Interview with Visual Effects Artist David Luong
David Luong is currently a Senior Cinematic Artist II at Blizzard Entertainment, He’s been working in the visual effects industry for nearly 8 years. He currently does lighting, compositing, and matte painting for Blizzard’s cinematics on games such as Diablo 3, Starcraft 2, and World of Warcraft. He previously worked on films such as Night at the Museum, Superman Returns, and Underworld Evolution at Rhythm & Hues, Luma Pictures, and Disney Toon Studios. David Luong is one of three artists featured in the newest d’artiste book from Ballistic Publishing. He also teaches CGSociety.org’s online Photo-Real Matte Painting workshop.
How important was your formal education in getting to where you are now, especially in contrast to the self teaching you were doing when you first started?
A lot of people asked me if formal education is important to getting a job in the VFX industry. What’s good about formal education is that it’s structured, and it gives you time to develop your own style due to the long period of being in school (2-4 years). The teachers are hit and miss, but the ones that are really good tend to push you harder, and make your life a little harder. Sometimes you might hate them, but in the end, you’ll understand why they were so hard, and the higher level difficulty is a good introduction of how it might be on your real job. Good teachers also impart their knowledge to you well, and want to see you succeed. They encourage team work and getting you to understand what works, and what doesn’t on the job.
Teachers in school are also a great source of networking too, as they are usually working professionals. They can refer you to another studio or recommend you to someone, growing who you know in the industry. Being a small industry, this is very invaluable. So I think formal education is valuable, although it tends to cost too much for the education, especially in private school. I would recommend taking as much as you can in community or junior colleges before going to an art school if you’re going the formal route. Paying maybe $100 an English class at a community college instead of paying about $2,000 at a private art school with equal or even better education in a community college is a no brainer. Coming back to the education I got, it was great because it did allow me to gestate my own style, and meet lots of friends and industry professionals. My senior portfolio got me lots of recognition and thankfully, I got a job shortly after graduating.
Compared to learning on my own when I first started, the formal education gave me the direction and focused structure I needed. It also gave me a direct pathway to doing what I loved to do, while also not just thinking of it as a hobby. I also invested a ton of money for student loans, so it made me not want to fail even more to. When I was learning Photoshop on my own, there wasn’t really anyone else to give me feedback or learn a little bit extra from. It was all myself, and what was available through books or the limited Internet at the time.
So for me, it was important to have the formal education in the end. I just wish it didn’t cost so much money.
What got you started using Cinema4D and how does it help day to day work?
I had first heard about it from other digital matte painting artists on how easy it is to use for 3D projections and integrating some 3D movements in your shots. It wasn’t until last year actually, that I started using C4D more regularly. When using Maya, I found the process convoluted and way more complicated than it should be to setup a projection. I taught Maya in my CGWorkshop, and I could see my students struggle getting the shader setup, and the extra little technical difficulties that came with Maya for a projection setup. I also didn’t like it, and so it was time to experiment with C4D.
I used some C4D at work a couple of years ago, and the UI interface as well as the camera and projection setups seemed pretty easy to follow. I really love how artist friendly Cinema4D was compared to bigger packages such as Maya or 3DStudio Max. I started with R13 last year, and then soon after, R14 was released, and now R15. We still use more Maya at work, but for my personal projects and for teaching the CGWorkshops, I’ll be using only C4D, Nuke, some After Effects, and Photoshop. The default rendering engine is pretty high quality, and if I had to up it up, I would use the Physical Renderer. There is a huge community who create plugins and makes life easier for you by creating better workflow and efficiencies using Cinema4D, such as the great people at Greyscalegorilla.
What Greyscalegorilla tools do you use and how do they affect your workflow?
I started learning how to use CityKit, Light Kit Pro, and the HDRI Studio Pack. Light Kit Pro I use the most, as it’s so simple to bring in light rigs from the tool and quickly light the objects in your scene with easy sliders and parameters you can adjust. I love the soft boxes in the kit, and the sun light rig which includes an environment light to shade your shadows with. These are easy, one click imports to your scene. If I wanted to get some reflections going in certain objects of my scene, the HDRI pack is just as easy to implement in my shots. Usually bringing in an HDRI will automatically set a decent optimized render preset to use, giving you nice Ambient Occlusion, Global Illumination, or good shadow and ray trace samples.
