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Eni Oken Interview
Could you introduce yourself?
My Name is Eni Oken, I'm a Brazilian freelance 3D Artist now based in Los Angeles, California. My artistic style is usually whimsical and colorful, with a twist to the fantastic and heavily ornamental. I usually work on games and still imagery for a variety of projects, including web.
How did you get started at 3d?
I started working with computer graphics 13 years ago in Brazil -- after I graduated in architecture I found myself in a design job that was not completely gratifying. At that time, there was no 3D for low-end machines as we know it now. I figured that computer graphics was the future and I wanted to build worlds and places in 3D. Since 3D was limited only to highend computers, I started with CAD and desktop publishing.
What are your main sources of inspiration?
I find inspiration in almost everything, but I particularly like to look at works of traditional painters, contemporary fantasy illustrators, also natural resources such as microbiology and underwater themes. I'm also particularly fond of jewelry, ornamental embroideries and rich textiles.
Which artists inspired you?
Amongst contemporary painters are Picasso, Miro and Kandinsky; I also like the works of Gil Bruvel, Rodney Matthews, James Christensen, Alfred Pellan, Patrick Woodroffe, Laurel Burch. None of these are digital artists, they are all using traditional media.
What's your favorite genre, theme?
I love anything that is ornamental and colorful. My style tends to shift over time, but overall I have try to develop a whimsical style mixed with an ornamental and painterly feel. A few years ago my work was not so painterly, it was more historic/artistic, based on more realistic work. Now I don't care for realism so much anymore.
What are your strong points?
I believe that creating stylized and whimsical designs, and also working the surface, that is, creating texture work. I do enjoy lighting as well, although it's a difficult subject.
Tell us a little about "Little Village Far, Far Away".
Little Village Far, Far Away is an image that recalls the place where one comes from. All of us have come from somewhere, be it a large city or small village. Even in large cities, most of us will remember neighborhoods that remind us of little villages. We all have a recollection of our childhood as being scary, different and overall wonderful, probably different that what it really was. The Little Village was created to honor the young person that leaves home, in attempt to search for brighter galaxies, but will always remember their own "little village" from time to time. The image was made purely out of need to fulfill a vision, to express a message, not for a client or commercial project. It was also an attempt to break away from a more commercial style, where there are no clients to dictate what is right or wrong.
What inspired you for this scene?
The image was inspired on a friend's process of leaving her home, and how she suffered to leave her own "little village". But there are other symbols in the image, a sort of continuation on the color scheme started with the Resident Alien.
How complex is it?
It was made using 3D Studio Max, Nendo, Painter and Photoshop and contains 380.000 polygons, which is not too much considering the amount of detail in the scene. It also has 52 helpers, amongst space warps, visual effects such as flares, glows and other effects from Cebas POS plugin.
How did you model the different elements?
Most of the individual elements were modeled using Nendo, which is nice little box modeling software. Each tower and spaceship started as a box of polygons, then modified a lot to form the basic shape. After the basic shape was modeled, it was smoothed and exported to 3D Studio Max.
Could you tell us a little about this product?
Nendo is good for box modeling alone, that is what it does well and that only. The advantage is that it's fast and you can isolate the object and work on it alone. The disadvantage is that you have to import and export the elements to 3D Studio, and you can't see other elements that will integrate the scene.
Could you give us some advice on how to give objects such a free-from appearance?
There are many ways to model an organic object, and it really depends on the tool with which the artist feels more comfortable. Some people prefer patches, others prefer NURBS, others prefer box-modeling. I usually use this last method, for I worked with it for a long time. I usually start with a box, or a lathe, and then pull and push vertices, extrude faces until the basic "cage" resembles what I'm looking for. The MeshSmooth command in 3D Studio Max makes the cage take an organic look, by smoothing all the vertices and faces out. It's a good method, but I wouldn't recommend it for extensive animation and bones. I also used a lot of loft modeling, where I created a spline and lofted a circle around it. That allowed me to make the scrolly elements that are present around the towers and the plant-like striped elements.
Your images appear to be very colour driven, do you choose the colour scheme of your images before you start work on them, or does it evolve as you are making the images? If you choose a colour scheme first, what do you feel makes a good colour scheme a good starting point?
Yes, most of the time I am very "color aware". I believe that color has made my work evolve considerably. I do choose color palettes in a very deliberate way, before I start the image, but sometimes my personal preference just takes over during the process. To make a good color scheme, one must understand the psychological power of color. I have devoted a lot of time in writing and teaching about the power of color in 3D and games, but now I have drifted to other areas.
What are the different environmental effects in these images ?
