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Rick Baker’s work has been seen numerous times by anyone who has ventured into a movie theater in the past 25 years. Initially gaining fame for winning an Oscar for Best Make-up ("American Werewolf in London") in 1981, Rick has been involved in so many movies it is impossible to list them all here. What is perhaps most interesting is Rick’s incredible diversity; make-up artist, actor, filmographer, special effects, producer and being the subject of over 30 TV shows and movies. Best known as a "monster-maker", we in the 3D community also know him to be an amazing modeler and rendering talent.
Thanks for agreeing to share your time with us today. I am going to try and not say the word “make-up” for the next half hour. So, tell us, can you remember the very first time you interacted with a computer or came into contact with one directly?
My first experience on a computer dates back to 18 years ago when we had a Mac computer in our office that was used for word processing and such. At the time, I was used to providing my clients with sketches or painted concepts using acetate over photos of the actors to show what they would look like with make-up, masks, whatever. You can see some of this work on the Thriller video I did with Michael Jackson. Sometimes my concepts looked quite a bit different from what I envisioned or eventually delivered.
I wondered if the computer could be used as a better way of painting these designs. Someone in my studio said they thought so and told me about this software that they heard about called Photoshop. I went out and bought Photoshop 1.0 for that little Mac. I had never used a computer before a guy in my shop showed me the basics and I just sat down and tried to use it by myself.
It was an instant love affair – I was able to freely make changes and variations without affecting earlier versions of my designs. I could re-use colors from the actor’s face... the whole process gave me a sense of freedom and a new way of doing my designs. I use Photoshop on a Mac to this day.
As computers made their way into visual effects, did you find yourself attracted to them or what was your take on them during say the 1990’s when a lot of the big advances were made in CG?
My interest in sculpting and painting actually goes back to the time when I was just 10 years old. I later got heavily into making stop-motion animations with an 8mm camera. I did all sorts of stuff. As a teenager I was fortunate to know people like Ken Ralston and Dennis Muren who were incredibly creative and were using anything they could get their hands on to create interesting effects and animations. So I was exposed pretty early on to the notion of using different tools to create effects.
In the 90’s, I recall my reaction to seeing the great visual effects of the day was a combination of fascination and terror. I sensed that the power of workstations (at that time) could really affect certain aspects of what I was doing manually. I was excited to think about how this could add more tools to my bag of tricks, but also slightly nervous that it was something I did not know how to create on my own.
I even tried using some 3D software at the time and was frankly repelled by it. I do not have a real mathematical brain and whatever software I experimented with at the time left me cold. I was and am mainly into creating organic shapes and the early software I played with was too oriented towards engineering and CAD.
Let’s fast-forward to today. Please share with us how you are using computers and how deeply this has become a creative outlet for you.
I am now pretty heavily into computer graphics, though I mainly use 3D for well, fun. And it really is fun for me or I wouldn’t bother. The first 3D software that I could really get excited about was ZBrush. A friend told me about it and I downloaded it. I didn’t even have a real Internet connection at the time and was just using dial-up! Zbrush was different from anything I had ever seen and I used a tutorial to start getting into it. From there, I just got sort of addicted – I think because the sculpting metaphor was so familiar to me already.
How did you happen to come across modo? What was the first project you attempted?
I remember that well. I was at SIGGRAPH ‘05 and a friend of mine at Disney told me I should check out modo. Right then we walked across the show-floor and got a demo from Brad Peebler. At the time, modo was just a modeler. I had been using the same base mesh for all of my work in ZBrush and had been dying to modify it.
I was instantly attracted to how cleverly modo was set up. modo made it easy for me to change the topography of my base models and I really went deep into using the morph maps feature in modo for setting up animation poses that I would later take into Lightwave 3D.
Later I begin to model from scratch in modo. Some of my earliest work was based on one of my all time favorite characters – Frankenstein. I don’t plan on starting a 3D business, I just use it as a creative outlet – another way to express myself. When modo 201 was being developed I was so anxious to see the rendering and paint tools that I contacted Brad and asked to be part of the beta team.
You do a lot of the high detail work in ZBrush. Can you explain what combination of tools you are using at this moment in time for 3D?
I basically use modo, ZBrush and of course, Photoshop. I think the first thing I rendered in modo was an image of my father looking skyward. I loved how incredibly easy it was to use sub-surface scattering in modo. I had tried that with another program and ended up in some interface where I was wiring up this to that and ironically losing connection to the art. modo was so much easier to do SSS. I ended up posting that image in the modo beta forum.
How do you decide when to get an effect from a bump or displacement map in the rendering phase vs. actually sculpting it out?
I actually use both techniques. I do not really have a plan a lot of the time. I sort of lose myself and just start going for it and seeing where the process takes me. I experiment a lot, trying this button and that. I have gotten some amazing effects applying the procedural shaders in modo as displacement maps. There is a lot of trial and error in what I do. But the great thing about computers is that I can do it with no fear. I can always go back to a previous step – if I can just figure out which version I liked. Sometimes I think I am done and go back a few days later and think “how did I miss that” and change things again. In the real world, paint gets dry and thus hard to blend, and clay gets hard.