The other major tool I use from Greyscalegorilla, especially in one of my matte painting tutorials for the d’Artiste: Matte Painting 3 book, was CityKit. The team at GSG really made an amazing, fast generating city tool, which also gives a great amount of customization such as adding in your own textures, your own hero models and many other things so your city can stand out. For my book, I created a few simple shapes, which I moved around to create a good composition, duplicated a few blocks, and added a couple of custom hero twin buildings. I also created a circular city in the sky that was a tweaked version of one of the presets you can do in the CityKit. Just playing with some customizations, and I got something that looks unique. After I lighting the city using the Light Kit Pro, then rendering that out in C4D, I brought it back into Photoshop for further tweaking and texturing to give it a more photo real look.
Without these tools, I think C4D would be still great for the artist, but I’d definitely be slower. They’re well worth buying and using for your own personal or professional projects.
When I first started using C4D on my personal work, there was no greater resource out there to learn it than from the Greyscalegorilla website. Their videos are excellent, and very well narrated by Nick Campbell as well as Chris Schmidt. They would give examples that the community would ask for, and just by watching them do it, and following the steps, you can really take that knowledge and apply it to other things you want to do. Also each of their tools you buy, comes with instructional videos by the team which covers a great deal on how to use it and the why’s and how’s of it. Going through the GSG tools was just what I needed to learning how to use C4D on my own projects. It was pretty much exclusively GSG tools that got me up and running last year. I had almost no other prior training before I used GSG, and now each of the matte paintings in the d’Artiste: Matte Painting 3 book used their tools in one form or another.
What would you say was your first foot in the door to the industry? Any advice as to how to maximize your chances for landing that first gig?
I’d say my first foot in the door would be working as a rotoscoping/digital paint artist at Luma Pictures. It was in 2005 for Underworld: Evolution. They had liked my creativity in my demo reel and my persistence to wanting to work there. It’s a bit of a story, but I was so eager to work at my first big job for the visual effects industry that I essentially went to work on my first day before I was actually hired. There was some confusion as why I was there my first day, but eventually, I was hired that day thankfully since they did need more workers and they liked my reel previously. Now looking back, I shouldn’t have done that probably, but it seemed to have worked out! I wouldn’t recommend doing what I did though to get your foot in the door.
I’d say just keep being persistent which was key, emailing, following up, calling if they allow that (but most studios don’t) or having inside friends that can refer you in. Always be respectful and have a personality that can work well in a team. Without that, you’ll just be someone who is good that can work only well by yourself. That’s not what a studio would like. Keep your ego down, and if you think you’re good, let that shine through your work and by elevating the work of others. If you don’t get hired somewhere you want, such as your dream job, keep working at it through other studio work or getting the experience necessary to finally apply and work at the place you want. If you aren’t working at all, keep brushing up on your knowledge, keeping up your contacts and knowing what the industry is doing nowadays, and learn from free communities such as Greyscalegorilla!
What are some of your favorite tools while working on Matte Paintings?
Photoshop is the key tool I use for matte painting. The second, is probably my own camera. I shoots the majority of my own textures and reference footage to be used later in matte paintings. This is usually from vacations and going out to places. I’m usually the weird one who stops and shoots multiple angles or shots of a building or a certain tree, a texture on the ground, while everyone else is walking up ahead in a group. Other tools I use is Maya, although it’s mostly Cinema4D now for the 3D side, as that’s strong enough for matte paintings for me. For 3D projections, Nuke seems to take the lead now if I don’t need to do a full environment, which is 90% of the time for matte painting. The speed and ease of setting up projections in Nuke, as well as compositing in there is just the best in the industry right now. I even matchmove in it, which was what I did for the Monolith City matte painting in the book. After Effects if I need to do some more linear layered based compositing. Those tools are all sort of standard I’d say. Can’t think of anything that isn’t off the shelf that I use really.
