Join Rob Garrott for an in-depth discussion in this video Scott Keating: Illustrator and 3D artist, part of Artists and Their Work: Conversations about Mograph VFX and Digital Art.
[Scott Keating]: I always had the philosophy that, [Voiceover] you just have to keep making stuff, [Voiceover] like whatever it is. [Voiceover] And you may not make money at it at first, [Voiceover] but you'll hopefully at least get better. [Voiceover] And doing work for somebody helped me, [Voiceover] because they would ask me to do something [Voiceover] that I wouldn't have done [Voiceover] on my own. - So, Scott, tell me a little bit about yourself and your background. How did you get started into art? - Well, so I have a fine art background. I went to school for like traditional art, painting, I actually studied painting, sculpture, photography, and printmaking. So, all the dead arts, I learned. [interviewer laughs] - Did you study Latin, too? [Scott laughs] - So yeah, I had a very extremely traditional sort of background in art. - [Scott] And then when I graduated school, I started doing illustration work. And I kinda just thought that's where it would go. I didn't have any sort of 3D background or anything like that, no CG. And I was working in illustration and advertising, and I sort of got into comic books a bit, doing covers and some interior stuff. And then it was like a really weird, I was always interested in like visual effects and like CG and things like that, but it seemed like it was a million miles away. It's like you have to learn all this complicated software, and it just seemed impossible. I didn't know how to go about learning it. 'Cause where I'm from, where I was living at the time, in New Flander, there are no schools for like production or CG, or anything like that, really. So, I just looked for internships online. I was like, there has to be somewhere they'll let me go (interviewer laughs) (Scott laughs) and work for free. And then Side Effects had an internship. And, I was like, this is perfect. And then when I got there, they were like, "Well, we've never had an artist apply, ever." (interviewer laughs) (Scott laughs) So I was like, "Oh, okay." And then I had been working there like four months as an intern, they were like, "Well let's just hire you. "We're just gonna hire you. "Because we have these amazing technical programmers, "but we have nobody with an art background at all. "So when we demonstrate this, it's like a cube, you know, a cube falls over." (interviewer laughs) You know like that's kinda boring. And when I got there, I didn't know any of the technical stuff, so the very first thing I started to do was just like make stuff look pretty. 'cause that's what I knew how to do. - Which is the whole point of the software. - Exactly, exactly. So now I have this weird balance, where I've learned actually, you know I can program a little bit, you know, I've learned a lot of technical stuff, but in just like literally about four years or something, yeah. So, it's hard to describe. When people ask me even what I do, I'm like, it's really hard to describe because I don't think this position exists anywhere. (interviewer laughs) (Scott laughs) - [Interviewer] That's awesome. So you're working, an artist, a fine artist at a software company, making things look pretty. How was that transitioned in terms of, mentally? You had been working. Had you been painting art digitally already? - So in the beginning I think the very first job I ever had, that I was paid for, was doing illustrations for a collectible card game. So it was these tiny like one-inch, like one by one and one-half inch drawings. And it's funny, actually, it was for "Game of Thrones" collectible card game. But this was like, I don't think anybody had ever heard of "Game of Thrones"-- - [Interviewer] Yeah, it was just for the books at that point. - It was just for the books, yeah. And I'd never heard of it either. And then, pretty quickly, I met a couple of guys who were into comic books. And I've always been into comic books, but, and they were like, "Do you think you could draw like an issue of Comic?" And I didn't know. (interviewer laughs) (Scott laughs) I never really did it, but I gave it a shot and it was fun. And it was cool work, so, and then I did all kinds of weird... (Interviewer laughs) (Scott laughs) [Scott] from there, but yeah that's where it started out. - Well maybe we should take a look at at some of your work here on your website. - Oh sure, yeah. Part of what I do was, I would always try and keep myself busy, because I don't know, I don't wanna just sleep all day or something like that, which can happen when you're a freelancer, so... (interviewer laughs) (Scott laughs) so I always sorta gave myself these mini sort of projects, just to say okay, "For the next two weeks, I'm gonna do like this." And some of them sometimes turned into real things. So like one of the ones I did that I was really happy with, [Scott] is this comic book that I started that was [Scott] well, sorta extremely dark now that I think about it. [Scott] Maybe it's a bad example, but... (interviewer laughs) [Scott] It's about a guy named Albert Fish back in like turn of the century, basically. And he's really messed up. (Interviewer laughs) (Scott laughs) But he's sorta a really fascinating story. So I started doing this [Scott] this comic, I don't know what it says about me, [Scott] but almost all the work that I got as an illustrator was like, "Oh, we need these zombies, "or these