The grand prize winner from Dominance War 3 was on holiday for a couple weeks, causing an interruption in our ZBrush coverage for that event. (He's coming next week.) Fortunately, this gave us the perfect opportunity to catch up with someone we've been wanting to interview for a long time: Nick Zuccarello!
It'll be five years ago next month since nickz joined ZBC, and he's been an avid contributer ever since. One glance at his ZBC Gallery is all it takes to see just how much he loves ZBrush and the ZBC community. So it's with great pleasure that we can provide this interview!
Hi Nick. Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed! I normally like to begin by researching as much as I can about an artist. That helps me put together some really choice questions. You made that pretty hard for me, though! There's a lot of your artwork out there, but very little about you personally. Time to break the silence! Could you tell us about your history?
Ever since I can remember from a very young age I've always loved to draw. I remember my grandmother used to sit with me and she would draw some things out of the Sunday morning cartoons in the paper, and I really enjoyed that quite a bit. She and I had some drawing sessions back then and even then I knew I was pretty much hooked on art. At least, drawing at that time. From there I continued all the way through school, although it wasn't until my senior year in High School that I really got serious about art.
I'd also been a wrestler ever since the third grade, and I did pretty good at that. My junior year I took fourth in the state competition, and my senior year I took third. I actually had a wrestling scholarship that I could have taken to go to college with. But in my senior year I'd also entered an art show that gave me a scholarship to East Central College (a local junior college). I wasn't really into wrestling so much anymore, and felt that art was the path that I really wanted to take with my life.
So I got an Associate of the Arts degree. At that time there really wasn't much going on as far as computer graphics, which was actually pretty new at that point. So what I did was take out a student loan, bought a Mac computer and got a copy of Hash Animation Master. From there I learned how to do 3D, and built up my profile enough that I was able to get hired by a company in St. Louis that did print work and graphics for trade shows.
Color Associates got Maya, and I knew that would be an important program for me to learn for the future. I just kind of had a feeling about it. After hours I would work pretty hard to learn how to use Maya, and built myself up to the point that I could actually start using it for some of the production work that we were doing.
I really wanted to break into the video game industry, though. I've always loved comic books, movies with monsters in them, things like that. I thought that the game industry would be a great fit for me, and always had this kind of dream to be doing that. I worked after hours building up my profile and eventually got a job out in San Diego with a company that had done a lot of contract simulation work for the government. They were wanting to get into games, and were working on a virtual reality type of arcade game/simulator where you'd put on a pair of goggles to see the environment and would navigate your craft within the virtual game world.
That led to Sony Online Entertainment in San Diego where I worked on the "Star Wars Galaxies" game for two and a half years or so. It was fun because I got to work on some of the creatures from the Star Wars universe, with one of my favorites being the bantha. From there I moved on to a company that's now called High Moon Studios, although it's been through quite a few name changes along the way. I worked on the "Dark Watch" title for the PS2 and Xbox. This was a first person shooter set in the vampire world. It was a lot of fun because there were all these monsters I got to work with. It was a great team with some really talented concept artists and I really enjoyed the time I got to spend at the studios.
Now I'm at Electronic Arts: EA Tiburon in Orlando, FL. My first job with them was as a character modeler on the next-gen version of "Madden". So I got to be there at the birth of the next-gen thing, figuring out how to make normal maps work and all that other fun stuff. I really enjoyed the beginning stages of a project like that where you had to kind of think out of the box and figure out how to make things work. An opportunity eventually opened up to be a graphics trainer at the studio, which gives me the opportunity to influence a lot of different artists. I've been dedicating a lot of my time trying to share some information about ZBrush and the kinds of things I love to sculpt digitally with the package. Basically, letting the world know that it's a great time to be a digital artist.
Your Gnomonology bio mentions Lucid Revelations. What can you tell us about that?
The first part, Lucid, came from an experience I've had twice in my life where I've had something called lucid dreaming. If you don't know anything about that, what it means is that while you're dreaming you actually become conscious inside the dream. You become aware that you're dreaming, and can kind change from being an observer to actually being able to interact with things in the dream world with your conscious, waking mind. It probably sounds pretty extreme or radical. If I hadn't experienced it for myself twice I'd probably be questioning if it was even possible.
