Portraying Neo in 3D

Portraying Neo in 3D

Pasquale Giacobelli discussed the challenges behind his Matrix project.

Pasquale Giacobelli gave a little talk on his Matrix  project. Neo has never looked so realistic in 3D. 


My name is Pasquale Giacobelli. I’m 37 years old, and I was born in Milan. My passion for drawing led me to study at a high school for the arts and later to hone my creative drawing skills by attending a technical school.

I remember being very young and attending an event organized by my school that introduced students to the workforce. At this event, a Milan graphics agency noticed my work and asked me to collaborate with the company. The company was in charge of advertising productions, website development, and interactive entertainment content—it was a time when the internet was a brand new force and I regarded it as an opportunity to join the working world in a new and innovative sector. This granted me access to a handful of resources and instruments that I experimented with over time, and, as a result, I learned many techniques both in the 2D and 3D graphics industries. This creative period of my life involved many years of sacrifice and hard work as well as my fair share of failures and successes.

In the following years, I consolidated my position within the company and eventually became a partner tasked with the responsibility to lead and manage our 3D graphics department. During that time, I managed the corporate image of different customers and participated in the development of several digital products, 3D modules, and other web sites. Moreover, I took this as an opportunity to familiarize myself with the newest technologies relevant to my line of work so I could master them with time. Today, technology is rapidly developing. But, I still fondly remember using the earliest versions of ZBrush and 3ds max!

A few years ago, I became the Lead Vehicle and Animation Artist at Milestone S.r.l., a video game developer in Milan that focuses on vehicle and racing video games. Today, I also work as the Lead Environment and Character Artist for Milestone.


From an early age, I loved studying drawing and have always had a particular interest in portraits. Simply put, portraits say so much about the artist and the subject represented in the work of art.

And there are many elements that make a good portrait successful. Studying over the years has led me to understand the importance of a crucial first element in the conception of a good portrait: light.

Setting up light in the proper manner allows me to confer a certain element of character to a final image. Depending on the objective and impression I want to create with my work of art, I can opt for several different choices in lighting. Whether I’m using SoftBox, artificial light, or sunlight, or lighting an object from above, below, the front, the side, or the back, every decision substantially impacts the observer’s emotional state.

Another key aspect of a successful portrait is the composition of the scene. Many artists underestimate its value towards the final result of a work of art. I’ll refer to a quote that conveys my idea, “the frame is a space full of energy that can create its own language.” Understanding this quote and applying the basic mechanisms of composition to a portrait helps to make it successful. In the case of my 3D Neo portrait, the type of framing is wisely designed to create an intimacy between the viewer and the subject.

On the one hand, Neo’s look is ambiguous towards the observer. On the other hand, Neo has the gift of seeing life beyond the limits imposed on him and others by the Matrix, which connects him to the viewer. It’s this play between ambiguity and intimacy that exists between Neo and the viewer that ultimately charges Neo with a strong sense of charisma.

A subject’s expression is another essential component of a portrait’s success. From the severity of a gaze to the tightness of a forced smile, a subject’s expression reveals much about his or her lifestyle, mood, and history. There are no final rules with this part of the portrait. However, it’s important to note that a subject’s gaze pointing out of the frame interrupts the contact between the subject and the viewer. Moreover, this gaze alienates the subject to his or her environment (as well as that period of time – past, present, or future). On the contrary, fixing a subject’s eyes towards the viewer establishes contact with the observer. Lastly, a subject’s expression (e.g. serious or relaxed, focused or carefree) can produce an intimate relationship with the viewer or stir up feelings of opposition and contrast that challenge the viewer.

The final key aspect to a successful portrait is one’s choice of color tuning. With my 3D Neo portrait, the greenish tint can assume different meanings depending on the context. In The Matrix films, green represents the collision of humanity and technology, with blue and yellow respectively symbolizing (according to the directors) humans and machines. The mix of green and dark backgrounds compels a sense of oppression that originates from a virtual reality composed of a mathematical matrix, the inviolable source code that is the base of the illusion simulated by the Matrix world. At the same time, the green color can take on the meaning of “a new beginning,” “a moment of growth,” or rebirth.