dead bodies." It was always like, and I'm not even sure where that came from, 'cause they weren't the samples that I was sending out. (Interviewer laughs) But, (laughs) I don't know if the people who make that kind of work are just more desperate or something, but... - What kinds of clients were they? - So in the beginning it was like, it was a lot of independent comic book stuff where they would pay me five dollars a page or something like that, like something ridiculous. But for me, at the beginning, it was like, I always had the philosophy that, you just have to keep making stuff, like whatever it is. And you may not make money at it at first, but you'll hopefully at least get better. And doing work for somebody, helped me because they would ask me to do something that I wouldn't have done on my own. So, it did ended up, you know a lot of independent comic books are like weird and dark, and sorta twisted sometimes. - So, like we're gonna jump back and forward in time a little bit, you know. So now we're back at the software company, which is Side Effects, the people that make Houdini. You're making things look pretty, but now you're a print guy working with an animation software. (Scott laughs) How does that transition work out? - Well in the beginning, the transition for me was basically like modeling, texturing, the typical stuff where I was essentially making a rendered image that didn't have any animation. I was just like trying to make something, basically something I would draw. Let's see if I could make it in 3D. So then getting into that side of things with Houdini was actually more through the technical side, because the big part of Houdini is they have all these simulation tools. And so I would start out thinking, "Well, it'd be cool, in this still image, "if I could have like a dust cloud or something." And then, I would try and model it. And then, "Well, this doesn't make any sense." (interviewer laughs) I'd go, "What am I doing?" And then, just by working with the people I work with, they're like, "No, you can run a fluid scene--" - Stop it on a given frame, - Yeah, and then pick the prettiest frame, and then you can move it around, even. It could be non-physical. So that's where I started getting into animation, was to create stills. (Interviewer laughs) (Scott laughs) which is still sorta completely backwards. And then from there, as soon as, you know, it's the classic thing. It's like as soon as I started seeing simulation stuff and how it moves and all the interesting things that a simulation did. Then I was like, "Okay, I can't. "I have to show this moving. "I have to." So then it was like, "Well I'm still not an animator, though. "I can't do that." I mean if I really had to, I probably could do something, (Interviewer laughs) but it wouldn't be great. So instead, I had to sort of figure out, well, "How can I make something that's..." The animation comes from a procedural sort of nature, or a simulation nature. - So you don't have to work with keyframes-- - Exactly. But still have to have it visually interesting. So for me, I almost tried to approach it in the beginning almost like a documentary filmmaker or something. So like there was an event happening, and now I'm just trying to capture it somehow in an interesting way. So that's most of what I've tried to do with that is not get in there too much and massage it frame by frame or anything like that, and more try and set up an interesting scenario, see how it goes, and then tweak it, art direct it a little bit you know? But try and keep it as natural as possible, and then just film that, essentially. (Interviewer laughs) - Maybe we should take a look at some simulations, then. Do you think you can build a simulation for us, and talk while we're doing it? - Yeah, absolutely. - Let's do that, then. - [Scott] Let me just jump over to Houdini here. [Scott] So, I've actually got this sort of [Scott] brick wall set up here. [Scott] And again I was sorta talking earlier about the idea that I have this fine art background. - And for me, a lot of artmaking is like building something, and then like tearing it apart. And then trying to build another thing out of the remains of what you just made. And one of the things that, once I started learning Houdini, that appealed to me on the artist side, is that it's procedural, so you can build something, and then change it. And you don't necessarily start from scratch, because you sorta work in this procedural way, that allows you to make changes in different parts of the software and it will sort of propagate through the system that you've built. So, that really appealed to me. Like a super simple example here [Scott] would be like this brick wall, for instance. [Scott] By using this sort of network that I've built, [Scott] you can change like the number of the bricks, [Scott] or like the height of the bricks. [Scott] And these are like simple little things, [Scott] but what I found was when I was [Scott] trying to make a cool shot, particularly where it's a simulation and it's sorta physically based, so you don't have a hundred percent control over it. Sometimes it was nice that I would run a simulation, and then go, "Oh, you know that should be two feet taller." Or, "That thing needs to break here instead of here." - So almost like setting up a stack of dominoes. - Exactly, exactly. You kinda know what it's gonna do, right? (interviewer laughs) - And then it gets partway through and it misses one. Like, "Ah, now I gotta set that all up again." So now I don't have to set it up again. - You can just click and go back to the beginning. - Exactly. So yeah, let's just turn this into a scene here. - [Interviewer] I don't want to take it for granted [Interviewer] of what a simulation is. Can you define a simulation for me? - Sure, yeah. Actually if I just set this up here real quickly, [Scott] we'll be able to maybe talk about it a bit. [Scott] So, really a simulation with CG is, there's usually something called a solver. And that basically handles the math or the physics. But it really literally is usually an extremely simplified version of reality. 