This week's interview is with none other than Gregory Callahan, better known here at ZBC as sasquatchpoacher. As you read through this page you'll no doubt recognize quite a few of his really great images, all of which share terrific personality and attention to detail. No wonder that he was one of the winners in last year's Scared Silly contest! We got him to open up about some of his techniques for this interview. Enjoy!
Let's begin as I always do by getting to know more about you. Could you tell us about all the fun things like where you're from, where you are now, and what you enjoy doing in your free time?
I grew up in Texas and California, but I'll always consider myself to be a Texan. You can't beat southern hospitality or the BBQ. You can't export the hospitality, but I have Texas BBQ sauce shipped to my house by the gallon. I love just about everything about Texas except for the fact that it's Hot and Flat! The time I spent in California as a kid really fueled my passion for the mountains and the outdoors.
I now reside in Oregon which is kind of a happy medium for me. I can snowboard 6 months out of the year and hike, bike, or raft in the Cascade mountain range the rest of the year -- all within 15 to 20 minutes from my front door. My wife and I also love to road trip or just go get lost exploring some random old Jeep trail.
What is your professional background? How did you get started in digital art, and especially in 3D?
Well like most artists, I started drawing at a very early age. I wasn't really into comic books, so most of my early influences were Tex Avery and Chuck Jones. When I graduated from high school, I was pretty burnt out on art. Four years of instruction from arts and crafts teachers will do that to you. I worked a retail job for a few years after high school all the while my parents kept pushing me to do something with my art. So I enrolled at an art school in Dallas, Texas to pursue my dream of being a traditional animator.
At the time CG movies like Toy Story were getting a lot of attention so I saw the future in CG film. I decided to switch my major to computer animation, which was pretty intimidating being that I'd never owned or really used a computer. (laughing) I can remember taking an intro to computers class where I learned the basics like operating Windows and how to email. Yes, I was that computer illiterate. While taking that class, I discovered that a copy of Photoshop 3 was installed on my workstation. I quickly took to it and spent the rest of the class painting in Photoshop. Needless to say I still don't know what Bcc means.
From there I moved into 3D classes where I learned that animating in 3D was nothing like 2D animation. The technical part of 3D animation was a real turn off for me. I really enjoyed creating and drawing characters so I found my way into 3D modeling. I also found that my traditional life drawing skills gave me the edge over my tech savvy peers. A few years later I graduated at the top of my class with Best Portfolio. I sent my demo reel out to about a dozen studios and before I knew it, I was employed as a game artist in Austin, Texas. So here I am 8 years after my first job in the industry (hard to believe it's been that long) and still at it.
Where do you work at this point in your career? Title, job duties, and all that fun stuff.
I work for a small Sony game studio in Oregon as a lead character artist. We're about 50 strong. All in all, it's a great place to work. My boss lets me snowboard before work occasionally, so I can't complain too much. I'm responsible for most of the in-game character modeling and cinematic characters for marketing and pre-rendered movies.
How long have you been using ZBrush, and how did you discover it? What were your first impressions with the package, and how do you feel about it today?
I've been using ZBrush since version 1.5, so about 6 years give or take. An Art Director and friend of mine introduced me to the software. (Thanks Max!) At the time we were doing a lot of high resolution normal mapped characters. I remember him telling me I had to learn it ...and when I opened it up for the first time I looked at him like he was crazy. (laughing) It was so different from anything I'd ever used. He showed me a time lapse video of someone sculpting a head from a sphere in a matter of minutes. My eyes literally lit up, and I just thought to myself this package is going to change everything. I was a little intimidated at first since there were no wiki or training videos on YouTube back then.
So when an artist complains to me nowadays about learning ZBrush I have no sympathy. You can search ZBrush, find hundreds of tutorials and be sculpting within minutes. Today ZBrush is much more user friendly and has introduced several new tools for improved production workflow. When version 3 came out, it was a real leap in digital sculpting. I finally felt I could model and design complete characters to a level of detail I've always wanted.
Do you use ZBrush in your job, and in what ways if so?
