Another month, another artist feature! We couldn't be more excited to introduce our AREA May Artist of the Month, Nicolas Morel. Originally from France, Nicolas studied 3D animation at ESMA and went on to work in various studios like MPC, One of Us, Ziva Dynamics, and Axis Studios. Today, he's a Freelance Senior Creature Modeler based in London, England.
What was your "this is what I want to do as a career" moment?
I have always been a computer enthusiast and have loved to draw. When I was younger, I didn't know you could combine both or that working in the movie industry was even possible. Later, a friend of mine told me about a French school called ESMA that specializes in 3D animation. When I saw some of their student movies for the first time, I knew that this was what I wanted to do.
What was your first job in the 3D industry?
After I graduated, I went to London to look for a creature modeler job. I quickly realized it was not going to be easy though. I didn’t have any anatomical knowledge which was important. So, I switched tactics and started looking for a job as a 3D generalist. At the same time, I started working on personal projects to improve my anatomy skills.
After 4 months without a job, I finally got my first contract as a 3D generalist. And a few months later, thanks to my work on personal projects, I got a job at MPC as a Creature Modeler! It was a fantastic experience where I learned so much.
What inspires your work?
If I had to pick one thing, I would say animal/insect references. They are endless sources of inspiration. When it comes to personal projects, I often get inspired by a random idea or reference that I like. For instance, for my work, Kleappa, I had this idea of a turtle with some kind of a hat. From there, I developed a universe around it. I like to use this approach of starting off with something small when creating a character.
What do you love about your job?
I’m lucky enough to be able to work as a specialized artist. I get to spend the day sculpting and texturing animals, insects, and creatures. The good thing about that is that even though an asset might appear boring at first glance, it always turns out to be a complex and interesting exercise. Organic modeling is complex, so there is always something to learn.
What's your least favorite part about your job?
There are some technical aspects to the job - which is fine. But sometimes to achieve something, I end up having to deal with an extremely complex workflow that ends up taking a lot of time and work, sometimes too much compared to the creative part. Thankfully, new technologies are here to help, and optimization isn’t as much of an issue as it used to be.
What's the most challenging 3D project you've ever worked on?
I recently worked on a project (unfortunately still under disclosure) where I was in charge of building a lot of creatures in a very limited amount of time: between 2 and 3 weeks per creatures for both modeling and texturing. From the very beginning, I had to be organized and anticipate as much as I could for any possible mistakes.
What would you like to see change in the 3D industry?
One of the things I would like to see change is the relationship between clients and studios. For various reasons, there is a lot of pressure coming from the client to the studio. This pressure is often transmitted onto artists, who are expected to get a job done faster and to push the boundaries on what has been done before. This dynamic can be stressful and cause a challenging working ambiance, or worse.
What project have you worked on that you are most proud of?
Back when I was at One of Us, I worked on a show called Godmothered. It was their first creature show and I had been recruited in part, to help them build their creature pipeline. I was in charge of making a raccoon which might seem easy but was challenging when trying to figure out its anatomy under its a thick coat of fur!
The rigger, groom artist, animator, my supervisor, and I ended up developing the entire character character from scratch. We went to see an actual raccoon and took tons of reference pictures. We built the whole character from scratch - muscles and skeleton included. Because we were all so involved in every aspect of the creation, I was really proud of the final result.
What does your workflow look like?
The workflow I use for my personal projects is actually very simple. I often start in ZBrush, from a sphere or a base mesh from a previous project. I do all my sculpting in ZBrush, and all the rendering in Maya using Arnold. Early in the process, I will set up my lookdev scene and start the lighting and texturing. Then, I slowly improve anything that needs to be improved until I am happy with the result.
I recently have been doing all my texturing by hand painting everything without using any layers. It forces me to commit 100% to what I am doing. And even though it can be a fastidious task, I often get a better result. Plus, I learned so much from doing that.
What is the most valuable advice you've received in your career?
Back at MPC, I had a lead modeler named Julia Friedl. She always encouraged me to push my work further and to observe more. She taught me the art of facial shapes, with all the observation that comes with it. Making a creature is one thing, but making it move and feel alive is whole other thing. The advice ultimately helped sharpen my sculpting skills and make my models feel more realistic.
Do you have any tips for artists looking for a signature aesthetic style?
As an artist, if you want to develop a signature style, do a lot of personal projects. Set yourself constraints and start working from that. Try finding something that will link all your different projects together, and you will quickly see a style, or vibe emerging from it.
Plus, this is when you get to have the most fun!
What projects are you working on next?
I'm actually working on a humanoid character that lives in the same universe as my previous creatures. I will soon be able to share more!
Want to see more from Nicolas?