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Robert Vignone: From Tippett to Weta
 
 
Posted: Jun 01, 2010
Published by: the area
Homepage: Visit the page
Software: Autodesk Maya, Autodesk Mudbox
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The Area:
Hello Robert and welcome to the AREA. It's always a thrill to talk to an artist who has worked on visually groundbreaking work -- such as the film Avatar. Some people consider Avatar as the film that has set the new standard - much like Abyss, Jurassic Park, Terminator 2 and Starship Troopers, to name a few - are looked on now as having been the movies that no one had ever imagined possible or seen at the time. Having spent 2 years at Weta working on Avatar, can you tell us what was the most exciting aspect of that experience?
Robert:
Moving to New Zealand and working at Weta was a life changing experience in many ways. It was the first time I had the opportunity to move to another country, contribute to an enormous project and make a lot of new friendships. I even got married while I was out there! All the movies you mentioned are films that really inspired me to pursue a career in the 3D arts. I think one of the coolest parts about going to Weta, aside from what I mentioned above was having a tour of the Weta Workshop. All the armor and props from the Lord of the Rings Trilogy was just incredible to see in person, plus all the sculpts and props from many other projects.
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The Area:
What did you do there -- were you part of a small team that worked on a specific selection of work, or did you divide your time over other aspects of production?
Robert:
Weta has many different departments. Generally speaking though, everything is broken up into modeling, animation, rigging, compositing, etc. I did all types of modeling there, more of a modeling generalist. Some people specialized in just creatures or just hard surface models. Since my experience is very broad, my tasks were rarely one style of modeling. During my time there, I was tasked to do everything from facial shapes, hard surface models, clothing and rock -- lots and lots of rocks.
The Area:
Legal limitations have kept us from being able to show a few stills from the film, but where would we be able to see your work if we were to scrub through the Avatar DVD? :-)
Robert:
My main contributions consisted of exotic plants, rocks and clothing for the Avatars. When I watch Avatar now, it is almost impossible to pick out single examples of my work from the film, there are so many elements to every shot. If you jump to 00:42:00, the scene just after Jake has the seeds land on him, I modeled the foreground plants that Jake taps on like a drum. Many more of my models are populated throughout the movie to contribute to the dense nature of the forest.
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The Area:
At any point, did you get to see the 'final' result of your work, before the release of the film? If so, was it what you had imagined?
Robert:
About a year into working on the movie, Weta artists got to see the rendered sequence for the first time fully rendered and in 3D. Even though it was still rough at the time and I got a slight headache from all the movement. It was truly inspiring to see all the hard work from everyone come together, rendered and in 3D. At the time I had no idea what it would really be like in 3D, so it was pretty incredible.
The Area:
What was it like to work indirectly under the artistic vision of James Cameron?
Robert:
I thought it was great. Sometimes it can be frustrating to work with someone who is known to be a perfectionist, but at the same time it isn't often in a large production that artists are able to push everything to near perfection. Normally, the time and money constraint is just too overwhelming. With Avatar, it seemed well planned (at least from my perspective) and we had great direction from our modeling supervisor Marco Revelant, visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri and of course James Cameron. The time I spent there was not very frustrating, granted I was not around during the end of the show to see everything finished, so that is probably when it got most chaotic :D.
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The Area:
What were the primary tools you use?
Robert:
My main tool-set consists of Maya, Mudbox, Headus 3D Tools, Nuke, Photoshop, Renderman and Mental Ray. Though it can vary depending on studio.
The Area:
Let's go back to how you got started on this amazing ride. You're 26 years old currently, and you became a part of this industry only 6 years earlier… how did you begin your professional career at 20 years of age?
Robert:
Actually, it was at 19 when I first started at Tippett, with the biggest downside being that I couldn't even go out for drinks with my co-workers. I graduated high-school when I was 17 and immediately after that I went to Ex`pression college to pursue my passion for the digital arts. When it came time for graduation, Tippett Studio was looking for a Jr. Modeler to work on their Starship Troopers 2 project, directed by Phil Tippett. I was fortunate enough to have some contacts inside and a pretty good demo reel to land that job. I was still very much an amateur at the time, but I learned fast and did good work. The first Starship Troopers film was one of the films that really wowed me visually from a digital creature perspective, It was wonderful that I got to work with most of the creators of the first film.
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The Area:
At Ex'pression College, what were the courses you took and did they prepare you for doing work in CG?
Robert:
At Ex'pression you take many types of classes. Some not even related to your particular field. I took modeling, texturing, web design, animation, traditional drawing, sound recording, and even a law class. They try to prepare you to be an all around artist, but they also encourage you to specialize in the one thing you enjoy most. The school is open 24/7, so at the time, I was able to use the machines there to work on my own projects after class hours and on weekends. I would say they did a good job preparing me for production, as much as any school could at the time. Many of our teachers worked at studios around the Bay Area. I believe there is only so much you can learn from a school, a lot of learning comes from your first few jobs.
The Area:
In your bio, you mentioned Tippett, Disney and Microsoft - and Weta which we talked about earlier - can you tell us about your time at those renowned studios, what kind of responsibilities you had and what film/game titles you worked on?
Robert:
At Tippett my first project was Starship Troppers 2 then Hellboy, Stepford Wives and then The Mask II: Son of the Mask. My modeling jumped from sets to props, then to facial expressions and then further into organic modeling. I even did a bit of lighting when the modeling was slow. Next, I moved to Burbank, California to work at Disney's Circle Seven Studios, where they were working on the Toy Story 3 project. I was there for about 1.5 years and got to model Buzz, Rex, Slinky Dog and Hamm and do facial expressions for all of the characters. Sadly it all came to an end with the Disney/Pixar merger. My next project was over at Fasa Games (Microsoft) to work on Shadowrun for 3 months. I was brought on to work on high-res characters and then, eventually on set assets.
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The Area:
What does it mean, when you describe yourself as a technical artist?
Robert:
While working at Weta, many of their modelers are very talented artistically. I noticed many of them also had a good amount of scripting skills, so they would often provide many of the neat tools we used to model the environment for Avatar. This is what initially inspired me to really hone my technical skills. Now, while working in Maya, I am always on the lookout for ways to accomplish my task faster and maintain a high quality. On any given project I generally create 2-3 mel scripts to assist in my modeling task. I find that any time a task that is the least bit repetitive, there is most likely a way that it can be scripted. This has become a vary valuable skill that I wish I picked up even earlier on in my career. Now I share many of my scripts online for free and get great feedback from many other artists who find them useful.
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The Area:
Specifically, what sort of modeling tools did you create for Maya?
Robert:
I wouldn't say I have a programming background, but I really enjoy writing modeling tools. Some of my tools that I created can be downloaded here:

