For our newest interview, we're pleased to have been able to spend some time talking with Vivek Ram. Many ZBC members will no doubt recognize some of the artwork that is shown throughout this interview. Just about everyone will recognize the names of movie projects that he's worked on! Vivek really went all out in answering our questions, and we hope that you'll find his information both interesting and insightful. Enjoy!
Could you begin by telling us about your personal background?
I’m an Indian, born in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. I spent the first twelve years of my life there. I’m 27 now but if my last ten years taught me the skills for my career, my first dozen gave me the interest for it. (Yes, that leaves five years of nothing important!)
Life in Dubai back in the 80's was a lot different from how things are now. Being an Indian meant spending most of your time with more Indians who very rarely lived anywhere close to where you were. I wasn’t into sports too much so most of my time after school was spent watching cartoons. My dad was quite aware of this so apart from the ones aired on TV he always made it a point to rent out Disney classics or any other feature-length cartoons every weekend. We even bought many of them so that my brother and I could watch them over and over. When not watching any TV, I would spend the rest of my time drawing or reading comics. I probably had 500 attempts at drawing Tom and Jerry before I managed to get them recognizable!
Another part of growing up in Dubai that greatly benefitted me was my martial arts training. Although it did not help me with any bullying at school it proved extremely useful in understanding balance while sculpting characters so many years later.
When we moved to Pune, India in 1993, I was very surprised to realize that kids in my town hadn’t even heard of 10% of the movies that I had seen. (I’m still getting my wife caught up on many of them!) The reason for this was that television programming for children wasn’t as big of a thing back then in India as it is right now. International comics were almost impossible to find and even the ones you did end up finding were almost a decade old and were probably only shipped to India because no one bought them anymore. Art classes around where I stayed were always more focuse on painting landscapes and still life, stuff that would never work for me (you will notice a lack of it on my website) and hence over a period of time I almost moved out of art as an aspect of my life. In retrospect, I could draw a lot better back then compared to what I can do now. Moving on!
How did you get into digital art as a career, and what is your professional background like?
As much as he denies it, I owe this career to a friend of mine, Mahesh, who now runs an Advertising agency in Pune. When we got home our first PC in 1998, (A Pentium I 200 Mhz machine with 64 Mb of RAM) Mahesh was the one who installed a copy of 3dsMAX release 1 into it. This version that he gave me did not have any help files (and this was before Internet came to Indian homes in a big way). He knew my curiosity would get the better of me and clicking one button at a time and using the “hover help” thing that software had, in about 6 months I was able to get a primitive-yet-satisfactory animation of a car running down a racetrack. There was no looking back from there on. I ended up failing most of my exams in 12th grade, but I was hooked! I managed to finish 12th with a decent score, but even at that point art as a career wasn’t an option. I didn’t know any artists back then; I didn’t know of anyone using any digital packages in my city so as far as I was concerned. What I did at home was no more than a hobby.
I joined an Engineering College to graduate in Electronics and Telecommunications but my hobby always seemed to be my first priority for some reason. More failures in exams due to sleepless nights on the computer working on stupid animations led to my first professional gig in 2001 as a designer for party passes for a local club. I finally realized I could make some money out of this! Yay!
I spent the next 5 years freelancing as an artist doing pretty much everything from print ads to assets for production to full short animations for educational purposes or presentations. My hobby stopped being just that, so while I was in between assignments I kept making illustrations to tell the stories stuck in my head. As is apparent, my grades weren’t looking good and finally with a lot of opposition from my folks and a lot of support from my friends (one of whom is now my wife!) I dropped out of college.
I moved to Mumbai in 2005 when I heard about Rhythm and Hues having an office in India. I saw this as my one chance at any form of employment in this field in India and I applied right away. I was lucky enough to be accepted as a modeler at a time when they were just about starting with 3D work in their Indian facility. We had an open network with the US office so all the information on every project that they had worked on in the last 20 years was at my fingertips. Two and a half years at this studio working with some of the best (and unsung) talent in the industry was an experience that I will forever cherish.
