All images © Eric Keller
Eric Keller shares insights into creativity, insect life, and using 3D as
Eric Keller works in entertainment and scientific visualization as a CG artist and instructor. He uses CG tools to help researchers and teachers visualize discoveries and educate the public, and he has authored multiple books on 3D art.
a learning tool...
3dtotal: Hi Eric, thanks for talking to us! Could you tell us a bit about who you are, where you are, and what you do?
I am a CG artist with around 18 years of experience living and working in Los Angeles. I am a generalist who works in both the entertainment industry and in scientific visualization. In addition to the work I do for clients I'm also an instructor. I've been teaching ZBrush
at the Gnomon School of Visual Effects
since 2008. I've written several books and authored numerous video lectures for Lynda.com
, the Gnomon Workshop, and Clarafi.com
. I love using computers to create art both professionally and personally. I always have a personal project or two in the works on the side in addition to my paid work. I'm really excited about the future of computer graphics and emerging technologies such as virtual reality.
Bombardier Beetle, notorious for its scalding chemical butt-spray. Created in ZBrush for episode 2 of Entomology Animated, rendered with Octane
3dt: Did you always want to be an artist? How did you discover 3D?
Yes, I always wanted to be an artist, except when I wanted to be a musician. I started drawing at a very early age – my brothers and I were all avid drawers. We were all old-school Star Wars
fans (the original theatrical release, back when it was just Star Wars
and not 'Episode IV
'). We spent hours drawing TIE fighters, X-wings, and Darth Vader on long rolls of newsprint that our mother got for us.
When I was a teenager I decided I'd rather be a rock star than an artist and I chose the worst possible route for becoming a rock musician: I went to music school. I earned a Bachelor's of Music from Florida State University, USA, in classical guitar in 1994. It was not a particularly marketable skill and so the professional music thing didn't quite work out. After a couple of years playing in bands and doing the odd wedding gig, I realized I liked practicing more than performing and I liked eating more than not eating.
Discovering computer graphics rekindled my love of creating visual art and I quickly learned Photoshop
and Maya 1.0. Computer graphics suits my personality much more than being a performing musician and I'm lucky enough to be able to make a living as an artist. Since I first played with Photoshop back in 1996 I've been creating CG art every day, and I love every minute of it. I occasionally still play my guitar, but only when my computers are all tied up with renders.
A big-head fly of the genus Eudorylas. Eric made this personal study to improve his compound eye modeling skills
3dt: Who or what are your biggest creative inspirations?
Currently my biggest source of inspiration comes directly from nature and the artists who specialize in photographing insects and arachnids. Alex Wild, Nicky Bay, Melvyn Yeo, Piotr Naskrecki, John and Kendra Abbott, and Thomas Shahan are among my current favorites. Drew Berry, who pioneered animating molecular dynamics within Maya, has had a huge impact on my career as well.
My good friend Gaël McGill, the CEO of Digizyme
, is an artist and scientist. His ideas for using 3D animation tools for research and science education are ahead of the curve and he never runs out of ideas for projects that push my limits (in a positive way!). I enjoy working with the other members of the Digizyme team and Clarafi.com; not only are they talented digital artists and programmers, but they are accomplished scientists as well. This is kind of intimidating but it keeps me on my toes.
When it comes to fantasy art I am a big fan of Neville Page, especially his approach to art and instruction. He is extremely thoughtful about how he works which I really enjoy. I like Terryl Whitlatch, Laurel D. Austin, John Howe, and Ian McCaig, all of whom have a love and respect for the natural world and it shows in their art! Some of my favorite artists are also my good friends; John Brown, who teaches figure sculpture at Gnomon, completely changed the way I view the human form, which has in turn changed the way I see all forms in the natural world. I moved to Hollywood from the east coast just to take John's class! I also enjoy the endless conversations (both technical and philosophical) that I have with Mark Dedecker, who is a close friend and an amazing character modeler.
Finally I think Alex Alvarez inspired me quite a bit when I first started learning Maya. I've always appreciated how he worked so hard to master so many diverse aspects of CG and I've been a big fan of his teaching style from the very start. His recent work creating digital forests is very inspiring.
