We had the pleasure to chat with Jon Troy Nickel, who works at Weta Workshop and also creates amazing digital sculptures for IHazToys. Jon talked about his production process, showed some of his works and talked a big about some very sensitive topics.
I have worked on quite a few video games, but some of the more well known ones would be League of Legends & RIFT. I have also worked on a few board games, most notably Kingdom Death as a miniature sculptor. Since joining Weta Workshop I have contributed to a few well known IP’s such as Lord of the Rings, Warcraft and the Ghost in the Shell movie and also Weta Workshop’s own IP ‘Giant Killer Robots’.
I have always enjoyed drawing warriors and knights since I was a kid, playing RPG’s whose characters were no more than a bunch of pixels back on the old Atari or Amiga 500 / Commodore 64 computers way back when. I think it was destiny that I ended up doing this for a job. Was something I just kept doing until i more or less fell straight into it!
What are the most important parts of character creation process?
Having good ideas that are well thought out and provide a reason for things looking or being the way they are. Give things history and background as opposed to something just ‘being there’.
Could you name some of the biggest things that really are of utmost importance to any character model?
Showing personality through pose is the biggest and most important thing for me. The world is saturated with boring standing poses for superhero males and females. Push it!
What stages of character creation process can you name? What are the main things that are present in any character modeling production?
For video game characters it usually starts with concept and design, then modeling or sculpting, retopologisation, UV mapping and textures, rigging then animation, then VFX and sound. I think all of those things are equally as important. If any of those things fall short I think it doesn’t take long for a player to gauge how ‘poor’ it is oddly enough, the art itself’s style doesn’t matter as much as us artists think it does. I think we give too much emphasis on just how something looks as it is our job, but we shouldn’t ever forget that how it moves, how any character sounds is just as, if not more important than purely the visual component.
How is approach to modeling female and male characters different? What should you keep in mind while you are creating these completely different types of characters?
I strongly believe that building male and female characters is a different process for me, one that I can only sum up by saying simply that for me building a male is a process of addition and females is a process of subtraction. The more detail and information you add to any form tends to push things towards masculinity and the more you refine and subtract away from a form pushes more towards femininity. I try to think about that when working on either a very stylised anime face or a likeness sculpture of a real actor or actress.
What do the details tell us about characters in games? How are the little touches like the size of the miniskirt and the haircut influence the way people are perceiving the characters?
I think small details like these can often be the difference between a character with substance and just another shell or ’empty’ feeling character – there is no shortage of these!! The biggest thing is, showing that there is a reason for the choices. Making something a specific way ‘just because’ isn’t good enough. Why is her hair short? Will it get in the way and so on.
You’re building amazing figurines for your project. How is your production process differ from the one, which is applied to the production of only digital projects? Is there any difference at all?
Well sculpting for collectible figurine production is a very rewarding experience. Its very different from video game production as I get to sculpt the characters posed and showing off their personality. The only technicalities are for printing and production purposes which reduces the technical side of character sculpting a great deal compared to games. Its a different set of skills – one that I prefer to be honest now that I’ve been working in video games for over 10 years I feel this is a wonderful change of scenery! I have always wanted to have my own collectible toy store and this year myself and my partner decided we would get to work on making this a reality. So far we have 6 figures in the queue for production and another 2 being sculpted right now. We are hoping to continue to pump out a new figure every month and hopefully one day that will be our full time jobs.
What is the best way to create materials for 3d characters? What should you remember about the production of the textures for characters? What’s there to know about it?
Having solid knowledge of how light interacts with any given material is extremely important nowadays for video game production. Even simple hand painted characters for stylized games nowadays often have complex shaders to depict certain surface effects. For the more realistic characters I think the status quo these days is Substance or at the very least the Quixel Suite tools to provide very high definition, realistic, photographic, representations of materials.
There’s a tendency now, that a lot of artists move away from oversexualized female image in 3d art. Where do you stand on this point? Should artist try to work with different types of female beauty, or maybe there’s no problem at all? I’m just asking this, cause there are people out there who consider modern depiction of women in games to be very far from the real deal.
A very sensitive subject at the moment, I think female characters in particular are under immense scrutiny nowadays and this is largely due to the fact that more people are finding a way to make their voices heard and it empowers them to dis-empower the creators. I’m a firm believer that everyone has an opinion but not everyone deserves to have their opinion heard. Harsh, but I think that’s also fair. Context is the all important element here – something that social media is the ultimate expert at removing all together when the debates start up. I think that in ‘make believe’ forms of entertainment that there are literally no subjects that should be taboo. Everything has a place, absolutely everything. because It’s not real, this gives us the opportunity to explore and maybe understand topics that are simply too heinous, too extreme, too bizzare, too risque and far too illegal to experience in real life, and NONE of those things should be regulated. I think all forms of female beauty can and should be celebrated, I do know friends who refuse to draw or sculpt ‘pretty girls’ anymore purely because of the hate they receive about it (some of which who are female themselves) so it is definitely a problem. I myself continue to ignore the haters and just keep right on going. I want to attract people who enjoy my art for what it is rather than produce art that fits in with what other people ‘like’ and that is how I will continue!