Featured Artist: Erik Ferguson, Norway
Matt is an FX Lead at Animal Logic Sydney where he's allllmooooooost finished working on The Lego Batman movie. He's a fairly recent convert to Houdini, and is currently enjoying an amusing rush of social media after doing some talks on the Sidefx booth at Siggraph, and recording a rambly webinar. He finds talking about himself in third person pretty funny.
As a boy, I was mainly interested in soccer and all kinds of sports. It was only when my dad bought a Commodore 64 that I started getting into computers. During my childhood I really enjoyed playing video games such as “Prince of Persia” and “Eye of the Beholder”.
Taking the decisive step towards the visual arts came much later though. Together with a friend we bought a camera and an editing PC with some basic editing software installed on it. The idea was to make music videos and short films. From that I moved on to discovering Cinema 4d and Lightwave, which I used to learn the basics of 3D and lay the groundwork for what I do today.
GM: So did you eventually decide to formally study 3D Animation?
No, I actually graduated with a Degree in Media and Cultural Studies from the Queen Margaret University College in Scotland. While working on my degree, I was simultaneously getting more and more interested in 3d animation. In order to be able to cover both what I had to do and what I loved, I would often stay up all night.
GM: That was probably not sustainable, so what happened next?
Upon my return to Norway, I decided to accept a position at Bug, a Norwegian production company specializing in motion graphics, visual effects and 3D animation. At Bug I first used 3d Studio Max, as it was then called. Later we moved on to Houdini, which has really gained a lot of traction over the past few years. I ended up staying at Bug for nearly 8 years, holding different positions as an Artist, Creative Lead and ultimately as a Head of Post-Production.
GM: How did you decide to become a visual artist?
GM: What are you currently working on?
I still have a working relationship with Bug, but I wanted to focus on my own creative initiatives more, so I moved into a freelance position, working now with clients around the world. I am now mainly working on a series of short films centered around a character I have created named “Rasch“. He looks like a tumor with legs. People are simultaneously repulsed, fascinated and amused by “Rasch“, to the point where I’ve had up to 700 000 plays and 15,000 likes for some of his images/videos on Instagram. One of my fans recently called Rash “scardorable”, because he is cute and creepy at the same time.
GM: How do you get the ideas for your fantastic creatures?
Well, it all starts with a really general idea; I seldom sketch anything out on paper. With the blind bird composition for example, all I knew is that I wanted to model something with a beak, then I built on that idea within ZBrush.
I generally develop my sculpts for 1-2 days, then I move everything to Houdini, exploring where I can take the sculpt and what I can do with it. I then end up compositing in Nuke. I try not to spend more than a total of 2-3 days from the initial sculpt to the final animation on these personal tests. The idea is to have fun with it all.
GM: How do you achieve the ultra-realistic feel of your creatures, while still making sure people understand that these are fictional creations?
Zbrush gives you great tools to sculpt realistic looking flesh, muscle and tissue. The key though is to animate the stills that I produce in Zbrush, which is where Houdini comes in. Movement has been instrumental to making my creatures more believable and more realistic.
Sometimes I throw in an unusual color such as bright pink as shown in the composition below, so people realize they are looking at compositions that are purely fictional.
GM: Let’s take a closer look at how Houdini helps you animate your creatures!
Well, I started with version 11 of Houdini and first I played around with cloth sims and Houdini wire solvers to achieve a soft and wobbly look for my creatures. But the breakthrough came when Houdini’s Finite Element Solver was released. Using the Finite Element solver added significant realism to my animations by using it’s physically correct volume preservation. Combine this with detailed sculpts and textures from Zbrush, throw in some motion blur and depth of field from Mantra and a lot is done.
GM: How do you evaluate the success of your creature concepts?
Until recently, I focused on publishing my work on Vimeo. But that’s mainly a platform for industry professionals, so your work is evaluated by a narrow segment of people. Social media platforms such as Instagram on the other hand are like gigantic focus groups, where everyone can “vote” on their favourite designs.
When I first signed up for Instagram and began showing my work, my designs got so many likes and shares I thought “Wow, I am onto something here!”. So I started testing my concepts that way. I think it’s particularly important when people don’t just like, but comment on your work. This shows that they are truly engaging with the artwork. I can get hundreds or thousands of comments to an image or video. I take that feedback and work it into my future designs.
GM: What are you planning for “Rasch” in the near future?
Well, I am looking to release a short film with him as a main character though the project is still in early pre-production and planning phase. It is always a challenge to juggle personal projects with paid work and trying to find a balance. I’m spending some time now on looking into crowdfunding or alternative ways of getting this project funded.
Erik Ferguson 2016
By: Patricia Cornet