An Australian bulldog ant rendered in Mental Ray for Maya. This monster is Australian for 'ant'
3dt: Your interest in insects and entomology is a big part of your work. Where did that stem from?
A few years ago I worked on a series of animations with Digizyme for the Boston Museum of Science
which involved modeling, texturing, rigging, and animating various arachnids and bugs, including dust mites, ticks and lice and a few other things that are even more disgusting. In the process, I discovered that insects, as a subject, presented some really great challenges for me as a CG artist. And that there are many more beautiful insects and arachnids than there are disgusting ones!
Modeling insects has the best of both worlds: a hard-surface modeling shape language with plenty of organic detailing. And then of course texturing and shading their colorful and translucent exoskeletons is always a lot of fun. Rigging and animating insect models, while not nearly as difficult as rigging a realistic human, is a great puzzle. I like rigging but I'm also impatient. I can create a decent rig for an arthropod in a couple hours, but doing a human character takes too long for me. Finally, I like the challenge of animating insects and spiders, as each species has its own style of movement, they all have their own personalities, and it is fun to try and capture this in motion.
In 2012 I had the good fortune of being a part of the team that developed the animation and interactive illustrations for E.O. Wilson's digital biology text book Life on Earth
for the iPad. It was a huge project. I spent two years creating dozens of models, animations, and interactive 'widgets' on everything from crab gills to human digestion to ecosystem dynamics. As researched I read some of E.O. Wilson's books and quickly fell in love with the story of how social organisms such as ants and bees evolved. His writing on his own career as an entomologist and an evolutionary biologist convinced me how crucial scientific education is right now for everyone. It reaffirmed my commitment to using CG as a way to communicate difficult scientific concepts to students and the general public.
The grisly coffin fly Conicera tibialis. Emily Hartop at the LA Natural History Museum is helped Eric to make it accurate as possible
3dt: What software and tools do you use for your artwork, and why?
For modeling I primarily use ZBrush because it has the most powerful sculpting brushes available - the brushes are easily customizable and more responsive than other sculpting software. I use Maya 2016 for retopology, UV, rigging, dynamics, and animation. Maya's graph editor is one of the best animation tools that I've used and I really enjoy Maya Nucleus dynamics and working with Paint Effects. I've used MODO
, which has great modeling and rendering tools, but the rigging and animation in MODO is just not as solid as Maya. If they could fix that aspect of the software I might use MODO more.
I have spent a lot of time experimenting with rendering software such as Mental Ray
, MODO, KeyShot
, and others. Recently I have started using Octane Render for Maya and it has become my favorite. It's very fast, stable, easy to use and my renders look better than they ever have. For compositing I use primarily NUKE but sometimes After Effects. For final texturing I'll use MARI but recently I'm working Substance into my texturing workflow.
At the moment I am in the process of learning Unreal Development Kit
, Substance Designer
, and Substance Painter
. I'm very excited about the prospect of real-time physically based rendering as well as the massive creative potential of videogame technology. My goal is to start bringing my animations and visualizations into virtual reality and videogame technology seems like the best way to do this at the moment.
A shore crab inspired by a recent trip to Cambria, California. Modeled in ZBrush, rendered in Octane
3dt: What is your typical 3D workflow like?
I start with reference, always. I want to know specifically what I am modeling down to the species, gender, caste, or whatever of the particular organism. Google searches are an okay place to start but much of what is posted online is wrong (usually due to mislabeling). There are a few sites that are great for reference, such as AntWeb
. Books are still a better reference for accurate information, especially for anatomical diagrams. If I can get an actual specimen that's even better - I have a dissecting microscope right next to my Cintiq. The best resource I've found is an actual expert. I have made friends with trained entomologists and they help me understand what I'm looking at, and I often send them images for feedback and criticism. For example, Dr. Brian Brown and Emily Hartop at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum are the world's leading expert on phorid flies; if I'm working on a fly, I go to them first and they are often very excited about helping me out. I also have a Malaise trap in my backyard so I can collect my own insect specimens.
