We seem to be on a roll with sneak peeks right now! This week we're interviewing Jim McPherson, from Gentle Giant Studios. He's been in the motion picture industry for a good many years now, but his most current work (that he can talk about) is the upcoming "Golden Axe" title from SEGA. Canny readers will spot several early glimpses of characters from the game, which are provided for this interview courtesy of SEGA. (And are naturally copyright 2008 by SEGA. The characters shown here are early digital concepts and do not necessarily represent the final versions that will be in the game.)
I look at your movie credits list, which goes back 18 years, and almost feel like I know you already! I must have seen about 3/4 of the films you've been involved with. But that's still really just a list. Could you go into more detail about your professional background?
Well, let's see. I mostly have worked on character sculpting and design for a bunch of movie-related studios. Visual effects, traditional effects, puppetry, makeup -- a lot of different things, but a lot of them involving character. Basically designing characters, sculpting characters that would be used for a variety of different things.
How did you break into the movie industry to begin with?
I'd been working in New York, and the first movie I worked on was "Desperately Seeking Susan", where I was basically working in a prop shop and somebody brought in a hat box to be lined with a removeable lining and a bunch of shopping bags to spray paint a logo on. So I did that in about three hours, and that was the first movie that I worked on. You can see that stuff in the movie.
I came out to California and looked around for work. People in New York told me that was impossible, but I actually figured out when I got here that when a project was starting it was sort of a warm-body kind of thing. They would hire a lot of different people and give them a shot; do some training. If there weren't any shows, it was kind of difficult. You know; you could be out of work for a long time. But I initially got work on "Howard the Duck" at the Burman Studios. They did makeup on Jeffrey Jones. I guess there were like four stages, and I did some padding for it. I did a whole bunch of lab work. I think they sent over a design that they had me do a sculpture of to sort of show why it wasn't going to work. So that was one of the first things that I did here in California.
I worked for the McCracken Studio, for Mike McCracken who was a Disneyland sculptor. He worked a lot for John Chambers from the "Planet of the Apes" films. He also sculpted a lot of the makeups for "The Island of Dr. Moreau". That was very valuable. You know, I got to see a real sculptor who sculpted for the movies and for a variety of different things. He handled most of the sculpture for the films that we worked on in that period. I did a few creatures for "The Kindred" which was a movie that I guess is coming out on DVD fairly soon.
At some point soon after that I worked at Stan Winston Studios on "Alien Nation" and "Leviathan", just kind of sculpting and molding different things. We worked on a big monster which I did pieces of for "Leviathan".
Soon after that I worked on "Gremlins 2" for Rick Baker at Cinovation Studios. At a certain point a lot of us were doing maquettes. I did maquettes for basically all of the characters; all the gremlins in the film and a lot of other people did, too. We did them fairly quickly. I think they were done in about two days each. So we'd have a lot of different things to show Rick and see what he liked. He would show things to the production. It ended up that they liked this character I did: "George". I made him to look like Edward G. Robinson. We'd gotten a description that said "We're doing Lennie and George from 'Of Mice and Men'." They were supposedly doing Warner Brothers-type gremlins. So I thought of the little gangster guy that they had; the big, dumb guy specifically that they had in Warner Brothers cartoons. It wasn't exactly Lennie and George but that was what I went with. I ended up doing a lot gremlin assembly. There were a lot of robots and puppets, so I ended up working on that for quite a long time.
Let's see -- other big highlights were like "Matinee" with the "Half Man, Half Ant -- All Terror". I sculpted and designed the main mant; the main creature for that. That was done through Rick Baker's shop. We employed a bunch of people from the shop there. Bruce Fuller and myself came in. Bruce sculpted the puppet that was seen up on the buildings.
Another big, big makeup film that I worked on for Rick was "The Nutty Professor", and I did the big oversized Eddie Murphy makeup. The headpiece, the gloves. The suit was done by our costume team.
Previously to Gentle Giant, I was appointed to join the Visual Development Team at Walt Disney Feature Animation to work with the director Sam Levine and character designer Joe Moshier on a film called Joe Jump. All the characters were developed in collaboration of drawing and modeling done in ZBrush 2. We translated a more graphic character style into 3D, slightly leaning towards “Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom” or UPA cartoons, but with a heavy influence of Milt Kahl and Tom Oreb’s work. Unfortunately, the movie was cancelled after 4 years in development. I hope to eventually get permission to show some of the characters. There were cyborg lizards, heavily armored heroes and amazon women designed in a new style. A lot of projects I’ve worked on in my career haven’t been completed.