India was starting to garner more international interest and 2008 saw me join the Dreamworks Animation team in their Indian setup as the Modeling Lead. On request to experiment with my skills, I was given an opportunity in the character Fx team there which gave me an opportunity to flex my animation skills that hadn’t been touched for years. Reaching a point of self satisfaction with my skills, I figured it was now time to try something different which has led to my current position as an Independent Artist.
Your website lists an impressive set of feature films and commercials. Could you talk about what you did on some of these projects?
Good times at Rhythm and Hues. Most of the stuff I work on these days has a tendency to get canned or delayed due to financial restrictions, but back then almost 90% of the work I did at RnH made it on screen.
In the early days at RnH, we only had small props and background stuff to do. It was in “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift” that I got to work on portions of hero digital replacement cars that needed to do crazy stunts or get blown up. My first character work was in “Evan Almighty” where I had the opportunity to work on an Ant Eater and an Alligator for that huge boarding sequence in the end. Although they only show up for two seconds and at a distance, these were modeled to hold up even on close shots. This was my first introduction to using triangles on organic hero production models, something that was by and large considered a taboo in organic models. My modeling supervisor, the late Keith Hunter, was extremely patient with us. It was under his supervision and by observing his models and techniques that I can now proudly say that triangles are my best friend! "Night at the Museum" saw me work on my first human characters (although miniature and long shots). Modeling at RnH was a mix of characters (fun!) and set extensions or vehicles (not so fun) but it was always a great feeling to see it on screen when the movie came out. In movies like the Hulk, Mummy, Land of the Lost, etc., we did a lot of digital replacements for actors and vehicles (stuff that goes into invisible effects). After quite a long gap, “They Came from Upstairs” came as a breath of fresh air when I had the chance to work on some of the main alien characters.
Some of the commercials that I worked on were a lot of fun. The Amaron commercial was for an Indian client who wanted all the characters to look like clay models in a claymation film. I had a lot of fun here in building two of the characters and also brainstorming on the entire process of production as this was on a really tight budget and schedule. Most of the effects and transitions in this spot were done using blendshapes and getting them to look right was quite a task.
The Alpen Liebe commercial is one that is close to heart, not because of the amount of work but the amount of airtime. I had the opportunity to model the crocodile which was fairly straightforward, but it is my only character so far that comes on Indian television over and over for more than two years now.
At Dreamworks Animation, since it was a new setup, things took a while to ramp up but there was some really interesting stuff that I had the chance to work on while in the character Fx team. But the project hasn’t released yet so I cant say much about it right now. You’ll surely see some of it put up on my website later this year.
Which was your favorite project, and why? What special challenges did you encounter and how did you overcome them?
Favorite project was “The Golden Compass” for sure for so many reasons. Apart from the fact that it won the Oscars for best visual effects (which was a huge pat on the back) it was also the one project that I spent the longest time on. I was on this project from day one of Modeling, all the way to before the last few weeks of delivery. I probably missed out on a lot of fun work on some parallel projects but I have absolutely no regrets. "The Golden Compass" gave me an opportunity to work on some realistic animals (daemons) like the jackals, uber wolves, rats , dogs etc. that would be up close on the screen. The challenge here was that before this I had never worked on any animal musculature and hence was lacking in that specific knowledge. I spent days sketching out animal anatomy and going through all possible books on it. I would model with some of these books on my lap constantly referencing each part to get it to look perfect. It only pushed me to work harder when my supervisors were impressed enough to give me more and more work.
The uber wolves were another challenge. There was artwork and sculpts to help with the design as the director wasn’t looking for a real wolf, but when modeled everyone wanted to go a different direction. To make sure that there would be no delays, I would sit at work during the night to catch my supervisors in their day time (we’re 12 hours ahead on the clock on the other side of the world!) so that I could get my reviews and changes instantly.
All in all, this project really helped me push my personal bar up several notches both artistically and as a professional. And then it won the Oscars!
What role does ZBrush play in your work? Why do you use ZBrush, and what makes it a "must use" tool for you?