I remember that when I first became aware that I was conscious yet in a dream state I wanted to test the limits of my environment. I picked up a handful of sand and examined it as closely as I could, testing to see at what point it would break down. Yet it had the same exact level of detail as if you were in the waking world. It was a pretty big curiosity to me to see that this dreaming world is as real and vibrant as the waking world. So what really is reality if you have a dream and don't even know the difference between that and reality? At what point is reality?
So from that experience I've been doing a lot of custom artwork over the years, and have made a bunch of different creatures just for fun. I started to try to come up with a story to tie it all together and explain how all these different creatures existed in the same world. Tie that together with my experience at Sony Online where all these people were playing in a virtual world rather than going outside and seeing the real sun. You know how everyone's just these big fans of things like World of Warcraft and games like that.
So the premise of that story I was thinking of was that in the future humanity learns to stop trying to kill each other and starts working together to solve all these problems that we're facing. An utopian civilization evolves from that, and we eventually start exploring space. The funny thing is that we never find anyone out there except ourselves, although eventually we've evolved (and genetically altered ourselves) to the point where you wouldn't necessary recognize us as human anymore. So once space has been explored and mapped out, the last frontier is really fantasy. They create a virtual world that they plug themselves into and download their consciousness into creatures within the fantasy world. This goes on for so long that they eventually pretty much lose touch with all reality. They forget about themselves as far as their physical bodies. Of course there are consequences to this, and the story goes on to where a handful of survivors are attempting to restore humanity to the world by basically resetting the species.
So that's all pretty much a really long, extended back story that ties together all the different creatures and drawings that I've done and explains how they can exist in the same world.
2D, 3D, Sculpting -- your artwork spans several mediums. Is there a particular area that you especially focus on at this point, or do you keep your hand in with everything?
I haven't really been focusing on one area too much. Simply because my job requires me to be able to do many different things and not be focused on one area or solely digital. But I can tell you that I have noticed quite a bit of an improvement in my work from alternating between a traditional medium and going to the computer. So what I'd like to try do right now, which I hope I can get myself on a schedule for doing is one traditional sculpture using super sculpy or something like that -- anything with my hands -- and then the next project I work on being a ZBrush sculpt. And I've noticed that alternating between the mediums like this has really helped both of them out. My ZBrush work is helping with my traditional sculpting, while the traditional sculpting is helping drive what I'm doing inside the computer.
I would like to say I'm spending more time drawing and things like that, but the truth is I just don't have the time right now. I really feel as an artist that everything stems from being able to draw well. At least, that has been the case for me with my career. I always strive to keep my traditional drawing skills up. I know I'm not the best illustrator in the world, but I've always found that if I can quickly take an idea and draw it out on a piece of paper, that's so valuable for anything that I'm doing artistically. It has saved my butt quite a few times!
So if you're just getting into the industry or wanting to break through that would be my big suggestion to you. Just focus in on those traditional skills. Hone them and that will carry over to anything you're trying to do in the computer. Be able to draw well, develop your eye, and be able to pick out different shapes like that.
What inspires you as an artist?
Well, I would say that a big part of my inspiration early on came from comic books. I've always been a big fan of super heroes; I've always loved human anatomy. One of my favorite comic book artists at the beginning was Jim Lee. I still love his work quite a bit. Mark Silvestri, Todd McFarlane. A little bit later I got to be a big fan of Travis Charist. I love that guy's work. Recently I've become a really big fan of Alex Ross. I really love his work. I'm continually amazed by the sheer quantity of work that this man has produced and the quality level of what he has output.
I'm a huge fan of Frazetta. And then I also really like Massimo Frezzato. If you've ever seen any of the books that he's created for Heavy Metal I really love that art style that he has. His painterly kind of qualities; his world that he's built. I'd really love to be able to do something like that myself someday.
Beyond that I really enjoy John Berkey and his painterly style. Especially the way that he's described the look of the future. I kind of think of Sparth. When I see his work I see a lot of John Burke in it.
I'm very heavily influenced by all the work that's been going on at ZBrushCentral. That's the number one spot I go to every single day to check out new artwork. I'm continually inspired by all great work that goes on at the forums. It just kind of blows me away. Just when you think it can't get any better and nobody can top this artist then here comes this new piece. It's just a great place and a great community. I'm really glad I can help out and contribute to that community.
