Saturday, May 14, 2016

There and Back Again

I recently came across a copy of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug Chronicle Companion: SMAUG - Unleashing the Dragon at the Ingleside branceh of the San Francisco Public Library. The branch is within walking distance of City College of San Francisco where I currently teach a beginning and intermediate section of Adobe Illustrator in the Visual Media Design department. I drove there, and intended to return yet another science fiction novel that I just couldn't get myself to read consistently enough to finish. "A Darkling Sea" by James A. Cambias had wonderful echoes of my favorite deep sea films from the 80s and 90s including Sphere (1998), DeepStar Six (1989), The Abyss (1989), and even Leviathan (1989). 1989 was a particularly good year for the genre. I was a senior at Berkeley High School and deeply enamored with the idea of doing practical effects and design work for feature live-action films. I would buy issues of Fangoria and Cinefex and imagine one day working at a studio building models or sculpting creatures.

My subscription to (which is also, I learned recently, free to SFPL patrons) and recently decided to dive into learning ZBrush. The learning process has been slow and frustrating thus far. And yet the idea of at the very least sculpting one of my own creatures keeps me going. Little by little, the basic concepts are sinking in as I take in the information in short, 2-3 minute video chunks. The possibility of one day using ZBrush for paid illustration work seems a long ways away, but even the steepest learning curves can be surmounted.

When I saw Weta's Smaug book on the shelf, its small size reminded me of the popular film reference books I sometimes see in the children's section. But then it occurred to me that there just might be some valuable insights into the thinking and digital tools that went into the design of Smaug. The book did not disappoint.

The book is divided into sections that focus on various phases of the design process such as previs and concept art, sound, motion capture and texturing. Various team members describe their roles and experiences working on the project. I appreciated the balance of artist, technician and supervisory voices in the book that compliment the images. Both the 3D and 2D work was phenomenal; smart design choices, dramatic compositions and unique problem-solving.

The book took me back to my first issue of Cinefex may have been the one with a vibrant shot of the U.S.S. Enterprise D from Star Trek: The Next Generation on the cover. In high school, I was a huge fan of the show, and even tried painting every panel and window of the model issued by AMT around the same time. The color was a mystery. The instructions suggested grays that were not available at my local hobby shop, shots of the model in magazines appeared to have a soft, blue color that differed from the TV show. A mishap with my spray gun led to the underside getting a stippled texture while the top remained smooth. I think I got as far as painting the entire saucer, including little tan rounded squares that represented the ship's lifeboats. Cinifex was never an easy read for me. Maybe it was the industry jargon. But what struck me about the Smaug book was how easy it was to read. Knowing a bit of the language of visual development and the special effects process really makes a difference. (Thanks, AAU!)

Ever since the early 80s, building scale model kits was one of my favorite hobbies. I had a subscription to Fine Scale Modeler, Air and Space magazine and even got random monthly kits from Monogram®. The pastime peaked when Revell released several Japanese robot and vehicle models under the Robotech imprint. They were marketed with no backstories and the diorama photos on the box tops took liberties with color and decal placement on the kits. This introduced me to the idea of modifying kits and kit-bashing. The biggest kit I ever took on was a 1/48 scale B1-B bomber that took up my entire dresser. Kit building got me to finish things and taught me the value of patience and careful planning. My ability to visualize a project from start to finish comes right out of modeling. While I was never into cars and mechanical toys like RC racing, something about seeing how things are put together, part by part, fascinated me and directly informed how I drew vehicles from my imagination. The kits were also notoriously delicate which forced me to invent repairs for broken posts, antennas and joints. My discovery of Friendly Plastic® at a Amsterdam Art in Berkeley led to a few mildly successful attempts at sculpting my own characters and vehicles. Years later, I would take a chance on Super Sculpey® which opened up even more worlds of possibility. All the while, I continued to harbor a strong interest in doing that stuff for a living, or creating and sharing my own universes.

Last night, I accidentally brought up the cover to the high school yearbook I worked on as one of five the artists. (We never called ourselves "illustrators" back then. I might not have even heard of illustration as a career.) "The Hitchhiker's Guide to Berkeley High" had an anonymous helmeted astronaut on the cover and throughout that 1990 edition of Olla Podrida. We each had our own styles, loved sci-fi and comics and created our own corner of chaos on the yearbook staff. The work was decent, and we were all very happy to contribute to the project. Sadly, I never got a copy of the yearbook.

Something deeply ingrained in me compels me to create. I've known this from an early age and I was lucky to have been born into a family that never discouraged my creativity. That drive may ebb and flow but it never leaves me. Something tells me that none of it was ever meant to be a hobby or a "side thing".

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