For this week's interview, we are pleased to bring you a true Renaissance woman: Sze Jones. The timing couldn't be better, since her newest work makes its world premier just a few days from now in the form of Warhammer Online's newest cinematic trailer. Thanks to Mythic's courtesy (and I suspect a fair amount of begging on Sze's part), we're able to bring you the very first images ever shown for the Dark Elf Sorceress character!
All images in this interview are courtesy of Blur Studio, copyright (c). Please do not take advantage of their kindness to ZBC by posting the artwork elsewhere.
Hi Sze. Could you begin by telling us about your career so far and where you are working today?
I see my career as the choice of what I enjoy doing the most in life to the best of my ability. Being able to make female characters for video games has been my dream since the day I played as Lara Croft in "Tomb Raider" for the first time. I fell in love with it. Now every time I model a character I take very seriously the idea that this character might inspire someone out there and become their childhood memories. That is something I do not take lightly. I still find it extremely exciting to see my models being animated, lit and put together into a purely imaginative environment. It’s like a dream come true to me.
My career choice right now and for the past 6 years has been making female characters for Blur Studio’s game cinematics.
What is your job title? Could you give a breakdown of what a typical workday goes like for you?
My title is Character Modeling Supervisor. I started at Blur Studio in 2002. I had worked for other companies before that but they were not a career, I considered them jobs. But every tiny, unique experience that I had learned and gained is useful and applicable to my role and career today. After all these years, I have been doing what I enjoy and I like to make things better for others. The title is just a label.
Over the past years, Blur has evolved a lot. There are many passionate artists around just like me and we care about creating the best work we can. We all want to make our projects amazing, not just "good enough". That is not acceptable. We want it to be amazing, no matter what it takes. In order to do so, we need a very efficient and clean pipeline. The responsibility I took on was to clean up the clutter. Since I am a character modeler, I would start thinking of ways to improve the character modeling department. That included setting up structures and standards; not to make rules, but to make guidelinse based on what is needed. Guidelines are easy to make. Now the challenge is to show artists how it would help the efficiency and have all the artists help out and maintain it. That is where the the QC (Quality Control) process comes in. It sounds very systematic, but it’s basically a checklist of what is needed to make other artists’ lives easier. We QC each other’s work to make sure our models are not messy or cause hell for artists down the line. I am really happy that it helps the studio efficiency so much! Now it's not only character modeling that has QC, but hair, rigging, props, and vehicles are all adopting the process for their own departments. Organization is so important. Without it we wouldn’t be able to make scripts and tools that help artists to spend more of their time making art instead of fixing problems.
When I first started the QC process, I used to do topology QC, rigging alignment QC, hair QC and Face Robot QC. That would almost take my entire day to maintain it. But now we have a great team of artists that are willing to share the load and take on extra responsibility to help out. I am extremely grateful to them.
My typical workday would be checking e-mail to see if there are any needs from other artists to solve character-related problems, as well as answering technical questions or needs that character modelers might have. Sometimes project supervisors will ask for advice or a second opinion about advanced character planning for a project to prevent mid-project crisis, etc. Then I would start my production work on modeling, texturing and making hair for my characters after that.
Viewing your past work, I see that you worked on the rogue character for the Age of Conan cinematic. That's pretty cool for me to learn, since I've watched that several times and know that a lot of guys have the hots for her! Could you go into detail about the evolution of that character?
I first saw her concept and I fell in love immediately. I like concept art that's suggestive, leaving some room to put myself and personal touches in it. I am very inspired by Frank Frazetta’s work. When modeling the Thief from Conan, I wanted to take that inspiration and pour it into her soul. I was also listening to the Conan sound track repeatedly when I modeled her. On her body tattoo, I used the technique and discipline my grandma taught me in Chinese calligraphy, and brushed it on her body. It took me a while to get it to the way I wanted it. If you look at the stitching on the side of her pants, it was actually lacing in and out of every opening accurately. It takes a lot of patience to do that. Late night oil was burnt constantly. For some characters I would devote extra hours at night by choice so that I could accurately portray the vision I have in mind onto the final model. She is definitely one of the characters I have the hots for as well.
She's an extremely detailed character. Did you encounter any challenges with her? How did you solve them?