One thing that you shared at ZBC a while back was your Tortosaur WIP. What eventually became of that project?
That was one of the first pieces I got on the top row at ZBC. This was kind of my guinea pig/baby project of mine where I went through and tried to figure out the best pipeline to sculpt something in ZBrush and pull all that info into Maya for animation. At that time I was using ZBrush 2.0, so the workflow was kind of to sculpt things out to a certain level and then use the BumpViewer material to paint all the really fine details: wrinkles, scales and stuff. I'd export a displacement map and bump, then those combined gave me a pretty nice result in Maya.
The results were pretty good. I think most sane people would have been happy with that, but I was never quite happy with what I'd created. Things have changed dramatically since ZBrush 3 came out, and my workflow has completely changed since that time. So I've learned a lot of valuable lessons with that project, but right now it's just kind of sitting there shelved. I'd like to get back to it at some point and finish it up for good with a final colored version of the entire creature. PolyPaint would definitely make my life tons earlier. I wouldn't have to worry about texture maps, and can transfer that stuff at a later time. So I could just have fun going through the really fine detail sculptural process and doing color at that point. But I have other projects that are going on right now which are more pressing -- and more interesting to me -- at this point. I was glad that I made it onto the top row with that piece, though!
What can you tell us about your current projects?
Some of you might have noticed that I have two tutorials on Gnomonology and I'm quite proud of the head that I've put up on there. It's a generic base head that I thought would help people out, just getting them started to where they could start sculpting and wouldn't have to worry about topology and things like that. I've tried to create a head that has really nice topology, edge flow for around the mouth and eyes, set up ears... I've also made polygroups for that, making it really easy to select different areas of the eyes, mouth, etc. I've sculpted out a full set of teeth and gums, tongue, the whole works. It even has some shapes to open and close the mouth so that if you want to do a sculpt you can open the mouth if you'd like.
I also have a new tutorial I just put up that covers how to use photographs as a means to do displacement inside of ZBrush. What I was thinking with this was that let's say you had to model some really intricate detail. It might be easier to use a photograph and build out the geometry that way.
Beyond that there was a project that I just did for 3DTotal which had a sculpting challenge called "Manimal". I'm sure a lot of you have seen that on the ZBC forums with some people posting up their work about that. Whenever I was working on that entry I actually captured all the information. I'm actually taking that and turning it into videos which I hope to get up on Gnomonology as well so that you can view the entire session. It's about four hours, which I want to edit down, make look nice and pretty. I'm also working with the kind folks at Pixologic to get a time lapse version of that made which may be anywhere from six minutes to ten or twelve minutes. Hopefully put it to some music. I'm not sure when that's going to hit, but be on the look out for it.
I've also started my own blog. On there I've tried to put a lot of different examples of my work: 2D, 3D, traditional sculpting, a lot of my tutorials, etc. I also have a store section with links to the Gnomonology stuff.
That's all my personal projects right now. Plus I have many different projects going on at work at the same time. So right now I'm trying to learn how to juggle. Yeah!
Tell us more about that speed sculpting challenge at 3DTotal. How did ZBrush help you there, and what did you learn in the process?
They had a sculptural challenge called "Manimal", and I used ZBrush for the entire project. One of the big areas that I've found which helped me with sculpting inside of ZBrush was the use of the TransPose features. So at the end of the sculpting session I'd kind of sculpted everything out with symmetry from left to right, and I changed things up just a little bit to make things a little less symmetrical. Through the use of 3D layers and TransPose, I was able to take my model down to the lowest subdivision level and then use TransPose to move my model into a new pose and store that on a 3D layer. So this way I always had a static version of my model and then also a posed version that was stored on a 3D layer.
I think the really cool thing about 3D layers is that you can actually store a pose on a lower subdivision level and then step up through the subdivision levels and see your high res model change based upon the change that you've made on the lower res model. It's possible for you to store multiple poses on different layers at the lowest level, working with some really simple geometry to get your model posed out. But then you use that to drive your high-res model. I really wish that there was a similar workflow in some of these packages like Maya, XSI or 3D Studio Max. I've used displacement maps and they're great and all. But there's just something about having that actual sculpt that you've created and seeing that be put in that new pose and seeing that exact sculpture.
