How does a professional 3D artist start a career with 3D modeling? What was their path like? Was it difficult to get going and what are some of the best ways to acquire new clients?
In this interview, we talked with Natalie Stevens and tried to answer what it takes to be successful if you decide to try 3D modeling and take it to a professional level.
Natalie Stevens is a super talented model maker and 3D artist from New Zealand. She works as a freelance contractor making various props and models for the movie industry.
Natalie, your work is truly impressive. Ever since I've stumbled upon your Instagram page, I was blown away by the intricate details of your models. First, I would like to go a step back. How did you get started with 3D modeling for the movie industry and why was Rhino the software of your choice?
Thanks for all the kind words. I think it probably goes back to university. I was studying design and the department had a guest Professional Practice Fellow teaching design for technology.
Before joining the faculty, he'd worked with automotive brands designing motorcycle fairing, car body parts, that sort of thing. He introduced me to cad packages like Solidworks. I showed him models Id made using a polygon-based software called Cinema4D and he suggested I take a look at Rhino.
I had a play with it but, at the time I didn't really understand how much the software could do and I didn't understand the difference between nurbs and polygons, to me it was just 3d models.. so, it didn't "click" yet
At the same time as studying design, I was doing whatever props type work I could find on the side.
This was everything from zero-budget 24-hour film festival shorts, student films, stage theatre, eventually creating things for a company that made documentaries on Discovery Channel.
I was picking up all sorts of knowledge from a lot of talented people. While a lot of what I was making was by hand, using traditional model making techniques, I began to rely more on 3d software for creating simple patterns and measurements but, I still wasn't familiar rhino. I was just doing very simple polygon meshes.
After a couple of years of this, I sent a portfolio into a workshop that creates props, costume and makeup effects for "Hollywood" type films. They said they were interested in me 3d modelling props, but they needed a rhino user. I wasn't a rhino user.. So, of course, I said yes.
I got as much Rhino training material as I could get my hands on and sat with the software all day every day for a couple of weeks to pick up the basics. I went into the workshop for a trial and they liked my modelling enough not to kick me out.
So, for about 3 years I was modelling all sorts of weird shapes all day, every day. Helping manufacture bits of armor, laser zappers, helmets, all sorts of stuff. It was a lot of very long hours and very tight deadlines, surrounded by incredibly knowledgeable and talented artists. There were Illustrators, sculptors, make-up artists, costumiers, model makers, engineers, machinists, mold makers, painters, carpenters, leather workers, jewelers, blacksmiths, you name it, all under the same roof.
I think in that kind of pressure cooker environment, trying to keep up with all these talented people, you learn fast. Rhino, I think, was a software of choice at that workshop because it's so versatile. Even though we had Geomagic, Inventor, Solidworks. all the things you'd expect in a workshop, we mostly used Rhino. It's just an excellent all-round tool for model making.
How much time did it take you to acquire solid 3D modelling skills that now allow you to create pretty much anything you imagine? Tell us a little bit about the whole learning process that you had to get to this level where you are today and what is your current software workflow from the idea to the final presentation?
I've been modelling in rhino for about 10 years now. I think modelling skill really comes from problem solving, repetition, deadlines and repetition. I'm a bit "self-taught" and learned a lot by figuring things out myself (or asking the person sitting next to me in the workshop).. but, that's not something I recommend. You can spend a long time doing things the wrong way before accidently finding a better way.
The hardest part is knowing what you don't know. For example, it's difficult to learn how to model a Y fillet, if you've never heard the term. That's where paid training is super helpful. Books or video training written by experts, with project focused lesson plans that teach you solutions to problems you'd maybe never even considered. There's so much high-quality accessible training material these days and that simply wasn't the case 10 years ago, so splash out, pay for training, get good books. A hammer is no good if you can't recognize a nail.
The workflow question is a tricky one. It really depends which stage of a job you've been brought in on. Speaking broadly, on a film an Art Director or Props Master will give a workshop some artwork. Usually in the form of a photoshop illustration detailing whatever it is they need. Occasionally they'll have a concept model. It could be anything. In this case let's say it's a helmet.
They give you the illustration along with as much information as they have. Perhaps they have an existing flashlight or mounted camera they want as part of the helmet. You get scans of as much is possible, the actors head, the camera and flashlight, and build the CAD model as close as you can to the illustration, all the while getting feedback.
Designs can change quite drastically in this process; it can be a bit " I'll know it when I see it" because occasionally things that work in a 2d illustration just don't look right in 3d or there's a change in the script or they've decided to change the front for whatever reason.. so, you keep things as flexible as possible. Ultimately what matters is the Art Director has what they need.
Once the model is approved (often after building some mock-ups, test fits and prototypes) you prepare the parts for whichever manufacture process has been decided on. It might be CNC machined in Cibatool/Renshape or printed in resin, the parts are cleaned up and made ready for moulding, reproduction paint etc. This is where having some experience in physical model making can be important.
It helps to be able to see a design and work out ways to fabricate it because this can inform how you go about modelling. Modelling for a 3d printer can be very different than modelling for a 3 axis CNC machine for example. The way you model parts can save a lot of time and money; a beautiful looking CAD model is no use to anyone if you can't manufacture it.
Sometimes you're brought in right at the beginning, they have no illustrations, just a verbal description or an idea. So, you get to put on your concept artist hat and show them sketches and examples until you've got an understanding of what they're after.
