Ben Dansie is a freelance artist who (quite obviously) uses Blender. But just saying ‘uses Blender’ is quite the understatement.
Ben has worked on various projects both individually and in a team, one of which was Sintel and is well know for Sintel Lite which is a freely downloadable optimizedversionof the original Sintel model, great for animation tests, etc…
Explain a bit about your background and how you came across Blender.
The first time I came across Blender I think I managed to get through a tutorial about fireworks with the particle system before I gave up on it. I then used other 3D software for a while during my university studies. During this time I ordered a student license of a piece of software that not only shipped to me four months late and well after my class had completed, but I found out I couldn’t use it for some unpaid volunteer work I had planned.
Blender gets loaded back up.
Around this time Elephants Dream is announced, so my learning and excitement curve basically followed that blog. Every post was soaked up like a giddy little sponge. I think the DVD set might have been the first thing I was game enough to actually pay for online. The main set of files from ED that really helped me were the Proog files and textures. Great times! I’d pull the rig apart, turn modifiers and textures on and off to see what they did, put the rig in extreme poses to see when it broke and so on. Fortunately Proog isn’t real, otherwise I’d be up for some serious charges I guess.
By the time my paid student license of the other software actually arrived I was so hooked on Blender that I literally shelved it and kept on blending. I continued to use it for my university projects, eventually posted some work on the forums and I’ve been a part of the Blender community since.
How long have you worked in CG?
Well there are two ways to answer that. I started tinkering with CG about seven or eight years ago, but I’ve only been working in it (paid) for around two years now. A long period of retail work while practising CG at home explains most of the gap between formal study and having a CG job.
How did you start out in CG?
I’ve been interested in both art and computers ever since I had access to wonderful things like crayons and keyboards. I never combined the two in a messy literal sense, but after seeing Toy Story in the cinemas it just felt inevitable that I’d be doing something along those lines – even if I didn’t get exactly what that meant at that age.
Anim8orwas the first 3D software I tried and as previously explained I ended up using Blender. I realised I had a long way to go after my studies before I was work ready – or at least I felt that way – so I spent ages reworking characters, trying new techniques, doing more tutorials and so on. I certainly learnt a lot but it meant my reel rarely made it into any studios. I also managed a bit of freelance work with Montage Studio during this time which was a lot of fun and helped my slowly growing confidence.
Eventually I got a call from a local studio that had received my work (Monkeystack) about an in-house mentoring program, which worked out great for me and is still working out great for others. Basically the studio sets fun projects as if they were clients and we carry them out at the studio where we can ask them for guidance. The Steampunk Mousetrap was one such project. After that I was offered a paid contract of several months, which lead to Durian, which in turn lead to me receiving more work from Monkeystack. Good times!
What have you done to improve yourself throughout your career?
The BlenderArtists.org forums and the Blender community who fuel them deserve a mention and a thanks here. I was improving by reading tutorials and the like, but when I started putting more pieces online and deliberately asking for critique I could feel things kick up a notch. Some comments are inevitably blunter than others, but once you get the hang of filtering down to the helpful critiques it has been a very valuable experience.
That doesn’t make up the sum total of where I look for help and inspiration though. I find the ZBrushCentral featured threads amazingly inspiring, even if I’m not sculpting at the time. I have a thing for attention to detail as it is a quality I want to nurture as an artist. As well as this, buying up resources like books, texture packs, training dvds, art books and generally soaking up what is available within my budget. Sticking to purely Open Source and Creative Commons is a noble goal I guess, but I have no issues parting with money for resources or software. Similarly, only looking at Blender art or even digital art is potentially just as limiting. Viva Rembrandt!
What advice do you have for upcoming artists?
Actually finish your projects. There is a whole bunch of advice I could give but that seems the best I can give at this point. For all the time I’ve been on the BlenderArtists.org forums I haven’t actually posted that much in the finished projects section for the simple reason that a lot of my personal projects still sit half finished. I’ve gained a lot of technical knowledge from continually tweaking and reworking and obviously that does help with my current work. However, setting a maintainable pace and sticking to it on a weekly basis is something I feel I should have put a lot more emphasis on while I was learning. I’ve got a solid grasp of it now, but it can be a huge mental shift from ‘I can tweak this all month’ to ‘this needs to be done by 5pm tomorrow.’
Thankfully the other majorly helpful thing I figured out earlier was that techniques are simply techniques. If you are using Blender and Gimp, there is usually no reason you can’t read tutorials for Maya and Photoshop for example. Not all the feature sets line up for sure, but things like topology, image maps, lighting and keyframes are common enough that you can apply at least the bulk of most tutorials to your software of choice. Blender education has taken huge leaps forward even since I started with it, but this view opens up an established world of resources from artists, studios and publishers all around the globe.
The other advantage here is that studios use a range of software from off the shelf to custom built. If you are already used to applying techniques from one software to another before you set foot in your first job it makes settling in that much easier.
What was it like working with the Durian team (Sintel)?
When you leave your hemisphere to live and work with a bunch of people you met online, you had better hope you all get along. Fortunately we managed to fluke that pretty well and gel nicely within the early pre-production week. I almost didn’t go but my current employers were gracious enough to adjust my contract a little so I could meet the team. I’m very glad I did though as I eventually rocked up about two months into the project (contract overlap) and would have been completely in the deep end from all angles.
I opened the door to the Institute for the first time and this bearded dude yells ‘Ben!’ and gives me a hug. Nathan then proceeded to let me in and meet the rest of the team. Given the range of backgrounds and skill sets it did take a while for us to gel as an efficient team though, even if we got along quite well as people. Mirroring that, it also took a little while for certain parts of Blender 2.5 to work. This all made for a rather slow start compared to the amount of work we had ahead, even if we were working hard.
Ton did his thing though and managed to lure enough crazy people in to join us and extend the project. Somehow we got the film done without cutting as much as I thought we would need to, so a big thanks to all who supported us one way or another!
What exactly did you do on the Sintel film?
Oh, this and that.
Seriously though I think I had a small hand in just about every artistic area except the animation, sound and script. I can remember modelling props, characters and environments, a lot of texture work, a smidge of matte painting, the Shaman’s beard about four or five times, fire and fog simulation effects, lighting, compositing and even a little concept art to get my head in sync with Colin‘s regarding the snow scene. Being from the driest state in Australia, it seemed logical that Lee and I did most of the work on the opening snow fight.
Now to put that in perspective I’m not trying to hog the glory as we all pitched in with each others tasks where possible to get that film out the door. There was a pretty clear split into developers, animators and compositors, especially for the last half of the project, but of the compositors it seemed my job description for lack of a better term was kept quite fluid. Given that I enjoy all parts of the digital animation process anyway to some degree, that is exactly how I like it. Other than that, its hard to say exactly what I did on the film. For example I did a fair amount on the cave, but everyone did a fair amount on the cave.
What do you consider your best work and why?
Given that I’m always trying to improve, the idea is to make my latest work the best work each time.
If I was to give a practical answer though, it would have to be the Steampunk Mousetrap. At the very least it’s my favourite. Not only am I very happy with how it turned out, but it was a larger scale project that I finished as opposed to a single character or still image. It gave me more confidence that I could regularly start and finish things in a workplace so long as I kept focussed on improving speed and efficiency with my workflows. At the time I made the piece, that was a big deal for me. As a side note, I’m glad to see the rise of the Cycles renderer, but Screen Space Global Illumination (SSGI) as a compositing node was a lot of fun to use.
If electricity comes from electrons, does morality come from morons?
Well if someone has let themselves be raised by the internet as it were, then I guess that’s entirely possible.
Thanks for the interview Ben!