Interview: Ben Mauro


Welcome to this, the latest ZBrushCentral artist interview! Everyone knows that ZBrush is widely used in the motion picture industry to produce and detail models for use in blockbuster films. However, many people don’t realize how often ZBrush comes into play even before the first model is ever created. Its speed and freeform toolset make it the ideal software for iterating on ideas as the concept artist works to realize the director’s ideas.

Today we’re speaking with one such artist: Ben Mauro, who’s work has included such high profile projects as “The Hobbit,” “Childhood’s End” and “Lucy.” (His ZBC user name is ben_mauro.) Ben has been kind enough to share a terrific amount of information regarding his process as a concept artist, along with some great tips for how you can build your own career in the industry.

Read on, and enjoy!

What is your background? How did you get into film work and what are some of your favorite projects to have worked on?

My background is in illustration and industrial design. I think getting that industrial design foundation is pretty critical to being a concept designer and doing this job every day. Getting into film work was a pretty easy transition, I guess. I studied at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and all the instructors there are working professionals in games and films. It was easy to network and get the jobs and creative experiences I was after during internships over the summers. Which then helped me transition into working professionally full-time.

A big part of my early film experience was four years spent down in New Zealand at Weta Workshop. There I worked on the “Hobbit” trilogy, “Elysium” and many other projects. I feel that this time was sort of like completing my education after college. It all came about after some friends and instructors encouraged me show Richard Taylor my portfolio at Comicon one summer. He really liked what I was doing at the time and told me to keep in touch and that they “Might need some help on The Hobbit down the line.” It took about a year after that meeting before there was enough work to bring me on. Over that time I made sure to keep in touch and send monthly updates with my work to show my progress. My persistence eventually paid off and I was off to New Zealand!

As far as favorite projects, I think the years spent on Elysium were some of the best from a learning standpoint. I grew a lot working with much more experienced designers who had just finished working on projects like “District 9” and “Avatar” which I really looked up to. Every day was really long and I put in a lot of extra hours to get better and keep up with everyone as much as I could, growing as much as possible in the shortest amount of time. It was also the first project I really got to work on from start to finish and help create a new world from the ground up, which is probably one of the best learning experiences I could recommend to any designer. The director came to us while he was still writing the script and had us create a lot of really fun blue sky ideas for quite some time. We then later illustrated the script as it got locked down to help him get funding for the film. After that, when things went into production we went in and had to really figure out and design every little thing, followed by getting to work with the manufacturing crew as everything got built. Finally, three to four years later we got to see it all come together in a finished movie! Its quite a long process to be involved with but it was really educational being there every step of the way.

Outside of that my most recent experience working on “Valerian” would have to be my favorite to date. Working at a studio was fun, but after a few years the learning curve tapers off and it got to a point where the things I wanted to learn and experience were outside of that environment. So after about four years I made the decision to leave and become an independent freelancer. Valerian was the first big film project after that career shift where I was building another new world from the ground up. For me, that was the exact experience I was looking for. Getting to work directly with the client/director to help him realize his vision with no producers, managers or assistants in between was really fantastic. Much like working in a studio after college had felt like completing my design education, this felt like the next version of that. It’s definitely more work and stress than when I was in a studio but I guess I always like to be in that situation where I am in a constant state of discomfort and learning new things. If I get too comfortable and complacent, or if I don’t see any progress in my work I feel like I’m not on the right path or project. Then something needs to change.






One of the fascinating things about your website is the way you show the many iterations as you work on your projects. Could you talk about the iterative process and how ZBrush aids you in this?

Iterations are a huge part of the job as a concept designer working in the entertainment industry (or any design industry). Developing many ideas and refining them down to visualize what the client wants for their project is part of the design process. Sometimes it’s fast and you can get it in the first drawing or painting but other times the client doesn’t know what they want and you can end up doing many versions until they are happy. It’s sort of like trying to hit a target. Sometimes you have very clear, exact coordinates and get it in one shot. Other times they are vague and the coordinates get more and more precise with each round of work until you get to the right destination.

ZBrush for me is a great tool to help in this process. The last few years I have been going a bit more 2D heavy in the early stages of a project just because I have more experience in that. Even so, ZBrush comes in quite early in order for me to take my ideas to a highly photographic or finished level so that the director and anyone else on the project can see exactly what their character/creature/vehicle/prop will look like from all angles. This is a hugely powerful tool to have in your skill set as a designer. You can take your work to a more resolved level in 3D so you can show your idea from all angles. Then the models can be used by pre-vis artists. Or they can be used as a base when the final, detailed assets start getting built, saving a lot of time for people down the pipeline.

For me, ZBrush is a really versatile tool for organic and hard surface sculpting or modeling. I can use it for every aspect of the film, game or aerospace design work that I do.



What was your process for creating the ships of “Childhood’s End” and what made ZBrush the ideal choice for this?