Most of them have Youtube examples which I think helps people decide if the tool will fit into their work-flow.

The Area:
Even though you can create custom tools, what would be the most useful standard feature that you'd like to see implemented in Maya, which would help you work even more efficiently?
Robert:
I haven't had much time to play with all the new bells and whistles in Maya 2011, but so far it has been great. I really like the rendering changes to support a linear work-flow. Something I would like to see eventually is the ability to use middle and right mouse buttons to be assigned in the hot-key editor. Currently the default is press and release strictly for the left mouse button. I and many of my friends are avid users of custom marking menus. If I could assign 3 different menus to a single key with LMB,MMB and RMB, it would be really cool.
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The Area:
What about Mudbox? 2011 was released not too long ago, and we've implemented some new features which you may or may not have had the chance to try out. But off the top of your head, what would help you in your daily personal workflow?
Robert:
Mudbox 2011 has some huge improvements. I have been using the basic Mudbox package since version 1.0 and it has come a long way. I think some features that I would love to see would be implementations of multiple camera view ports, marking menus, smoothing group support. I also think the obj loading times and scene sizes need to be addressed. Some of my single scene files span from 5 to 20 GB each. You can imagine the pain of saving out 20-30 revisions of files like that.
The Area:
I noticed that a few of your sculpts feature some prominent movie characters...from Pan's Labyrinth to City of Lost Children. Did you work on Pan's Labyrinth?
Robert:
There are so many characters that I really admire from films and games. Attempting to re-create my favorite characters, achieve a solid likeness and portray an emotion of them is just one of my hobbies. The list of characters of films and games that I would like to model is nearly endless. My only experience with working on a Guillermo del Toro project was the first Hellboy, I would have loved to work on Pan's Labyrinth.
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The Area:
The level of detail and proportions you captured on Krank makes him easily identifiable, it's a very life-like bust of Daniel Emilfork who starred in City of Lost Children. Have you ever considered printing out your 3D sculpts?
Robert:
Actually, I chose to model Krank as a bust so I can have him printed. I have always liked the idea of 3D printing. At least at this point, it is mildly affordable. You can see it here below.
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Image Description: Krank

