Interview with Ben Neall

GW: In 2005 you were working as a lead modeler and lead texture artist at Luma Pictures. Was this your first professional gig? What was the workload/experience like? Were you prepared?

BN: Yes this was my first job in the industry. The workload was common to any small studio working hard to make a name for itself. I put a lot of time into making my work as good as possible, I guess I never thought about if I was prepared or not. I have always been interested in data management and pipeline stuff, so I really embraced every aspect of production and none of it scared me. The experience was great early on, I was given huge opportunities to create some really cool stuff.

GW: In the past four years, what are the major advancements you have integrated into your own pipeline as far as mapping techniques or tips and tricks?

BN: I think the biggest advancements for myself, is the ability to understand the concepts of lighting and compositing. Understanding how textures are being reconstructed in a production environment really helped me overall. Also, learning how to properly shoot reference material for texturing – very important for me.

GW: You're often credited as a Modeler/Texture artists. How often in the pipeline are you required to texture your own models? Is this common practice in your experience in film?

BN: In a small or medium sized studio its not unlike the game industry. Often you're a modeler and texture artist at the same time, and are required to model, UV, and texture a single asset. When I was at Luma, I did a lot of complete assets. But I don't find modeling to be a strength for me, so I've pursued more texture oriented work where I can.

GW: How much reference do you pull for your textures? Do you collect most of it on your own through photography or create textures in Photoshop?

BN: Yes, as much as possible. If you have access to good photography, use it by all means. It's still good to have painting skills. For example, the reference provided for Underworld 2, which I textured a few creatures on, was literally 200x200 pixel JPEGs. Now, obviously that's not going to help anyone when you have a creature filling the big screen at 2k. This was a situation where I had to hand paint everything. I think some of those creatures might be posted on this page (vampire hand and head).

GW: What is the average turnaround time on a texture for a character asset? What are some of the steps or tools that you have picked up over the years?

BN: It really is all over the place. Instead of an average I can give a range. I have had assets that have been anywhere between three days to three weeks. It has everything to do with how the company manages their team and time. Tricks regarding this: work smart. If the asset you're getting only allows a few days of work, look at the context of your asset in the shot. If it is zooming by, motion blurred behind a building, then you know you only need to texture a level of detail that supports this. Often people doing 3D want to have a perfect turntable ready 100% finished asset, and often there is no time for that.

GW: Ever work in games? What are some of the challenges or differences between texturing for games and films and do you think the gap will ever be bridged?

BN: I have yet to do any game work. Film is ultimately a 2D medium and the final output is an image. In games, your whole world is real-time and can be looked at pretty much at any angle. As far as the gap being bridged, if you're referring to the content creation, it probably will, but games remain distinctly 3D.

GW: We often hear about concept artist, modelers and matte painters who market themselves and achieve star status in the industry.  How should a texture artist promote him/herself to stand out?

BN: Well in my opinion, "star status" is really just marketing. Anyone that's been working in the industry for a while can tell you there are many, many people that are as good or better then these "stars". If you're a texture artist and want to stand out, do whatever you can to get into a texture heavy project, something that you can really shine in. Often "stars" don't become known until they get a big break, like getting hired onto Star Wars, or LotR, etc. So I guess my answer is chase the good projects and then market yourself.

GW: You recently finished work on Star Trek and are now working on Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, two titles with a ton of history and expectations behind them. Dream come true?

BN: Well, I suppose if you LOVE hard surface, its a dream come true. I've always been more into the organic stuff. On the flip side, I've never had an opportunity to do hard surface texturing at this level, so it's a great experience.

GW: Do you still work on your personal artwork?

BN: Actually yes, speaking of organic stuff. I'm currently working on a project that should prove interesting. I am doing a collaboration with a colleague of mine. I will be doing the concepts and textures, as well as rendering it, hoping to push some new boundaries in my skill set that I am unable to do at work.

GW: What is the next step for you?

BN: My goal is to continue to pursue texture work in feature film. I would like to lead some high profile projects in the future, and continue to learn and utilize look development techniques.

GW: What information would you share with students looking to get work in the industry? What would you look for in their portfolio?

BN: If you're looking to getting into texturing as a career, your best bet is a modeling/texturing gig, like we talked about earlier. If you really love just texturing, you can definitely go from there to pursue texture only positions. However, knowing the other aspects of production is always a great advantage, so don't disconnect yourself from everything else. I would look for quality over quantity in a portfolio, a few solid pieces that showcase what you like to do and what you excel at.

GW: What are some of the tips and tricks artists will take away from your DVD?

BN: Some of the basic ideas I've mentioned throughout this interview really. My goal was to teach an intermediate texture artist how to realize their work into the next stage of production, which is usually referred to as Look Development or Visual Development. I wanted to show how it comes together, and how you can improve your work when you know how it's going to be put together, often by other people. Knowing that your asset can achieve what you need it to is really good to know. There are a few little tricks here and there on texturing, but a lot of these techniques are widely available and that wasn't my focus. This was really more of a big picture and production centric approach.

Check out Ben Neall tutorial