Childhood’s End was good fun to collaborate with Production Designer Phil Ivey again. I’d worked with him previously on Elysium. I was hired to design the Overlord’s mothership and pod in the miniseries. It was a pretty straightforward design process of getting a brief and notes from Phil to explain what the producers were after, then getting started. While they had a general idea of what they wanted, Phil still gave me room for interpretation and exploration which is always nice. (Sometimes things can be very restrictive and you don’t feel as involved in the process.)

The first round of work designing the mothership was a mix of 2D drawings, photomanipulation and painting, as well as quick ZBrush sculpts to explore a very broad range of design ideas. I was mixing around what the client asked for but also spending time exploring some more “out there” ideas to see if anything might stick. This is usually the most fun part of the process so I try to go wild and enjoy it. After that there was a bit of back and forth with Phil, the producers and myself regarding the sketches they liked and where they would like it to go. This ultimately went down the path of some of the more abstract wing-looking designs for the mothership. I thought this was a pretty different and original direction, so was pretty happy they went for it. Something that could be interpreted on some level as “open angelic wings” helped strengthen the conflicting themes in the narrative since the Overlords look like the exact opposite of angels.

After that was settled I went into ZBrush for the 3D visualisation of the form to show how I wanted it to look from all angles. This served as a nice starting point for the VFX guys to really bring it to life in the final shots. (They did a fantastic job!) The other alien ship I worked on was the Overlord’s Pod that comes down to pick up the human ambassador to go to the mothership so that he can speak with Karellen. For this design they had a pretty good idea what they were after so I just went straight into ZBrush and mocked up a few ideas. At the end they really just wanted a pretty simple “orb tech” from so it was a pretty straightforward process of refining that sculpt and going back and forth with Phil on a few variations for the final. This was again handed over to the VFX guys to bring to life in the final shots. It was really a huge honor and a lot of fun to work on this. I was pretty busy on another job but I was such a big fan of the book I couldn’t say no and made time for it.



Changing gears here from machine to flesh, let’s talk about your work on “Sputnik.” How do you go about developing a creature that feels both real and recognizeable, yet totally alien?

Sputnik was a very fun short film to work on. As with Childhood’s End I was pretty busy on another project but I really liked Maxim’s work and thought it would be fun to help him out on this projects. I always try to leave a bit of free time open for indie films or up and coming directors/projects that are a bit different and interesting to me. After working for a few years you start to see the same things over and over again, getting asked to design the same sorts of things repeatedly. It can really wear you down, sometimes. So personally, to keep things fresh I try leaving some down time for personal work or collaborations on smaller projects that might not be the best funded but have ideas which are really exciting and different. That is important to me.

For this project, Maxim had a pretty strong idea as to what he was after – some sort of “alien primate” – and loved a series of very realistic chimpanzee/orangutan/gorilla sculptures and renders that I had done previously. He wanted me to tackle his idea for the main alien character in the short film. For the first round of designs I still tried to explore a few different options but since I knew the ballpark he was after I went directly into ZBrush to visualise the creature. I also did a range of faces exploring everywhere from something more terrestrial and very primate-looking to something more alien with no eyes or mouth. There were lots of other ideas in between those extremes. After some back and forth with Maxim we decided on the final direction. I then refined the sculpture and did a range of color pattern variations based on different animals in nature, yet tweaking it again to make it more alien.

The hands on the creature might look pretty weird but thats actually based on a koala’s paws! Their hand anatomy is really different, with the index finger shifted near the thumb so it looks like they have two thumbs and three fingers. It helps them grip branches and things but looks totally alien. I thought that was a nice touch requested by Maxim to add to the creature. I think that’s something I tend to do with most of my imaginary creatures, basing some part of it in reality so that even if you push it into something completely bizarre there is always some part of it an audience can relate to. Studying nature is a really important part of any creature design. There is a natural order and logic to how all biological life grows, adapts and evolves. Once you understand this logic you can go off in very different directions, yet create plausible designs that an audience believes could actually exist. I feel like if you stray too far away from these fundamental laws and logic, everything falls apart and you lose your audience’s sense of wonder or belief in the world you are creating.



“The Hobbit” presented a situation that was similar in a way, with your work on the wargs and orcs. We’d already seen the creatures in the original trilogy. How did you go about updating the designs for the new movie without it feeling like a departure?

The Hobbit was a huge learning experience as that was the first big film I worked on when I got to New Zealand. I started on it when Guillermo Del Toro was attached as director and then later when Peter took over so it was quite an interesting design process. There were so many great artists and designers involved on that one. All of us were working in the shadow of the legendary John Howe and Alan Lee with the work they’d done on the original trilogy but I tried to do my best under the circumstances!

