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Mudbox Preview: A Dream Come True for 3D Artists

Fred Galpern takes a sneak peek at Mudbox, the soon to be released digital sculpting tool from Skymatter, and the beta report is sure to whet your appetite.

Mudbox makes digital sculpting a reality, fulfilling many 3D artists dreams. © Yonghyun Kim (left) and Ken Finlayson © 2006; design based on a concept by Aaron St. Goddard.

Mudbox makes digital sculpting a reality, fulfilling many 3D artists dreams. © Yonghyun Kim (left) and Ken Finlayson © 2006; design based on a concept by Aaron St. Goddard.

For some, digital sculpting still sounds like some far off dream. However, a few lucky souls know that dream is no longer the stuff of fantasy. Mudbox, a soon to be released 3D app developed by New Zealand-based Skymatter Ltd., is the fulfillment of many 3D artists yearnings. While the release date and final pricing are yet to be determined, the software has been in the hands of beta testers for a while now. I took some time to speak to the three masterminds behind Mudbox, as well as some of the folks involved with the Mudbox beta. Read on for some feedback that is likely to whet your appetite for this amazing new tool.

Andrew Camenisch, Dave Cardwell and Tibor Madjar are the founders of Skymatter. They arent too picky about what you call them, as long as they are treated as equals. This all for one approach is reflected in the Mudbox community, as beta testers provide feedback that has a genuine effect on the software. When talking about creating a useful tool Camenisch says: Production software should be only a means to an end, and Mudbox exists only to serve the artist. That is, all feature design and development priorities are set by the production artist's purpose. The problem often with development that isn't designed and driven by the end-user is that the software can become an end in itself a personal expression of its designers, or the personal research project of its developers or a mish-mash of features that offer few actual solutions in depth.

Mudboxs release date and final pricing arent set yet. The software is currently in beta testing as its creators firmly believe that end-user feedback will improve the product.

Mudboxs release date and final pricing arent set yet. The software is currently in beta testing as its creators firmly believe that end-user feedback will improve the product.

In contrast, Mudbox is purpose built, in that it exists only for the simple purpose of enabling you and me to make more, better and faster. Mudbox is focused. Everything in Mudbox is there because it was proven useful to the digital sculptor. Two critical aspects of any production tool are ease of use and pipeline compatibility, and so making software that is easy to learn, fun to use and respectful of established conventions is very important to us.

Camenisch has a fine arts background, with experience in drawing and printmaking prior to his digital art education. In grad school, he started modeling in 3D, and built a website called The Human Head as part of his thesis on portraiture and 3D CG. The right people at Weta must have seen it, and several months after graduating I was in New Zealand building creatures for The Lord of the Rings. After serving as a lead modeler on Return of the King, I had the responsibility of leading the facial modeling and setup task for King Kong. Then I served as models lead at Weta until finally deciding recently to take a break and move on to other things.

Skymatters Andrew Camenisch describes Mudbox as purpose built, in that it exists only for the simple purpose of enabling artists to make more, better and faster.

Skymatters Andrew Camenisch describes Mudbox as purpose built, in that it exists only for the simple purpose of enabling artists to make more, better and faster.

Cardwell has an impressive résumé including design work for Ford, Mercedes, Weta Digital, Electronic Arts, as well as software development with Alias|Wavefront. Its this background that helps me understand the tools and techniques artists and designers require. I feel very much inspired by many of the successes and pitfalls I've encountered throughout my career in the creative process, whether in design, gaming or film.

When asked about the thinking behind Mudbox, Cardwell adds, In general, my experience with CG over the past 11 years has shown me that we are still in the very early stages of this medium. Im still wishing I could create the types of characters and rich environments I created using an airbrush in art school years ago. With the current state of CG tech, artists are left with primitive tool boxes full of digital bits of metal springs, buttons and other bolts, bits and bytes, and you need to have a degree in rocket science to have a character with hair splash around in a kiddy pool?

Todays and tomorrows content requires creation of crowds, cities, ancient jungle villages, oceans and anything else you can imagine. Creators cant focus on content iteration and refinement when the tools they use are as complicated and cumbersome as they are today. Tool technology, like the fingers of the hand, needs to be unobtrusive enough for any user to work at the speed of thought. That should be the goal. We very much feel that part of the future of digital art creation lies within brush to build paradigms. Traditional 3D pointillism is for teapots, bald low poly characters and arthritis. I believe one of the biggest challenges of the industry is to be able to take risks and think a bit outside of the box, scrap some of the traditional CG religions and beliefs and build new innovative user interfaces that help everyone unlock their potential. Through proper interfaces and tools the speed and quality of digital art creation will improve along with the depth in sophistication of our entertainment experiences. And that should make us all happy campers.

Dave Cardwell of Skymatter thinks todays tools are too complicated and cumbersome. Tool technology needs to be unobtrusive enough for any user to work at the speed of thought. © Dave Cardwell.

