The Gnomon Workshop

Interview with Krystal Sae Eua

Krystal Sae Eua is an VES Award-nominated 3D artist and is currently a senior character artist among the exceptional talent at Blur Studio, having spent four years prior at The Mill LA as a modeling and texturing lead. Graduating from Gnomon as a 3D generalist, Krystal has worked on big projects like Avatar, The Avengers, Skyfall, Penny Dreadful, cinematics for Call of Duty, and has numerous credits in the fast-paced world of creating commercials, something to which also she credits her incredible modeling and sculpting speed. A frequent guest lecturer in Gnomon’s Anatomy Lab series, displaying her love of zoological studies, she also has a practical title for The Gnomon Workshop that can aid aspiring character artists in understanding what it’s really like to create a production-ready model on the job, from sculpting anatomy to a final presentation that’s ready to be rigged. Read on as she shares sculpting tips, what it’s like working at the coolest studios, and all about her life-long love of studying anatomy.

GW: What were some of the biggest influences in your decision to become an artist in the VFX industry and what continues to inspire you today?

KSE: Essentially my love of film drew me into wanting to work on them initially. I moved to Los Angeles to become a 2D animator and that wasn’t going to happen since the industry was going through a major overhaul back then. I took one 3DS Max intro class and really enjoyed it. The rest is history... I stay inspired today because the pursuit of art in any medium is never-ending. For example, I know that no matter how much anatomy I know, there’s still so much more!

GW: What ultimately made you want to focus your career on characters, vs. environments, or props and hard-surface modeling?

KSE: I have always wanted to be a character artist. I started my career strictly as a hard-surface modeler out of necessity. As I went through my career, I started to get hungry to work on digital doubles. My supervisor helped get me some of that work and eventually it turned into an obsession. Then I wanted to do more and learn more.

GW: What experiences have you had working at top studios like The Mill and Blur Studio? What’s your day-to-day like?

KSE: All studios run a little differently but these two are super fun places. The Mill is a bright, friendly and fast-paced commercial house filled with wonderful people. Blur is incredibly inspiring and I love being able to work with a whole department of character artists who are all super passionate about it. On a day-to-day basis, I’ll either get to work on a character or technical task to make sure that it all works smoothly in the pipeline. I get to solve problems all day and it’s always fun and challenging in different ways.

GW: You were nominated for Outstanding VFX in a Commercial for Game of War at the VES Awards in 2016. Can you tell us a little about your contributions to the commercial and what the nomination experience was like?

KSE: This project was super fun. This was one of the first projects that I was able to do model/texture, asset leading, lookdev and lighting. To be nominated was such an honor and it really makes you feel like you accomplished something extra cool.

GW: When working in a pipeline, what tips do you have for modeling and texturing artists that can make the whole project easier and smoother for riggers, animators, etc. that work with the model afterward?

KSE: Think ahead. Ask questions. Be accountable. You need to realize that, as a modeler, you are the first step in a long pipeline. If you mess up, you push everyone else’s schedule, usually ending up costing them to work later. So, you need to be aware of what everyone needs to make your model work for them. At the end of the day, you all want to make beautiful work so everyone should help each other get what they need.

GW: How do you approach imbuing a character model with the right personality and look for the project?

KSE: It all depends on the design and the project. I spend a nice chunk of time finding good references. I will discuss the brief with my supervisors and directors, then my colleagues and I will sometimes bounce ideas back and forth to solidify look and design reasoning. Even if no one else knows that we are doing that, we have a clearer idea in our heads and the designs will end up more coherent at the end of the day. Communication is key. You might also have a vague brief, and this is a great opportunity for you to pitch ideas and sell them to the sups/directors. Some work and some don’t, but it’s always cool to be able to do that.

GW: What can viewers expect to learn from your title for The Gnomon Workshop, Character Modeling for Production, and can you tell us how your approach and workflow is an effective one?

KSE: Well, I know that there are a lot of great character modeling tutorials out there but I wanted to make sure that mine had something more to say about what the job is really like. It’s a lot of technical considerations and problem-solving. If you know what to expect, you’ll be better prepared for what’s ahead of you. I know there are a lot of different approaches and workflows, but the ones I teach in the title are all good foundations to jump off from.

GW: What are some of your favorite tools of the trade?