There is distance blur that makes the elements in front more detached and enhanced from the background. There is also fog that blends in the background. Background blending is important to make the image look more three-dimensional, by allowing the foreground to stand out more. I used Cebas POS for all the flares, glows and pyrocluster smoke coming out of the spaceship. The galaxies in the back are also made with flares, as are the tiny little stars underneath each bridge, around the spaceships, coming from the bottom and also from the windows.
What is the background?
The background is made of a picture with stars, combined with 3D Studio's fog and Cebas POS' flare with noise. The flare with noise makes it look like a cloud or galaxy of some kind.
What kind of lighting did you use in this scene?
There are 28 lights in this scene. I use mostly spot lights with shadows and I usually place them in three's, around each important object. I don't really care to depict a realistic source of light, as long as it looks good, but I kept in mind that all objects should have a blue blacklight, probably emanating from the blue clouds. There is also some orange underlight coming from the right and from below.
Did you retouch this image after rendering?
I added my name to the corner of the image and applied a Unsharpen Mask in Photoshop, to the version that was posted on the website. The high-rez image that I used for print received no Unsharpen.
Tell us a little about "Resident Alien".
The Resident Alien was also another image made exclusively for fun, mainly to continue a line of artistic style which started with the Funhouse. The image was developed using 3D studio Max, Nendo, Tru-V, Painter and Photoshop.
What inspired you for this image?
The expression "Resident Alien" is a term applied to legal immigrants in the US which have documents but are not citizens yet. Being one of these people, I constantly got teased by my American family. At the time, (the image was made in 1998), there was a craze with spaceships and Star Wars themes and everybody was trying to create alien/sci-fi themes. I was tired and bored with chrome metallic representations that had no personality and design, so I figured the theme would a good one. What could me more "homey" than an alien inside his spaceship watching soap opera?
What modelling technique did you use for the character?
I was beta-testing 3D Studio Max 3.0 and there were some interesting new modeling tools such as connect. I used Nendo to create the hands and foot and then connected them with the body using Connect. I created him sitting, therefore he cannot be animated, he is posed already.
What do you think of the modeling features of MAX?
They are pretty good. I think that all 3D software currently in the market today is clunky and very far from being intuitive (even the best software in the market). We are still years ahead from having intuitive modeling tools that will allow the artist to develop his or her artistic skills instead of worrying with modeling techniques.
Do you generally model your characters in one piece?
I don't model characters that often, but no, I don't model them in one piece. I still model them with joints connecting to the torso. I'm not a great character modeler, it's not my forte.
How did you texture it?
I created two layers of textures: one was procedural, that is, a 3D texture that comes with 3D studio Max, called cellular, and on top of that I added some painted images with planar and cylindrical UV mapping.
What is the lighting of this scene?
There are also 20 something lights in this scene, and most of them are spots that simulate the light coming from the TV. But there are also some point lights that act as fills, for there are many dark areas in the scene.
How do you decide the lighting of a scene?
Like I mentioned before, most of the time I don't care for the realism, but if there is a strong potential source of light in the scene (such as the TV), then I will light all the objects accordingly. But most of the time I use a 3-light scheme for each major element in the scene: 1 key light, 1 fill light and 1 backlight. I like using a bit of color too, especially for the back light, which I will usually make bright orange or blue.
Tell us a little about "Rotunda for Zork Grand Inquisitor".
The Rotunda is one of the rooms for the pre-rendered adventure game Zork Grand Inquisitor, the eight installment of the series Zork, developed for Activision. I was hired by Activision after working for them on their previous Zork project, called Zork Nemesis. The Rotunda is the main room of a magical university, called GUE Tech, and it led to some other rooms and hallways. Although I was given some basic illustrations of the design of the interior of the Rotunda, the art director trusted me and allows me free reign in developing details, color scheme, textures and lighting. It was a very rewarding project and fun to work on.
How many scenes did you make for this game?
I was given an entire section of the game, including the exterior of the GUE tech, a huge cave, the various rooms that were connected to the Rotunda, a chasm with two bridges and a complete magical laboratory.
What's the modelling/texturing ratio in the final look? Do you try to model as much details as possible or do you rely on texturing to add details for things you don't manage to model and/or you just don't want to model?
I usually do a 50/50 split in the amount of modeling and texturing. My rule of thumb is that if the feature is flatly connected close to the surface of an object, it can be faked with texture and bump maps. If the a specific detail or feature stands out too much, then it must be modeled. My models are fairly simple, they are very basic, I usually leave a lot in charge of the texture and materials. I believe that modeling is glamorized too much, there is a lot of detail work that can be presented convincingly through textures.
Do you rather draw your textures from scratch or do you start from real life photos or other textures?