ZBrush has played a huge role in my time as an Independent Artist. I was unfortunately on my way out of RnH when ZBrush started being integrated into their pipeline, so I’ve not had an opportunity to work with ZBrush on any of my feature film work. But when I would spend hours at work, working on vehicles or set extension and environments, it was coming home to ZBrush that I most looked forward to. (I wasn’t married then.) My sketching was never that great and I always found it difficult to understand volume in 2D.
ZBrush was my quickest way of practicing anatomy and understanding the volume of objects without getting into splits and extrudes and polycounts. I would spend hours on ZBrush, brushing away at objects without heading in any specific direction. My first impression of the software wasn’t about modeling ease but about how stress relieving I found the process! I had finally found a medium that I could scribble away using the knowledge of modeling I already had and without having to start from the fundamentals! I was thrilled! It was only when I got back to some freelancing that I started using ZBrush professionally.
I must add here that Aaron Sims was my biggest inspiration in this direction. I was starting to get saturated with modeling when I finally got a chance to see some of his concept work while from “The Incredible Hulk” and “The Mummy 3”. I saw the concepts done by him using a combination of ZBrush and Photoshop and then to go on to provide assets as a base for modeling. I was like, “This is what I wanna do!” I then started working on illustrations, mostly for the game industry. It would not have been possible without ZBrush. I found that it was extremely fast for me to build characters in ZBrush, often reusing assets, and then to render out each element and comp them all together in Photoshop. The process is similar to what I use for my personal illustrations. I haven’t had a chance to showcase these as many are still in production and many were canned.
At this stage in my life I cannot imagine going back to poly model every character just to express my ideas visually. ZBrush to me now is what a paintbrush is to an artist.
How long have you been using ZBrush?
Relatively speaking, I’m quite a noob at ZBrush. I have only been using it since late 2007. The “Merman Elite” piece was my first character in ZBrush which was also rendered using snapshots from ZBrush. I still struggle with some of the features and my usage of the package is just enough for me to get my work done. I’ve been planning on sparing some time to learn all the features but that never seems to happen with my schedule.
ZBrush 1 and 2 went by me unnoticed as I could never really see myself using it efficiently for anything I was doing. With ZBrush 3, the first thing that made me go wow was the TransPose tool. Then came 3D Layers and MatCap and the Clay brushes and I was in love. My search for a sculpting studio to practice had finally ended! I saw the possibility of sketching in 3D and that had sealed the deal for me.
Are there any special techniques that help you get the most out of ZBrush?
Clay Brush!! I love it. Unlike many artists who move up subdivisions gradually, I find it a lot easier to push up my subdivisions first and then use the Clay brush to mark out all my major forms. This is probably not the best way to do it, but is a technique that I am most comfortable with because it makes the process seem more like traditional sculpting.
There is a male poly model that I usually start with and reuse with a test rig to change proportions in Maya. I plan to put this up on ZBrushCentral once I know it can work under various circumstances. (It has triangles!)
My usual workflow for an illustration looks like this:
It’s a little clunky for now but I’m hoping to use my next couple of months to streamline my workflow.
- Base model with rough proportions in Maya. (Very low on detail.)
- Import in ZBrush and up the subdivision levels to 4 or 5.
- Mark out all the major forms using the Clay Tubes and Clay brush.
- Get the model up to about 50%
- Reimport base model in Maya which sits perfectly onto my previous rig.
- Repose using the rig in Maya and clean up intersections and pinches. (I use TransPose only for the tweaking the overall pose once I have all my details in. Just a force of habit.)
- Reimport the model into ZBrush and sculpt the anatomy to suit the pose.
- PolyPaint all the textures.
- Import and render in 3dsmax
- Comp all layers in Photoshop.
One of the things that really helps when I’m sculpting is the various MatCaps. Although I still haven’t figured them out, I constantly change them when I sculpt to see what the surface looks like in different kinds of materials. In my opinion, a good model should look good in any material. It’s like a sculpture made in clay or stone or metal. The different materials do not make the object that has been sculpted to look different.
