Studio Multimedia Magazine Neil Blevins Interview – April 13th 2002

Q1 : You've been involved in 3D since the age of 12 (so that's -correct me if I'm wrong- 14 years of CGI) with Povray and then 3ds, and finally all the max versions. Now Max 5 is on his way, an important rebuild as some rumors put it. How do you see all the changes that have happened in 8-10 years in the 3D industry, on the artistic side ? and technically speaking ? Is it true that nowadays one can see a demo reel that would have make you cry 4 years ago, and consider it as garbage today ? (Can you elaborate a bit on that ? on how things are a bit different today, for instance for a young boy who wants to learn 3d like you did : instead of having to play the pixel-by-pixel game, he can animate almost in real time with complex textures and lighting, global illumination etc : it looks like it's gonna be easier for him ?)

Well first, I got into 3d back in 1994, so that would make me 18 when I started. Although I did pixel graphics long before that, first programming images pixel by pixel in Turbo Basic, then using the mouse (yes, when I started there was no mouse) in early paint programs. Then I purchased a book that included a more advanced paint program for the time, and it came bundled with a piece of software called POV-RAY, a raytracer that required you to input code to produce 3d images. I got hooked on that, and a few years later bought a copy of 3dstudio.

As far as whether people today have it easier, I've found that not to be true. You can still very much tell a beginner from a professional because the software is just a tool, the artistic eye is what's important. That eyes lets you decide what color to make something, where to put it, how to best express the subject you want to explore, etc. It's like Pixar animations, the same sense of storytelling is there that happened back in the early part of last century with Disney's Snow White and Bambi. They just look different. For another example, you mention Global Illumination. I've seen so many people misuse global illumination it isn't even funny. No, the advances in software have not made it easier, just different. While it's true that you can do things today that were much too time consuming a few years back, it certainly hasn't leveled the playing field.

Q2 : How is life at Blur ? How many people work with you on a typical project ? How many conceptual artists are working now at blur with you ? What is your exact role at Blur ? What is the typical project you have ? Can you give us the name of  a few projetcs you've been working on ? How would you describe life in a Calif. Studio like Blur ? Is it close to the dreams you had when you were a student ? How long do you see yourself working like that, and how would you like to change ?

There really is no such thing as a typical project at blur :) In general, people jump around a lot, rarely do you start on a project and then end at the end, usually everyone's on one thing for a week, then off again doing another project, etc. So it's tough to say how many people contribute to any particular job. Blur has about 20 animators, everyone at blur is called an "animator" . For example, while I am refered to as an animator, I rarely animate, instead, I usually model props and environments, texture them, do lighting, assemble scenes, do effects animation, rendering and compositing. We currently have 2 concept artists working for blur. As far as past projects, I've worked on several jobs for the Scifi channel, a batman ride film, a bunch of game cinematics, the horror/comedy film "Soulkeeper", and a bunch of internal blur projects. California life is very different from my native Canada, much warmer for one. I do miss the rain and green trees, and it's a little more dangerous to live in LA, but overall not a bad place to live.

Q3 : are you still using only max, or do you use Maya or anything else  (Xsi, Lightwave), or do you plan to learn/use one of them ? What are, according to you, the weaknesses of Max (if any) compared to other packages (and particularly Maya)

I use max primarily, but I am currently teaching myself maya since that package seems heavily in demand. It has been said that max is great for getting yourself to 80% quickly, an initial 80% that takes longer to get with packages like maya or softimage, but those two programs do let you go past if you have the time and budget, and the willingness to customize. That's why they're best used for big film projects. Stuff like videogames and commercials where the projects tend to be quicker and less vaste in scope is where max shines. I tend to agree with that opinion. As far as weaknesses, the renderer can't render large data sets, doesn't do heavy displacement. There's no real working schematic view, and I'd enjoy a schematic style material editor. Some advantages is its use of volumetrics, I have friends who show plugins like afterburn to maya guys, and they freak out, since nothing like that exists for maya. Also, right now the maya folk are dying to get their hands on some of the new renderers that can do GI that have popped up for max.

Q4 : do you still use pencil or paints in your personal work, and how is it important to your creativity compared to CGI?

Well, for personal work, I always sketch stuff before building it. Building something can take weeks, and by then the basic idea which you could have outlined on paper in a matter of minutes could be lost. This lack of spontaneity in 3d is something I hope to overcome at some point, possibly mixing the 3d medium with more immediate techniques such as painting and drawing.

Q5 : one of the questions you probably hate the most : what is your computer (personal/work) at the moment : proc/ram/graphic board ? ( now think one second back in the old times about your P100/64Mb : now do you see any difference ? Does it take the same time to complete a project ?)

I currently have an AMD 1800 with a gig of ram at home, and a Geforce3. As far as seeing a different between this and my P100, ya, it's a lot faster. But I still did work on the older system that was pretty complex, I was very patient and had a lot of other hobbies to persue while I was waiting for renders.

Q6 : what are your favorite max plugins, the one that you use daily ? And how/why ?

Well, Brazil of course, the new renderer from Splutterfish. I use it partly because I have ties with the developpers, but even if that wasn't true, I feel it's the closest of the new renderers to be written by production people for production people. I use darktree a lot, a procedural shader generator, since I find it the most versatile way to create procedural textures. Otherwise, mainly just a lot of littler plugins for specific tasks.

Q7 :What are your favorite scripts ? How do you use them ?After all these years of hard work :), do you consider yourseld as a good MaxScripter ? Would you recommend learning MaxScript to a newbie ?

