Evolving Artist(ry): One Man, One Tool

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Animator and illustrator Chris O’Riley continues to hone his craft and meet artistic challenges head-on, armed with the latest tools in NewTek’s LightWave 3D

Last Updated: May 9, 2012 6:43 pm GMT
(May 9, 2012) Artist Chris O’Riley can never predict what his next project will be, but he is always certain of one thing: the tool he will use to achieve it. For nearly two decades, he has been tackling various animation and illustration assignments from major news outlets and advertisers, growing and expanding as a digital artist, using NewTek’s LightWave 3D.



“The very nature of magazine work is that the subjects are always different, often wildly so,” O’Riley explains. One week, it’s a 3D environment image depicting a military engagement for a major news source; the next week it’s a satirically stylized product for a business magazine story. On the advertising side, his projects have ranged from automotive work for Porsche, sport drink images for Pepsi, and modeling work for Harley Davidson to product shots for cosmetics companies like Avon and Clinique.

“What stand out to me are the unique challenges and requirements that come along with each job. It’s that constant problem-solving that has always kept me interested,” O’Riley enthuses. In fact, he’s never backed down from a challenge, dating all the way back to college.

Solved with Software
As a graphic design student in college, O’Riley was instantly interested in 3D modeling and animation; yet, illustrating detailed scenes with accurate perspective by hand was always challenging. He soon learned, and became fascinated by, what was possible with 3D software—and he continues to be impressed with the capabilities of his 3D tool of choice to this day.

“3D software was, at the time, an amazing solution,” O’Riley recalls. “I could build entire objects, compose scenes inside a virtual world, and then render out images with not only accurate perspective, but lighting, shading, and movement as well. It was quite remarkable!”

O’Riley test-drove a few 3D packages before settling on a favorite: LightWave 3D. “I quickly took to its more Spartan user interface,” he says. “I always enjoyed (physical) model building—using my hands, woodworking, carving, etc.—and LightWave’s minimalistic user interface appealed to me because it didn’t get in the way. Some programs seem try to do too much, others not enough; LightWave strikes just the right balance. More than any other program I used before or since, working in LightWave feels like I’m using my hands.”

Hands-on Artist
A majority of O’Riley’s magazine work, for Time and other well-known news sources, involves presenting ideas in new, clever, humorous, or satirical ways. “It might be a family depicted as salt and pepper shakers, spark plugs made out of money, or an automobile with a mouth of razor sharp teeth,” he explains. “Sometimes it’s seamlessly merging two ideas or objects; sometimes it’s stylizing or exaggerating


an idea. In either case, it’s rare that I can begin with a base model, so for each image, virtually everything needs to be built from scratch for each concept.” The same is true of his advertising work, which often involves fleshing out several different concepts for an ad agency to present to its clients.

“Most jobs don’t lend themselves to purchasing off-the-shelf models, so everything needs to be purpose-built for each project,” O’Riley admits. “The speed of both LightWave’s modeler and
renderer are absolutely critical for this type of work.”

LightWave’s subdivision-surface modeling tools enable O’Riley to quickly mock up low-resolution ideas or concepts, which can later be refined and rendered at high resolutions without the need to rebuild or remodel anything. “Very rarely do project deadlines measure more than a few days, and can be just a few hours in some cases,” he says. “Without the speed of LightWave’s modeler, that would be impossible.”

Fast and Powerful
When Porsche was launching its Panamera sedan, the company called on O’Riley to produce several eye-catching images for its debut. The artist needed to summon his creativity and imagination for the important project, rather than spending time wrestling with, and potentially having his workflow bogged down by, extremely large data sets; and so, he turned to LightWave 3D to handle the auto maker’s original CAD (computer-aided design) files.

“The deadline didn’t allow for creating a new, clean mesh, so I had to pare down the CAD data as much as possible quickly and render it directly, retouching any geometry issues in post,” O’Riley recalls. “LightWave’s ability to handle enormous data sets proved critical. The polygon count was enormous, yet LightWave rendered it with seeming ease.

“When deadlines can be measured in mere hours, speed and efficiency are absolutely critical,” O’Riley affirms. “Here, again,
LightWave excels, with a powerful tool set and a refined user interface that allows me to focus all my efforts on the task at hand.”

“I’ve worked with other modeling software and it seems that I have to go through more steps or add numerous third-party plug-ins to accomplish the same thing I can achieve in LightWave out of the box,” O’Riley continues. “LightWave has always allowed me to create everything from photorealistic to stylized renders in one all-inclusive package. LightWave has what I need built-in and, with a few tools and good problem-solving, there’s nothing it can’t do.”

The artist also considers his 3D software package of choice to be “comparatively light” on system requirements. “I could run it at all on my early, modest computer systems, and now, it’s extremely fast on the latest hardware,” O’Riley says. “That speed is essential for tight deadline work where clients can, and will, ask for major revisions at the last possible minute.”

Mastering Modifications
Revisions are an essential part of virtually any artistic or production work flow, and especially important in O’Riley’s high-profile work. “The feature that singularly changed and improved my work flow the most has been VPR interactive previews,” he says, crediting the Viewport Preview Renderer (VPR) introduced in LightWave version 10.

“The ability to see changes almost instantly allows me to refine surfacing, lighting, and other effects to a level that just wasn’t possible when the only preview was a full F9 render,” O’Riley explains. “On tight deadline work, it can mean the difference between making hundreds of small tweaks as opposed to a few tens. The result is a much more refined image that needs little to no retouching in post.”

