Recently, I had the chance to talk with Eric Dima-ala, a matte painter, digital artist, and Tuts+ author from the Philippines. Eric has worked on some exciting projects including Ender's Game, Oblivion, Jack the Giant Slayer, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Transformers: Dark of the Moon and Revenge of the Fallen, and many more. In our interview, we discussed many topics including how to land a job in the VFX industry, the skills you need to learn in order to work on major motion pictures, how to challenge yourself to produce better art, and much more! If you would like to learn how to create better matte paintings and photo manipulations, take a look at this excellent interview.
QEric, thanks for taking the time to chat with me today. Can you begin by telling us a bit about your background? Where are you from? How did you get your start in the industry? Did you go to school or are you self-taught?
Hi, Thank you for inviting me today. I'm an artist at heart. I have loved drawing since I was a kid. I learned the basics of hand drawing with some help from my father, as I grew older though, I fell in love with comic books. That's when I really started to concentrate on drawing, which I spent most of my free time doing in high school. I even started to create my own comic books with my own superhero characters. I took inspiration from the great artists at that time: Jim Lee, Todd Mcfarlane, Greg Capullo, Sam Kieth and a few more. In college, since I figured that my weakest point was perspective and architecture, I decided to master it by taking Architecture as my subject. It was my very first exposure to 2D and 3D drafting using AutoCad 14.
That love for the arts eventually led me to 3D. From the beginning, I was already fascinated with 3D and VFX as a whole, but I thought that I could never have a chance to work in the industry. I grew up in the Philippines, and worst, I was located in one of the provinces that was too far from the capital city, VFX therefore, was an impossible dream to me.
Somehow, I did not let that stop me. With a little miracle and chance, I got a copy of Bryce 3D and Poser. I went straight to the Internet forums and learned as much as I could with those programs. That eventually led me to 3DS Max, which was used in a local firm where I worked. I learned the basics of pro 3D software while using 3DSMax 5, but in time, I learned that Maya was used in films. Since I really wanted to know how the pros do it, I downloaded and studied Maya using the Maya 5 PLE.
Everything I've learned in 3D, and even in Photoshop was through the power of the Internet via forums and a handful of tutorials that I could find online. Though I can say that being self-taught can be tedious, and takes a lot longer to learn the software, in the end, it can be rewarding. It always feels like a "eureka" moment every time you learn and see something work.
After finishing college, instead for pursuing a career in architecture, I went back to my first love, which was the arts. I took a job as an apprentice background artist for Toei Animation Philippines, creating backgrounds for Japanese animated cartoons. This experience was quite useful to me as I re-learned the basics of painting and more importantly, I learned how to create CG environments.
This became my passion. I continually tried to develop my skills, learning new ways to paint from other artists, both at the company I worked for, and online. That's when I discovered Dylan Cole's website, I was amazed with his matte paintings. This became my new passion… I went back to the Internet, looking for every tutorial I could find, and joining in competitions and challenges wherever I could find them.
As time passed, I got better at matte paintings, which gave me a bit of confidence to apply for another internship. This time, at ILM Singapore. With a bit of experience from working in a local VFX house doing commercials, I got the internship in ILM, which led to a job offer at ILM Singapore after six months of training. So I guess my hard work and perseverance paid off in the end.
QMany of our readers might be interested in landing a job in the VFX industry one day. How necessary do you think a degree is to landing a job in the VFX industry?
Based on my experience, and from the people I know, a degree in arts or any related course can be helpful, but not necessary. I have friends and co-workers that came from a very odd background. In fact, I had a VFX supervisor who was previously a truck driver.
However, studying in an art school gives you the opportunity to gather useful direct feedback and learn new techniques in a shorter period of time. What you will learn in about 1-2 years with dedicated self studying you can learn in a school in 1 year, or even less than a year. In school, you are "forced" to learn faster as there is always a deadline for each project and your environment is conducive for learning since you are surrounded with peers who are also trying to learn the same thing.
An alternative for schools would be online websites that teach these same techniques for a lesser fee. Since most schools these days cost a fortune, learning through the web with a catered course outline can be a better alternative. Although self discipline still holds a key role.
In the end, if you are passionate enough, even if you could not afford both school and online courses, learning 3D and VFX in general can still be achieved if you have discipline and dedicate some time to learn it. Forums can quite useful, I used to be in the forums all the time when I was still learning the basics.