Within ZBrush my main tools are the Clay brushes and the Inflate brush. This teamed with the layers options and the MatCaps pretty much allows me to do whatever I want. The added light feature is great to check my model once I’m done. All this greatly cuts down any back and forth process and ensures that when I render my model in any external package, it has to look great.
What inspires you artistically?
I find traditional work of the Baroque, Renaissance and Romanticism Era a huge inspiration. For days where I’m looking for a little creative juice, my first stop is usually paintings and sculptures done by the old Masters. If I were to aspire to be like someone, Michelangelo would be my pick.
From the digital media, I like the work of artists who like to tell stories through their artwork. Technology has made it quite easy and accessible for a lot of people to explore their artistic side and there are a good number out there who would follow a more technical path or realism than storytelling. To me, realism in my work has never been a concern as much as the clarity of the subject. This I find as a rule more than an exception in the works of traditional painters and sculptors and a source of constant inspiration. Being untrained in the digital media, it is here that ZBrush allows me the ability to explore my artistic side.
Mythology has always been an inspiration for me in terms of content. Stories of gods and demons that emerged from different parts of the world that tell us about their lives and fantasies have always been a great source of inspiration and interest.
Here at ZBC, you're best known for your "Legend of Ram" series, based on "Ramayana". What drew you to this story and what inspired the particular scenes you've shown thus far?
Indian mythology to me is like food to the hungry. I have always been fascinated by its vast number of gods and goddesses and their interactions with each other and humans.
The Ramayana is an epic that I have grown up listening to and reading. Being an Indian, it forms a large part of your induction into Indian culture where one sees the Ramayana all over the country in the form of books, comics, cartoons, television serials etc. The characters are seen in all forms of popular media. As I grew up, my fascination for the characters grew and I was quite unsatisfied with the existing renditions of all the characters. Over the years they were all beautified into being more religious forms that were pleasing to the general masses. This led me to want to pursue the epic in its more authentic form. I picked up copies of translations of the original Valmiki Ramayana (Sanskrit to English) to know what the first author of the epic had envisioned. I was quite surprised to know that the version of this pioneer of literature was more gritty, action packed and emotional than the versions to follow, all of them being mellowed down to suit religious followers. Valmiki’s Ramayana seemed to be more of the Legend of a Warrior King rather than poetry in praise of a God. I even would go so far as to believe that this could be a forgotten part of Indian History, lost among our many civilizations, invasions and ebbing population.
Having read the epic, the popular images of the characters seemed to synch even lesser than before. What I saw in my head had to come out.
The first image is my version of the central character of the story, Rama. The idea here was to bring out a sense of controlled anger as he prepares to unleash hell on his nemesis Ravan, the Lord of Lanka. What was important to me here was the attitude of the character and the pose. The image had to be one that would portray aggression and chaos as we see the monkey army rising up from behind the mountains like an ominous cloud. The elements used in the design were also to bring in a sense of realism and believability to the character as a historic figure rather than larger than life fantasy.
The second image is my version of Rama’s most trusted aide and strongest ally, Hanuman. The intent of the image here was to have a stark contrast to the emotion conveyed in the first one. Here the idea was to show Hanuman enjoying the peaceful heights of the Himalayas. Hanuman as mentioned in the Ramayana was a “Vanar” who were described as huge humanoid versions of monkeys. The challenge here was to get a believable look for Hanuman that blended features of a monkey with that of a human.
These were only the first two characters of many more that I would like to create for the Legend of Ram Series. I’m hoping my next one will be the Lord of Lanka, Ravan, and then maybe Sita and Lakshman. Who knows?
Your "doodles" that you did for your website all look very much like they were done with real-world media. What are some of your favorite techniques for getting this kind of look?
The idea here was to play with form. I was always fascinated with how traditional sculptures at times would bring about a great sense of realism with minimal strokes and no detail. The focus on these doodles were to get that same sense of believability by only working on the major forms of the body and not working on tiny details. Since this was inspired by traditional techniques, it became all the more important to make them look like they were done using traditional media.