Not sure I have favorite scripts, it depends on what I'm doing. For example, if I'm placing rocks on a terrain, I'll make a whole bunch of rocks in an array, then use my RandomTransform script to randomly rotate them and move them around, then I'll drag them above the terrain and use my Planter script to drop the rocks onto the surface of the terrain. I use clearmedit a lot, as well as materialStuffer to quickly get scene materials into medit. I have a lot of single button scripts that do very simple meanial things but are really useful. As far as being a good maxscripter, I think I'm decent at it, but I really haven't explored everything there is to know. My scripting is driven by what I currently need. I need a tool to do x, so I learn whatever I need in order to accomplish x. So there's big areas of the language I don't know about since I've never needed them to accomplish whatever I'm trying to do. As far as tips, I actually wrote a chapter in a max book about how to start writing scripts, inside 3dsmax 4 if anyone's interested.

Q8 : Would you say you are still inspired by Heidi Taillefer ( recent work ? ;)

Yes, definately. She was an artist I really looked up to when I was small (like 8-10 years old). I love her creatures, she used to do more robots when I was younger, but her work now is still fantastic. Her style has grown a lot over the years.

Q9 : You appear to be using mainly poly modeling + meshtools & meshsmooth. Do you use Nurbs at all in Max, and how does it compare to poly modelling when it comes to organic shapes ?

I used nurbs for like 2 projects way back when, but I'm told max's nurbs aren't very advanced compared to other programs. Even if they were, I prefer the polymodeling paradigm, when doing so, you're dealing more with a volume, wheras nurbs is more about managing a surface. Dealing with volume puts you smack dab in there with your little hunk of digital clay, and that connection to the real world is something that clicks with me. Nurbs are probably best suited as a technique for smooth mechanical things, like car bodies, which I do some of, but not nearly as much.

Q10- You seem to be pretty close to the development of Brazil RS. Blur and SplutterFish are not sister companies, but there seem to be a close relationship still going between the two. Are you involved only in beta-testing, or are you more involved in Brazil's development ?

Brazil originally started as a project by Steve Blackmon and Scott Kirvan. Scott had already left blur at the time, Steve left blur about a year after the project started to work on Brazil fulltime. While there are still ties between the two companies, Splutterfish is very much its own thing, their financial future is not controlled by blur. As for my role, I've done a few scripts for the software, and have a ton of alpha and beta testing, and some promotional images. But I haven't touched a line of C code. I hope to continue working with the Splutterfish folk in the future with whatever freetime I have.

Q11- Last year there have been a sort of frenzy about global illumination and HDRi, a bit like the Nurbs Frenzy 3 years ago, and now we have many renderers engines (entropy, brazil, finalrender etc...). Is this all really interesting, on an artistic point of view, and is there enough room in this market for all these renderers ? Is Brazil really superior to the others, and why ?

Well, some of the renderers will turn out to be just hype, and will fall by the wayside. The ones that are left will be good, but may be good at different things, hence they have a different market. For example, one might be cheaper and good at GI, but lacks tools for highend professionals. While another may have lots of professional tools, but will be more expensive. While there is some overlap, in general there's probably enough room for several renderers that fullfil different needs, or have just chosen to do things differently, so people will love it or hate it based on what they are primarily looking for. Brazil can do GI, but GI isn't the focus of the software. People think it's the focus of the software because as you said, everybody went crazy over GI, like morphing or lensflares. But deep down inside, Brazil is more a production tool, hell, I almost never use it for GI, I mainly use it for skylight and the better antialiasing (which shows up in bump maps especially).

Q12- Do you think that 3d is a form of art in itself ?

3d can be a type of art. But then again, puking on a plate and putting it on exhibition can be art as well (so I learned in art school). Doing 3d is just like painting in oils, a different media but still a media.

Q13- You are now an athletic young man. How do you see yourself when you're 60 ? Still working in 3d ? What kind of tool will you use in 2037 ? What differences could you imagine ( try to be a bit prophetic, like Bill Gates - it does not matter if you're wrong ;))

Athletic ? Afraid not :) As for what I'll be doing when I'm 60, I'll be in the arts somewhere. Who knows, I may be doing 3d, or painting, or drawing. I really don't want to plan too much, I'm more worried about the now getting better at doing what I want to do. And I'm definately no Bill Gates, no predictions from me.

Q14- You and your work are inspiring hundreds of wanna-be 3d artists or hobbyists around the world. Is it a nice feeling ? What are the problems/drawbacks of this status of 'international 3d-artist » of yours ? (a part from the fact that french journalists ask you stupid questions)

Well, I am grateful for all the emails I get from people, they do make me happy no question. The drawbacks is their volume, and the kind of stuff I'm asked. For example, I could get between 5-20 emails a day asking for me to check out people's websites and give me opinions on their work. There's just not enough time to be everything to everybody. There were a lot of people who helped me when I was younger, and I certainly want to return the favor by helping other people out, but I really don't appreciate recieving death threats when I don't manage to respond to someone's email 2 days after recieving it. I've recieved a few of those.

Q15-Aren't you tired of computers ?

Sometimes. That's why I try and spend time away from them when I can.

Q16- What is the question that have never been asked to you in any interview, that you would still consider as an important one ?

I don't know, I have a size 12 shoe and eat a lot of Kraft Dinner (macaroni and cheese, for those of you who are non Canadians).

Thanks Neil for your cooperation !

No Problem.