The challenge for every character is different, but the most important thing to do is to be patient, keep extremely focused and have a sharp eye every moment. I am very critical of my own work. I always look for form and curves that I could improve, exaggerate, or soften. I find that the longer I work on a model, the more challenging it is for me to take it to the next level. In a production environment, there are time limits and restrictions. Experience is building on many trials and errors, failures and successes. The result is a constant mind battle that leads to precise decisions. It all comes down to prioritizing what is the most important artistic choice to focus on.
I always think of the production work environment as a form of martial arts sparring. You can only make so many moves within a given time. So every move counts. The least amount of accurate paint strokes I put in my texture to achieve the desired result is a good production texture. The least amount of moving verts to make a good model is more efficient. Those precise movements take time to develop. It means there are many countless, inaccurate strokes or moves I have gone through before I could make one accurate move.
That is the challenge, to master artistry through experience. It’s really fun but it takes lots of patience and consistency. And there are definitely many moments of frustration as well.
For the Thief, the details were challenging. But the most challenging part was to have all the details lead the audience's eye to the overall character and not let the details take over. To do so, I focused on the face most, and the silhouette of her body for a long time before I put in any details. Especially in a production environment, with the limitation of time, I couldn’t put details on everything. I needed to focus on strategizing and prioritizing the important parts within a given schedule.
Could you tell us about the role that ZBrush plays in your artwork?
ZBrush plays a huge part in my artwork. In fact, I think ZBrush revolutionized the entire industry. Knowing that one brush stroke in ZBrush equal 10-15 verts being pulled for five minutes means I have more time to focus on the artistic process.
I am really meticulous about the topology of the model. It is important to me to build a mesh that will work well with body and facial deformation. However, when I alter the topology of a mesh using traditional modeling methods it often changes the form that I have created -- and it’s very frustrating. With ZBrush I am able to make my topology as perfect as I want it to be, and use the sculpting tool to get shapes in place very quickly. In fact, I could sculpt and not worry about topology first and then retopologize it afterwards. It's very versatile and fabulous.
What makes ZBrush a "must have" tool for you as an artist?
ZMapper. I think it’s amazing that I could sculpt details like wrinkles and folds with a clean base mesh, and export the normal maps to achieve a similar result without cutting in details and modeling them manually.
ZAppLink is definitely a genius invention. The ability of being able to use all the Photoshop tools for painting and seamlessly transition back to ZBrush is so awesome to me.
MatCap is really fun. It’s so cool that I could find any object in the world and make a material and apply it onto the model just by clicking several points.
There are so many more fun and intuitive tools in ZBrush. I can’t imagine my tool box without ZBrush in it. I think ZBrush itself is a “Must have” tool for every artist.
What has been your favorite ZBrush work so far, and why? In what ways did ZBrush get used on it?
My favorite character is going to be in the next game cinematic, which will be released this coming Tuesday (August 19th). It's for Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning, which will be launched next month. Mythic Entertainment has given special permission to show a few character shots from the new cinematic, but otherwise it’s still under NDA. Please stay tuned!
I use ZBrush on all my models now. In the first stage, I prepare the base mesh in Max, then export the OBJ to ZBrush. At this stage, it’s pretty rough and no details are applied yet. I then do my proportional tweaks in ZBrush to rough out the body form, checking the silhouette all around.
Once I am happy with the proportion, I use the Extract tool in ZBrush to build costumes which are tight fitting, export the SubTool as OBJ to Max so that I can optimize and clean up the topology using polyboost.
Note: The new cinematic is now available. You can view it Here.
(Click on images for hi-resolution versions.)
Let's talk a bit about you personally. What is your background like? Where did you grow up, what was school like, etc.?
I got sick a lot in early childhood due to severe asthma, and stayed in the hospital a lot. It was a pretty lonely and sad thing. Due to the distance to the hospital from home, my family could only come visit once a week and they would bring me Hong Kong comics to read. I remember reading that comic over and over again, because it made me feel like I had escaped from the hospital, muting all the coughing and suffering noise around me and bring me to the world they described in the stories. I also liked drawing pictures of girls when I was alone. Now that I recall them, they were mostly sad and serious… I guess I was usually very emotional when I drew.