'Cause calculating a real simulation is intensive. You need to be on crazy computers, and things people don't have. So the idea is to try and make it look as real as possible, while stripping out all the data, that you don't actually need to make it look real enough that people believe it. Which is kinda the fun thing actually about visual effects and animation is that as long as it looks real enough, that's all that really matters (laughs). - It just has to look good (laughs). - It doesn't, as long as nothing stands out and makes people go, "That's weird." It shouldn't do that. But in the basic sense, you just have objects, and they have some sort of properties like the weight, or the size. And then there's just literally just math equations run on it to say, "From this frame to this frame, "how far would it have moved, you know, "with gravity operated on it, or whatever." [Scott] Which actually you can kinda see [Scott] here at the bottom, the gravity (laughs) is played. [Scott] So I think actually, if I play this right now, - [Interviewer] We got one. (laughs) - [Scott] Not much is probably gonna happen there. [Scott] So, let me just add something to this so [Scott] it'll be a bit more interesting. [Scott] We'll just use a sphere. [Scott] It'll be the easiest thing to do. [Scott] Shrink it down. [Scott] So, it has all the kinda modeling stuff, [Scott] so obviously if I was doing like a real project I'd probably take some more time to make something a little bit nicer-looking than this. [Scott] But the idea is you model [Scott] anything that you want, really. [Scott] And then use these tools to turn them into these [Scott] dynamic objects, these things [Scott] that have physical properties. [Scott] So basically I've just turned [Scott] that sphere into an object, here. [Scott] You can actually see it plugged in. [Scott] Which is also another thing that, [Scott] as an artist, I like the idea that I can [Scott] see all this stuff, that it's all connected, and I can sorta understand how things are working. That always appealed to me 'cause I did like, again, the idea of taking stuff apart and seeing how it works, and putting it together. And this really gave me that feeling of like, when I first started learning I would look at this. [Scott] And I would have no idea how this worked, at all. [Scott] So then I would just say, [Scott] "Well, like what happens if I delete this?" And then I would hit "Play" , and, "Okay, nothing works." So that's important, whatever that was. That was an important part. And it was cool that I could do that. Literally just destroy it and rebuild it, and then learn by sort of failing, basically. (interviewer laughs) (Scott laughs) [Scott] So let's see. [Scott] Okay, well our sphere should probably do [Scott] something more than just [Scott] fall on the ground like that. [Scott] So what we can actually do is put... [Scott] Here are some of the physical properties I talked [Scott] about, so you can see like velocity, right? [Scott] So if we put like some velocity [Scott] along the Z axis, which I'm pretty sure is [Scott] going sorta left to right, here. [Scott] Our sphere should sorta burst through there. [Scott] And this is for me this is why it was magical. [Scott] 'Cause like seeing that happen. - [Interviewer] Yeah and very realistic movement. - [Scott] Yeah, yeah exactly. [Scott] And then looking at this and going, [Scott] "Well where can I put the camera now?" [Scott] That'll make this look cool, you know? [Scott] 'Cause it could be anywhere. [Scott] Maybe we need to have them come right at the camera, [Scott] or something, roll past. [Scott] It's all this like weirdly, technical stuff, but then instantly switches into this artistic thing. Like where can I put stuff? How does this look? How can I light this? - I guess one of the things that is really awesome about having the illustration background, and especially the storytelling things that you did with the comic books, do you find the shot choices that you make are influenced by that? - Yeah, absolutely. Oftentimes, you know if I kinda know ahead of time what my project is gonna be, I'll start by drawing it all. I'll start with, basically like a storyboard. And then there's this interesting challenge of how can I make this physical simulation do what I drew. (Scott laughs) (interviewer laughs) 'Cause there's real physics in there, so I don't have total control over it. - So it's like this, "Maybe if I tweak it just slightly, or "if I change the shape of this thing, it'll bounce differently." Like little things like that. But yeah, I almost always start with a drawing, and a storyboard, and then that gives me... 'Cause that's even faster if you can draw ten pictures pretty quickly, you know, and say, "Is that cool, or not?" Maybe even take into like After Effects® or Premiere® or something, and time it out, and figure out like, "Is that cool?" 