Interview - Neil Blevins


Neil Blevins
Technical Director Pixar Studios
Contact: California, USA
Before you email him you should check this
FAQ list 


Tell us a bit about yourself...
Well, I've been obsessed with making artwork since I was about 3 years old. I grew up in Montreal, Canada, but now live in San Francisco, where I'm a Technical Director for Pixar Animation Studios. In my limited spare time, I still make personal 2d/3d artwork, I also publish art related tutorials and write scripted tools that I give away for free on my website.
Check out Neil's Tutorial list
Check out Neil's Scripts
When did you discover 3D? What programs/plugins/scripts do you use? 
Back in 1993 or so, I bought a book to get my hands on an early paint program called Improces. The book also contained a command line raytracer called povray, but I couldn't use it at the time since it required a math co-processor. A bit later I bought a 486, and I decided to give the program a try. I've been pretty much addicted ever since. Currently, my main programs are 3dsmax, photoshop, the Brazil Renderer and mudbox. At work I also use Maya and prman extensively.
How involved was the interview process at Pixar?
It's not all that unlike an interview at any company, you submit a demo reel and resume, and they call you in for an interview if they like your reel and if they have a position at the company available that you'd be good for. 
With the market becoming more and more competitive, what do you believe is a must that an artist has in his portfolio or skills?
That really depends on what sort of company the person is applying to, and what sort of job. For example, at a large company, they may be more interested in seeing someone who is very good at only a single task (specialists). At smaller companies, they're probably more interested in people who can do a number of different tasks (generalists). At some companies, they may consider programming to be a necessary skill, and some don't, depending on their tools. Some companies like to see a very strong traditional portfolio of drawing and painting, even if they job will be done all digital. My best advice is to really research a place before you apply there, see what sort of jobs you'd be interested in, and then find out everything you can about what they really look for. A wise person once told me, "everyone wants to hire someone just like themselves". And for the most part, that's true.
You’re holding the Technical Director position – Is it a creative enough for you?
Well, I am one of the more artistic technical directors at the company, so I am always looking to do jobs that use those skills. And anyways, Technical Director can be a very confusing term, since the job isn't always technical, and in general you aren't directing anyone. :) Many companies have changed the name of the role to Digital Artist or Technical Artist.

Can you tell us a little about your experience in 3D for advertising? Has computer graphics changed visual advertisement? 
Doing 3d for advertising isn't much different than 3d for films or video games, you still have a client to keep happy, you're still using your skills at color, light, movement and composition to grab the eye of the audience. I am not an advertising expert, so I don't feel I can comment too heavily on how their market has changed, but I'm sure it has a lot.
You seem to have very dark visions; where do you get your inspiration?
Mostly from nature. Like I'll be on a hike in the mountains, and see a tree stump that's an odd shape. And then as I keep walking I find my mind is constantly going back to that tree stump, and reorganizing it into some sort of creature robot or alien city :) Usually I'll get home and immediately start drawing. I also get inspiration from all the usual places, films, video games, etc, but my primary source is definitely natural sources.
Do you recognize differences between graphic designers, in terms of style? How does your style compare to the best you’ve seen? 
Absolutely, while there are certainly plenty of clones out there, most of my favorite artists have a super distinct style, whether it be the kinds of shapes they like using, the lighting they like, some post process they run all their images through. My style is a mix of those artists, with a little of my own stuff thrown in. I'd say the biggest direct influences on my style are H.R. Giger, Zdzislaw Beksinski, Dave McKean, and JMW Turner. I am inspired by many other artists, but that inspiration may be a little less direct.
What are, according to you, the weaknesses of 3D Studio Max compared to other packages?
It's scripting language isn't as well integrated as it is in other programs. It has no ascii file format, which limits how you can edit your scene data outside of the max environment. And it doesn't have a Linux version. Those are the weaknesses that have really stopped it from being used more at big film companies.

For Neil's extended wishlist for 3D Studio Max Tools, you can check this address 
How do you start on an image/environment? Do you use references or just imagination?
I usually start with reference, even if that reference is just my memories (like from that tree stump I mentioned earlier). I do a quick drawing, then I may go to painting a quick rough, just something to capture the overall color and lighting I want in the piece. Then I break down piece into elements, and start replacing each of those elements in the color rough with the highres material, whether it be 3d models or bits of photographs for a matte painting. Then once I get all the elements in there, many days of tweaking small elements, trying to get everything to balance right.

