Today we bring you the first interview of 2008! Christopher Tackett (KrakenCMT) kindly consented to chat with us about his work and techniques. Just a few days ago he posted the final render of his Conan the Barbarian image, so the timing is perfect! (By the way, the Conan thread is an interesting read in and of itself. Christopher shared a lot of information during the course of the project.)
Hi Christopher. I always like to start these interviews by getting to know the artist a bit better. Could you tell us about yourself?
I was born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio. And still live here in fact. I'm 36 and happily married with one 8 year old daughter.
Drawing was something I always liked to do, but I didn't go to college with the intention of getting into art. I actually started out as a Systems Analysis major. After about a year of that, I started to lose interest in programming, but still wanted to work with computers. Graphic Design became very interesting and right when I decided to go into it, computers were starting to replace rubylith and typesetting. Then along with studying design, I got into a few painting and illustration courses which really sparked my interest in art! I've been learning everything I can about art since then. It wasn't until I was almost out of college when I got my first 3D app, Ray Dream Studio and really became fascinated with it.
Where does the username KrakenCMT come from?
Well, it doesn't have anything to do with Country Music Television! LOL! I get that all the time. Remember Clash of the Titans? "Release the Kraken!" It's one of my favorite movies of all time and it was such a cool creature. I used "Kraken" as my gamertag way back in my Doom 2 LAN party days and just kept it ever since. CMT is just my initials - Christopher Michael Tackett.
What company do you work for, and what is your title?
I work for a small wholesale gift and garden decor company called Red Carpet Studios. My title is Art Director, although I'm the one designing the catalogs, product and ads. For the last few years I was pretty much it as far as the art department. Although, just recently we've added a person to help out with corresponding with our overseas vendors, product management and minor design work.
Could you go into more detail about what your job involves?
The company creates items like bird houses, wind chimes, home decor and other gift items. Half the time I just tweak designs that the owners bring back from factories overseas. But often, I'll be asked to create a line from scratch with a certain look. Then once all the design work has been done, samples will be ordered, photos taken, and I'll start work on laying out the catalog. Then throw in a little bit of packaging design and a couple ad designs a month, and that's pretty much what I do. There's enough variety to keep my days pretty interesting.
You also freelance, right?
Yes. The company I work for doesn't mind if I do freelance work as long as the work isn't along the same lines of business as the product they do. That's why most of my freelance is done in textiles - items which can have art printed on them. I've had some good success with licensing my art for decorative flags.
How does ZBrush figure into your work?
I started out using it for just a few items in a piece I did a couple years ago. But as my knowledge of ZBrush grows with each project, I can rely on it to do much more than what I used it for previously. Now, every item that I model spends a good deal of time in ZBrush being refined and textured. But it didn't stop there. ZBrush also comes with a pretty good renderer as well. So then I could do some decent concept renders to mock up scenes. But then I found that sometimes I was actually getting better results using ZBrush renders! With my Santa image I decided to try to do it all in ZBrush "just to see". And I was really impressed with what ZBrush was giving me.
Your website mentions that you like the freedom that digital art gives you, and how it helps speed up your workflow. Has ZBrush 3 taken that a step further, and how?
It sure has. With pencil and pad, I could whip out concepts and erase parts I don't like and rework them, etc.... But then Photoshop and Wacom tablets came along and made sketching a bit quicker and was easier to add color options with layers. Then with the liquify filters you could suddenly change the forms of your sketches and proportions of your drawings like magic.
ZBrush is like the 3D equivalent of Photoshop. It made digital 3D work just as intuitive as drawing with a pencil. With ZBrush, concept work doesn't have to start in 2D now. There's times when I love to launch ZBrush, pick a sphere and just see what develops.
When did you first start using ZBrush? How did it catch your interest?
A couple years ago there was a 3D contest on Deathfall.com. The topic was Dungeons & Dragons. I decided to enter it and do a scene from the Dragonlance novels where the Companions encounter a giant slug. I had just come across Pixologic's website a couple weeks before and was really impressed with the gallery images. I thought I might be able to use it for some of the faces in the my scene. Turned out that ZBrush was the easiest part of the whole process even though I had only just purchased it. So I used it to model some of the clothes and the giant slug as well. It was just what I needed to make the slug feel alive and organic. It really helped to sell the scene. It ended up taking third. One of the prizes was a copy of ZBrush! The image is called "Gift of the Wyrmslayer".
What is your favorite feature in ZBrush 3, and why?
My favorite feature would have to be ZBrush at it's most basic: digital sculpting. ZBrush's ability to create a life-like organic form in virtual clay is ideal for creating images that don't just look cool, but have character and emotional content. Then factor in other features such as texturing tools, a cool material system and a beautiful rendering engine and you have an artist's dream app. The thing is, I'm always discovering new things that ZBrush can do or new ways to do things that I had no idea of.
Take the MatCap feature. When I first recieved ZBrush 3 and experimented with the tool, I didn't realize it's full potential. It wasn't until I read Sebcesoir's post regarding how he created the MatCaps for his Robocop that I realized you could import images for it. So that led me to the idea of painting the skin MatCap texture for Conan in Photoshop. Rather than try to capture a skin-like material by rendering the material on a sphere in LightWave or another 3D app, I could now just quickly paint the effect I wanted on a sphere in Photoshop and use that as the MatCap texture. How cool is that?! Props to Pixologic for such an ingenious material system!
One of our slogans for ZBrush has been "Be free." What would you say is the most liberating thing for you about using ZBrush?