So let's continue focusing on ZBrush, since you clearly use it a lot. At what point in your career did you discover the app?
It's kind of hard for me to remember back to when that was. It seems like I've been ZBrushing forever now. I think I remember there was quite a bit of buzz at the time. I saw some of the work that Weta Digital was doing with ZBrush. I knew ZBrush was one of these packages that I HAD to force myself to learn. I HAD to get good at this package because it was going to change the way things were done and it was going to lead to good things for me.
I've come across some of those situations in the past where I came to a crossroads and knew that if I could sit down and myself learn something it would lead to good things. ZBrush was definitely another of those cases where it was the right software for me, and completely changed the way I worked. I think it's changed the way everyone works! It has made my life a lot easier as a digital modeler. I remember back "in the day" when everything was hand modeled. If you wanted to have a crease in the face or anything like that you actually had to model all that detail in. I've got a big virtual stack on my hard drive of things I like to keep from what I've done over the years. Stuff I thought was really great at the time. I look back at that, and they were great for their time with lots of details actually modeled into the faces. But now they look pretty simplistic and even archaic compared to what's going on inside of ZBrush. Obviously, this has raised the bar through the roof.
I really think things are starting to compete with traditional sculpting now at this point. The line is getting really, really blurry. Especially if you take a look at some of the things that are going on with digital sculpting and then rapid prototyping those pieces out and having them cast. I'm a huge fan of Gentle Giant. I love the work that they're doing and I think they're at the forefront of this technology. It's poised to just explode and kind of take off. I think it's a very exciting time to be a digital sculptor and digital artist. The future's wide open and there's a lot of different opportunities. ZBrush is the place to be, and the program that's going to help drive that future.
Do you have a favorite ZBrush feature? What is it and why?
There are quite a few, actually, but if I had to narrow it down to my favorite new feature I'd have to say it's the Project All button found in the SubTool menu. If you don't know what this is, it's pretty revolutionary and I think it's one of steps that's just going to change people's workflows. I don't know if that many people have been exposed to it and realized the power that it represents. What it allows you to do is take one mesh that has maybe bad topology -- let's say you start with a sphere and sculpt a head from the sphere. That's fine for sculpting, but if you wanted to animate with it to open the eyes or mouth and have expressions you're going to need clean topology.
What this feature then does is let you resurface the mesh, then take that new mesh and use the Project All feature to shrink wrap the new surface onto the original sculpt. The thing that I think is really revolutionary about this tool is that it doesn't just transfer the shape, but also the color that you have from PolyPainting.
So if any of you guys have used in the past some of Zack Petroc's videos where he talked about a Maya script called XY Shrinkwrap, it's a great little Mel script that I've used quite a bit in the past on games. It took a huge amount of time. If you had a model with maybe millions of polygons... good luck getting it done. It might work, and it might not. But the Project All feature in ZBrush is so fast. Being able to take this new topology and get it to the old shape along with all the colors just allows you to be more free with what you're creating. I'm not very worried anymore about if I have to change topology on a mesh because I'm not going to be losing all the work I've already sculpted and painted out. I can just transfer that work over.
I think another huge area where this is going to help out and open new avenues for people is to get more traditional sculptors into our industry and have them become digital sculptors. When you first sculpting digitally your understanding of topology, edge flow and all these things is not that strong and you're just not going to care about it that much. It's now possible to have a pipeline set up where you have artist A who's just creating this beautiful high-res sculpture with the right shape and the right color. Then that model gets handed off to artist B who is more technically minded and can resurface that mesh, then transfer all the detail to his new topology from the original mesh. So you kind of separate out these different categories of artists. Some artists might not like to hear that because maybe they become artist B and are just this technical artist but the possibilities do exist for these two different art styles and techniques to coexist with each other and work together in a pipeline. You can actually have this artist A who's a magnificent sculptor who can just make a design sing and not worry about all the technical limitations that have plagued artists in the past.
The ZBrush base head (with tutorial) that you have at Gnomonology includes an interesting feature: the mouth opens and closes via a 3D layer. Tell us more about your use of 3D layers in general, and the potential applications you see for them.
3D layers are a great new addition that has been added to ZBrush. The possibilities for them are pretty much endless. You know, it's basically a stacking of different details and separating those details out.
