3D design tips from creature modeller Brady Parell

Kelsey Bryant

Brady Parell started his design career armed with an illustration degree from Rhode Island School of Design and a job offer from Microsoft Game Studios. From there he sharpened his skill set and moved on to work as a character artist for video games including Massive Black’s Zombie Playground and Lucasarts’ Star Wars 1313 before joining Industrial Light and Magic at Lucasfilm.

Today he works as a modeller, crafting the people, creatures and technology that you’ve probably seen on the big screen. He’s been a part of Transformers 4, Ninja Turtles, Noah and plenty more. We sat down with him to chat about how he found his footing in creature creation and his tips for new designers looking to break into the 3D industry.

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How did you get started in this field? Did you always know that you wanted to be a character artist?

If only. I applied to art schools thinking I would go into architecture, since it seemed like a creative and reasonably dependable career path. Rhode Island School of Design was the obvious choice of the ones I got into.

But when it came down to picking a major, Illustration just seemed like so much more fun! At that point I got pretty hypnotized by classical oil painting and hyper-realism, but was also learning digital painting and a bit of 3D modeling. On graduation, I landed my first job as a Jr. Concept Artist at Microsoft Game Studios and hit the ground running, doing anything and everything I could in game art. One thing led to another and one day I found myself enjoying modelling creatures more than painting.

Who (or what) do you consider to be some of your greatest influences?

I could write a book on this subject, but it would be pretty boring. So long answer short, Gustav Klimt always struck me as the guy who could do anything shockingly well. He was one who was classically trained, but used his realism skills to create a body of work which was completely unique and exotic.

Flipping through his books, I can never identify his weaknesses or box him into having or not having certain skill sets or style limitations. I’ve always strived to develop that kind of toolbox and then see what crawls out of it. So I guess in that sense, I want to be him when I grow up.

As far as practicing artists, I’ve always been excited to see new work by Peter König, Ben Mauro, Carlos Huante and Wayne Barlowe, to name a few.

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Still from Transformers: Age of Extinction

A lot of your characters are wildly imaginative. Where do you pull their inspiration for them?

I grew up with a ton of pets of all shapes and sizes. We were constantly making new additions to the family zoo and I really developed a love of animals, especially the grumpy ones with big teeth and claws. Now I watch a lot of nature documentaries, get out hiking and camping as much as possible and play with other peoples’ pets, because my landlord won’t let me have any. Nature is a pretty bottomless source of inspiration for me.

Talking more about process… do you have a particular creative routine you follow when you get started on a new project?

When I’m concepting creatures, I do a lot of exploratory versions to play and experiment and work out the design. But when it comes to modelling final creatures for the big screen, I actually try to eliminate the exploration steps as much as I can.

  1. Research.
    I learn as much as humanly possible about the subject, so that I have a crystal-clear goal of what the final product will be. I collect a ton of reference imagery and get the art directors and supervisors on board with it, so no one is surprised when I present the final look.
  2. Training.
    Now I have to figure out how the heck I’m going to pull this off. I tweak my brushes, do sculpting experiments as tests and try new programs and workflows. It’s also a great time to ask other artists how they’ve managed similar tasks in the past.
  3. Do it.
    Now that I know what I’m making and I have the right tools, it should be a fairly smooth process.
  4. If I have time, I’ll do it again.
    It seems like a pain, but the second version is always going to get done faster and look better. It has never turned out any other way for me.
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Are there certain programs/applications that you can’t live without?

Zbrush, Maya, Photoshop and Grubhub.

What excites you most about working in this industry?

In this industry, things change fast. In my few years working in effects, our workflows have become so much easier and more efficient, which translates to higher-quality work. When the quality improves at a dependable rate, the projects are more financially successful, which encourages the filmmakers to take more risks. That’s when they make the really cool movies.

So for me, the industry is changing in ways that make my job more art-centric instead of technically-focused, while the projects just get better and better. It’s a nice wave to ride.

What do you find to be the most challenging part of your job?

Fur and hair. It’s really, really hard.

Is there a particular project that you’ve worked on that you’re especially proud of?

The evolution sequence in Noah was by far the coolest thing I’ve ever been a part of. The assignment was tough – the creature evolves err, I mean changes from a single-celled organism into tadpoles, fish, lizards, rodents, primates and finally into humans.

In addition, the creepy-crawlies change color and hairstyles several times per second. It was literally a creature artist’s dream come true.

UglyReindeer

Competition out there can be pretty fierce. What are some of your strategies for coming out on top?

If you look at some of the portfolio websites or CG magazines, it can be easy to get overwhelmed. It’s no secret – the world has plenty of talented and ambitious folks who want to do this.

You can work in your free-time on unguided personal projects or stay up late after wrapping up your day job. But your three hours of passion will always be disproportionate to the guys who are doing 9+ in a full time job. How could your portfolio possibly compare when the hours just aren’t there?

So the answer is to work strategically. Plan something out that will take you 6 months and commit to doing a slow burn. Set ambitious deadlines for yourself. When you get bored, do some fun stuff and then come back to it. But when it’s finished, you might be surprised that it’s not so far off from the work you currently hold on a pedestal. The next one will be a lot faster and you’ll only need a few more to have a solid portfolio.

What’s the best way for new designers to present their work? What would you suggest they should include in their portfolio?

It always depends on the position, but it’s best to organize your portfolio to have a coherent statement. Such as: “hard surface focus with secondary texture skills” or “environment generalist with compositing skills”. I think the common mistake is to throw in personal projects that people really loved doing, but weren’t their strongest suit. Your portfolio is only a strong as your weakest image, so always trim the fat.

The format is also up for debate. I’ve never had a proper reel – just images – which some would find surprising. But the goal is to show what you’re capable of and I find images can better communicate that for my needs.

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What advice would you share with designers looking to interview in the 3D field?

For starters and senior artists alike, interviewers for artist positions really want to know 2 things: Can this person complete the tasks of the position and is this someone I want to work with? If you can satisfy these two concerns, all the smaller details become more manageable. So let’s address both.

  1. Can this person complete the tasks of the position?
    If you got the interview, someone has already seen your work and knows that you can perform. You might need to convince the rest of the room, but your work speaks for itself. Your portfolio either satisfies their needs or doesn’t. So if the shoe fits, they’ll wear it. But if not, don’t spend your precious time taking it personally. The shoe will find a better foot one day.
  2. Is this someone I want to work with?
    Every time I interview, I remind myself of these things. Firstly, people want to work with those who are honest, direct and enthusiastic. Secondly, my secret job title is that I’m a Professional Helper in every way I can be. No matter how senior your position, you’ll always be helping people above and below you to do their jobs better. So instead of focusing on my priorities, I try to see the bigger picture by being ultra-considerate of others’. I think these attitude adjustments have helped me more in interviews than any other form of preparation.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

“In MY world, everyone’s a pony and they all eat rainbows and poop butterflies.” – Dr. Seuss

Love Brady’s work? Check out more of his characters (along with his paintings and 2D illustrations) at drawnbybrady.com!

The author

Kelsey Bryant
Kelsey Bryant

Kelsey is 99designs' Designer Marketing Manager. Born and raised in a small town in Connecticut, she moved to San Francisco in 2009 with a degree in Strategic Communications from Elon University. When she’s not working with the designer community, you can find her exploring the city, taking weekend road trips, and soaking up that California sunshine.

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