What are some highlights/challenges of teaching? How is teaching online?
I started teaching for CGSociety.org in January 2008. They asked me to teach after loving what they saw in my submissions for the d’Artiste: Matte Painting 2 book that came out in 2007, which had 6 of my pieces published in them. I was very honored for them ask me out of all of the artists out there. But I gladly accepted, which was also something I had never done before: teaching. It was another great challenge for me, could I teach what I knew and guide the next generation of artists to do work with the high quality of standards in the industry? I hoped so, and luckily, many of them are now working in the industry and are doing just fine!
The format of the CGWorkshop I teach is all online. It’s an 8 week course, and when I initially taught it more than 5 years ago, everything from 2D Photoshop work, to After Effects, Nuke and then to Maya all rolled into one. Now, it’s broken up into two workshops as of last year when I revamped the course. The first one is strictly dealing with foundations, concepts, composition, value, and what makes an image striking according to the student’s own styles through my guidance. There was no 3D in it at all, but if the student knows some 3D, I wouldn’t bar them from using it as long as most of their image is in the 2D realm. The second course, which will deal with 3D projections, and some matchmoving/modeling/lighting/rendering/compositing to get the matte paintings moving in a shot. That I haven’t taught yet, which will begin in March 2014.
For me, this format is ideal due to the fact that I can post my prerecorded videos, then the students can view them, and work on them any time they want to. It’s not bound by any time frame (except for when it’s due at the end of the week for assignments, and the major projects at the end of the workshop in 8 weeks). So there are a big number of international students who take my course. All they have to know is enough English to understand my instructions and critiques. Otherwise, the image is really universal, and by me giving visual feedback through paintovers, students really get the idea of what works and what doesn’t for their matte pantings.
The flexibility of not having to be in any country or any timezone is the most appealing for the workshops. It also can’t really be “pirated”, as the single most useful part of the workshop is the teacher giving direct and fast feedback to the student work in high attention and priority. There may be videos and lectures in the course that you can download or distribute, but the biggest help is the feedback as well as the practice through the material. That also brings up another point, students that take my class get the most benefit if they engage themselves in participation instead of just lurking in the shadows.
At the end of my workshop, I choose the top 6 matte paintings, and promote them heavily on my website, my social network, and so does CGSociety on their websites. It gives the students an extra incentive, and some friendly competition to get their work done on time, and to do it the best as possible. I know not all students can complete the work I give in the workshop, due to them being busy at work or school, so I also offer any students who didn’t get to finish their work to continue working and email me their progress. To which, I will fully and actively support just like I did in the 8 weeks of the workshop, and for life. I also offer an alumni lounge where all past students get automatically enrolled in free, to continue their education in a safe, private forum that I also help moderate.
I’ve met so many great students around the world while teaching these past 5 years. It’s so wonderful to see that I’ve impacted the community and given back what I know from my experiences at work and referring them to other people who need good artists as well. I’m sure the GSG guys feel the same way in giving back to the community. I”m thankful to use their teachings to apply in my new book as well!
Any particular artists that inspire you?
Dylan Cole is a huge inspiration for me while I was in school, as I saw his matte paintings in the first d’Artiste: Matte Painting 1 book back in 2004. I’ve got to meet him in person a couple of times, and I even got to feature one of his personal works for my section of the Matte Painting 3 book, which was a real treat. He started out as an intern at ILM, and then worked as a senior matte painter for Weta Digital on Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. So many beautiful shots he created while he was there that I’ve long admired. He is now the newly announced Co-Production Designer for Avatar 2, along with Ben Proctor, which is the highest title an artist can get for a movie in the art department. He’s an awesome artist that totally deserved that!
The other artist that has inspired me was the team at Blizzard Cinematics while I was in school as well (and well before that playing Diablo, Starcraft and Warcraft 2 in highschool). There wasn’t’ a particular artist there as it was a team that worked on the cinematics. Each time I saw a cinematic while playing a Blizzard game, I told myself “I want to work there some day and need to keep working on my skills until I get to work there.” The music, the voice acting, the cinematography, and the visual effects just made me fall in love with 3D animation.