Yeah I use it day to day. Over the years it's become as vital to my workflow as Photoshop. I'd say 75% of my models are built in it now and about 50/50 split between Photoshop and ZBrush for texturing. It's just a really great tool for production work. The ability to be able to manipulate existing characters quickly or project details from one model to the other is just a real time saver. It's also nice that I can rough out a character quickly and get feedback from an Art Director before I spend hours on all the technical details.
Let's talk about techniques for a bit. One thing that I see you do quite often is using ZSpheres as a starting point. Could you go into some detail about that?
ZSpheres are an amazing feature and something only a truly innovative software company such as Pixologic could dream up. They give the artist the ability to quickly sketch out a character, object, or pose in 3D. It's almost like sketching out a quick line drawing, which is great because I don't have to worry about edge loop flow or any of the other technical issues. I can just get my idea in the computer and start sculpting. The best part about ZSpheres is it actually generates a pretty nice base mesh to start with if you end up exporting to a traditional 3D application.
Between ZSpheres and the Retopology tool, I can output a really clean mesh for animation or a game object. I've built everything from hair to dinosaurs to trees with ZSpheres, all of which I made in a fraction of the time that it would have taken me in a traditional 3D application.
Your characters often have a lot of accessories. Elaborate belts or bandoliers, pigtail hair, capes, medallions, etc. How do you go about creating those and incorporating them into your ZBrush work?
Accessories are one of my favorite things to do. It's a lot of fun decking out a character in bags, belts, and what-nots. Mesh extraction is one tool that really makes this possible. I do a lot of this for clothing. By masking out articles of clothing like pants, shirts, etc. you can extract a mesh into a new SubTool. For simpler accessories, I often start off with the basic primitive shapes that are available in ZBrush. In combination with scaling, moving and rotating you can get just about any shape you need. And for the really bizarre shapes, I've found myself making a simple black and white stencil and using the “make mesh from texture” tool.
Do you pose your characters in ZBrush? What are the techniques that you use for this, and at what point does posing come into play in your workflow?
Yes! And I would like to personally thank whoever came up with the TransPose tool. I really don't like rigging. It's very time consuming, not to mention I'm not very good at it. I pose all my characters using TransPose and the TransPose Master plugin.
For anyone not familiar with the TransPose tool, you can pose a character in literally minutes. I also love the fact that I don't have to leave my character in the Da Vinci pose the whole time I work. By using the "use poseable symmetry" feature, I am able to pose my character and still sculpt symmetrically. This is great because I don't have to wait till I'm completely done with a character to start sculpting the cloth and muscles to match my pose.
One of the very distinct features that almost all of your ZBrush characters have in common is very believable clothing. How do you go about getting the cloth to fold and wrinkle just right?
(Laughing) I only laugh because just the other night I had my wife take photos of me posing for clothing reference and she thinks I'm silly. I love doing cloth and always try to gather as much reference as I can because when cloth is done right it can portray a lot of motion and weight even on a static character.
There are several ways to make believable cloth in ZBrush. One of my favorite ways is a fairly new feature that has been added: Gravity! This feature gives you the ability to turn gravity on for any brush, so as you sculpt the volume you add falls and overlaps in the direction you have the gravity set to. This, combined with the Inflate and Magnify brushes, makes for really convincing folds and wrinkles.
Another thing you're great at is hair. People are always asking at ZBC about how to create great here, so could you share some tips?
I'm not going to lie; hair is a pain! This probably explains why every video game character is bald. I keep hoping Pixologic will come up with a more artist-friendly way to make hair. That being said, there are a few great current tools in ZBrush for sculpting hair.
For longer hair like on my GI Joe Baroness character I found ZSpheres to be very effective. By simply creating several groups of hair strands via ZSpheres I cloned them and placed them all over her head. I then used TransPose to tweak individual strands and finished it off by smoothing the roots and tips of the hair.
For my Buckle Bunny character I used a similar approach, but this time on pigtails. After I created a simple string of ZSpheres, I used Projection Master to project an alpha of a pigtail-like weave. Then after that, a few strokes over the weave with the Magnify brush and you’ve got yourself a pretty convincing pigtail.