For the wargs there was a ton of work done on LoTR and also on The Hobbit thanks to each director’s different version of the film. At that point in production Peter really liked the warg in a painting that Gus Hunter had done so my first task was trying to bring that to life in ZBrush with more detail. The creature in the painting was more of a wolf-looking animal. We weren’t sure at that point if Peter wanted that or something closer to the hyena-like wargs from LoTR. After bringing that first version to life I did a range of designs between the two extremes. After feedback from Peter he was definitely wanting something more wolf-like but also wanted it a bit more twisted than what was in the original illustration.

His notes were that he wanted more of a theatrical, stylised version of a wolf. Peter’s reference point was Darkness from “Legend.” The design of the demon’s face isn’t necessarily anatomically correct but the way they accentuated his face made him more aggressive, demonic and sinister under the dramatic lighting in the film. So taking that note into consideration I did another round of variations and sculptures going from very extreme to less extreme variants on the previously selected face. Peter then selected the one he liked and I refined things a bit more. It then got handed off to Weta Digital to start bringing to life in the final shots.


Working on “Lucy” you got to work directly with the director. What was that collaborative experience like for you? And without giving anything away, how are you able to build upon that foundation as you work with Luc again on “Valerian?”

Lucy was one of the first films I worked on after leaving Weta Workshop to go independent and was a really fantastic experience. I had a longstanding working relationship with Luc at that point, as he had found my work a few years earlier. I actually worked on a very early version of Valerian years ago before it went on hold for a while. In the meantime Luc was working on other projects and wanted me to be involved on his new film, Lucy. They sent over the script which I thought was terrific. I hadn’t planned on reading everything as it was late but I ended up not being able to put it down until I finished it, which is a pretty rare thing!

For Lucy I was hired mostly to design and visualise the futuristic computer designs for the big finale. I also worked on some of the more out there visualisations as the drug starts effecting her more and more. Luc had a pretty specific idea of what he wanted so design went rather fast on that project. He is probably one of the most efficient directors that I have ever worked with, knowing what he wants and being able to communicate it really well. Other times he gives a lot of freedom and is really good at guiding you to where he wants without restricting you too much. The future computers at the end were to be very organic, inspired by stalagmites and other similar natural structures. So I went and explored a range of ideas based on that direction, after which he picked the ones he liked. At that point he wanted me to make them black with red glowing lights inside. After that was visualised he came back a bit later and wanted to try a version that was a bit more industrial looking so I went back and tried a few versions of that. The final in the film ended up being sort of a mix of both.
Aside from that I visualised and explored the future USB at the end that contained “all the secrets of the universe.” I sort of wish they would have stuck with something funkier and organic looking in the final. But the audience only has two seconds to understand what it is so making something too weird would have gone way over everyone’s head, so it ended up being a bit more conservative.
I also created some visualisations for how Lucy sees the world and specifically one of the scientists once she is pretty far gone in her transformation. Those shots ended up getting cut in the end.

A year or two later Valerian started back up and Luc thankfully brought me on again for that. I always make sure to keep in touch with people and clients – especially for projects I really want to be involved in. After working on a few projects and building up a good working relationship I have a pretty good idea what he is after when he asks for something, which makes working together go really smoothly. I think things like this are important for building your career long term. It’s also another reason I wanted to go independent; working at a studio there is always a handful of people in between you and the client so you are quite insulated from everything. Sometimes that can be a good thing but for me to get the experiences I was after I had to be free of that and work directly with my clients one on one. Each new job is an opportunity to prove yourself and build a new relationship that will last for the rest of your life. Being in a position where you have personally built up countless great working relationships means you are always just an email away from a job. When one job ends there are ten or more waiting for you. This sort of thinking allows the flexibility and freedom to live life the way I want. I can travel and see the world with my girlfriend while working. Being independed is definitely harder, more work and more stressful at times, but I don’t think I would have it any other way. And over time it gets easier. It really keeps me on my toes and forces me to always do my best work, which is exactly where I want to be.


Please thank Ben for sharing all of these great insights into work as a modern concept artist! Post your comments below.

thanks ben for interview, nice art work and creation.

Will be translated in French the next week at http://www.zbrush.fr/ :wink:

One of the best interview!
Very interesting to read, specially about the relationship between artists/designer and directors and how ZBrush is used in concepting stage!
Thanks for sharing all these informations and experience!

Wow…great interview! Very inspiring to say the least. :+1:small_orange_diamond:+1:small_orange_diamond:+1:small_orange_diamond:+1:small_orange_diamond:+1:

great work

Inspiring, motivating work.

Do you hire live models to work out the pose, or use some other method? Do you regularly attend life sculpting classes?

Thanks for nice work!

Thanks for sharing :+1:

Amazing work dear. Thanks for sharing.

I found your artwork and story very inspiring. Thank you for sharing. I’m a total newb but it’s threads like this that inspire me to spend more time learning and growing my skills.