So I believe that landing a job in VFX is possible, even if your background is not in the arts.
QYou recently wrote a tutorial for us. How important do you think it is for artists to give back to the community through education?
I always believed that sharing through education is an important aspect of being an artist. Art is meant to be shared. The process of creating art is also an art in itself. When you look at someone's workflow, it can be as fascinating, and as magical as the finished artwork itself. Not only that, I also believe that through sharing, we can better ourselves as an artist. As we share our knowledge to others, we learn from them too. How else could I have learned if not from the handful of tutorials that I found online. As I learn from others, so too others learn from me.
QYou have worked on some really exciting projects including Ender's Game, Oblivion, Jack the Giant Slayer, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Transformers: Dark of the Moon and Revenge of the Fallen, and many more. What skills should our readers focus on if they want to be able to work on projects like these at some point in the future?
It's a rather difficult question to answer. An obvious answer is, well, you need to know how to draw at least, either digitally or not. Basics in composition is always a topic for each task/shot, so basics in art will be useful. Some skill in photography can be great, as well, as you will be tackling problems with lenses and focal points.
Regarding software skills, I would advise aspiring artists to work in the VFX industry to know a little of everything related to the VFX pipeline and their related software. That includes a little 3D modeling, texturing, and rendering, a little in compositing and rotoscoping, some knowledge of effects, simulation and animation, a little knowledge in scripting, and a working knowledge in Photoshop. But from those that I've mentioned, you must concentrate on one skill that you like the most and be an expert on it. If you like compositing, you must be really good at it. If you love 3D modeling, then your reel must be quite strong at showing that. If you like animation, then you must show that you're amazing at doing it.
Most companies, especially the smaller ones, prefer a generalist, so having the knowledge to work on multiple applications can give you an edge on other applicants. However, you still need to prove that you are exceptional at what you are aspiring to do. This can be daunting, and the learning curve could be high. So, the best way to do it is to first learn what you love to do, and as you go on, you will eventually learn a few more things in the process. Let's say, in matte painting for example, learn how to paint first, and when you are ready, start learning how to model, render, etc.
QYour portfolio is rich with science fiction-themed projects. Is science fiction something that you have always been interested in? How has sci-fi influenced your art?
My father was a huge science fiction fan. In many ways, I was heavily influenced by him since we used to watch a lot of science fiction movies and TV series when I was young. At the same time, I became very fascinated with the different worlds I was watching. Unlike fantasy, sci-fi can be varied, and each idea can be more artistic than the previous one.
This, in turn, became my early inspiration for my art. Its influence can still be seen even now that I've grown older. The films and artworks, even games have expanded this genre, which in turn, have continually fueled my interest to create better and better images that have not been done yet.
QThis image from Jack the Giant Slayer depicts a giant beanstalk rising into the clouds. Can you tell us a bit about this piece? How was it used in the movie? What challenges did you face when you were creating it?
This is one of my favorite pieces that I created for the Film Jack the Giant Slayer. It was used as an establishing shot of the whole kingdom and at the same time, as a setting on how high the beanstalk goes. At this point in the image, they have just climbed the stalk and are not even halfway through it.
This piece was challenging since there is no location that was provided for this shot. Everything has to be recreated through CG and matte painting. I enjoyed working on it so much, since I had to take it from the concept stage to the final painting. That came with a set of challenges. One of which is the size of the painting. It was large enough that you can actually zoom in the artwork and still see the details of the trees and the castle. Due to that, Photoshop could not handle the size and I had to flatten a lot of layers to compensate. Another challenge was incorporating hundreds of photos for the final paint. Due to its size, our high res references had to be stitched and edited together seamlessly. Most of which were shot at a different time of day and with varying shadow directions. Also, we had to consider the composition of the shot. Since it was full CG, there were numerous times that the angle, distance, and direction where altered.
Though challenging, the process was fun and was a huge learning experience for me. It can be frustrating at times but if you love what you're doing, you always pick yourself up and just do it.
QIn what ways do you challenge yourself to produce better art? Can you offer some tips on how our readers can do the same?
I always try to think "out of the box." Yes, that phrase is overused, but it actually makes sense. I always wanted to create something that is familiar yet different. I try to play around with themes and with contrasting ideas. Nowadays, there are a lot of artists out there, and it's becoming harder and harder to create something new. But if you really think about it, no matter what art they make, somehow the idea gets repeated over and over again.
