Terms
- A spline is a smooth curve that runs through a series of given points. Lofting a spline means extruding that curve to create additional geometry.
- A nurb is (a term which is used less nowadays but stands for non-uniform rational b-spline… I still don’t get it) and generally refers to a geometric surface, specifically one generated in some way from a spline. Lofting a spline creates a nurb. Now go take some aspirin.
- Voxel is short for volumetric pixel. Much like a pixel represents a value on a 2D grid, voxels represent points in 3D space – height, width and depth. But still just a point. (This is where your brain hurts and your head explodes.)
- Box modelling uses primitive shapes (such as a cube) to create the basic foundation of a final model by extruding and pushing pulling points in 3D space.
- Boolean is a 3D modelling function that takes overlapping objects and creates a new object using subtraction, union or intersection.
- 3D Studio Max, now known as 3ds Max, is a professional 3D computer graphics program for making 3D animations, models, games and images. It is developed and produced by Autodesk.
- Lightwave(Lightwave 3D) – is another professional 3D modelling and animation software released by Newtek in 1990. Maybe not as widely used in the industry as Max or Maya, but Todd likes it a lot.
- Maya – is a 3D computer graphics application originally developed by Alias and currently owned and developed by Autodesk. Maya is considered the industry standard for 3D animation along with 3ds Max.
Working from a brief.
Working with clients is a key skill, and the relationship can be cultivated to produce a good reciprocal experience. Just knowing how to make cool things is useful of course, but understanding how productions work and how clients think is a good skill to combine with that.
For example, Maddie points out that a script often says ‘the monster appears,’ and they want to see something like nothing ever seen before. Then gradually, as the notes come back, it ends up looking exactly like something you have seen before. (this is the problem when creature folks have to work with non-creature folks, lol). Talking to a client – whether it is a tight or open brief, discussing the reasons behind choices which is a good relationship and hoping they can learn to trust you who has been thinking ‘monsters’ for decades. Maddie suggests perhaps creating a ‘mood board’ – sort of a collage of images that may spark the correct visual or emotional response needed to get the team down the right road to an approved design.
To quote Don Lanning, it also helps not to become too attached to an idea, so don’t take stuff to heart. Granted, it’s easier said than done. Even though you may be a gun for hire, hired to execute someone else’s idea, you are still putting yourself into the work, and criticism can be hard to take objectively. LEARN!
Ultimately, we are merely commercial artists – guns for hire – so you need to work with the client whose idea and vision it is. The relationship needs to be good and communicative, so you can be literate and make your case with visual expression. Communicate your reasons for your choices clearly. Without being defensive.
There is a difference between fine art and commercial art, albeit a fine line, often gray, but with commercial art, you are a hired gun, developing and enhancing someone else’s idea, but you’re also an artist, and it can be difficult to separate yourself from the work. It’s important to develop a thick skin and to be able to take criticism without losing heart, as it is not really your work. Understand the client may have a clear vision, which is a blessing – often, they know what they don’t want but will only know what they do want when they see it. We’re repeating this because it is very important to learn if you haven’t already learned it.
Having a visual vocabulary and being confident with it. Assemble a mood board and state your case. The more familiar you are with other artists’ work, the better you will be able to state your case eloquently. Know sculptors, illustrators, painters, and photographers.
Director Guillermo Del Toro could pull in references and point to existing artists. The shared vocabulary allowed much faster communication of what he wanted to see, which left a big impression on Maddie. Getting a creature design and then nailing the brief, finding something which already exists that hits the notes they are trying to get is what it’s all about. Having a broad and extensive knowledge and visual language is one of the assets you will bring to the client. It also helps kill complacency and keeps you frosty outside your comfort zone. That’s how to grow.
Being constantly hungry in your mind and having a keen interest in things is not only the way to grow as an artist, but it’s also the fountain of youth (according to Todd)! As we’ve mentioned, Maddie’s flat is a swarm of inspiration. Surround yourself with inspiring things! While our respective homes, studios and offices are nothing compared to Maddie’s mad museum of an apartment, we also can look around our spaces and see things that can generate ideas. A blinking cursor on a computer screen is no inspiration. You’ve got to get into the software to express your ideas, but the ideas have to come from you, inspired by something you saw or remembered seeing. The software is just a tool to help express your ideas.
Check out the work of Gaetano Zumbo (who Maddie references) if you haven’t already:
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