'Cause usually these demos... I don't work in an animation studio, so it's like I've got ten seconds, and that's it. I have to show you something cool in (clears throat) in ten seconds. So that's why planning it out like that, like for me anyway, is critical. - It's such an important step in the process. A lot of folks skip over it, but, you know, writing something down on paper gives it life. - [Scott] It really does. - Maybe you could add a little bit of dust to this explosion. So we could see that process. So, yeah, so right now, I mean this is kinda like just a pile of bricks, basically. [Scott] You can't really call it a wall, because it... [Scott] nothing's holding anything together, right? (interviewer laughs) [Scott] If we want to create dust, probably want to do it so that when something breaks, that's probably where the dust is going to come through. Unless the whole thing is just covered in dust, I guess. (interviewer laughs) So maybe what I'll do is, I'll sorta glue this whole wall together. And that way it won't just all come apart, it actually will break. [Scott] So we can literally just glue it together. [Scott] If I zoom in here, you can see these little red lines. [Scott] That's actually the glue bonds, like between the-- - They're connecting axis to axis? - Yeah, so it's like the center of each object, basically, looks for the next object near it and connects it. - You know it's really interesting as I watch you do this. You know there was a thought process you went through that was really interesting, asking yourself questions about the type of object that you were trying to create. - Animation and visual effects is this really odd art form, that has... there's extreme, high-end amounts of art on one side, and then there's all this technical stuff on the other side. But in order for any of it to work, it kinda has to meet somewhere in the middle, because otherwise I would have to animate this, like hand, frame by frame, move these bricks. And even just learning the software, most animation software just in general, is not complex, but it's techincal. You have to understand how the software works, how the rendering is gonna work. So it's this really cool mix of, you have to have great artists, but you also have to have great technology. - Well that software, it tends to be meaningless without a creative goal to motivate. - Well that's sort of like how I got hired, right? Like these guys, and they still do it, the programmers we always sort of laugh about it. It's like a taurus, it's like always a taurus. (interviewer laughs) Or it's like a box and that's it. Yeah, it's like now here's the new thing, and it's like another box. (interviewer laughs) - And then immediately you think, "Well, no, "why can't it be an ocean and a boat, you know?" Instead of like a box and a box. (interviewer laughs) (Scott laughs) Yeah, so that's definitely the idea. So I think I just ran this thing, and the glue is actually too strong. - It's pretty strong glue, actually, yeah. - So it looks like we can change this-- - I could've used some glue like that actually, [Interviewer] a few days ago. [Scott] Let's see, here. [Scott] There you go. [Scott] It sorta sticks together up here. - [Interviewer] Yeah, it really does. - [Scott] Make it slightly stronger. (mouse clicks) - [Scott] Yeah, it's kinda cool. - [Interviewer] Excellent. [Interviewer] And it even stops the ball. [Scott] Yeah, exactly. And this is actually kinda like what I was talking about with physical simulation. You kinda know how it's gonna work, but like-- - there's always an unpredictable-- - Yeah, like I would actually not have thought that it would do this, you know like fall down and tip over like that. That's pretty cool. [Scott] So now we've got some glue, [Scott] let's go ahead and add some [Scott] snecks to do that. [Scott] And actually this is kind of a neat [Scott] sort of side issue, I guess, is that this tool [Scott] that does this, I guess I should play this [Scott] so you can see what it does. - [Interviewer] Oh wow, look at that, yeah. - I actually built this tool. Yeah, so that's kinda what's been fun for me, is that I knew this was a problem. You know this is something that people are gonna want to do. They're gonna want to create this dust. And so, just like in my spare time at work, I kinda just took it upon myself to try and solve the problem in Houdini. And then Side Effects was nice enough to say, "That's cool, let's put that in there." - It's now a feature. - Yeah, exactly, exactly. - So now you've kinda crossed another barrier, mentally from fine artist into the programming world? You've built this tool, but you've used a computer to do it. - Yeah, it's sorta surreal to me, to be honest, that I'm doing programming of any sort. And Houdini allows you to do stuff without programming like in a traditional sort of way. - Actually writing code? - Yeah 'cause you can literally use these nodes to... Essentially one of these pieces are like a block of code. So you're kinda stringing code together. - As you connect the nodes? - Yeah, so luckily I didn't actually have to know much in the way of programming at all to do this. It was more just, weirdly enough, it did come from an artistic side, where I was looking at what's happening there. So if there's two things that are attached, and they come apart, I know that's where the dust should come from. I don't know how to make it do that, but I know that's where it should happen, you know? And then I would go and talk to