It’s not every day that I get to pick the brain of a world-leading 3D artist — but that’s exactly what I got to do with Rafael Grassetti. You may not recognize Rafael’s name, but you have no doubt seen his work on massively popular games like Assassins Creed 3, Mass Effect 3, and others. You may have even held one of the toys he designed for toy giant Hasbro. In short, Rafael is one 3D artist who made it big, and I wanted to find out more about how he made it, and what it takes to become a leading 3D artist and work for companies like Sony.
Who are you, and what do you do?
My name is Rafael Grassetti, and I work as a character art supervisor for the game, toy and movie industry.
I was born and raised in Brazil and started working for this industry about 8 years ago. I worked as a freelance artist for many game studios until I moved to Canada to work at Bioware. I’m currently living in California, working at Sony (SCEA) as a supervisor on the character art department.
What are some of the most high-profile projects you’ve worked on, to date?
I’ve worked on over 30 titles in my career. Some of the ones I can mention are the Mass Effect 3, Dragon Age 3, Assassins Creed 3 and Revelations, Saints Row, Rift, Fable, and Tron. I’ve also been doing a lot of Marvel and Star Wars toy designs for Hasbro, NBA, and MLB, and Walking Dead Statue designs for McFarlane Toys.
What about designing characters?
Understanding a bit of the development process for a piece will help someone who wants to work on this area.
The stages are basically divided into design and production. In most of the studios the design stage of the process is made by the concept art team, with 2D drawings. After it is approved, the “final” concept, or idea is delivered to the 3D team, and they are responsible to translate this into 3D and make it ready for production. So it’s hard to point out characters I’ve personally designed, since the process involves many different artists.
Is the 2D stage usually done using software, or do people use paper?
The final product always end up being digital in a way. I know artists who prefer to sketch on paper, then bring it to Photoshop to color and present the piece. Concept artists also use 3D software like ZBrush more and more to do concepts. That makes the overall quality better and the process faster, since the 3D department can use much of the work for the production stage.
How did you get into 3D design?
I started studying 3D software 8 years ago. At the time I was studying all stages of production (concepting, modeling, rigging, animation, rendering and composing), and after spending 6 months building my first portfolio pieces I got a job at one of the biggest studios back in Brazil. I learned a lot at that studio and after a couple years working as a generalist I decided to focus my work on character modeling and design.
Do you have any formal training in the field? And do you think people need formal training these days, or is it enough to just be dedicated and create a great portfolio?
I would say you don’t need any formal training to work in this field, but one thing comes with the other. People usually ask me if they should spend money on courses or training, or learn on their own. I always tell them, if you have the money and the opportunity to, don’t think twice. The obstacles you will avoid by learning from someone who works in the business and has the experience to help are very important. Just make sure to do your research and pick the right training with the right teachers.
Still, your portfolio remains the most important thing.
If I want to get into 3D design myself, should I plunk down hundreds of dollars for pro-quality software, or would you say there are other options? What should I do to get started?
You don’t need a crazy workstation at all. The real secret is the knowledge you have about art in general. You can have a piece of paper and a pencil, or a piece of clay to start.
ZBrush can run on almost every machine. There’s also Pixologic’s Sculptris, which is a great(free -ed.) tool for people who want to start with digital sculpture. I’ve used an old desktop with 2GB of ram for many, many years.
Don’t wait until you get a nice desktop to start. Go ahead, look for tutorials online and start playing with ZBrush, you will find out that almost everything you need to know is online at this point: Things are different from what they were 8 years ago. For people who don’t know where to start, Pixologic’s website has many articles, videos, and links for DVDs.
I always tell my students, don’t get stuck waiting for a desktop, a teacher or something else to fall out of the sky. Go ahead, try new techniques, and explore new art forms. Everything you do will translate into your 3D work in the end, and vice versa. Keep that in mind.
Would you say the technical aspects of 3D modeling, such as surface subdivision and figuring out poly counts, are important to begin with? Or are those details I should worry about only once I’ve got all the basics down and I just want to polish my models?
That’s the last thing you should worry about. Those are technical aspects, and they vary from project to project. You will learn this from each project you work on. Supervisors and seniors will teach you things like topology flow, UVs, texture sizes, etc. on every single project. Focus on your art and how good your character looks without worrying about technical issues. If you can make a good-looking character with 3 billion polygons, you will be able to make it look good with 300 polygons. And that’s what studios look for, when hiring people.
What do you think about free software, such as Blender? Is that a good tool for beginners?
For sure. Basically, all applications do the same thing but with different buttons. But you should also start playing with ZBrush and pick up 3ds Max, Maya or XSI at the same time. Those are the tools that the big studios use, and it’s always helpful to get used to the pipeline.
Hollywood VFX artists have recently gone on strike due to working conditions. Would you say 3D design is becoming increasingly competitive?
I would say it’s always been like that. Unfortunately, this industry depends on investors and clients and that is how things usually work. Work and money come and go, and studios have to work their way around it.
This industry has always been really competitive, and I think that is a good thing: That’s why in less than a decade, the quality of the work we are seeing improved so much. Most of the studios are always looking for professionals, but the industry currently has a lack of good artists, so there is always room for those who have a good level of knowledge and a good portfolio.
What are the best parts of the job? What do you most enjoy doing?
Remember when we were kids and we could see an amazing character in a Lego piece or a couple of brush strokes? Remember when we could spend the entire day drawing characters and creatures in school books? (I had that problem.)
So, now I can do that and get paid for it. Spending a day brainstorming ideas and seeing a character come to life is the most enjoyable part of my job for me. Seeing how much work different artists put into your characters and seeing the reaction of gamers who become fans of your characters, that is something that makes me love my job.
Thank you, Rafael!
All of the images used in this post are of Rafael’s work, and have been used with his permission.
Erez Zukerman is a tech blogger, Web developer and nerd. Apart from writing at MakeUseOf, you can also find him at PCWorld, and at his own cubbyhole at ezuk.org. Sometimes, he tweets.