I used to start my textures from scanned pictures, but lately with my painterly style of the last 2 years I have developed everything from scratch. Sometimes I develop dimensional elements in 3D, to use them in texture work -- a technique very few people are using, but very rewarding. But even when I do use scanned pictures of photos and such, I still do a lot of work -- making backgrounds seamless, patching up mistakes and pasting together things to fit exactly the shape of a specific model.
How large do you usually paint your textures?
I like to make textures between 640x480 and 1024x1024. I try to make my textures fairly large, without exaggeration, because most of the time I print my final renderings for exhibits or framing.
What kind of lightning did you use in this scene?
There are some main sources of blue light with projector maps coming from the top, faking the light coming from a skylight, but most of the lights are spots targeted towards each important element. The projector lights add an extra layer of randomness to the cave ground.
How important is lighting for you compared to modeling and texturing?
I think lighting is extremely important, perhaps more important than modeling. With good lighting, you can get away with a bad model, however, with a good model, you can't get away with bad lighting. I do like to do lighting, but I prefer to create textures -- that's where I spend most of my time.
Tell us a little about "Coffee Shop".
This image is part of a series of 11 images created for the project Guitropolis, which was developed in 1996 for Alfred Publishing, a company that at the time was just starting to develop their own edutainment CDs. The team, even though it was their first project, was extremely organized and efficient, and we had a great connection -- they allowed me to do all the designs based exclusively on a script. The project was extremely rewarding for me at the time, and I believe that this freedom and style was the precursor to the more painterly style found in more recent works.
How much time did you spend on it?
I can't really recall how much time I spent exactly on this image, but generally speaking, I spend two to three weeks on each image, depending on the amount of animation necessary.
Most of your works are stills. Is there hidden geometry in your images or do you only work on what is visible?
Depends on the project: if the project is to be animated by third party, then I usually model almost everything. Some projects required different points of view, (such as the Zork series) and therefore need to be entirely modeled -- the images here only show one of the best points of view. Some other projects, especially those made for artistic satisfaction only, were built differently -- only with the necessary parts were modeled.
What is your predominant lighting setup? What sort of lights are used more than others, or do you have a set of rules which you carry through all of your works?
Yes, I try to use a triangular light setting around each predominant element in the scene: one key light, which establishes most of the color and bright areas, a fill light to the left or right of the key light and a very bright back light on the back, above the object. This is a classic lighting setting, used a lot in traditional photography and film. I try to not be afraid of letting certain things fall into darkness, for I feel that some things should be hidden, not totally exposed.
Tell us a little about "Funhouse hirez variation".
The Funhouse Hirez Variation is a spin-off of a realtime project I was developing for Worlds, Inc. They gave me free reign to design a realtime environment for an online community, and I liked the resulting design so much (which included a little house just like that one), that I decided to make a "hi-rez" version of it, which plants in front and much more detail. It was the first image that I've created with a painterly, more loose style, and I liked it so much that I have not gone back to the historic/ artistic/ornamental style found in previous works. It also has a very symbolic meaning for me, it symbolizes the "door of creativity" which all artists have to enter, alone and without fear, if they are to break away from commercial style.
What do you think of MAX's Material Editor?
I think it has become better and better, with each version. It's my favorite section of 3D Studio Max, I think of it as a kitchen (although I hate to cook in real life), where I can mix and match things to produce different results. It still needs work, such as compositing methods, and a less confusing interface for beginners.
Do you use procedural textures?
I dislike procedural textures, they have no personality and are not custom made for the specific situation, and if used alone, can result in a very computerized, artificial look. However, they have their use when applied as an overall "coat of paint", underlying a more customized texture file.
Could you classify these sub-maps by order of importance to you and explain your choice: diffuse, bump, shininess, specular, ...
I think the color map (diffuse color map) is probably the most important, for you can get away with a lot with it. However, bump map usually adds a level of pattern and richness to the material that cannot be simulated by color alone. Next to that, I like to use shininess, which makes certain areas shiny or not, and that can allow you to mix metallics such as gold with opaque materials.
Do you do modelling, texturing and lighting in parallel or do you concentrate on one field at a time?
Generally speaking, I usually do a tiny bit of modeling, then I right away do the texturing. I start with an element that is not the central piece, but is of some importance, for it will be setting the mood for the entire scene. I don't start with the most important element because I don't want to experiment too much on it, I want to warm up first. After the first element is made, I block the scene with some simpler geometry, and replace each stand-in with the real object as I model and texture. After a few of them are made, I start adding lights. When the final element is modeled and created, the scene is practically ready.
What kind of lighting did you use in this scene?
I focused a very bright light on the door, since that is my focal point of attention. Then I created some lateral blue lights, which greatly enhances the shape of plants and separates them from the background. There are also some yellow backlights on top of the house, to enhance the roof.