It really helps in a production pipeline when you're working with an art director. So if you're smart about things you can store everything from skin pores to wrinkles to moles, scars... all these different things you can store on individual layers. Then if you need to lessen the effect or make it greater, it's pretty easy to take the values of that 3D layer and change that.
You'd think the layer information would go from 0 to 1 so that you would have a strength that you can play with from that. But you can actually take those values and overdrive them, so you can give it a volume of 4 and maybe that mole like what I've got here (points to cheek) would be super huge, sticking off the face. Let's say your art director comes to you and says, "I really like the wrinkle pass you've got on this character, but I'd like him to look a little bit older and I don't think you can make those wrinkles quite deep enough." You don't have to go back through and resculpt that detail. All you've got to do is bump up the volume of that layer a little bit.
Another interesting thing you can do with layers is take the value of that layer and drive it negatively. So you can take a positive sculpt and turn it into a recession at that point.
What's the most important advice would you give to new ZBrush users?
Some of my advice for a first time ZBrush user is to get yourself really familiar with the Move brush. This will help you out quite a bit in changing the proportions and the overall shape of your model.
Another thing I'd say is don't get in a big rush to hurry up and start doing details on your model. Leave that for the last stage. The things I'd be the most concerned with are your proportions in your model, and making sure that the rhythm and flow of your model is correct before you really start concentrating on the high-res aspect of things.
I think a mistake I see from a lot of first-time users is they like to just crank up the subdivision levels to where you can't see the polygons anymore, then just go to town sculpting on your model. The speed of ZBrush has increased quite a bit, but I like to take a different approach to that. I like to work on the lowest levels first and get that worked out -- get the shape roughed out. Move up to the next subdivision level and finesse that some more. Get the shape going, perfecting it even more. Then keep stepping up the sudivision levels one after another. I work on a subdivision level until I've finished up the shape of it and I can't get any more detail out of it. Then it's time to move up to the next sudivision level.
So definitely learn the power of working with subdivision levels. Learn when it's a good idea to work with lower subdivision levels, such as when you're making broad, sweeping changes to your model. Obviously if you're going to do finer, high-res detail you want to be at the higher subdivision level. But try to use as few polygons as possible to get the shape before you overkill things with millions and millions of polygons just for the sake of having that detail there. A sculpture that has no real good form or shape isn't going to really look much better with some high res wrinkles, nice scales, and stuff like that. So make sure that the overall shape is done correctly first.
The way that I like to think about digital sculpting is the same way as if someone was taking a chunk of stone and carving into that. If you had to start with a block of stone, you're not going to get your tiny tools and start chipping away at the stone to get the shape of a human to come out. You're going to use larger tools at the very beginning to knock away and get to the rough shape. Then you're going to go to another set of tools and get a little finer with your detail, and a little finer with your strokes and a little finer with what you're chipping away until you get to those final stages where you are using the small tools. Think of digital sculpting in the same kind of manner and I think it'll help you a lot in the long run.
So what's ahead for NickZ?
The project I'm working on right now is a continuation of what I have on Gnomonology. I'm actually working on a full body version of the head I have there. That's where that head came from; it's actually just a piece of this entire model I'm finishing up. I hope to make it really nice and simple for someone to have a nice base starting point with geometry and then use that to sculpt into whatever creation they want. Again, the reason I'm trying to create this is I want people to not have to worry about topology, but just have fun sculpting and let them be more free with their creations. Not have to worry so much about the technical aspects of building this precise kind of geometry. Just get right in there and get to the fun part of sculpting. I hope to have with this body a couple different poses that are made up and stored on different 3D layers so that at your discretion you can choose from the different pre-made poses and then start making it your own.
Is there anything else you'd like to talk about? This can be anything at all.
In closing I'd like to just say thank you to all the people at Pixologic. I know that they work very hard to make a great tool for all of us artists, and I do greatly appreciate that.
And I just want to give a shout out to the Lord, my savior Jesus Christ, who gives me all my strength and all my ability that I share with you.
So thank you for your time!
Thank you, Nick, for providing us with such a detailed and in-depth interview! It has truly been a pleasure.
Be sure to also check out our many past interviews, which can be found in the ZBrush Artist Interviews forum.