My desire to portray Neo came from reviewing images from The Matrix movies, which certainly are among my favorites—each one’s content, effects, style, and message really intrigue me. And I’m always looking for a charismatic subject for my portrait. When the right face strikes me, I instantly want to draw or build it in 3D! My biggest challenge is to transmit life to my digital portraits. I do this by giving them a soul through their gaze as well as their facial expression while ensuring neither is excessive but that both are effective.

Having a family with a partner and two children, I found time to make the portrait of Neo at night and often at the expense of sleep. Yet, this demanding process has never been a problem for me! My passion to model and render in 3D is stronger than my physical and mental fatigue, and the overall process of creation makes me feel really good. I composed the final scene over twenty hours during the span of four days. I would import into ZBrush an already completed low-res geometry so that I could concentrate on modeling without having to worry about making retopology at the end.

In ZBrush, I used the Image Plane Tool to match my 3D model with reference pictures I found on the web. These pictures are from different angles (front, left, etc.), one of which utilizes the final view of the render. At the same time, I set a scene in 3ds max by making the same job a superposition of the model with the reference in the final perspective. I often export from the 3D model in ZBrush to 3ds max to regularly analyze the progress of the face modeling.


There are many ways to approach the modeling of a character. Artists can choose to create a new character or represent an existing character in a new way. With the first case, it’s important to determine and identify all the fundamental elements that define this character. In the latter’s case, it’s very important to identify the fundamental elements that characterize the subject. Since these are still images, it becomes paramount in either case to understand the character to best convey the subject in a meaningful and impactful manner that complements the still image medium. As a result, the research phase of orthogonal references is critical and can determine the success or failure of the final modeling.

In general, ZBrush performs common features like move, smooth, and inflate. To manage some intermediate stages of sculpt where I need to define the crude forms, I instead use the Clay and Trim brush. While in the detailing and finishing stage, I often use the Dam_Standard brush and pinch to really nail the expressive quality of wrinkles and other fine details.


For the eyes, I start with a model I inherit from every instance of making a new face. The structure of the eye is composed of two main objects: the cornea and the pupil / iris. The balance of eye color is critical when modeling this part of the face—colors that are too bright can ruin the sense of realism while dark colors can make a gaze too penetrating. One smart way to solve this eye issue is to bring out the color of the eye by enhancing the reflection on the cornea when the main light is placed in a suitable position.


I’ve run the textures according to common standards. In ZBrush, I projected on my 3D model through the Spotlight tool and referenced some good quality images online. In doing so, I extracted a color base from which I reduced the underexposed areas in Photoshop. As a result, I obtained an albedo with very little detail of Occlusion and Lighting. Then, I completed my high-res model through integration by using the “Surface / Noise” tool. Lastly, using a Displace texture and the Brush Texture.YXZ.7, I created the fine details of the pores and expression lines.


The Matrix is a memorable film filled with meaning. When we speak of cinema’s blockbusters over the decades, I as well as many others have The Matrix on our minds. As mentioned in the film, there is much wisdom in composition and the use of light and color. These three elements are vital to ensure the success of an image. When creating a portrait or taking a cue from a reference image, it’s essential to analyze the stylistic choices that led to the creation, or desire to create, the image in the first place. This gives us the necessary time to master different trades of our craft and thereby improve, modify, or reproduce a scene faithfully. The image I chose to represent faithfully depicts The Matrix according to the aforementioned reasons and thus successfully transfers the same mood and color scheme that was instrumental to the original film.

A successful artist embodies passion, dedication, and perseverance. I give everyone one piece of advice: work intensively and believe in what you are doing. Motivating yourself to achieve the desired results and overcoming inevitable failures are critical to an artist’s success. Put simply, I’m convinced that with dedication and hard work, everyone can achieve very high results.

Pasquale Giacobelli, 3D artist

Interview conducted by Artyom Sergeev

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