Interview with Carlos Ortega
Hi Carlos. I have been trying to do a little research into your background and training and although I couldn't find much I did see that you have a huge skill set and have experience in quite a few fields. How did you become interested in CG and how did you end up in your current employment?
Hi Simon! First of all, thanks for taking your time in doing this interview, I'm very flattered and excited to share a little bit of my personality and my passion. One of the first things I remember that got me interested in CG was the first time I saw Jurassic Park at the cinema as a kid. I've always been a big fan of dinosaurs and that moment was a milestone for what I wanted to do with my life, so despite the fact that I always wanted to be a paleontologist, I decided to study graphic design. I forced myself to learn how all those amazing VFX, dinosaurs and video game cinematics were done, and be able one day to do something similar myself.
My first job involved web pages and multimedia development, but as a hobby I learned CarraraStudio, just for fun. That would lead later to getting a full time job at the university in my town, thanks to a friend's recommendation. As a fun fact, my first paid job was to model and animate a bunch of dinosaurs for a paleontological exhibition running in my town. It was the best way to blend two of my biggest passions in one project.
After a couple of years using CarraraStudio I decided to learn Maya and improve my skills as a 3D artist.
Ha, I love Jurassic Park too! The CG in that film differs in style to most of your work, in that your work is more stylized and cartoony. Do you ever think about taking on realistic projects like the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park?
Sure, I think about it most of the time, one of the many things I would love to master is digital set extension, which is one of those areas nobody notices when it is perfectly done. It's funny because I admire and enjoy a well-done, realistic scene, but I grew up with Disney, Hanna Barbera, Chuck Jones and Looney Tunes, Filmation etc., so as far as personal work goes most of mine involves cartoons (Laughs)!
One of the things about being a 3D generalist artist is that it involves tons of different disciplines, one of these being photorealism. I think it is fundamental to know how a realistic lit scene or character works and looks like. As a freelancer I've had some projects involving realistic scenes, and from start to finish, I always learn a bunch of technical but important stuff that I end up using on every new project if required, even if it involves just cartoons.
With your love of Jurassic Park, do you hope to work in the film industry at any point in the future? If you do, what kind of film would you like to work on?
Of course! I think it has been one of my biggest dreams. When I watch a good movie, I not only get moved by a good VFX scene, a fantastic creature or charming cartoon acting, but I also get moved by all the talented and passionate artists that are behind all those incredible scenes. That is the reason I always watch the whole credits after a movie! It is incredible to see what a good animated movie can convey to a child or a grown-up guy like me, in just a single scene, through its characters. I would love to be able to convey that feeling myself through my work someday. I'm currently working on an animated feature film being developed here in Mexico. It's great to have the chance to share seats with passionate and talented colleagues; the friendship, mutual feedback and learning experience is priceless.
I notice that you use both Mudbox and ZBrush. How would you compare the two programmes? And do you have a favorite?
I tried both packages when I decided to get into digital sculpting. I started with ZBrush because of my hardware limitations; it was a bit difficult at first to get used to the interface, but it ended up being a very noble application. Later I tried Mudbox just to develop my skills and I fell in love with the application. Right now, I would say Mudbox is my favorite, mostly because of its texturing capabilities and intuitive interface, and I feel it is better integrated with Maya. But honestly, both applications are great and can make the same things in the end. It is all about finding the best tool to achieve the desired goal, and the one you feel more comfortable working with - it's the same for Max/Maya, Photoshop/Painter, Corel/Illustrator etc. As I always say, all the magic comes from the guy or the girl behind the keyboard and the monitor.
How do you go about planning one of your cartoon character images? Do you start by sketching a few ideas before you begin modeling or do you go straight into 3D?
A little bit of both. With most of those born directly into the 3D viewport, I usually drop a cube or a plane in, and ideas and volumes start to flow. With some personal projects, when I come up with a new idea, sometimes I allow myself to make something on paper, but I prefer to go straight into 3D. But as with everything in this field, good planning and a good workflow helps you to save a lot of time and avoid common errors.
It always amazes me how 3D artists use their 3D software as a way of sketching and generating ideas. What technique do you use to generate ideas in 3D and do you find it easier to do this kind of idea-generating work in Maya or Mudbox?
In my case, I feel more comfortable sketching in 3D directly in Maya, If you get a nice and readable silhouette with a blocky base mesh and a bunch of primitives, I feel more confident it will work when in full detail. But on the other hand, sometimes I sketch directly in Mudbox using the default base meshes or one of the many unfinished ones I have. Once you've learned to work with technical constraints, it feels good to have more freedom and spend more time on the creative process, and that is one of the many advantages, I find, to having a sculpting application near you.
I was taking a look through your favorites on Deviant Art and found a surprising amount of 2D work and digital paintings. Do you ever venture into this kind of work?
Yes, 2D is something I grew up with, and my love for drawing led me to try several traditional techniques, from pencils and charcoals to oils and watercolors. It is a discipline I admire a lot, from classical painting to comic strips. I still use the long render times to sketch and capture ideas on paper.
Regarding digital painting, I have a good amount of unfinished work on my computer. It is not my strongest area, but is a good way to refresh myself from 3D jobs. Some of those paintings start with sketches on paper; others directly inside Photoshop. The bad thing about me is that at some point I decide to make them in 3D and that is the moment they become unfinished work because I
don't finish them in 2D or in 3D. I guess it's a bad habit I need to get rid of!
I think every artist struggles with the frustration of not always having enough time to see every idea through to a completed image. Do you ever get an opportunity to develop your personal ideas in your day job? If not, do you find that you are working in 3D morning and night?
Well it is a mix of both, really. Sometimes I can develop personal ideas, but even with that freedom, sometimes I prefer to develop someone else's idea; in some cases it makes things go faster. And lately, I do work in 3D almost all day and all night actually, but a very small part of that time feels like an actual job. I've learned to enjoy all the stages of a project, even the frustrating ones, such as long render times and last minute changes (OK, no, I'm still struggling trying to enjoy those last ones!)
One of the things I love about your work is that you use great eye-catching colors that make your images stand out and catch the viewers' attention. How do you choose the color palette?
Hey, thanks! Well, it is hard to explain. There is some kind of synesthesia going on there [Laughs], but yes, color and atmosphere is one of the things I always pay special attention to. Sometimes they're based on references, sometimes as pure personal taste and sometimes on previous experiences. Most of the time, I choose the color palette at the same time that I come up with a new idea or when the client gives me a small brief of the desired work, even when I still don't have an idea of how the final elements will look. Of course, sometimes I end up changing things, but I always try to have two or three harmonic colors well distributed in the scene. It helps to keep the image balanced and avoid a noisy look, and most people usually sub-consciously remember movie scenes or images by naming a predominant color. I always recommend having a wide visual culture and at least the basics of color theory; it can be very helpful to define aspects such as the character's attitude and background history, and the mood of the scene.
Is there anything you like to do in your spare time that helps you to generate ideas, and if you weren't a 3D artist, what would you be doing?
Oh yes, whenever I have the chance, I'm a very quiet person with simple pleasures and hobbies. Sharing a beer or a cup of coffee with friends, listening to music, reading, quick trips out of town to enjoy nature... these are some of the things I enjoy most. Along with my daily experiences, they are the perfect source of inspiration and kind of a "reset button" to refresh myself and grab motivation for the next waves of work.
Thanks for giving us time to catch up with you, Carlos.
Thank you Simon, for your huge patience in this interview!