For this week's interview we're talking with the highly diverse and entertaining Jeff McAteer. We got him to open up about his path as something of a Renaissance Man, as well as sharing some great ZBrush insights. Enjoy!
Note: Jeff's ZBrushCentral Gallery can be viewed here.
You're a hard person to track down any info on. I found your gallery site (which has great stuff, by the way), but nothing about your background or what you do. Could you tell us about yourself?
Thanks! Well, I was grown in a test tube in a laboratory in an undisclosed military institution, but was discarded as a failed experiment when I was three... At least that's what my adopted parents told me. (Laughing) OK, sorry for that. Couldn't help myself.
This is going to sound weird, but it wasn't until I was working for Black Isle (a division of Interplay Productions) when I realized I truly wanted to do art for a living. I was always able to draw from reference pretty well. I drew a lot of pictures from National Geographic when I was in high school.
Before I started in the game industry I tried just about everything related to art that would make me money. From making logos to painting motorcycle helmets to tattooing. It was fun, and I could make money at it.
When I got out of high school I worked for a company that made all the ads in the yellow pages for awhile. Mostly you just cleaned up logos and such, but occasionally you'd get to illustrate something. At the time when I was there they were making the transition to computers. This is where I got my first taste of digital media. The first program I learned was Aldus Freehand. I would set type and reproduce logos. From there I learned Photoshop, although we didn't use Wacom tablets or anything so I still didn't uderstand the real power of Photoshop. At least, not in the way I use it today.
Anyway, I met a guy at this company that enlightened me about a program called "Animation Master". I bought a copy and started learning after work. A short time after this I got a lead on an upstart game company that needed an artist. I got an interview and brought with me a few traditional drawings and a couple printouts of a bug that I made in animation master. I didn't get the job right away, but I called the art director every week until he finally buckled and gave me a job! The company was called Logicware. I was immediately tossed into the deep end. They had me making characters for a game called "Killing Time" the first day. I had no idea what I was doing. I had to learn everything on the job. The Art Director, a guy named Chad Max was very helpful and taught me a lot. Although he used a different software package than me, so I was totally on my own in that respect. In the end I was able to find my way... luckily.
After I had been there a couple years the company was falling apart. Chad had left along with some other friends that worked there. What was left was not worth staying for. I decided to leave and ended up at Interplay Productions. This was the tuning point for me. Up until that time I wasn't sure I wanted to make a life-long career out of making art. I still had visions of adventure bouncing around my head. I was thinking seriously about construction diving and things along that line. But there were so many really talented artists there! It made me really feel like I wanted to be an artist. I was inspired for sure! I had the privilege to meet some really great artists: Justin Sweet, Vance Kovacs, Scott Rodenhiezer, Aaron Brown... I learned a lot from those guys. More importantly, I was inspired by them.
Black Isle was behind some of my favorite games ever. What did you do for them, and what projects did you work on?
"Fallout 2" and "Icewind Dale".
While at Black Isle I got a call from an old friend who used to work at Logicware with me. He asked me if I wanted to work for him at his startup company. I really like the guys there so I decided to leave Interplay to go work for him. We started out making regular PC titles, but a few years ago we switched to downloadable games.
Is that Reflexive Entertainment?
Yes, but we are more of a publisher now. We do develop games, but the vast majority of titles on this site were developed by other companies and they are geared more for the casual game market (mostly women). If you want to see some of the games that I've worked on, check out "Wik and the Fable of Souls” and “The Great Tree". Actually I played a huge part in "The Great Tree". It's a small game, but not only did I do just about all the art, it was also my first opportunity to produce a game. I wrote the story and had some input in the game design. It was a great learning experience for me.
It’s funny, because at Reflexive I make games with decades-old technology most of the time due to the fact that the majority of the games we make are pre-rendered. But it gives me an opportunity to make nothing but hi-res art most of the time. It's really great. Also, because the scale of these games is so small I can totally control the look of the games; whether I'm doing all the art myself or I have a few other artists with me. The games are small enough to give almost everything the attention they deserve.
We were working on a game for Xbox Live not too long ago using next-gen technology. Unfortunately we had to cancel it since it was getting too big for our business model. I'm still trying to get the owners to let me make smaller games using that technology, but it's not looking good.
I really enjoy being a part of bigger projects too, though. I'm able to get my "fix" for this by doing contract work. Currently, I'm working on a project for Obsidian Entertainment. (The makers of "Neverwinter Nights 2".) There are a lot of very talented people over there that are really great to work with.