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Image Description: Krank

The Area:
Can you tell us about the Aegina character, what she was created for?
Robert:
While I was at Weta, I started as a generalist modeler, working on many different organic things but not really characters. I have always wanted to really hone my anatomy and humanoid modeling skills. In my free time I would work on her on my 13" Macbook for an hour or two a night, for a year. I also knew that when I finished my contract at Weta, which was in mid production of Avatar, I wouldn't have any material from Avatar, so it was important that I kept working on models I could use later on.
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Image Description: Aegina

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Image Description: Aegina

The Area:
The ruffles and folds in the dress and fine threads of the shawl in Bailarina Bellisima reflect a snapshot in time, of the dancer in motion. Could you describe the process used in creating the thick folds and flow motion of the cloth for both of those surfaces?
Robert:
The Dancer was done for a CGHUB challenge titled "Beauty." It was the first time I have attempted to tackle that level of detail in cloth and make it appear to be moving. In the past, the cloth I did was always to be animated or simulated, so I never really had to worry about wrinkles, folds and portraying movement. I have used Maya's nCloth in the past a lot to get relaxed shapes in many of my models, so I figured this would be the best way to get a realistic starting point before I did the Mudbox sculpting on top of it. I have a tutorial on how I made the model, which you can find in the link at the bottom below. It goes into the creation of the cloth in pretty good detail.
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The Area:
It is pretty evident that you are someone who indulges in making those subtle but crucial fine details in your work. There are so many separate components in your Tinkerbell character -- how long did you spend on modelling all those parts?
Robert:
I really do like details. I really like to put the time in to make the subtleties and ideas come through my art. It is important that every time I take on a personal model, I challenge myself to achieve something I have not done before. For the Tinkerbell project, I never rendered, textured or lit an entire scene before. So as a first rendered image I am pretty proud of it. Of course I look back on it now, and there is so much I would change. But I prefer not to go back and work on "finished" projects, I'd rather critique them and get better on something new and refreshing. The entire Tinkerbell project took about 2 months from start to finish. I think I spent just over a month modeling and rig the scene from scratch. Many elements had to be designed while modeling as well. The total scene size is about 1.5 million polygons.
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The Area:
What was the inspiration for her particular look and setup? Her design is pretty cool…a mix between techie and magical forest theme :)
Robert:
The idea behind Tinkerbell is that she is a fairy derived from J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan, but with a Steampunk twist. Her wings are mechanically powered by a single candle and she has other subtle elements of Steampunk from her boots to the bells. My favorite parts about the character is her leaf dress and her Dust-o-Matic Fairy Dust sprayer.
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The Area:
So now that you have wrapped up the gig at Weta, what's next on the horizon for you?
Robert:
Since moving to Irvine, California from New Zealand I have been busy doing freelance projects and working in-house at various studios in Los Angeles. Currently I am looking for a studio that is challenging, creative and fun.
The Area:
Last question - having worked on Avatar, what are your thoughts on the 3D tv and stereo 3D games at home?
Robert:
Good question! Well I still meet people that ask if they should bother upgrading their TV to HD. I didn't know people still had standard def TVs at this point! That tells me that 3D in the home for film is pretty far off. I think once 3D is a little more standard and the way we watch it is a little more refined, it will probably take off. Because we see in 3D, it is a natural step for our films to be presented that way. I think 3D games may be adopted earlier because it is the younger generations that play games and they are also the ones to adopt new technologies quicker.
The Area:
Robert - thanks for your time. I have a feeling we'll be hearing from you again in the future :) Take care and talk soon!
Robert:
Thank you!

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Posted by Nirmalendu on Oct 19, 2010 at 10:50 AM
At the age of 26 you are considered to be one of the best modelers in the world. Respect!!!
Posted by Amila on Jun 29, 2010 at 09:54 AM
AMAZING!!!! No words to explain this... really great works, i'm also trying 2 do those models in future....
Posted by animefreak on Jun 22, 2010 at 02:45 PM
wow i'd have to say that your work is quite breathe taking...in the future, after i go to a technical college, i hope to create characters as good as yours. I have yet to try out any of the software that are used for game art but i'm looking into buying the new Autodesk Mudbox 2011. Considering the price is under 1,000 i am really excited to buy it. I just want to ask you a question which is that i've been told at from a college teacher that i really only need a Associates Degree for game art and that my demo reel is all that really matters. Is that true? I hope so considering that TSTC is the school that i will be attending (since it only has Associate degrees)
Posted by enginyoltay on Jun 12, 2010 at 03:50 PM
perfect...amazing....
Posted by angelfear on Jun 08, 2010 at 11:49 AM
Very inspiring since graduated from college at the same age and just now at the age of 20 working in the industry! I hope in 6 years I can have a portfolio like yours! wootwoot!!