LightWave has always had a powerful render engine, capable of producing amazing effects, according to O’Riley. Nonetheless, “the addition of interactive previews drastically speeds the process of refining texturing and lighting, which allows me to truly get the most out of the renderer.”

The artist also relies on VPR to work with, and impress, clients remotely from his studio. “With LightWave’s VPR previews and screen-sharing through services like Skype, clients have near-real-time access to exactly what’s on my screen, and I maintain ready access to the ever-growing archive of resources and tools I’ve compiled over the years.”

Continued Evolution
A majority of O’Riley’s work is as a one-man crew. He enjoys working in a team and the opportunity it affords him to learn from others with different talents and experience; yet, at the same time, he takes pleasure in the satisfaction of solving unique problems that comes with working solo. By singularly facing and overcoming challenges with each new and unique project, O’Riley continues to learn and to hone his craft.

“I tend not to be satisfied with my own work for very long! On some level, each project is a learning experience, and I usually end most jobs with a list of ideas or techniques I think could improve the next,” O’Riley states. “So, while I have a few pieces that I’m currently pleased with, I know it’s just a matter of time before I’ve improved on them and no longer regard them with as much distinction!”

The artist is particularly pleased, albeit for the time being, with a fly image he recently produced for Digital Modeling, a new book by William Vaughan, co-owner of Applehead Factory and creator of Teddy Scares and Tofu, The Vegan Zombie. “I had modeled several insects in the past, and this image represents the culmination of everything I learned on those previous,” O’Riley notes.

Whereas the first insect (a wasp) was modeled in sections which were just placed together, the second (a mosquito) was modeled as a single, seamless mesh, O’Riley describes. “While this may have been an improvement in form, I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the level of detail I was able to capture. For the fly image, I was able both to model as a single, seamless mesh and to capture far more detail than on the previous two.”

The texturing on this latest insect image was vastly improved, through the extensive use of weight and UV mapping. Camera effects, such as depth of field, also greatly enhanced its realism. “That’s an image I’m pleased with today,” O’Riley says, “but, as always, I have a list of ideas on how to improve upon it for the next one!”

Camera Compatibility
Photography plays a big part in O’Riley’s work, whether compositing CG elements into a photographic background or capturing images for texturing or reference. “LightWave provides all the tools necessary to seamlessly combine CG with photography,” he says. “Alpha channels, various buffer exports, front projection mapping, fog, and especially interactive VPR rendering all aid in blending 3D elements with background plates.”

The artist also often uses mapped polygons or simple shapes set to “unseen by camera” in LightWave to cast reflections of photographic elements on 3D elements to be combined later. As always, the particular techniques O’Riley uses depends upon the details, requirements, and deadlines of a project.

“It’s exceedingly rare that I run into an effect that can’t be created using LightWave’s standard tools,” O’Riley mentions, “and the rare times I do, a solution usually exists in the form of a plug-in or L-Script. With the tendency today toward multiple packages, each with its own subset of tools, it’s refreshing that NewTek still includes everything in one single, affordable package.”

Full Circle
O’Riley started his career in the 1990s producing animations for myriad instruction videos alongside an aerial photographer, until he was introduced to Time Magazine’s art department. What he thought, at the time, would be little more than the odd illustration job in between animation projects turned into 13-plus years of using LightWave for print images in magazines and advertising.

“Before my detour into print work, my main interest had always been in animation. I’ve been slowly getting back into that recently, and it’s definitely a direction I hope to continue,” O’Riley says. As magazines transition from paper to pixels, he is increasingly asked to create animated versions of his illustrations for the magazine’s tablet edition. “LightWave’s extremely powerful and extensive animation tools have me covered,” he says. “The speed and efficiency of the program and the user interface are things that I haven’t found in any other application and that I would find difficult to live without.

“It’s amazing to think that I’ve been able to build a successful year career over the past 15 years using one software package,” O’Riley enthuses. “When other companies have added features through high priced add-on packages, NewTek has always kept LightWave a single, all-inclusive program. I look forward to using all the new tools that’ll be coming in LightWave 11, and beyond.”

To see more of Chris O’Riley’s artwork, visit http://www.V4Digital.com.

About LightWave
NewTek LightWave 3D® combines a state-of-the-art renderer with powerful, intuitive modeling and animation tools. LightWave 10 is designed to support the creative process, providing the artist with the ability to interact in real time with 3D content, to work seamlessly with the full range of software applications in production pipelines and to render on unlimited render nodes. LightWave is enjoyed worldwide, as a complete 3D production solution for visual effects in film, television, broadcast graphics, print, games, visualization, and the Web, and is responsible for more artists winning Emmy® Awards than any other 3D application.

About NewTek
Benefiting producers and artists with cost-effective and groundbreaking technologies, NewTek is a worldwide leader in 3D animation and special effects tools, portable live production and video editing including LightWave 3D®, the TriCaster™ product line and 3Play™. NewTek has won numerous industry accolades, including two Emmy® Awards. NewTek products have been used in feature films and television shows, including "Avatar," "TinTin," "Repo Men," "V," "Fringe," "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," "The Fairly OddParents" and more.

NewTek is privately owned and based in San Antonio. For more information, please visit: http://www.newtek.com.

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