What is your favorite project you’ve worked on so far?
The favorite project I worked on is probably at Blizzard, on the World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King cinematic back in 2008. It was directed by Jeff Chamberlain, and I was working early on with a skeleton crew. Sheng Jin was my lead on the show, who is a fantastic lighter/compositor as well as well skilled in other disciplines of the CG pipeline. The team was small back then, so I was able to come on as an artist who got to push more of the creative side. I got to do some concepts to explore Arthas’ look through lighting and painting, as well as shot setups and lighting scenarios with Sheng. I did some matte paintings as well, and finished shots through lighting/compositing. Afterward, I had some down time, so I got a chance to work on some of the poster work that marketing used for various prints and posters for the game. The creative freedom while being able to work in a team and ping our ideas back and forth with Jeff, our director so fluidly, is what makes me come back to this cinematic as my most fond memory professionally.
How was your experience doing D’Artiste: Matte Painting 3?
The Ballistic Media guys asked me late December 2012 about the possibility of working on the next beloved d’Artiste: Matte Painting book in the series. The last one was in 2007, so they thought it was time to bring it back. I thought about how much work it would do to work on the book after hours, while still balancing life load, a full time job at Blizzard, and teaching online for CGWorkshop at the same time. It was another huge honor to partake in such a project, but I had to be realistic in what I could do. After much thought, I figured I could balanced it and accepted wholeheartedly into what will become a huge under taking. It’s a big stressful situation to get your work translated into a book that will be on print forever, so you really want to get it perfect. All of my tutorials had to make sense, and have the concepts in there work for most beginners and intermediate users who wanted to get more out of their work.
They also wanted us to get our professional work in there for the personal gallery. To get the licensing for book published (and them knowing that I would get profit from this) was the biggest factor in taking 4-5 months to get approval on my Blizzard matte painting work. There were definitely some bureaucratic hoops I had to jump through, and I had to be very proactive in getting the paper work done or else it would be too late for the book publishing. In the end, it was well worth it. As the book by all three of us artists should sit well with the other two books in the series. I’m proud to be a part of such history and pedigree of previous artists. I’m also happy to see Blizzard Cinematics standing right a long side other previously featured film art such as those from The Lord of the Rings or Star Wars.
The tutorials themselves, took about 2 months to complete each, with Skyward Life being the easiest, and Monolith City being the hardest. I wanted Skyward Life to be more of a beginner piece, followed by Ivory Castle which got a little harder, and then with Monolith City, which is a fully animated matte painting tutorial. Then another 2 months for editing, and proof reading/layout to get it looking the best possible with the publisher. And now, it’s just marketing and getting the word out there.
Also 50% of my proceeds from d’Artiste: Matte Painting 3 will go towards Friends of Orange County’s Homeless Pets charity.
What is your favorite Matte painting you’ve done and why?
My favorite matte painting I’ve created is probably Monolith City, which is one of the tutorials featured in the book. I wanted to have my dog, Xena in it, and have her looking out into no where, which would later be replaced with a matte painting, and an alien city in the back.
The matte painting base plate was shot using my iPhone camera in a field. I then matchmoved it in Nuke, brought it into Cinema4D for 3D city building. Then back to Photoshop to work on the ground matte painting and further texturing of 3D elements.
Back to Nuke for projetion, then back to C4D for additional animated ships to add some life to it. Then back to Nuke for final compositing. It was real fun to do all of that, and to document how to do it for the book tutorial.
Lastly, what is the best response for Zerg when Terran has turtled up three bases and is going with a heavy mech build?
Great question! Terran has a tendency to build “Helm’s Deep” for their bases. To break their defense in those turtling situations, go the Baneling Bust route, and build up Baneling that would wreak havoc on their front defenses, as well as building Zerglings to get right in their directly to their mineral patch to destroy their economy, while at the same time, having Hydralisks. Don’t forget to bring a detector in case they have banshees!