Interview with ZBrush character artist Mathieu Aerni

Character artist Mathieu Aerni reveals how he worked his way up from reading TinTin comics, to working at Blur and featuring in 3dtotals new ZBrush Characters and Creatures book

Character artist Mathieu Aerni reveals how he worked his way up from reading TinTin comics, to working at Blur and featuring in 3dtotals new ZBrush Characters and Creatures book

3dtotal chat to ZBrush character artist Mathieu Aerni about his 3D digital arts journey spanning 14 years: from his first forays into early ZBrush in 2001, to Lead Character Artist at Blur Studio.

Could you tell us a bit about yourself and your current career?
I'm a self-taught artist who grew up in French speaking Quebec City, in Canada. I have been living in the US since 2007. I first lived in San Francisco, and then Santa Monica. I am currently working for Blur Studio as a lead character artist. I have been working in the animation, VFX and video game industry for 14 years.

What is your earliest artistic memory and what inspired you to start working in the 3D art world?
As a young child, I was, and still am, fascinated by French and Belgium comics. I started "reading" TinTin before I knew how to read. Those comic books are definitely my earliest artistic memory. I remember being so impressed by the drawings, and latter spending hours trying to copy them. I kept discovering more and more different comic book artists with different styles over the years and tried to learn from them as much as I could.

I started playing with 3D in 1999. A couple of months later, my friend and I decided to create an animated short movie together. It was quite a ride; we did everything from scratch including modeling, lighting, animation and sounds effects, without really knowing what we were doing. We worked on that pretty much day and night for months. We finally managed to finish it and all that hard work paid off: we send our short movie to companies around Montreal and we both got a job in the field soon after. That's how I started in the industry. As a side note, this short looks absolutely horrible in todays standards!

What is your current workspace like?
I somehow got tired of being confined to the same exact place when I worked on personal projects at home, so I bought a decent laptop. My workspace at home now changes all the time depending on my mood or where the action is in the house. Once in a while, I like to ZBrush in cafes and small restaurants.

As for my professional work, everything is done from Blur Studio. They relocated from Venice to Culver City about a year ago and the new facility is really amazing. The building used to be part of Paramount Studios in the 1940's and got renovated by famous architect Eric Owen Moss in the late 1980's. He kept the historic form and materials of the original building. It is a really nice and sunny open area. I really enjoy working there.

What drew you to working in ZBrush?
I first heard about ZBrush around 2001. I was working in Montreal at that time and people started talking about that software that allows you to sculpt and paint directly on your models. I started to play with it and I loved it instantly. I have been using it nonstop ever since.

I watched it grow over the years into the amazing software that it is now. ZBrush brought a new way of working where you can pretty much sketch more than model and to people like me, who come from an artistic background; that changes everything. It gives you all the tools needed to quickly sketch out a sculpture and then take that idea all the way to completion

What has been your favorite project to work on so far?
It's hard to tell, I have been lucky enough to work on so many very cool projects! From the top of my head I'll say the Elder Scroll Cinematic trilogy that we have done here at Blur. Very cool characters and creatures needed to be created from scratch. The clients, game developer Bethesda Softwork and creative agency AKQA, were very flexible and open to new ideas. We had a lot of artistic freedom when it came to creating the characters. It was a great collaboration from the beginning to the end of production. The three part trilogy was more than twenty minutes of realistic full CG animation with epic action and battle scenes. It was a big challenge, but so much fun.

I will also always keep a dear place in my heart for the Underworld movie that I've work on at Luma Pictures many years ago. I was a big fan of horror and fantasy movies as a kid, so creating werewolves for that movie was like a kid's dream come true for me.

What has been your biggest artistic challenge so far?
The human form is probably what I will spend my life trying to truly understand, no matter what the project his. It's so complex and fascinating. This applies to humans of course, but also creatures and monsters.

When it comes to creatures, the most challenging things are making them look believable. To give the feeling that they are grounded in reality, it`s extremely important to follow the principles of anatomy and extend them to the creatures specific design. To create credible creatures and monsters, you need to combine good anatomy and form with invention and imagination.

Who/what are your biggest creative inspirations?
My inspiration comes from all sorts of places. Often movies, but also TV shows, and a lot of traditional sculpture. I'm also still a huge fan of European comic books artists like Moebius, Bilal, Pratt, Loisel, Guarnido, to name a few I still read them a lot and the amazing artists who drew them are a huge inspiration for me. When it comes to creature creation, I really like traditional sculptors and mask makers like the incredible Jordu Schell.

Could you tell us a bit about the inspiration behind your ZBrush design?
The freedom of improvising without references is always very liberating for me. Most of my personal project starts with improvisation in ZBrush. That was the case with my sculpture "Get out of my yard". I started this project by sketching a head starting from a sphere without knowing exactly where I would go next. I ended up with an interesting looking man's head. The idea of an aged man who is having a lot of fun scaring an unknown intruder off his backyard started to take shape. It was an iterative project that started from sketch and improvisation.

Are there any areas in the digital art world that youd like to branch into (and why)?
Every creative area of the digital art world is really interesting to me. I've always aimed for places that allow me to work on all the aspects of the project I was working on: modeling, sculpture, textures, shaders, hair and fur creations and sometimes lighting.

Ive worked mostly on characters and creatures but also on environments and props. I have also worked on matte painting on a couple of movie projects. I really enjoy all those aspects equally, and I'm totally open to try other areas if the occasion shows up.

Do you have any tips for upcoming character/creature designers?
I think it's good to take it one subdivision at a time In ZBrush, Only when you are happy with the primary form you shoul move up to higher subdivision levels and start on the secondary forms. The basic proportions and volumes are what will make a character believable. Try to pay attention to the critical planes, structures and inflections of the skull, as well as to the fat and muscles that would cover it. Fat is probably more important than muscles in the human face, at least in relation to surface forms, so try to keep that in mind throughout the sculpting process.

But most important of all, take full benefits of ZBrushs biggest advantage: don't get caught up in all the technical stuff mostly associated with CG, just be creative and enjoy!

Related Links:

Take a look at more of Mathieus 3D artwork on his website
Test out Mathieus sculpting techniques with ZBrush software
Check out Mathieus character tutorial in ZBrush Characters and Creatures

To see more by Mathieu Aerni, check out Digital Art Masters: Volume 8
and Digital Art Masters: Volume 9

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