This was quite easy to achieve in ZBrush. I just had to tweak the Clay Tubes brush and combine it with a standard noise alpha. Voila! I had clay at my disposal! Again in this case like I mentioned earlier, my preferred method is to push up the subdivision levels to a required level where I could directly start sculpting with the Clay brush. All base models were reused from the biped mesh in Maya. The high level sculpts were then imported into Max to render in Vray. All the sculpts here were done without any symmetry (as in the real world) so it was quite a challenge to make things look right. The sculpts were posed using TransPose. Almost 90% of the work here was done in ZBrush.
Which learning resources do you especially recommend for ZBrush?
Considering that I started off with 3.0, I learned everything that I know from the Pixologic website itself. Every time I was stuck at any point or in doubt about my workflow, the ZBrushCentral forums and the Pixologic video tutorials always had what I needed. The information on the forums is quite extensive and has been a great help during some tight technical issues. So far, I’ve not really needed to look for an alternative resource.
What would you feel is the best advice for someone starting out in digital art?
My advice would be to not see this field as “digital” art. The way I look at it, some people use pencils, some use paints, I use the computer. But what I try to bring to life isn’t any different. Some might think the computer is easier but the same argument holds with a pencil and a paintbrush. So my advice would only be to use digital media as a tool in one's pursuit of artistic excellence. Using pencils, paintbrushes, charcoals, pastels clay etc. would only enhance one's understanding of the visual medium, which can be applied in digital art. The advantage of digital art here would be the ability to realize these concepts a lot faster than traditional media.
How about for someone who wishes to break into the special effects industry?
The special effects industry relies more on the ability to replicate reality and to also bring about a sense of realism in fantasy characters. What would help the most here would be observation of the world around you. How light works, what are the colors we truly see, how things move and the underlying physics and anatomy of objects and creatures. As much as these are rules for general creation of art, these become mandatory for someone to step into the visual effects industry and get an opportunity to do work on some interesting projects.
A more important piece of advice here would be that if you are someone looking to break into this industry, have the patience to live through your bad days just like the good ones. You might get a chance to work on some crazy monsters or you might also spend six months working on tables and chairs!
What is your favorite way to kick back after a hard day or week of work? What sorts of hobbies or interests do you enjoy?
Sleep! That seems like a rarity at times when you’re working long hours, spend more time commuting and then have some more work to finish. A good meal and comfy bed are the only ways of wrapping up a day like that.
I also love video games. I’ve been stacking up on them of late and catching up on all the games I missed during my long work weeks. The PS2 has also been a very recent acquisition (if you can believe it!) so I’ve been hooked onto that for the last few months. I’m a huge comic fan and will watch/read anything that has ‘superhero’ in it. I also love collecting action figures, although it’s a little hard to find a source around here. Currently I’ve been looking at more non-superhero related graphic novels. Just finished ‘Cairo’ and ‘Persepolis’ and loved them! Who would’ve thought you could make ‘em without superheroes!
Let’s not forget I am also “happily” married so my time in between is spent with my dear wife whenever she finds the time off from work!
Do you have any parting thoughts?
Firstly I would like to thank the guys at Pixologic and ZBrushCentral for noticing me and giving me this opportunity. It surely does mean a lot to be given an opportunity to share my thoughts among a community of such awesome artists. I would like to say thank you to all those people who helped me get where I am today by either providing for me or inspiring me. There have been some brilliant artists who I have had the pleasure of meeting, some of whom are responsible for introducing me to ZBrush.
The future looks unclear to me right now with a lot of crazy ideas swimming around, some of which include a short film and graphic novel.
And I’m particularly thankful to my wife for putting up with my love for my work and not complaining about time that would have otherwise been spent with her!
Many thanks to Vivek for taking the time to provide such great info! We hope that you've enjoyed the interview as much as we have. For more viewing of Vivek's works and thoughts, visit his website and blog.
Be sure to also check out our many past interviews, which can be found in the ZBrush Artist Interviews forum.