So, if I find myself trapped in that black hole, I start with the simplest idea and expand it. It's that simple. With a pencil and paper, just doodle yourself some shapes loosely. Eventually from the chaos of shapes some crazy idea will pop out. The key is to let go and let your imagination fly. The crazier it is, the better it will be. At times, when you doodle and see nothing, give yourself a break for around 10-15 minutes, and when you go back, things will just fly off the page.
To illustrate what I mean, I'll show you an example. Let's say we start with a cube. This cube is multiplied and future iterations are stacked on top of each other and sideways forming columns and beams of varying sizes. Let's say this cube is on water, is wrapped in rocks and at the same time wrapping around rocks. To make it more interesting let's add vines to it, then some Roman Columns, and to finish it off, let's make the scale really small, so tiny that we can see a huge leaf overhead.
So what I did was start with a shape, I multiplied that shape to give it form, then I placed it in an environment, then added some textures and contrast by adding rocks to its smooth surface, added familiarity by introducing the column and twisted the scale by adding the big leaf overhead, which would make the whole scene tiny, or the leaf, a giant.
Some artists might do it differently, but for me this always works.
QI've found that environments can often look pretty similar. As a matte painting artist, how do you keep your artwork looking fresh and new?
I might have answered this partially on my statement above, and yes, I agree with that statement. Some matte paintings do look alike. Using the same theme, same color palette and even same shapes.
Like I said previously, it can be a harder task to create a completely new artwork. However, if we twist and combine ideas, we could always get something fresh out of it. In my case, I get an idea and think of something that is completely opposite to it and create an image out of it.
In my recent artwork, I worked on the idea of a "Beautiful Desolation". I wanted to show the beauty of what had been destroyed. I wanted a serene peaceful image, yet set on a destroyed world. For Tuts+, I created Fire and Ice, two concepts that would be a challenge to work on, add a castle and you're in for a treat!
QYou once told me that you are a fan of "hyper real" imagery; "invisible art" as you called it. Can you tell us a bit about what "invisible art" is? How do you incorporate it into your work?
Yes indeed, I am a huge fan of hyper real images. I love it and am I so passionate about it that I made it a career.
Matte painting was and still is known mostly as "invisible art." We see it in films and in animation, but we pay very little attention to it. It makes the world real and believable, yet it's seldom that you see anyone take notice of it. But take it away and what is left is a gray scale 3D object or a green screen backdrop.
At work, I always deal with invisible art. We create environments that your favorite hero jumps around in, or we destroy cities after an alien invasion. We also create the castles and the mountains that the fairies and magical creatures live in. Basically, in my line of work, we create the backgrounds in films that make the world look and feel real. As a job, it can be quite challenging. You always need to convince your audience that what they are watching is real. Because if you fail that part, people would know it’s fake. As a whole, invisible art is a huge part of the movie industry and it carries with it almost half of the weight of the movie. Without the environment, our actors would look quite silly in front of a green screen.
QAre you working on any exciting personal or professional projects that you can share with us?
I always find myself excited in any project I work on. It can be a comedy or an action packed sci-fi film, yet each film carries with it certain challenges that can be exciting and fun. You always learn new things with each and every project.
Having said that, I could not share with you our current project/s. As much as I would want to, I am not at liberty to say it publicly. But I can assure you that its fun, exciting and you would be looking forward to see it next summer. I do have a few personal projects that are in currently on hold due to work schedule. Maybe when I get some time off I can restart on working on it again. I always keep with me a small sketch book where I place all my small sketches. Sometimes, I doodle on my tablet which is awesome when I'm mobile.
QThanks again for taking the time to chat with us today. Is there anything else you would like to leave us with?
You're welcome, and it's my pleasure. I have been a big fan of the site since I started to learn CG. I have read and even bookmarked several tutorials from Tuts+. It's also my pleasure to share some of my ideas with the community.
Dream and dream big, even if the odds are not in your favor. Chances are, you have a brighter future ahead and you just don't know it yet. Just keep your head up, fix your eyes on the goal, and just do it. Art is passion, and if you're passionate enough at what you do, eventually you will get to your dream.
Thank you once again and I hope I can inspire others as they have inspired me.