Johan Vikstrom: senior 3D artist interview

Johan Vikstrom

Senior 3D artist

Swedish senior 3D artist Johan Vikstrom outlines the workflow and challenges for his latest “Blade Runner 2049” inspired digital human portrait, and taking inspiration from the lighting and mood from the original movie, for his latest personal work…

Johan's Instagram


Tell us a little bit about yourself: Who are you, what do you do, and where are you located?


My name is Johan Vikstrom, I'm a 40-year-old father of two lovely girls, and I live in Stockholm, Sweden. I work as a senior 3D artist at Swiss International. Swiss does mostly VFX work for commercials, short films, and music videos.

I started drawing in kindergarten and that was my passion in life until home computers arrived in the early 90s. Then I started to combine the two mediums. I got into 3D in the late 90s. After studying computer graphics at university I got a job as a junior 3D generalist at Swiss in 2004.  I've also worked a lot with compositing, starting with Fusion, then Shake, and now Nuke. In 2011 I worked on the last Harry Potter movie for MPC, where I got to do 3 hero shots and 20 something smaller shots. The last 5-6 years I've mostly been specializing in doing lighting / lookdev / compositing at Swiss.


What was the workflow behind your latest gallery image? Where did the idea come from?


For “Digital Emily 2.2.049, I started developing a skin shader at work in my spare time around 2014. And through the years I managed to get it working better and better. The hardest part was getting realistic skin specular. I had actually never tested it on a photoreal looking asset, but I was beginning to notice that I could mimic the skintones and reflections of real skin from film footage in my lookdevs.

I started playing with the shader in my spare time with a few scan assets we had at work, and I was quite happy with the results. So I thought I would go back to the first asset that I started the shader from, which was Emily from the Wikihuman project. I wanted to see how far I could push her with the shaders and the knowledge I had learned so far.

For the lighting I used a picture of Joi from “Blade Runner 2049” as a reference. I spent a lot of time getting the lighting right for this shot. I studied all the scenes inside the apartment to get a sense of all the lights and where they were located in relation to her. At one point I had every light you can see in the movie, even the hallway further away. But I noticed they did not affect her lighting so much so I removed them for the final lighting, which also saved me a lot of rendertime. The hardest part was getting the lights they used behind the camera correct. Since I don't have any set data, you just kind of need to move the lights around until you get a close match. These are also the lights you see reflecting in her eyes.

human male figure model render realistic portrait
My first try to make a digital human


What challenges did the image present? Did you learn something new?


Lighting and compositing are areas I'm familiar with, but creating a photoreal human is not. So this image was a big challenge for me. I started by cleaning up the scan and diffuse texture with Mudbox. It took some time to get the skin shader working, I was expecting an easy task as the other scans went quite fast to adjust to my shader. But after a few days of tweaking she was starting to look better and better.

I have some experience doing grooms in Yeti. But I had actually not made the guide curves myself before, so that was a big learning experience for me. I also had to relearn how to make the hair network, so I watched a lot of tutorials I found on YouTube to get a better understanding of how to build your Yeti network to create natural looking hair. To save time I did not groom the sides and back with so much effort since I knew they would not be visible in the final render.

Another fun challenge was learning how women apply makeup and how it affects the skin / eyelashes / eye brows. I also got some tips from my girlfriend, which helped a lot. All my shaders were made to work with "normal" skin, so I had to make adjustments to make it look like makeup skin instead.

groom modelling no hair render female character design 3d

Groom for Emily

render female character design 3d building scenery

lighting scene 3d model female character

Lighting scene for Replicant

render voight kampff character design 3d building scenery

Lighting scene for Voight Kampff


Do you use any other software, either for work or personal projects?


I work with mainly with Maya, V-Ray, Mudbox, and Yeti for 3D, Nuke for compositing. I use the same software for both work and personal projects. For rendering we mostly use Redshift at work.


How do you keep your portfolio up-to-date? Any tips?


I have actually not worked on my personal portfolio for years. I did a lot of monsters and superheroes when I was in my 20s. But with the amount of time you spend at work I started to feel that I didn't want to do personal projects in my spare time anymore. I felt that the art I created at work was enough to satisfy my creativity. But the last few months I've started to develop this passion for digital humans, and the challenge it presents. It's an area I find very interesting so this is mainly why I started making personal projects again.


Are you a member of any social media groups? Any favorite hashtags you check on a daily basis?


I follow a lot of digital artists on Instagram with a similar interest for digital humans as myself. I check #digitalhumans from time to time to see what people are doing. It's really amazing what some people can produce by hand, in terms of model and texture quality. Also the quality people are producing from real-time engines is really amazing.

interview scene female character model blade runner movie 3d
A recreation of the famous interview scene from “Blade Runner.” Getting the lighting right "in-camera" was not an easy task
scene female character model blade runner movie 3d
For Replicant I worked more closely to the reference than previous renders. I tried to get everything as accurate as possible


What are your artistic ambitions?


To continue to explore digital humans. I find this area very fascinating and I feel I have a lot left to learn.

"It's not about what you light, but what you don't light" is my new favorite motto.


Who are your favorite artists, traditional or digital, and can you explain why?


Right now a lot of my personal work is influenced by the movie “Blade Runner” from 1982. The lighting work by Jordan Cronenweth and Ridley Scott is really exceptional. I've been getting more and more interested in darkness and the use of shadows after binge watching this movie. "It's not about what you light, but what you don't light" is my new favorite motto.

scene female character model blade runner movie 3d emily
realistic female character model blade runner movie 3d emily


What can we expect to see from you next?


I have a new idea which I think can challenge me artistically. So right now I'm working on some R&D to try something new. Hopefully I can work past all the technical difficulties and make an image out of this idea.

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