When I'm working on CAD for a prop, I use whatever software is going to get the job done. For me it's most often Rhino, Keyshot and Photoshop. Occasionally I'll use Zbrush or a mesh modelling application like Maya/C4D etc.
Rhino 7 has wonderful mesh to Nurbs conversion and spline based subdivision modelling which makes taking rough polygon meshes and turning them into precise Nurbs based geometry much easier. Rhino lets you design all your parts cleanly with accurate measurements, Keyshot is fast and simple for creating renders to present your models and photoshop for editing images when discussing changes.
Acquiring clients and new contracts as a 3D artist. It seems to me that if you want to build a name for yourself, it requires a lot of time, effort, and recommendations. Building your personal brand also helps to be noticed.
Can you walk us through your personal experience in getting new jobs and contracts as a 3d artist? Was it through recommendations or through various freelance/jobs platforms? Did something change from the time when you were first starting out until today?
The New Zealand film/tv industry is, comparatively, very small. A lot of work depends on recommendation and word of mouth. The last couple of film projects Ive been on (still secret sorry ) actually came to me from outside New Zealand, through people who've found me on Instagram so, I think Social media can help.
If you can share things people find interesting, you never know who you'll connect with. I think like any job there's an element of luck and timing. If you want to work at a workshop, send them a portfolio and hopefully they're looking for crew that month. Some workshops crew up and down regularly so take that into account.
Freelancing is a little harder as you need to have been working for a while, you need to build a list of clients and they need to trust you, it takes time to build relationships like that. It can get precarious occasionally so, helps to have range in types of work you can take on.
In my case, I don't just do cad for costume and props, I also do a bit of collectable/toy design. I think a big change has been the pandemic. Covid has been tough on film industry contractors (and everyone else) the world over but, as a result some studios are more open to using remote crew.
I understand that you can't share publicly some of the work that you did for the movie industry because of the NDAs. However, I can't help but notice your "obsession" with Japanese culture and various cartoons/movies where big robots are the main characters. Your Instagram page is filled with these powerful mechanical characters that look so graceful and powerful. What are some of your favorite projects you did so far?
Yeah... the robots I think like a lot of people in my generation, I grew up soaked Japanese media. I played Japanese games on Japanese consoles and watched Japanese cartoons. That probably had an impact but, I think Japanese design is uniquely beautiful, not just pop culture like cartoon robots. The architecture, textiles, music, theatre. Like all good design, there's a sort magic to it. I've visited Japan a few times and I hope to go back once air travel is a thing again.
The day-to-day reality of doing cad work on films can be a bit unglamorous. Unlike the concept artists who are whipping up beautiful costume illustrations, keyframe paintings, incredible environments etc .. CAD artists are laser cutting 900 little washers in a certain shape, or printing dozens of little custom doodads to stick on the front of a bit of MDF, making texture stamps to press into leather.. It's not always wonderful suits of magic space armor, and when it is, it's the work of dozens of people across multiple disciplines. CAD is only a small fraction of a large process and as a result, we often aren't that visible as artists.
So, with my Instagram page I wanted a place to show fun CAD models that are (hopefully) bit interesting to look at. I love modelling helmets and toys, particularly toy robots.. so, I decided to share images of CAD models based on Japanese toy robots. They're popular and there's decades worth of great concept art to draw from. For me, it's great practice modelling fun shapes, which I'd be doing anyway but, if they're popular on social media it helps make me slightly more visible as CAD artist to any art directors or workshops out there in the world.
Favorite film to work on was probably Ghost in the Shell, because of all the problem solving and new things I had to learn while working on it. I was part of a team (working under a pair of experienced armorers) making cosmetic dressings over variety of real (blank firing) firearms. There were all sorts of pistols, machine guns and rifles. Guns are obviously very dangerous so, it was a really interesting challenge to do this functionally and, most importantly, safely.
Favorite model on my sketch page... I'm a big Syd Mead fan, I really enjoy modelling things based on his illustrations so, I have to say the "Sumo" robot toy.
As a professional 3D artist, do you have any advice for someone who just discovered the world of 3D modelling and who's interested in making a career out of it? If you had to do it all over again today and start with a blank slate, which steps would you take?
I'm terrible at advice, but I'd say never stop practicing. Read as much as you can about whatever type of modelling you're interested in. The term "3d Modelling" covers dozens of highly specialized and wildly different activities. Soak up as much as you can. Consider going to school.
Depending on where you are in the world there are great schools that can give you a solid foundation in 3d. If there are none, enroll in some online classes. If I could start over with a blank slate, I'd love to have gone to an automotive design school. Car bodies are beautiful and I'm reasonably convinced people who do Class A surfacing on cars are wizards. I'd like to be a wizard.
Lastly, tell us where can people find you online if they'd like to check out your work or collaborate with you. What are your plans for the future? I'm sure a lot of people would like to learn from you as well. Maybe a new YouTube channel?!
Plans for the future.... hopefully I get to continue helping people make cool costumes and props. I do get asked about creating tutorials but, I feel like there's just so much great stuff out there already. Your website, Simply Rhino, Novedge, Better Living Through CNC on youtube.. People are so spoiled for choice these days; I don't know what I could add. I have been planning to record a time-lapse, modelling a toy robot start to finish.. I'll get to it soon. When I do, it'll be on my Instagram page which is @natalie.3dblah
I'm not usually allowed to share film work but, I share pictures of a lot of Rhino models I'm drawing for fun. If you have a project you'd like to discuss or any questions in mind, I'm contactable at [email protected]