How important is it to have a proper education in this field?
You'll get very different opinions on that depending on who you talk to. For some people, they won't even look at a job candidate unless they have an impressive degree or come from a prestigious school. For me, school isn't necessary, although I do recommend it. One of the most talented artists I know only got through high school. I feel doing this sort of work should be a passion, you should have a need to make artwork, and it's that sort of passion that will get you threw this tough industry. But I still recommend going to college if you can, it will give you a chance to work with other people who are as passionate as you, it will give you access to computers and software you may not be able to get at home, and anyways don't be so quick to get into working, you'll have a good 40 years of that, enjoy school while you still can :) 
Do you use the same techniques from one project to another? 
Similar techniques, but I always like exploring new areas, whether it be a completely new technique, new software, or just ways to improve my current techniques. You will never stop learning, this field is so huge, it makes me sad I won't get a chance to learn everything.

Do you still find time for your own projects? What do you have up your sleeve for future projects?
It's getting harder and harder, but I still do personal projects at home, most of which I place on my website. But as I start heading into "kid land", it's going to be very difficult to find any extra time, and so I'm not too sure how I'm going to balance my life when that happens. As for future projects, I always have 3-4 pieces that I'm working on at any particular time, the main ones I'm working on currently is a new matte painting, and a super complex robot model that I'll probably just model and won't bother texturing.

How do you think the movie market will evolve in the next years?
It's tough to tell. We'll see more Stereoscopic films, and then either it will stick around, or the trend will die out like it has all those other times before. There is part of me that worries that one day we'll see less big epic effects films, because they are so expensive to produce, but then again, the exact opposite could happen, giant epic spectacle films could be the only thing that will bring audiences away from their Tivo and Bluray players and bring them into the theaters, and so we'll see more of them. But either way, something has to be done to reduce these budgets, and I hope the solution isn't to outsource all our jobs.
What is the typical starting point in a 3D project? How long does it usually take?
I pretty much described my process above. A full 3d image usually takes about 40-50 hours of work. But this is split between a number of days, since I usually work on those projects in 3-4 hour chunks after work.
We know the “ups”, but tell us about the “downs” in your career.  Was it an easy ride?
So far I haven't had too many downs, I've been very lucky and have stayed employed and working on cool projects. It wasn't an easy ride though, in the sense that I've had to work like crazy to get where I am. But even that was easy in a way, since I love doing this so much. But your body can only keep going so long before it breaks down, if I had to say one downside, it would probably be that when I get sick, I get VERY sick because of all the pressure I put on myself.
What’s the one project that you received the most praise for?
Well, I'm really proud of my work on the Incredibles. In my personal work, people seem to love images like "White Room", "Swirling Sands" and "Alternative Birth" the most. But I love all my creations, even the unpopular ones, or the ones I'd do differently if I had the chance to do them over.


If you had the opportunity to spend a day with anyone from this industry, who would it be?
Not sure, I've managed to work with so many amazing people, and I've got a chance to meet many if not all of my favorite contemporary artists. I'd love to work with Guillermo Del Toro at some point, I saw him do a talk and he seems like a really cool guy in a twisted kind of way. Maybe Peter Jackson. I'd love to get a chance to work with Iain McCaig, he is the most enthusiastic individual I think I have ever met, artwork just oozes out of the guy like sweat, I'd love to do a project with him. I also haven't met Craig Mullins, and would love to get the chance.
What’s your favorite movie?
No one favorite, my favorites are The Crow, Drunken Master 2, Fight Club, Transformers The Movie (1986), Aliens, The Matrix, Ninja Scroll, Robocop and Starship Troopers.
What would you like to add to your portfolio?
Mostly 2d paintings and drawings. I've been on a real 2d kick recently, and want to get more of it into my portfolio.

If you had unlimited resources what path would you take? 
I'd probably work a year on my own stuff, then spend a year working on a film project. I love both the freedom of doing my own work, and also the fun you get from working on a collaborative project. I wouldn't want to give either of those things up.
If your child wants to be a 3D artist what would you tell him/her?
I'd say go for it, as long as it's something they really want. I've been lucky in that I've always been really passionate about what I wanted to do, so I pretty much always knew my destination. I think it'll only be difficult if I have a kid who doesn't know what they want to do, since that will be totally alien to me. But if my kid wants to be a lawyer instead, I'm fine with that. As long as it's something that really excited them.