What has been your favorite project to date, and why?
I like watching "Army of Darkness". I really like Bruce Campbell's performance in it. I did these stretch faces for him, among other things. I did a couple different stages. The first stage looked like Fred Gwynne, who's one of my favorite, favorite actors. Not that anybody noticed, but now you know. I just really like the way he (Bruce) sold everything, and I enjoy watching that movie a lot.
"Matinee" -- We were just on set for a few days, but I really vividly remember doing that. It was pretty tough, with us doing twelve or fourteen hour days pretty much every day straight through for about two months. But, you know it was nice when it was all done.
What did you do prior to movies? And of course, what is your background like in general? What led you to become an artist?
Let's see -- I read a lot of comics when I was a kid, and I guess for my very first art job I worked at a place called The Puppet Workshop in Rhode Island. We designed and sculpted puppets; did some kind of Muppet-style rip-offs. We worked on some little local commercials. I did a lot of costume characters like the ones with the big heads.
I moved to New York and worked on commercials. And I also worked on some Broadway shows. I did some talking trees, which somehow I went on set and got paid SAG for being inside a tree for a day. That gave me enough money to move to California. I basically was starving in New York, but they dropped about eighteen grand on one day of work so I was able to get out of New York forever.
I largely learned what I know about sculpture on the job, observing -- particularly from Rick Baker. Other big influences on me were Mitch DeVane, Steve Wang, Matt Rose, Aaron Sims, and Myles Teves.
Now you work with Gentle Giant Studios, right? How did that come about?
Well, I saw on ZBrushCentral the note from Scott Spencer saying that he was looking to interview somebody to help. I sent my website over, then came in and did interviews. I had learned ZBrush previously working with Rich Diamant on the "Fight Club" video game, which was all done with normal maps, and that was the first time I used ZBrush. I basically learned it on the job; pretty much in the first day I was sculpting with it.
I guess I worked on about ten characters, all in ZBrush. I worked right next to Rich Diamant, and we kind of learned ZBrush together. He really absorbed it quickly.
I had been using Maya to try and do organic models and characters for several years before that. We were doing high poly models in Maya and transferring the detail down. I did one model of Meat Loaf, done in Maya. Fairly soon after that we started doing completely ZBrush models, and that worked out well. I really enjoyed it. Just much, much more like sculpting. As soon as I touched ZBrush I could really see that it was what I had been looking for, and it really had huge applications in terms of manufacturing. So the opportunity to use ZBrush and have stuff printed out to use as product was something I really had been wanting to do for quite a few years but hadn't really been able to do.
What is your job title, and what are your primary duties? What is an average work day like?
I guess that for the last couple of years I've been the lead digital modeler. I worked a lot on the different characters for video games, and a certain amount of product that we do at Gentle Giant. There's both licensed product and then product from other clients that we do. So there's always a lot of different things to work on here.
I'm going to be the 3D Art Director. What that means is I'm going to be kind of supervising the 3D aspects. Specifically, the character aspects, and I'm going to be basically looking at characters and sculpting. Working with the artists and making suggestions.
For an average work day, it pretty much consists of seeing if we've gotten notes back for particular jobs, talking to the different producers here, seeing what the next thing is that we need to do or continuing with what we've been doing. We have a forum where we post all our images, and we can kind of look at that to see if a client has notes for us or basically whatever we need to do. It's all systemized at to what different people are going to move on to when they've completed their work.
We’re doing a large amount of Digital Maquette work for 3D animated films now at Gentle Giant. Because of the amazing sculpting speed of ZBrush we can work directly with the directors and also make sculptural suggestions to the process.
I also teach artists at Gentle Giant. I think one of the most misunderstood concepts in digital sculpture is “form”. Rick Baker would talk about form and its relation to character. You could see what he was talking about immediately in his work. I think we all see that form conveys beauty or handsomeness versus deformity; as in a video game with humans and creatures. Combination of forms can be happy or sad. Form can convey alertness, laziness, weakness, strength, nobility, or wickedness.