a programmer and say, "So how would I do that?" And then they would say, "Well what if you just check "to see if you have like Piece 1 and Piece 2? "And they're next to each other. "Just check to see if they're not next to each other, anymore." - Ask a question. - Yeah, and then that makes perfect sense. If they're no longer next to their buddy, then they broke. And then, surprisingly you can go from that basic sorta idea, into a tool. It only took me like a couple of days to actually prototype it. And it gets like a pretty cool kind of result. [Scott] So let me just go back into our debris sitting here. [Scott] Let's merge these guys together. [Scott] So I just wanted to bring in this [Scott] ground plan that you see, here. [Scott] 'Cause all of our debris was actually [Scott] just falling infinitely through space. (Scott laughs) - [Scott] Now it'll actually hit on the ground. [Scott] Give us a much more interesting kind of look. [Scott] And then this is where I would start. I've got something that looks kinda neat. And then it's like just, "How do we make this "actually look cool, you know?" [Scott] Like light it, put textures on there and stuff. [Scott] And that's a much more laborious stage there. [Scott] But the basic idea, you know. [Scott] It's fun to play around with an idea, [Scott] and see if you can get it to look real, but also cool. - [Interviewer] So now that you've crossed an important technical and mental threshold, what's next for you? What do you see as your future challenges, then? Things that you want to do, or things you know you're gonna have to do at some point. - Yeah, that's an interesting question, because I've kinda just been making it up as I go along at this point. So, I don't know, but I've worked at Side Effects for about four years, now. And so now it's like, "Wait, I have a job." (interviewer laughs) (Scott laughs) This is actually a job. Yeah, what do I do to keep pushing myself? Right now, the thought is to really, I mean what I would like to do, I don't even know if Side Effects likes this idea, but what I would like to do is really try and push this and build some content that maybe is like what an animation studio would do, or is like what like a professional studio somewhere would do, but do it internally. Have it as an example like, "Here are all these problems that productions run into." And let's see if we can solve them. Let's see if we can fix those before they ever get out there in the productions. 'Cause part of my job, apart from building this stuff, is to go and talk with studios. You know I go and talk. I travel through various... I was just in Japan and Singapore, and I may be going to China later, to visit customers, basically. And half my time there is, they're like, "I have a dragon and it's coming up out of the ocean. "How do I do that?" And usually the answer is, "I have no idea how, either." But they run into typical issues. So sometimes I think that we should maybe try and do a small project, so that we run into those problems. So then, it's like an internal thing. - So it sounds like the big part of your day, your daily work is solving problems, which I guess is true for any artist. I mean, you're presented with a creative challenge, and you have to figure out a way to get there. - Exactly, yeah, exactly. That's what's really kept me interested. 'Cause I honestly didn't think I would work at Side Effects for more than a couple of months. But then once I started working there, it's like everyday like this new, interesting problem, that is a weird connection between this has to work and it has to be consistent and you have to be able to show other people how this works. But it also has to be cool. (interviewer laughs) (Scott laughs) So every day really is like, you get a strange problem from who knows, a customer or even just somebody in the company. And you're like, "Yeah, I never even thought of that before. "You're right, how do we do that? "I have no idea." And then, okay, let's spend the next week, tearing that problem apart and see if we can figure anything out. - Excellent. So now that you're in this position with a job, and creating these simulations, and solving problems for other folks, how do you keep your creative skills up? Do you still draw comic book art on the side? Are you still that fine artist? - Yeah, well it is sorta always a struggle. I have this job with specific goals, and specific problems to solve for the job. And sometimes they're not super creative. Sometimes it's just like, "We just need to do this." So there is this idea that I go home, and then it's like okay, now I've gotta do my own thing. Luckily, sometimes they can overlap. I can have like this cool idea that I want to try, and then at my job, they're like, "Yeah, go ahead. "Because that would be cool." But still sometimes it's like, "Oh, you wanna do a comic book about a serial killer? "No, no, that doesn't help us at all." (interviewer laughs) (Scott laughs) So yeah, I like to try and keep myself creatively autonomous, so I can still do my own thing and feel like I have the freedom to do that. And that usually means doing it outside of work, but luckily my job is creative on both sides, from personally and at my job. So, they don't conflict all the time. I can do my own thing on my free time to keep those creative juices going, where I have no constraints, do whatever I like, but still get some nice, real-world feedback at my work. - Excellent.
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