Once I have my reference together I usually start out in ZBrush using ZSpheres and DynaMesh or both to block out the anatomy of the organism. I spend most of my time working out the proportions and just getting the basics of the anatomical structure correct. Accuracy is the most important consideration at this stage. Once I have the overall form worked out, I chop the surface up into SubTools (legs, thorax, abdomen, wings, mouth, etc). I then clean up the topology and use either ZRemesher in ZBrush or bring the parts into Maya and use Quad Draw to retopologize. I bring these back into ZBrush, sculpt them into their final shape and start detailing. Detailing is where all the fun is, but it's also where I spend the least amount of time (relative to other parts of the process).
Once the model is looking pretty good I use the UV Master ZPlugin
to create quick UVs for each SubTool. I'll export these, bring them into Maya and use Maya's UV Editor to fix any issues and arrange the UV shells into more efficient UDIMMs. Then I import the edited models with the new UVs back into ZBrush and do a quick PolyPaint. I use ZBrush's Multi Map Exporter to create quick texture maps from the PolyPaint and then MARI
or Photoshop to refine and finish the textures. Sometimes I use xNormal
to create normal and cavity maps.
With the model fully prepped, I'll bring all the parts into a new Maya scene and begin rigging. It's a lot of labor and prep work but once the rig is complete I celebrate by making the bug do a little happy dance. For hair I use Paint Effects because I know it very well and can do it quickly, although I'd like to start using XGen more on the furrier critters. Octane
renders Paint Effects without the need to convert the strokes to polys, so that's another huge time-saver.
Then I create custom shaders, bring in the textures, normal maps and displacement maps, set up lighting and I'm ready to start animating. It takes a long time to do all this but the benefit is I have a growing library of insect models that are immediately ready for animation.
If all goes well I will render the animation, usually with a number of lighting passes, and I'll comp the whole thing in NUKE
. I'm currently trying to become more proficient with the 3D tools within NUKE.
An alternate view of the same California shore crab. All the rock textures are 100% procedural!
3dt: You also do a lot of teaching and educational work. What have you enjoyed about your experiences as an art instructor?
First and foremost is being in a situation where I'm surrounded by great artists in a variety of mediums with different backgrounds, styles, and points of view. Both the students and the instructors at Gnomon School keep me really excited about CG, art, and technology. I like bridging the two different cultures of entertainment and scientific illustration. In addition to teaching at Gnomon I've also had a chance to be a guest lecturer at Harvard Medical School. Most recently I've been creating online video lecture series for Clarafi.com. These are lectures on Maya and ZBrush but targeting medical and scientific illustrators and animators who are within the visualization community. Teaching to a wide variety of audiences keeps my brain in good working condition, since it forces me to keep up on the latest tools. I believe that you never really know something well unless you can explain it well. It's very easy in CG to fall back on bad habits or become kind of a slave to the tools, especially if the work gets repetitive.
To teach someone how to do something like sculpt a character in ZBrush or animate cells dividing in Maya means that I have to step inside their head for a bit and try to see the problem from their point of view. The by-product of this is that I develop a wider repertoire of techniques and solutions. There are so many benefits to teaching beyond just the enjoyment of seeing someone realize their artwork that it's really kind of a selfish thing, but I think selfish in a positive way.
The head of the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster. This is the subject of a video ZBrush tutorial Eric recorded, available at Clarafi.com
3dt: If you could give a 3D student one piece of advice, what would it be?
Make every polygon count. And by this I mean challenge yourself to go beyond just creating something that looks cool, and make something that is meaningful. As technology continues to improve and evolve, more and more of the techniques we use as artists will become automated. It's easier and easier to create something that is technically amazing and visually stunning. In the near future we'll be able to create amazing images, animations, and even virtual worlds like nothing human beings have ever seen before. CG technology is extremely powerful and I think many people underestimate the profound effect CG is having on our culture. There are many people who are dismissive about the importance or usefulness of technologies like videogames and virtual reality but I think they don't fully appreciate how this tech going to change human society. Look at how Smartphones have revolutionized the way people communicate; virtual reality is going to have ten times that effect.
So my advice is to make every polygon count in a meaningful and hopefully positive way. CG can't be just about fantasy and sci-fi; it has to be about something more than just entertainment because it is becoming the new language that we, and I mean all earthlings, will speak. The next time you sit down to start a project, resist the temptation to choose the subject of your art based solely on the fact that it's visually impressive. Instead, choose a subject that is worthy of the attention of a thoughtful artist. The CG art world is filled to the brim with cars, guns, mechs, pin-up girls, Hulks, aliens, trolls, and zombies. What the CG art world really needs is to find a more useful place within the greater culture. I think achieving this goal starts with the artist making a conscious decision to create useful, relevant art.