I have some anecdotes from Gentle Giant that will show what I mean. One of our artists modeled a skeleton. I was asked to comment on it. I said, “You need to model a scary skeleton. You need to put sharp edges on the bones and model twists in the arm and leg bones. You need to make the joints complex forms, not simplified. You can accentuate the diagonals in the ribs and skull.” Not understanding initially, the artist said, “Isn’t a rib cage a rib cage?” and I had to say, “No. Your ribcage looks like a plastic fork.”
I think we know intuitively that a plastic fork has forms that are not skeleton-like. Therefore, we carve away the improper forms as we sculpt.
How would you say your use of ZBrush has evolved since your start with it?
I use a lot more of the tools. It's been real gradual for me. I treat ZBrush as kind of a box of sculpting tools, and mainly use the ones that I'm familiar with. I've been gradually learning how the different smoothing curves and stuff work. But initially I just was using the tools with standard settings. I'm really starting to understand more of the program after having used it for four or five years now.
Could you tell us about your use of ZBrush on a typical project? What roles does it play, and how important would you say that ZBrush is for your work?
Well, that's basically what we use here at Gentle Giant. All the digital people are using ZBrush. We have several people that are taking Scott Spencer's class at Gnomon. Our traditional guys are also learning ZBrush. We've got several traditional people here already that have switched over from working in clay and wax to just doing ZBrush and basically outputting everything.
So yeah; I use ZBrush throughout the day. I even work on stuff at my computer in the morning before I come in. It's been really convenient for me because it's very flexible.
We are starting to do digital ZBrush character development at Gentle Giant. I’ve been working with directors and character designers to figure out how the 2D drawing should look as a 3D character. I paint the figure immediately to see if the proportions of the colors on the character look good. The idea is to design the forms that make up the character.
As an example, let’s say the head is an egg and the body is a rectangular solid. That would be a simple one. What I’m designing is a combination of forms: egg shapes, cube shapes and cylinder shapes blended together to make an effect. This kind of work has been done as sculpture in the past. ZBrush can really speed up the process. Plus, we can print the digital files out to look at.
What is your favorite ZBrush feature, and why?
Being able to work on multiple levels of subdivisions; being able to actually detail the sculpture at any point and then change your mind to go back and maybe move the lower res parts of the mesh in order to move all the detail around. That's amazing for me. In clay, if you change your mind (which I did constantly) you'd have to cut parts off and then build them back up completely and re-detail. But we don't have to do that in ZBrush. So I look at like you can basically see what it's going to look like when it's done, pretty much at the beginning.
I also like that I can paint the model as I sculpt and actually see what the final piece is going to look like. Not just work with green or gray clay and then have to "sell" that to a client or director and kind of go, "Well, it's going to look like this when it goes through our paint shop." I paint everything now, regardless of whether people want me to or not. Sometimes I just don't show them. But we've had projects where people have said, "We have to do stuff in a specific order, and we'll tell you when to go on to the next step." After a while, they stop telling us and their art directors would then start telling us to make changes to the object AND the paint based on what they were seeing. That worked out really good for us. We can really cut out a lot of time and steps by working on all the artistic parts of the project all at once.
Do you have any ZBrush tips or tricks that you'd like to share?
I'm thinking about recording something for Gnomonology about doing likenesses. I've been using some of the features in ZBrush -- specifically ZAppLink -- in terms of lining the models up to photos and drawings. At Gentle Giant we specialize in doing likenesses. We have people who do wax sculpture, all different sized heads. I've seen people do tiny heads of maybe one or two centimeters that look just like the people they're of. One of the advantages in ZBrush is that you can print something out whatever size, but blow it up on your screen so that you don't wreck your eyes quite as much. It's easier to figure stuff out. So yeah, I'm thinking about doing something about how I do it. A lot of what I do in terms of likenesses is kind of intuitive, so it might be a little bit tough.
It seems that most of your work today is for 3D printing, which is turning into all the rage for 3D modeling these days. What special challenges does that format impose on your CG work?