What percent of your time on a given project is spent on concept development, base modeling, sculpting and getting the rendering to look right? How long might it take to create something like your John The Baptist piece?
Well, of course that depends. I spend a lot of time these days in modo actually. I have really gotten kind of swept up in it. My basic process is creating or modifying my model in modo, exporting to ZBrush as an OBJ file, then sculpting and painting in ZBrush. I then export color, displacement and bump maps to modo and then do the final rendering there. Often I put the finishing touches on in Photoshop. I sometimes start in the morning and end up working on my projects into the early hours of the next day.
I have seen people dismiss the base modeling as something any number of tools could easily do and therefore it doesn’t really matter what tool you choose for that phase. Is this what you have experienced?
Well, I am so used to modo now. I love the selection tools and that fact that is really is artist-friendly. I do not have a computer background and yet I feel comfortable in it. I actually think it is incredibly natural and easy to use. It just seems to smart how it is set up. And modo is way more than modeler now. I like having a library of hands or heads that I can modify for new projects as needed. Scale stuff up, cut things out.
Much of the work we have seen from you is character work. Do you also use 3D for other purposes like set design?
Well I have done a few still-life’s, but my thing is characters! I see renderings of mechanical objects and what not on the various forums and they are interesting but do not grab me like a great character does. I have actually experimented creating everyday objects and surprised myself at how fun that was. Take symmetry for example. Computers are great at letting you create have an object and mirroring it over to the other side. Faces aren’t like that and so you have to be careful. But when you are making a mechanical shape that ability and other tools like beveling are useful.
I will say I have learned a lot from renderings of objects done by others. That is actually how I was introduced to using HDRI images. Someone had gotten a nice effect on a series of flavored syrup bottles and that was when I learned about using an HDRI image. I had no idea what it was when I first heard the term.
You have always been great about sharing your 3D work. What 3D communities do you belong to and what role do they play in your creative process?
Initially, I had no intention of sharing my computer graphics work. Like I said, I didn’t even have a decent Internet connection, I was dialing up. But I needed a copy of the ZBrush manual, which was a little thin as far as what I needed. So I decided to post an image on the ZBrush forum and get some answers. Without really thinking about it I posted it under my moniker, Monstermaker.
I got an amazing reaction even though not everyone was clued into the fact it was me. I liked the anonymity that I did have and later thought that maybe I should have used a different username. BTW, I have been able to recognize the 3D work of other guys in my business that I knew and who had transferred their sculpting and paint skills to computers. Their style is very evident, and that comes through even on a computer. Anyway, I stopped posting after a while.
Then about a year later, actually it was almost exactly a year later, I posted another image on Zbrush Central and CGTalk. That was pretty bold of me as the CGTalk forum has some really beautiful work from people who do this for a living. I posted “The Monster” and people liked it. Later I shared some of my work on the Luxology Forum, mainly because I like modo and being in a community where people are sharing their ideas and techniques.
What, for you, is the most difficult part of the 3D creation process? Have you had to abandon certain projects from hitting roadblocks?
Oh, I do not finish everything I start, that is for sure. I am a little dyslexic and have more difficulty trouble remembering passwords and typing in serial numbers as in actually creating interesting stuff. I hate losing work and should probably back up more frequently. I get carried away trying to do one more thing and one more thing and sometimes I get into trouble.
Tell us a bit about your workspace and computer(s). Are you a fan of using a pen and a tablet? How long would you work at a time before taking a break?
I like to work in the dark. Seriously, I hate seeing the reflection of light on my screen. I use a WACOM tablet on a Mac. When I am not on a job, I often just work at home and do not go into the shop. I have computers in both places. I kind of get lost in the process and have forced myself to get up and exercise a bit so I do not turn into a lump!
Do you have a philosophy on how software tools should work? How are you hoping they evolve in the future?
Well, they should work like modo and ZBrush – that is be artist-friendly. I do not want to have to be an engineer to use software. I won’t even use software like that. I sometimes try them but I do not bond with them. You know, a lot of people can learn to use software but it really comes down to having “an eye” for things. I think that is the difference between a fair CG image and artistic one. No matter how well you know the software you still need an eye to do great work.
It can be daunting for some 3D artists to look at work of your quality and try to imagine how long it will take to get to that level of mastery. What advice do you have for people who are struggling with 3D?
I once saw a comment posted by someone who said they were going to give up on creating CG after seeing my work. That is the type of reaction that makes me want to quit showing my work online. It is exactly the opposite thing that I want to have happen – which is to have my images inspire people to create their own stuff.
I mean people ask me how I did something and I am thinking... well, I have really been doing creative stuff for almost 50 years! If you are learning 3D, it is incredibly important to be grounded in a traditional arts background.
I still paint, I mean using real paint. Which is sometimes strange because I forget this is no “revert” and I sometimes paint over stuff that I later regretted. But, back to the point, which is this: train your eye to see what is front of you.
Nicely summed up! And thank you for spending time with us today.
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