I liked building model kits with my brother when we were young. We would save our allowance money to buy BB Gundum and remote control car kits. We would build them, then paint with Tamiyma model paint. I loved applying decals. To this day I still keep those dried up Tamiyma paints to preserve my childhood memories.
I attended a high school in Hong Kong that emphasizes in developing academic performance as well as each student’s potentials in visual arts. My mother had a great influence on me. She noticed that I love art, dancing and music. She used her savings and enrolled me in classes at young age. I have studied ballet and classical piano for 10 years. I also love playing the violin, performed in a youth orchestra. I thank my mother to have given me the opportunity to do what I love to do in my childhood.
At the age of 16, I left Hong Kong to study abroad and completed a visual communications program at Northern Lights College, British Columbia, Canada. In 1993, I transferred to a 2 years college and majored in Graphic Design at Morris County College in United States.
In 1997, I graduated from William Paterson University with a Masters of Art in Computer Animation. Besides attending computer classes, I also enrolled in art classes such as airbrush, 2D cell animation and inking at Joe Kubert Art Center, and storytelling and comic art seminars at a school of Visual Arts.
Right after I graduated, I got my first job as a character modeler at a local game company called Hypnotix where I was making models, fixing animation and editing video in After Effects. A year later, I got an offer to work as a character modeler at a 3D online content creation company: Viewpoint Corporation aka. Metastream. Besides learning how to model, texture and write scripts in xml for online 3D content, I also learned a great deal about model optimization, organization structure and topology for digital scanning.
I have been living in US for 17 years now.
Have you always wanted to be an artist? A digital artist?
I have the artist in me and my surroundings since my childhood. Grandma has still life oil paintings from her artist friends hanging all over her apartment home in Taiwan. My brother and I loved visiting Grandma. I remember there is a giant turtle she kept on her balcony in a ceramic tile basin; we would watch him and draw pictures of him for hours. Grandma liked planning out fun activities such as making cartoon characters from clay, or calligraphy writing practice. And she would play music in the background. The songs I recognized and remembered were Hawaiian music or the Beatles. I still love turtles today! Art, dance and music will continue to play an important part of my life forever.
My mother was a big influence as well. As mentioned earlier, she enrolled me with her limited saving in a children's art house, piano, violin and ballet lessons. Doing these lessons has had a big impact on my life. It has helped me to stay disciplined and focused at all times. I was able to set goals for myself and achieve them with hard work and consistency, since these lessons were well structured and there were always annual shows to perform. I am very determined to perfect and polish my techniques to my best ability to perform among other artist. It’s important for me to do my best. There's nothing greater than an experience where you bring forth all you have in you and see how other artists showcase what they have learned and practiced before an audience of hundreds and still keep our performance intact. To this day I still carry the same discipline at work, in my life and my artwork.
How do you like living in the greater Los Angeles area? What do you like to do in your free time?
There are many art galleries in LA. I love to visit art openings with friends. I love going to museum exhibits to see the great masters’ work. It gives me great insights and inspires me to create more and keeps me going.
I also enjoy taking art classes and artists’ workshops. To be able to sit in a room full of passionate artist, chatting and talking about art and inspiring each other is very enjoyable to me. I am currently taking an oil painting workshop.
Once a week I host a life drawing session and have a model come in to pose. I love figure drawing and, and the other participants seem to enjoy it as well. Twice a week I get together with friends to sculpt traditionally. I like the spraying, kneading, smoothing and the after-rain smell of wet clay.
I was introduced to belly dancing through a friend. I really enjoy it. I find it amazing to express inner emotion through dancing to exotic music. It inspires me to create art very much. I performed with two other girls for a friend’s gallery opening once. It was an adrenaline rush for me.
It’s summer here all year, so I enjoy going to the beach and biking alongside of the ocean. Someday I would love to go camping; I never camped in the wild with friends before…
I love going to bookstores, Japanese markets, and watch movies. I wish there was a “Dave and Busters” here that serves Sake and sushi though!
We hope that you've enjoyed the beautiful women of Sze Jones, as well as the inside information concerning this fascinatingly multi-talented artist. Many thanks to Sze, Blur Studio and Mythic Entertainment for this interview!
Be sure to also check out our many past interviews, which can be found in the ZBrush Artist Interviews forum.