It doesn't really affect the CG work that much. Basically, what I see on the screen is what we get in 3D printing. We really haven't had to adjust that much. I kind of thought things might look different, but they really don't. We have some guys here that decimate the actual OBJ's to try and hold the angles and take polygons out of the flat areas, which will reduce the OBJ's for our printers so that they'll fit better. There is a limit. But we can cut the OBJ's into pieces and boolean them to make a perfect fit. You just cut the OBJ's into the number of objects that'll fit on our printers, and it can basically be anything.
I've seen where we've printed some larger than life-sized heads on our printer. We did them hollow, but it was pretty amazing. They made small pieces like of an eggshell and glued them all together. It sort of looked like the sphinx or something -- all block shapes that have been glued together.
But most of my work isn't really for 3D printing. Most of what we've been doing here has been video game characters and film characters. Maybe it's even with 3D printing. But I guess people haven't really seen so much of the character work. It hasn't been released to the public yet, but hopefully people will get to see it soon.
What has been your most challenging project so far? Did ZBrush help with that, and in what way if so?
That's probably "Golden Axe", the video game which is coming out in fall 2008. I think we've worked on about 10-15 characters on it. It's all painted and normal mapped, and we worked in tandem with a company called Secret Level from northern CA. It was a lot of work. A lot of sculpting. We had people painting, and people making armor for characters; characters with huge amounts of pieces. It was very tricky. Much more difficult than "Fight Club" which was basically men with pants or sleeveless t-shirts on and bare feet. It was much more difficult doing "Golden Axe".
Could you tell us more about "Golden Axe"?
The Gentle Giant Team on "Golden Axe" was Art Directed by Scott Spencer. Supervision and support from our Pres and Vice Pres at GG, Karl Meyer and Brian Sunderlin. The Art team consisted of Mark Dedecker, Hector DeLaTorre, Nobu Sasagawa, Stefano Dubay, Brandon Lawless, Brian Wynia, Rodrigo Carrasco, Ronnie Cleland, Cesar Dacol and Alex Olivier. We now have Heather Lawless, Max Dayan, and Gabrielle Garcia on our ZBrush team. Several more sculptors are learning the program now.
On 2D Art we had Christian Gossett, Dave Igo, Scott Spencer and myself. Much of the character design was produced at Secret Level by Sivio Aebischer and Matt Butler. We also did design work with polypainted ZBrush models on which changes were done on paintovers from Secret Level.
The "Golden Axe" characters I am showing are mainly our Digital Maquettes for approval and are not the final models in the game. Plus our team spent a lot of time cleaning them up.
What can we expect to see from you in the near future?
We have been doing concept work, both drawing and painting but a really sizeable amount of work in ZBrush for a big feature film -- that I can't tell you about.
I just did a comic book-related figure -- that I can't tell you what it is.
And (laughing) we did some characters for a motion picture, and I can't tell you what that is either.
I've been doing a lot of different stuff. I've been doing some test video game characters... which I can't tell you about.
So that's four things that hopefully I'll be able to tell you about at some point in the future.
Of course, we all need to escape work now and then. How do you like to spend your free time?
I read, and watch movies and stuff with my wife, Frances. We're coming up on our 8th anniversary, and she's been very supportive of my artwork and working on the computer. So that's kind of how I spend my free time.
Is there anything else that you'd like to share with the ZBC community?
It's been really nice at Gentle Giant because the modelers -- a lot of them have come from doing traditional sculpture. I've found that at some studios that modelers tend to work in sort of a system where they're required to trace drawings and not really impart much of their artistic thought into the work. At Gentle Giant we're trying to do quality sculpture AND modeling. The work we're doing is for 3D. Whether it's 3D movies, visual effects or the actual sculpture of toys, we're working in 3D and we think the 3D is the most valuable part of our process. At some studios it's more a craft sort of job where you're trying to do the simplest version of something that's acceptable and will work in a system.
One thing that I've noticed, finding some of my lost artwork on eBay -- I've realized that the best work I've ever done has been done recently in ZBrush. I have a lot more control, and I don't have the problems of dealing with clay, making sure everything sticks together. It's just much faster and easier, and I can get my thoughts out.
Many thanks to Jim for all the time and effort he put into this interview, and the HUGE number of images he was able to provide. It will be great to see some of these models in action when the game is released, and I can't wait to learn more about the various upcoming projects that he's hinted at.
Be sure to also check out our many past interviews, which can be found in the ZBrush Artist Interviews forum.