Meet the 3D artist: Alex Telford

For this series, we’ve found some inspirational 3D artists who have been kind enough to share their CG tips and secrets with us. This week, Alex Telford, a junior animation TD at Weta Digital, provides invaluable insights.

We hope that you learn new techniques to help you to improve your CG skills, and most of all, that you enjoy Alex's work.

3D World: What first inspired you to become a 3D artist?
I first became inspired at the end of 2010 when I couldn't effectively program a 3D environment into a Flash game. So I went looking for 3D packages and came across Blender. I was instantly hooked and never did get back to finishing that Flash game.

At what point in your life did you make the decision that that's what you were going to do?
3D was just a fun hobby for me for the first few months, an escape from my life as a struggling web developer. But slowly I came to realize that there was actually a place for me in the 3D industry, I could actually get paid to do what I love.

Where did you study, and what was the course?
Last year I decided I would push my skills to the next level and study Maya in the diploma of advanced animation at Natcoll Design School in NZ.

I admit I learnt a lot more in the many hours I spent after school on Digital Tutors and Gnomon library than I did in class, but school was a great place to meet more artists in the same situation as me and experience what it's like in the industry.

What do you do and where?
Currently I freelance remotely for CG Cookie Studios from Wellington, New Zealand, there I offer support and write tutorials for Blender and Unity 3D.

How have you progressed there?
Well I started off as 'that guy who answers everyones questions on their Facebook page' to being asked to come on board and answer questions for their support desk, and now I also create tutorials for Blender and Unity 3D from using custom sculpting brushes to advanced real-time shader development.

How did you break into the industry?
I asked. Easy as that, two weeks after I started learning 3D, I decided to go and get a job at a graphic design studio to prove to a friend that you don't need an amazing portfolio to get a job.

I got the position at the first place I walked into because they “liked my confidence and personality”, even though my portfolio consisted of a textured plane, a disfigured alien and a badly rendered kitchen.

Where do you draw your inspiration from?
Everywhere, I find that 99% of my inspiration does not come when I am in front of my computer, so I like to go out on long walks through Wellington and the surrounding gardens with a notepad and a camera phone just taking in the scenery and architecture.

What is the most enjoyable project you have worked on so far in your career and why?
That would have to be the Pod Racer project I did for CG Cookie, that was my first time working with a professional concept artist – Joshua Nixon – and it was a fantastic experience, having multiple silhouettes and design styles to choose from, as well as a high-quality finished concept and orthographics makes the process much more streamlined and fun.

Of which piece of work are you most proud?
That would be 'Oakwood Estate Manor', this is a six-week project I worked on as my final individual project at school. I don't like modeling in Maya, as the modeling workflow and tools feel pre-historic in comparison to what I was used to in Blender, so I chose to model a house as I felt it would be a good challenge.

It took me seven hours from the rough blockout to the finished house, being that I still had five weeks left (The first week I spent on research and concepting) I decided to go ahead and add some procedural shading to the building and adding grass, bushes and trees. This took another three-five hours.

I'm most proud of this because of the short amount of time I took to complete the project, meaning I got to spend the next 5 weeks making various other projects, and helping out everyone else who was stuck on their own projects.

Which has been your most challenging piece of work?
This would be the ant I did during the Blender Cookie Topology Workshop, as you can see from my work, I have a heavy focus on hard surface and environment modeling. Organics is not my strong point, so having to create an ant, with all it's complex forms while keeping good topology was a real challenge.

What is your favourite or most-used 3D software and why?
Blender of course, although over the years I have become proficient in Maya, ZBrush, Mudbox and even familiar with 3ds Max, none can compare to the sheer speed at which Blender can create, I can model and texture almost as fast as I can imagine.

Blender does lack in the rigging and animation areas though, so my workflow tends to be: Model and UV in Blender, Sculpt in ZBrush, Texture in Mari, Rig and animate in Maya.

Does you specialise in any new or notable techniques?
I am very much a generalist and strive to know every technique, but what I am best at is speed. Being able to switch tools and programs quickly to achieve my goal with very little usage of the undo button is certainly one of my key strengths.

Could you please talk us through a key piece of work and say how you achieved it using 3D software?
I'll take you through the process of Oakwood Estate Manor, as I have been asked many times to give a breakdown.

This was created almost exclusively in Maya.

I start off by taking my rough concept art and blocking in the basic shape of the house with cubes, I then create a series of small modules such as doors, windows, roof lining and balustrades.

Next I place these all around the manor to get a close to finished result, using instancing and mirrors this process only takes a matter of minutes, once I have the entire house virtually done, I then join up any instances such as the roof lining modules to a single object and remove any gaps. With the house complete it's time to start enhancing the render.

I start by creating a procedural grunge on the building, by masking out an ambient occlusion node with a snow node and using the result to mask out a stretched 3D fractal texture to get the streaks, and tint the house color a slight yellow to get the color of the building.

I then use paint effects to create the grass, shrubs and trees. I use a double-sided shader for this. Next I add in physical sun and sky with gamma correction and render it.

Finally, to composite, I add some more trees in the background, depth of field and some color grading to get the final image.

Which other studios' and artists' work do you most admire?
Weta Digital, ILM and Pixar to start, these studios constantly produce high quality content that is always inspiring. I also really admire the smaller indivdiduals and studios that can produce equally amazing content such as Rosa by Jesus Orellana, and Ruin by Oddball Animation.

What's your favourite CG animation?
I would have to say Rosa, the animation, modeling and rendering is amazing, and the short time it was completed by just one person makes it even more breath-taking.

What's your favourite film?
Recently I watched The Hobbit and although it wasn't showing in 3D, the story, the animation and all the VFX was amazing and I thoroughly enjoyed it, it is one of the few films I would actually watch more than once.

What's your favourite commercial work?
I'm going to say Shifter by Charlex Films. Ok it's not technically an advertisement, but if it was it would be the best car advertisement out there.

What advice can you give for aspiring 3D artists looking to break into the industry?
Never give up. No one is pro in the first couple of weeks, we all start at the basics, there was a time I had to look for help on how to extrude.

Talent does not exist, talent is just a word to describe those who spend every spare moment learning everything they can. Just as you should spend every spare moment learning something new. It's your passion, no matter how many studios decline your work no one can take your passion from you.

Could you share a technical secret on how you work?
Lose the undo key. Tweaking should be reserved for when you have finished the stage of the project you are working on, an extrude should take 1 second, not 10 minutes.

Try to work in passes, start by blocking, then refine the whole thing, refine it again and repeat until you are happy.

If you create amazing landing gear on a blocked out plane, when your supervisor comes he will see a blocked out plane that took hours to make. I say this because we never finish a project to perfection, it is simply taken away from us because of time.

What's next for you?
I hope to move into a bigger studio here in New Zealand, crossing my fingers I'll become a TD at Weta Digital around the corner from my house.

What would you do if you could?
My dream job would be a TD at Weta Digital, I love scripting and fixing problems, so it would be the perfect position for me.

UPDATED 23 April: Since writing this I actually got in as a Junior Animation TD at Weta Digital!

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