Interview with Illustrator and 3D Modeler Marcus Kielly

This week I had the opportunity to interview UK based Illustrator and 3D modeler Marcus Kielly.  I’ve always loved 3D design and animation and was very interested in what Marcus had to say.  I was also interested in what Marcus had to say about how his experience as an illustrator has helped him transition from 2D to 3D design.  If you are like me and are interested in learning more about this field, take a look at this great interview.

Marcus, thank you for taking the time to participate in this interview.  Can you begin by telling us a little about your background?  Where are you from?  How did you get your start in art and design?

I was born in Plymouth in the South West of England, where my family ran a series of casinos and bars. After school, I did a foundation diploma in art and design, followed by a bachelor’s degree in communication media, specializing in illustration. After college I fell into working in bars for a while as I worked on my portfolio, and I eventually landed my first games industry job in Codemasters, famous for Colin McRae and Micro Machines.

kielly-image2.jpgYou are a very talented illustrator as well as a 3d modeler in the video game industry.  Can you tell us a little about how your experience as an illustrator helps you with your 3d characters?

One of the biggest advantages is good understanding of anatomy, derived from life drawing. When you draw an object based from life, you can’t abdicate your comprehension of the object’s geometry to a piece of software; you don’t have the advantage of guide and grids on a piece of paper. This intimate comprehension of volume and space helps you create accurate and believable models in 3d programs.

Since illustration is kind of a halfway house between words and pictures it also enables you to use symbolism to great effect, which helps you to create unique or iconic characters that represent a concept.

kielly-image4.jpgTell us a little about your workflow.  How does a typical 3d project start out?  How long does it usually take to go from beginning to end?  What software do you use?

A 3d project will almost always begin with a period of concept drawing on paper (unless it’s a very specific pre-existing object, a particular car or location for example). The artist then gathers material and reference. You would then set up the software modeling environment with the reference, and begin to construct the object – often from an initial starting object like a cube, or from base geometry like curves or faces.

Once the model geometry is complete, you apply what is known as UV mapping co-ordinates to the geometry – or mesh. This is basically a process whereby you map the vertices in a model to points on an image, rather like stretching out an animal skin.

With this stage complete, the artist then creates an extremely high resolution model using a “clay” modeling package like ‘ZBrush’ or ‘Mudbox’, and then projects this detail onto the model they have just created. This process is known as “normal mapping”. It’s a bit tricky to explain – imagine a photo on the wall which allows you to move the light source after it’s been shot! When you apply this special texture to the object, it looks very, much more detailed than it actually is, and can react to light changes in the environment in ways that a static image can’t. This technique can be seen in nearly all contemporary video games – in the folds of the character’s clothes, the rivets on space armour or the wrinkles in a wizards face. Additional images are created that control the shininess or specularity of an object’s surface. This image is often black and white – with white representing the highest possible value. Finally, the artist creates a colour texture that conveys surface tonal values. These textures combine to create the surface. The model is then exported to the game engine where the coders can apply their magic.

kielly-image3.jpgI’ve found that there are two types of designers; those that are traditionally trained in the arts and those who are mostly self-taught.  How has your traditional training helped you to excel in your field?  Now that you’re out of school, how do you stay on your toes and keep up-to-date on current design trends and tech?

By far the worst habit I see in hobbyists is a narrow focus on their specific area of interest. A lot of comic artists, for example, only ever draw from comics, or try to emulate comics they like. Many self taught artists can’t draw from life; they have developed a systematic way of drawing a character or a scene that limits the range of their expression. This problem extends to their originality and creativity, as they are always trying to emulate their heroes rather than carve their own path.

A good art education teaches you the fundamentals of art, anatomy, composition, colour without attaching to a specific medium. Take Picasso, you may love or hate the guy but his range of expression and ability to adapt to new materials and ideas was phenomenal.
It also exposes you to subjects outside of your normal areas of interest, and provides you with a comprehension of the evolution of art as throughout history. Knowing what has gone before is central to developing your own path in art/design.

In terms of technology, the best source is undoubtedly the internet – especially social networks like Twitter. It provides the same peer effect as college/work – but on a much broader scope. Although I have to stress it’s important to take time to actually digest some of this information, rather than simply accumulating a huge catalogue of bookmarks. For that reason I store articles of particular interest offline, and print out the really good ones to hardcopy to read away from the computer.

kielly-image5.jpgWhat would you consider to be your dream project?  Are there any new and exciting projects that you are currently working on that you would like to share with my readers?

My dream project? Whoa…where do I start? Well, I tend to like the more artsy projects. I’d love to have worked on something like “Shadow of the Colossus”. That game was beautiful, and captured an internal dream landscape; it was like one of those beautiful illustrated books I used to read as a boy – like “Where the Wild Things Are” by Maurice Sendak. Alternatively, I’d love to work on a grandiose RPG for Square-Enix, their standards of art production are second to none.

As for current or new projects – I’m afraid that they’re all tightly bound within confidentiality agreements…

kielly-image1.jpgAside from your preferred 3d modeling program, what tools or software could you not live without?

Photoshop, without a doubt – it’s an immensely flexible tool with applications across so many discipli
nes. You can use Photoshop to create so many different types of image, from graphic design and photographic manipulation to hand drawn illustration. After that, it would probably be Pixologic’s ZBrush. It empowers non technical artists to be able to make beautiful sculptures in 3D without the rigours of technical packages like 3DS Max.

kielly-image6.jpgWhat advice would you give to anyone looking to make it in the video game industry?

My first bit of advice would be to start learning a 3d package (and Photoshop) as soon as possible, it takes a lot of time to master, so start now!

Here’s one other bit of advice: My art teacher once told me something, which has stuck with me since art college: “Don’t try and draw in a particular style, just draw as well as you can, and your style will evolve from your failings”. I think it’s a quote, but the source eludes me. In a nutshell, don’t just copy your heroes – learn to express yourself. Don’t make a portfolio stocked with orcs, space marines and other generic copies – create work that says something about you.. I don’t mean be serious or pretentious, but make something that reflects your experience of life. Wallace and Grommet are a great example of that, they’re massively popular because everyone can relate to them.

kielly-image8.jpg Finally, do you own a mobile device? If so, which one?  How do you use it to improve your productivity?

No, I’m afraid not – other than my mobile which I use to store important dates. I’m on the verge of buying a smart phone, but I’m keen to wait for the next generation. The iPhone makes me drool but I’m curious to see where Google is going with Android – and Chrome. I think the big G has something amazing stuffed up their sleeve (a new desktop OS perhaps….) and I’m keen to see how that platform matures. While Chrome has proved a rather limited browser so far, once the extensions start surfacing I think we could start seeing some cool things from them uniting mobile, offline and online functionality.




Grant Friedman

Grant Friedman is a graphic design, blogger, and author. In addition to being the founder of this website, Grant is also the editor of Psdtuts, one of the world's most popular tutorial websites.