How about all those crisp, clean edges that we see in the detailing of your characters? Any pointers for that?
There's many ways to get nice hard surfaces in ZBrush. Projection Master is one of my favorites. You can project things like belt buckles, buttons and shoe laces via alpha projection. Sharp lines can also be done this way by using the Line stroke in projection mode. I also use the Lazy Mouse in combination with the Layer brush quite a bit. Another obvious tool for doing hard surfaces is the Flatten brush. The Flatten brush in combination with the Pinch brush is a great workflow for doing hard surfaces.
Note: Be sure to visit Gregory's "Making of 'Sunday Night Fright'" article to see a full project from start to finish.
At the end of the day, what is it about ZBrush that makes you use it so heavily in your work?
For my personal works it's simple. I really like the fact that I can do everything in one package. Much of the artwork you see here (at ZBC) was almost completely done in ZBrush. They were modeled, painted, and rendered all in ZBrush. I'm not aware of any other product that can do that as well as ZBrush.
For my professional work, it's the fact that I can prototype characters, creatures or anything else I can dream up in half the time it would take me in any other 3D package. The other thing I like is just the innovative tools in ZBrush. I don't know where you guys come up with ideas like TransPose, ZSpheres or mesh Extract, but it seems like in every update there's a new bag of tricks that redefine how things are done.
I know you've recently compared ZBrush to a certain other application from Autodesk. What do you feel it is about ZBrush that makes it stand out as the program to use and keep using?
(Laughing) Yeah I have some pretty strong opinions on both products. I've tried that other application a few times now, but every time I do I just realize how much more I like ZBrush.
A few friends tried to push me to the dark side recently, so I took it upon myself to switch to that other application for 30 days. Right off the bat I was frustrated with it because I had to start my mesh in some other 3D application when I could have built it with ZSpheres in a matter of minutes. From there, ZBrush just continued to shine from the brushes to the viewport navigation. The brushes are about as close as you can get to clay and the viewport navigation is very Wacom-friendly. Not to mention, as I said above, the innovation and robust tool set can't be found in that other package. Needless to say, I didn't make it through the 30 days.
You've also spoken about how much you like ZBC. Could you share a bit about that here?
ZBrushCentral is an amazing community of some of the best artists from all walks of the entertainment industry. You'll find talented artists from the film industry, game industry, toy making and so on in the forums. The best part about this is these artists are very generous in sharing their workflows and techniques. Any given week you can find free videos, free meshes, or critiques from some of the best digital sculptors. For a student or hobbyist just starting out, this information is priceless.
I personally get a lot of inspiration from the art I find here at ZBC. It also makes me push myself harder when I run across some amazing artist from some city that I can't even pronounce halfway around the world. I've made a lot of good contacts through ZBC. It's just a great place to meet and network with artists coming from all different backgrounds and styles.
The other key it to ZBC success is the support of Pixologic. The difference is that they listen to their user base, answer questions, and take note on what their users want. Pixologic also provides countless free tutorials and galleries that showcase users. They also offer a generous dose of free plugins that make ZBrush even better. You just don't get that kind of support from a Goliath-sized software company.
What are your plans going forward? Any short or long term goals for what you'd like to do with your career?
Just to keep progressing and pushing myself and doing what I love. Making art that makes me and others smile. Long term, I'd really like to get into figure modeling for toys and at some point I'd love to take a crack at traditional animation again.
Anything else you'd like to share or talk about while you have our attention?
I would just like to thank the Pixologic team and Matthew for this opportunity. Also, I’d like to thank my family and friends for their support. My wife for putting up with me burning the midnight oil as I work on my art and most of all God for the many blessings He's given me.
We hope that you've enjoyed this chat with Gregory Callahan, as well as the inside information about his professional and personal techniques. Many thanks to Gregory for this interview!
Be sure to also check out our many past interviews, which can be found in the ZBrush Artist Interviews forum.