I've worked in 3D for a few years now. But I've only ever sculpted with real clay or super sculpey a few times in my life. I was never formally trained in sculpture. I just never really allocated the time to try to learn it traditionally. But I always wanted to. When I got Zbrush a couple years ago, I realized that I had the opportunity to start to learn sculpture digitally. I might never have dived into sculpting if I didn't get ZBrush.
Another resource that would help immensely was ZBrushCentral. Whenever I had free time I was looking over these forums for any little bit of info, tutorials, or techniques that would help educate me. So really, the community also helped to free my creativity. All those vids of artists sculpting and showing ways to tackle certain issues of texturing or whatever really helped me out. That's why I try to give back something every now and then as well.
Your recent Conan image is spectacular. How much of it was done in ZBrush?
Thank you. Every part of Conan and his equipment started in LightWave or Silo as a low poly base mesh (except for his hair). But then each piece was brought into ZBrush for detailing. When I imported the base mesh of Conan's body, it looked nothing like him in size or shape. It looked like a simple mannequin. I relied on ZBrush to help me fill out his chest, form, and nail down the facial structure accurately. I guess I could have done it in LightWave, but I knew I could do it quicker in ZBrush. The stone arch, ground, grass, and rocks were all ZBrush. The Ivy was created in Ivy Generator and imported.
Most of the materials are MatCap and made for lighting from the upper right (although rotating the MatCap texture could place it from other directions). The metal on the sword hilt is the same as the bronze MatCap of the greyhounds. That bronze texture is posted in the MatCap Repository thread. The skin MatCap was a texture I painted in Photoshop. I had to test it out several times before I got the look I was after. I'll upload that material soon to the MatCap thread as well.
It was rendered in ZBrush as well.
This model was initially created for the Hardcore Modeling Challenge on CGTalk, and I ended up rendering him in LightWave for the final entry. At the time, I was trying to learn about displacement maps using the new LightWave 9 nodes. But my ultimate goal was to put him in a scene and render him with dramatic lighting. A few months went by after the challenge and I started working on him again. I was looking at some of my ZBrush renderings of him earlier in the development and thought that the lighting and skin material were promising. And I was pretty happy with how the Santa image turned out which was also rendered all in ZBrush. So I thought that I would give it a go and try to finish him off in ZBrush. Another plus to doing it all in ZBrush was that by dropping the models to canvas as I go, I could get as much detail as I wanted. I loved when I was just dropping clumps of grass and rock on the ground like paint!
You also used multipass rendering for your greyhounds. Could you give more information about your process for multipass ZBrush rendering?
The idea behind using multipasses is so that you can control the information better. Color, lighting, shadows, etc... can all be rendered in separate passes and then combined as layers in Photoshop. As Photoshop layers you have great control over how much of that pass effects the image. Let's say I create two separate lighting passes - one for a light from the upper left and another for a light from the upper right. In Photoshop I can combine them to make it look like it's lit from both sides. But maybe I realize that I want it less intense from the left side. I don't have to rerender the scene, I can just reduce the opacity of the layer with the lighting from the left. Another thing I like about it is that I may like it lit only in certain spots from the left, maybe just to highlight a certain spot. So then I can erase those areas where I don't want that light to show up.
So what I did with Conan is I created two lighting passes using the same single light for each pass. In the first pass, the light had a shadow aperture of 80 for softer shadows, and the second pass, the light had an aperture of 25 for more defined shadows. Using both passes as layers I can get better controlled results combining them in Photoshop and tweaking the opacities of the layers to get the best possible settings. This saves time over rendering the scene over and over while tweaking the lighting settings.
You obviously have a strong background in traditional media. Has that been helpful to you as a digital artist?
Certainly. I was lucky to have an illustration professor who didn't just teach technique but reinforced the fundamentals at every opportunity. He would actually take acetate and lay it over my artwork and paint on that to make changes to form, or to suggest better color choices and such. Many valuable lessons were gained that way. That background has helped me because that's how I learned. But a background in traditional media is not a requirement for creating good art. Just a solid understanding of the fundamentals/principles of design and good observation skills are essential. The rest is just what medium and technique you choose.
I remember a comment that you made where you said you like frogs. Tell us more about that.
Yep. Frogs are cool! They just appeal to me for some reason. I love the pictures where they are in mid jump. Sometimes they just form elegant lines in-jump; sometimes their legs seem to rebound at odd angles. But they always seem to have an odd balance to them. And the colorful ones are my favorites!
How do you like to spend your free time?
My personal free time is spent between my family, my art, bowling and video games. I'm a religious Halo 3 player. Although lately I've been spending some time with Mass Effect too. FYI, my XBox Live gamertag is KRAKEN CMT.
Since it's now the very start of 2008, what are your goals for the year ahead?
One goal of mine that I've had for a while now is to get more expressive with my art. For the last couple years now, I've been going for realism. Everything has been clean and sharp. For my next personal project, I'm thinking about looking into ways to add a bit of the liveliness of a painterly style to my work, both in sculpting and color. So I'll be doing plenty of sketches and studies for a while to see how to approach it. I liked the freshness of some of the 3D sketches that have shown up on the forums where the model looks unrefined, and sculpted with only hands or the tool marks still show a bit, kind of like Ryan Kingslein's models where he sculpted with the rake tool. I think something along those lines is where I'll start. I'm not known for having a loose style, so this will be a learning experience. I just hope that it won't take all of 2008 to get decent results! I'm not abandoning a realistic style, I just like to try new approaches.