For any student out there, I say seek a subject matter that keeps your art meaningful and you'll never ever get tired of creating it. See if you can identify an unmet need where CG can play an important part and capitalize on that. Your career will ultimately become more satisfying and you'll be employed a lot longer. As you work with people outside of the bubble of the entertainment industry you'll find more enthusiasm and encouragement from the people around you. You might even help make the real world a better place!
An imaginary spider species Eric created especially for this interview, inspired by the spiny crab orb-weaver spider!
3dt: Please tell us about some of your recent or ongoing projects. Is there anything we should check out in the near future?
I'm always working on a few personal projects outside of work. Last spring I released the first short video for my series Entomology Animated
. I thought it would be fun to create the kind of lecture I always wanted to see in Biology class, so I created an animation that talks briefly about the chemistry behind the painful sting of the fire ant species Solenopsis invicta
. In addition to the science, I added bad puns and a shot of a death metal ant band. Scientists and teachers have really liked it so far and I even got nice compliments from E.O. Wilson himself who sent me a video thank-you message for making the animation. Dr. Wilson actually discovered that this South American ant species was invading Alabama when he was 13 years old! I posted the animation online for all to view on Vimeo
I'm working on the next episode in my spare time, which will feature animated battles between ants and a beetle with a short discussion of insect chemical weaponry.
Among my professional projects (stuff I get paid to do), I have recently released an 11-hour video lecture on Maya 2016 through The Gnomon Workshop. This is the fourth video title I've done for them. Previous videos I've done with Gnomon include a lecture on insect design and rendering, 'Using Maya Viewport 2.0' and an 'Introduction to Maya 2014'. I've also recorded a number of online scientific visualization lectures for Clarafi.com covering various aspects of ZBrush and Maya from beginner to advanced.
As always I have a number of projects I'm working on with Digizyme that involves some cool science and scientists (and bugs) but I can't really discuss much about it. I have been working on a special small project making models for a UK based game designer, but I can't really talk too much about that either. And I just started yet another semester teaching 'Introduction to Digital Sculpture' at the Gnomon School of Visual Effects in Hollywood.
A leafcutter worker ant of the genus Acromyrmex. Modeled in ZBrush and rendered in mental ray for Maya
A close up of the leafcutter. The mandibles of this ant have the power to saw through a leaf in minutes
3dt: Finally, and most importantly: please share your favorite insect fact
This is a tough one because there are so many, but I think if I could pick one thing about insects that always blows my mind is the fact that leafcutter ants developed agriculture about 50 million years before modern humans first appeared on the earth. There are several species of leaf- and grass-cutting ants. They have each evolved a highly efficient organized system of cutting up leaves and bringing them back to the nest where they use the cuttings as the basis for growing and cultivating a fungus. The fungus they grow on the leaf cuttings is used to feed the colony. That basically means they are farmers.
This fascinates me because it demonstrates the power of bottom-up design: there is no centralized decision-making process which guides the ants. The ant colony is divided into castes, with each caste specializing in a particular task: workers, soldiers, nurses, and of course the queen. The physiology of the castes varies widely within the colony – some of the soldiers are many times the size of the workers. Just like the cells in your body specialize to perform important tasks, the ant castes of a leafcutter colony are also specialized for specific tasks, making them a 'superorganism'. Imagine if all the cells of your body could split apart and roam around on the forest floor, only to return to the nest later on to reassemble. This kind of thing amazes me to no end. It's no surprise that scientists researching artificial intelligence are studying social insects such as leafcutter ants, as it's a different type of intelligence, completely alien to our common understanding of human intelligence.
Thank you very much for speaking to 3dtotal!
Thank you!!! - Eric
An imaginary mite-like bug modeled and rendered in ZBrush. The ZBrush material was inspired by illustrations in biology textbooks
A ZBrush model of the stalk eyed fly of the family Diopsidae - further proof that nature is weirder than sci-fi
To see more of Eric's work check out his website
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