KSE: I mean, ZBrush… (can I end the list there? Lol.)
I also use many other programs at work. We like to joke about how the character department uses an absurd amount of programs. We have Maya, Max, ZBrush, Mari, Mudbox, Substance Painter, Photoshop, etc... The list keeps going because each program does very specific things well. Sometimes you need one random thing done quickly and you have to keep jumping from program to program to get it.

GW: A lot of the work you demo and display on your social channels are some gorgeous animal sculpts. As a character artist, do you also get to sculpt a lot of four-legged friends at work?

KSE: No, I wish I was able to do more! I always jump at the chance but even at the coolest studios, you are still servicing someone else’s vision. That’s why I do so much personal work. It really makes a huge difference in my day to day happiness and growth as an artist.

GW: You’ve attended some workshops with pretty stellar artists like Simon Lee, Scott Eaton, and inspiring fine art sculptor, Beth Cavener (in Italy, no less!). Can you tell us a bit about those experiences and how your extensive study of anatomy and working traditionally has aided your career and growth as an artist?

KSE: It’s been amazing to be able to study under these rockstars. I feel like the study of anatomy is essential and Scott Eaton and Andrew Cawrse have been incredible instructors. Their courses are the best out there for this.

As for traditional sculpture, it’s another tool to help you see, so I highly encourage any character artist to try it. Simon Lee is just awesome. He is truly kind and is such an inspiring person. And studying under Beth in Tuscany was truly life-changing for me. She opened my eyes to a new approach using her experiences in creating fine art. I could see how to improve my work with its meaning and expression. Also, how to look at your work in a whole new light.

I am addicted to learning and I feel like the day that I stop wanting to is the day that I leave this Earth, lol.

GW: Do you have any animal-specific sculpting tricks you’ve picked up in production or when experimenting in ZBrush?

KSE: Animal specific…hmmm. I do use Zspheres constantly for skeletal proportions and posing. That tool can be used for anything so it’s not exactly animal specific. I think it’s less about the tool and more about observation when it comes to figurative sculpture. ZBrush is just so amazing at letting you be expressive and worry about technical stuff later on. Now with their new sculptris mode, it’s going to really be even more fun and less restrictive.

GW: As you get more mileage as a sculptor, do you find yourself turning off symmetry in ZBrush more often?

KSE: Totally. I had to get over this fear (and it took a while) of losing the precious symmetry because I was afraid of making a mistake. I think you just have to keep practicing and pushing. Be brave and soon you will be more confident that you can fix anything in ZBrush. It also gives you another opportunity to practice the other side and you will get better that much more quickly.

GW: You’re also an impressively fast sculptor (we’re not kidding! Check out this Gnomon event, starting at Part 2 at with Krystal where she sculpts and poses a super awesome ibex in one hour!) What has enabled you to really amp up the speed of your work?

KSE: Ha! I think that speed came from necessity. In commercials, the schedules are insane. If I want to get something done, speed in all areas is essential and I developed a workflow that really works for me to be able to navigate in ZBrush as quickly as possible. I have hotkeys assigned to all of my most used brushes and I am able to use a lot of muscle memory to get things done quickly. I actually have my hotkeys available in the downloads for the Gnomon title as well.

GW: How has the industry changed since you first started working?

KSE: Well, I think the biggest changes that I have seen are mostly good ones. I see a lot more companies taking care of their employees better. Hours are still tough sometimes and that’s the reality of production. But I have noticed better and better bidding practices and more of an emphasis on respecting the artist and their time. I hope this keeps going and we all keep learning better and better ways to keep great artists from burning out.

GW: Have you been up to any personal projects you can tell us about?

KSE: Yes! I have been up to something potentially very cool. I have partnered up with a company called SculptNova to make digitally designed monumental bronze sculptures for public art commissions. We are currently in the finalist list for a sculpture zoo in Waco, Texas...fingers crossed! Check it out here.

GW: Thank you so much, Krystal! Do you have any last thoughts you’d like to share?

KSE: Thanks for the great questions and for letting me share my experiences with you all! And for all of the students out there who want to improve, remember that all of us are on a journey and some of us are a little further down the path, but we are all still learning.

 

Check out Characther Modeling for Production with Krystal Sae Eua