Well we had a bit of break during the release of ZBrush 3.12 for the Mac, but now we're back with a new interview! This time we spoke with Nicolas Collings from the Montreal division of Ubisoft. For those of you who might not already be familiar with his work, you can view his Personal Website and ZBC Sketchbook.
I'd like to begin by getting to know you a bit. Could you share some info about your non-professional background and experiences growing up?
Back when I was a kid, I loved to watch cartoons draw my favorite characters, which were Sangoku/Vegeta from Dragonball and LuckyLuke J. Unfortunately I stopped drawing at about twelve years old, so I actually suck in drawing now. (Laughing) Anyway, when I had to choose what I wanted to do for a living I was sure it was related to computers, so I started a three year course in Informatics. But funny enough, after a couple of months I completely hated all the coding stuff. So I began to talk with a few friends and one of them told me about computer graphics, but I had no idea what it was. After some research on the internet, I figured things out and found out that it was something perfect for me. A mix of drawing and computers -- hell yeah!
I still completed my first year in Informatics but after that started a three year curriculum in computer graphics where I learned the basics of Photoshop, 3ds Max and a few other software packages for web design. Obviously it really wasn't focused on character modeling, so I had to learn a lot on my own time. Fortunately enough it was already possible to find CG forums and DVD training which were definitely helpful.
What was it about CG that really clicked for you and made you feel that this specifically was what you wanted to do?
Well like I said, I didn't know anything about CG except that it was somehow related to the image and computers. It was pretty much the kind of things I like. Ever since attending my very first class in 3D I have been hooked by it and actually never stop. I don't know; I really just feel like that's what I was meant to do.
Oh yeah, and it's also because the teacher showed us some artwork by Steven Stalhberg. I was really amazed about his stuff, as well as that of Michel Roger. It's pretty much because of them that I wanted to focus on character modeling.
Where are you originally from? And could you tell us about the journey that has led you to Canada?
I was born and raised in Belgium. I think it can said that there are not a lot of game or film studios over there. Fortunately, during my last year of study I got a internship as a character modeler in Luxembourg in a studio called Oniria Pictures. Thanks to that experience it helped me to find my first job in an animation studio based in Brussels, right after graduation.
During that time I was hyperactive on CGTalk and other forums. Actually, CG forums have played a big role in my early career. They helped me form contacts with amazing people from the industry. So I used some of my contacts to get in touch with a few big companies overseas. Along the way, I got a new job as a character modeler in one of the few games studios existing in Belgium. But I was already in contact with Ubisoft Montreal. After a few phone interviews, I eventually get a job at Ubisoft to work on a specific project. And so far, it's a really amazing experience. I love it so much.
By the way, I have to thank Magdalena Dadela (Intervain) because she's the one who helped me to get in contact with Ubisoft. So thank you, Magda!
Is there anything that you can tell us about the project? I assume you're a character artist?
Yes, I'm working as a character artist. Unfortunately I can't say anything about the project. My duties include creating the high poly models, the low poly models, and the textures. We are using ZBrush extensively, of course.
I'd say 90% of it's ZBrush and 10% is 3ds Max. We are just creating a low poly model in Max with clean UV's, then jumping straight into ZBrush to work on the high poly. Then we bake a normal map with ZMapper.
I use TransPose masking a lot to isolate some areas. Layers are really handy also -- to make differents tests on a model, for instance. And the sculpting brushes are just wonderful. The Clay brush is my standard brush, actually. And Lazy Mouse together with the Stitch brushes are obviously great for doing stitches and things like that (with different alphas).
My two other favorite tools are the Project All button and the Reconstruct Subdiv button.
What is your process for going from the low poly Max model to the high poly ZBrush model that you'll use to create the normal maps? How do you go about defining the form and so forth?
Well nothing fancy, really. When the high poly is done we just export the lowest level of subdivison with the normal map created by ZMapper.
About the actual sculpting work inside ZBrush, well there are some basic rules to keep in mind. Go slowly, level by level. Don't rush yourself on details, but rather work on the main shape. Then slowly refine according to the level of subdivision you are on.
The important thing to also keep in mind is the silhouette of the model. To check that just use the FlatColor material with a black color.
When the high poly modeling is done, and since the UV's were correct on the initial lowpoly cage we start to create a diffuse map that we check on the high poly character. That's a lot more fun.
But I have to say that this is my workflow. Some other character modelers don't use exactly the same process.
You said earlier that you really like Project All. How does that fit into your process?
Well if I want to use a part of a certain model that I really like, I can just project all the details onto my new object. Like for instance I can reproject the fold of a sleeve onto another shirt. You know what I mean...
Do you use PolyPaint at all?
On my personnal projects I do. I used it to texture my Abe Sapien model for instance. I also used it on my latest project, the orc Maori.
By the way, this is a 3D print made by Offload Studio of my Abe model. I just received the picture today.
I still use Photoshop also to add some details, or to quickly work on the color with the color balance, levels or hue & saturation layers features. To be able to use the two techniques (PolyPaint and Photoshop painting) makes a wonderful combo when it comes to texture work.
So how did you get started with ZBrush, and how long have you been using it now?
I actually did a little review of ZBrush during my second year of study. So that was in 2004, and I have been using it now for four years.
What was it about ZBrush that especially caught your interest and made you want to include it in your toolbox?
Well it happened progressively. But I found ZBrush to be so revolutionary, being able to actually digitally sculpt a model. I really focused my time on learning that new tool. Plus it's so much more enjoyable than to push, pull, extrude and cut polygons! And also, it made it possible to create a new kind of modeling by creating ultra high-res models with scales, wrinkles etc. There is no way to get that level of detail in polymodeling.
So yeah, we really have to thank you guys for having made that possible!
So ZBrush allows you to take your work to the next level?
Totally. There is no way now to work without ZBrush! When I want to try a new concept at home I like to use ZSpheres to create a base cage really quickly. Then I can start sketching my idea directly. I used that method on some speed sculpts that I did a few months ago.
The cool thing is you can also now recreate a good topology over the concept sketch that you are happy with, and still without going out of ZBrush! So yeah, ZBrush definitely helps when it comes to talking about speed and flexibility.
Does ZBrush help you work faster professionally, as well?
Yes, definitely. I find ZBrush really intuitive, and we can make so many things with it! To be able to create my own alpha from a screen grab is really poweful, plus the TransPose tools, sculpting layers, PolyPaint, masking tools... all those features are so awesome!
ZBrush really helps me to work faster and better in the same time.
So what are your plans going forward? What's the next thing we can expect to see from Nicolas Collings?
Well I'd like to invest more time on my own design now. So I will totally keep updating my sketchbook thread with a lot of new works!
Professionally speaking, my ultimate dream is to hopefully one day work in a major film company on future iconic CG creatures. (Laughing) I think we always need to have a big dream to keep motivation to a maximum. And the key is to practice, practice and practice again. So you can except to see me around here for a while.
Glad to hear it! Is there anything else you'd like to share with the community as we end this interview?
I'd like to take the opportunity to thank a few people: firstly of course my parents who were really helpful during my job search. I'd like to also thank Thierry Schiel and Sofia Kolokouri; they gave me my first job as a character modeler. My good friend Cedric Lepiller for his constant support and critiques on my work. And of course Magdalena Dadela who helped me to get in contact with Ubisoft!
We hope that you've enjoyed this chat with Nicolas Collings, as well as the inside information about his professional and personal techniques. Many thanks to Nicolas for this interview!
Be sure to also check out our many past interviews, which can be found in the ZBrush Artist Interviews forum.