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Interview with character artist, Aiman Akhtar

Character artist, Aiman Akhtar, reveals the inspirations and ZBrush and MODO skills behind his recent cartoon gallery winner, Rain or Shine...

Character artist, Aiman Akhtar, reveals the inspirations and ZBrush and MODO skills behind his recent cartoon gallery winner, Rain or Shine...

Aiman Akhtar's Rain or Shine image won the July gallery contest in the cartoon category, collecting 1,100 points along the way. It was created as a gift for his parents, commemorating their relationship. Find out more about his inspirations, aspirations and MODO and ZBrush practices...

3dtotal: Tell us a little bit about yourself: Who are you, what do you do, and where are you located?
Aiman Akhtar: Hello, my name is Aiman and I make art using software such as Maya, MODO, ZBrush, Photoshop and After Effects. I am currently located in Chicago IL, where I have been working in advertising for the past 6 years, for clients including Harley-Davidson, McDonald's, and Hotels.com. I am currently job hunting full-time, seeking opportunities as a 3D character artist, and I plan to move out to California or Vancouver to increase my exposure to the feature/game industry. In my free time, I enjoy creating personal, digital, artworks and continue to work on various freelance projects. I am continually focused on the singular goal of self realization, becoming a better artist and a better person.

3dt: Tell us the story behind your recent gallery entry: What inspired you to create it?
AA: My latest project, Rain or Shine, started out as modeling practice for a class on ZBrush Workshops, Stylized Character Creation with Michael Defeo. I found the 2D concept online and had it saved on my hard drive for over a year because it reminded me of the relationship between my parents.

When I heard of the class and Michael's work on the characters of Ice Age and Despicable Me, I thought this would be a great opportunity to improve my stylized character workflow and create a piece for my portfolio. So it went until I had translated the 2D design into 3D characters, I was happy with it by the end of class. I took a break after class to figure out how I was going to create a scene which would enhance the story, since I always planned on presenting it to my parents as a framed print. I looked at a lot of reference, including illustrations by Carlos Ortega Elizade and Leticia Reinaldo, also watching Pixar's Up, then spent a week iterating to create the perfect lighting and atmosphere. I finished the illustration in July and am very pleased at the response it has generated with several people telling me that making it in 3D really enhanced the story of the image.

3dt: What software did you use and do you have any tips for using this software, or any other software that you use to create your art in general?
AA: ZBrush, MODO and Photoshop were my software of choice for this illustration. ZBrush's DynaMesh and intuitive interface helps me get to get a sculpt to a point I'm happy with very quickly, and then it's a simple matter of refining shapes till I have a character with expression. Having come from a long Maya background, I stuck with it for awhile, however, MODO is quickly becoming my main 3D package because of its speed and ease of use for an artist.

Whereas mental ray required me to think like a scientist, I can experiment with lights and values in real-time and see them update in MODO's preview window; this helped me to artistically iterate and achieve the perfect look and feel which would enhance the story of the image. My main tip for working in MODO would be to break apart your pipeline into clear smaller goals, and conquer each step before moving on to the next. For example, when your goal is to create the perfect composition for an image, do it with decimated meshes straight from ZBrush, refine your camera till you are happy, only then should you go and retopologize your models. In the same way, light your scene with a simple grey material with a low spec value, focus on creating good lighting, only then should you turn on your textures and materials. By working this way, you need to make fewer overall tweaks and have better raw renders to composite in Photoshop.

Aiman Akhtar's 2014 reel

3dt: Would you consider yourself to have a particular signature style, or techniques that you use often?
AA: Having been in the ad industry for the past 6 years has required me to be a technical generalist and capable of tackling various styles on a per project basis. Photorealism, stylized and creature work all appeal to me and the challenge is choosing the correct style which will enhance the audience interaction with the final image. This jumping between styles also forces me to improve as an artist and to constantly seek out more efficient workflows. I have grand plans on becoming a digital art master and creating my own style one day!

3dt: What software would you like to learn in the future to expand your portfolio and skillset, and why?
AA: I'm very excited about V-Ray for MODO and can't wait to incorporate that into my pipeline because of the excellent work I have seen several artists create with it. Marvelous Designer is also next on the wish-list because I'd love to learn about tailoring and take some of the headache out of cloth simulations. I have a very easy time learning new software more important for me is practicing to master shape, light
and form.

3dt: How do you keep your portfolio up-to-date? Any tips?
AA: I've found that paying for online classes is an excellent motivator to produce portfolio-worthy pieces within a strict deadline. Emulating and incorporating the workflows of Kris Costa, Michael Defeo and Katon Calloway into my own has made me a much better 3D artist. The best advice I can offer is to seek out the best and try to sponge their knowledge.

3dt: Who are your favorite artists, traditional or digital, and can you explain why?
AA: Pascal Blanche, Rafael Grassetti, and Gregory Callahan among several others are my favorite digital artists, mostly for their work ethic and the tenacity with which they continue to create so much art! I used to ask my students if they knew who Justin Bieber or Kim Kardashian were, they would all say yes; I would then ask them to name 5 people whose jobs they wanted, and they couldn't do it. I'm a firm believer in practicing, creating better workflows and idolizing the best in your field (I keep a whole Pinterest board to this end).

3dt: How do you like to unwind after a hard day's (or night's) work?
AA: My wife is the great constant in my life, anytime I'm too frustrated to continue working and need a break, I enjoy cuddling up to binge watch a few TV shows with her.

3dt: What can we expect to see from you next?
AA: I'm planning a few more portfolio pieces to showcase my full range as a character artist, possibly a mech and pilot or a perhaps a biker with a sweet ride. Beyond that, having set up my various workflows, I am ready to attempt my first series in a singular style. Even though the industry is highly competitive and seeming turbulent, with the advent of 3D printing, scanning and virtual reality technologies, it's a great time to be a 3D character artist!

3dt: If you could choose any superhero power, what would you take?
AA: I don't need a superpower, I want to be the best through my own hard work and reach the level of the artists I have come to idolize on equal footing. If I had to pick, it would be "Super Discipline Man" or something to that effect.

Related links

See more of Aiman Akhtar's work on his website
Add your appreciation for Rain or Shine in the gallery
Check out our MODO training eBooks