I recognized the mushroom character in "The Great Tree" from one of your ZBC threads. Do you frequently use ZBrush in your projects?
All the time! I use ZBrush on just about everything I make. In fact, being in the position that I'm in I can pretty much force it. When I think of the themes for these small games we make I try as hard as I can to come up with a theme that begs to use ZBrush. "The Great Tree" is a great example of this.
I don't typically make backgrounds -- well, not in 3D anyway -- so I figured out a way to make the backgrounds sort of like characters in the game. The mushroom man is a great example. But even the brick wall background. By picking a theme where the world was sort of a bug scale I was able to make the background objects close up and blur everything else beind it. So I was able to detail out the wall like a hero shot in a movie (OK, not nearly that detailed) as opposed to modeling and entire citiscape or something like that.
I dont' know if that makes any sense. (Laughing)
The illusion of detail...
Yeah, maybe. It gives me the opportunity to work on a piece of something and model out all the details in ZBrush. Which is one of my favorite things. So by keeping the backgrounds up close I get this opportunity. That game was a lot of fun to make.
I really like modeling, so I try to find as many opportunities I can to do it.
And you obviously love ZBrush! How long have you been using it now, and what was your feeling that first time?
I heard about ZBrush 2 before it was released and started playing around with ZBrush 1.55b. I really liked it! I liked that it felt so natural... like clay, I guess. Prior to this it was all SubD modeling, and not nearly as fun
Now that we have Z3, how has that influenced your work? What is it about ZBrush today that makes you so keen to push its use in your work?
It has made creating that much easier. With the new tools and workflow enhancements it brings the artist closer to just being able to create something. It frees the artist up to ad lib and make changes on the fly. You're much more free to create now.
I made a Gnomonolgy video not too long ago entitled "Sketching With Digital Clay". I simply recorded myself sketching in 3D. The fact that I was able to do this so easily is really a testiment to ZBrush. It gets the 3D artist closer to the flexability that the 2D artist enjoys.
What ZBrush features do you find especially helpful and why?
I would say Lazy Mouse is really great. I wish they had this in Photoshop! It really helps you to create very confident strokes. My finger is usually resting on the hotkey for it. Also, I love being able to sculpt my own alphas, and I've been doing this a lot lately. There will be some detail, perhaps a scale or bump or whatever and I want to repeat it on my character. But I want to be specific as to where I put it and I dont want to remodel it over and over. So I'll grab a plane and model out whatever detail I want, then capture it to the Alpha palette. Then I'll go to the DragRect Stroke with the alpha I just made selected (and usually the Standard brush) and go to town. You can also add variation in size and strength to break up the repetition.
There or plenty of others of course, but these to pop into mind.
Do you use PolyPaint as well?
Yes. I love PolyPaint! Sometimes I will just paint entire textures at once with it or sometimes I'll paint them in layers. It's a geat tool; I should have mentioned that one!
What do you mean by painting the texture in layers? How do you accomplish that with ZBrush?
Oh... Yeah, sorry that doesn't make sense. What I'll do is paint the color map in layers by saving out different versions. For example let's say I paint a base texture like maybe a skin texture. I'll save that out as a bitmap. Then I'll paint another texture, but perhaps this one has specific colors like perhaps I want part of the character to hav a more reddish tone. Or perhaps there are certain details I want like markings of some sort. I'll paint all these as seperate textures, then composite them all in Photoshop where I can control each layer separately.
PolyPaint feels way more natural and allows me to go really fast and to paint on the model. I feel like I have my airbrush out painting on a clay sculpture.
Are there any Photoshop layer blends that work especially well for this technique?
Well I think it's really easy to try them all, but I find when i want to add color variation I'll either use Color or Multiply. Both of these show the detail of the layer underneath and still alter the color. Multiply will darken it, but a lot of time that is exactly what I want.
Any final thoughts that you'd like to share with the community?
Well, I would say if you're just starting out not to get too caught up in details. They come pretty easy. I would concentrate on form, structure and anatomy... stuff like that first. I see a lot of people just packing on the wrinkles and nurnies, but all the detail can't hide a poorly constructed figure. And keep modeling... for me! I really enjoy looking at all the great work on that forum!
Thank you for such an insightful interview, Jeff! I'm sure quite a few people will be trying out your alpha and layer techniques here soon!
Everyone should be sure to also check out our many past interviews, which can be found in the ZBrush Artist Interviews forum.