Dave Cardwell of Skymatter thinks todays tools are too complicated and cumbersome. Tool technology needs to be unobtrusive enough for any user to work at the speed of thought. © Dave Cardwell.

Madjar, meanwhile, shares his partners interest in all things creative, plus some things technical. In my teenage years my primary interest was electronics, especially digital techniques. Later in life, my focus shifted toward fine arts. Due to this, I have a diverse background in electronics, programming, oil painting, bronze/aluminum sculpting; even servicing artillery, due to my mandatory army training. I studied computer animation at Sheridan College, but my career in CG really started at Weta, working on The Lord of the Rings as lead character/creature modeler and King Kong as Kong creature lead modeler. Mudbox development started as a result of a love for digital sculpting and as an effect of our frustration with the current tools.

When asked about his hopes for Mudbox, Madjar adds, Our tools are guided with a long-term clear vision to reduce the artist's suffering in creating sculptures and to allow production artists to be efficient by providing a set of simple to use and very powerful production tools. Mudbox is the result of our extensive production experience working on very demanding assets. We use it on a daily basis to get the job done fast with the highest possible quality. Mudbox is truly a tool designed from the ground up by experienced production artists and designers to help themselves and others in creating even very detailed and complex 3D forms easily. The current Mudbox is the beginning rather than the end in fulfilling our vision.

Skymatter partner Tibor Madjar sees his firm's tools as being guided by a long-term vision to reduce the artist's suffering in creating sculptures and to make production artists more efficient. © Tibor Madjar. 

Skymatter partner Tibor Madjar sees his firm's tools as being guided by a long-term vision to reduce the artist's suffering in creating sculptures and to make production artists more efficient. © Tibor Madjar. 

After speaking with the guys at Skymatter it was time to get some feedback from the select group of beta testers currently using Mudbox. As you can see from their impressive credentials, these guys are serious contenders, worthy of making or breaking hyped up new software releases.

Ken Finlayson is a character artist currently working at the game development company BioWare Edmonton Corp., where he specializes in high resolution sculpting. He began his 3D career with an early version of Strata Studio Pro, then moved on to using LightWave and more recently was a ZBrush instructor at Electronic Arts in Vancouver. In addition to Mudbox, he continues to use modo for his low-resolution work. Finlayson offers: Im very excited about Mudbox and what is coming down the road. I think as more and more features fill in, it is going to change the way people work. In my experience, people have been able to pick it up very fast because of the similar feel to Photoshop and Maya. Generally, it feels like a very solid program, even at this beta stage.

Matt Charlesworth has worked in the games industry for more than 11 years, beginning as a tester at Core, home of Lara Croft and the Tomb Raider franchise, in his home town of Derbyshire in the U.K. More recently, Charlesworth has contributed high detail sculpted heads to the Mass Effect game title. He recently left BioWare Edmonton to begin work at Radical, a game developer located in Vancouver. He echoes Finlaysons sentiments on the Mudbox learning curve: Learning new 3D packages is usually a painful task and, after my experience with Zbrush, I was expecting the worst, but with Mudbox I was able to pick it up and from day one was sculpting happily away as though I had been using it for weeks, thanks to its artist friendly and extremely intuitive interface.

Comparisons with ZBrush are inevitable. Matt Charlesworth finds that Mudbox feels more an extension of the other tools in his pipeline and that he has never been totally satisfied with ZBrush. © Matt Charlesworth. 

Comparisons with ZBrush are inevitable. Matt Charlesworth finds that Mudbox feels more an extension of the other tools in his pipeline and that he has never been totally satisfied with ZBrush. © Matt Charlesworth. 

For anyone with any prior experience in traditional 3D apps, such as Maya or Max, its a breeze. Mudbox has been responsible for the single biggest improvement in the efficiency of my workflow; I can now work non-destructively on high detail sculpts without needing several separate files of my model in various states saved to disk. I can also use the speed of mirrored sculpting on models with asymmetrical features provided the underlying topology is symmetrical, which is a massive timesaver. This is in addition to what, in my opinion, is the strongest and most accurate toolset of any digital sculpting package available today. It really doesnt hold you back in any way. Even poly limit/memory isnt a problem thanks to the disk streaming and local subdivision features.

Character artist Ken Finlayson is very excited about Mudbox after beta testing the software. It feels solid to him and he foresees that it will change the way artists work. Ken Finlayson © 2006. 

Character artist Ken Finlayson is very excited about Mudbox after beta testing the software. It feels solid to him and he foresees that it will change the way artists work. Ken Finlayson © 2006. 

Pete Konig is part owner, art director/designer at Massive Black Inc. Konig describes Massive Black as a high-end outsourcing studio that serves the game and film industry. We are a one-stop shop that covers all aspects of asset creation, from concept to maquette, full 3D finishing and animation. We have worked with over 60 different top-notch clients over the past three years. We started MB in order to get out of our work-a-day treadmill jobs and to start something that was ours, to stretch our abilities further, and to try put our distinctive stamp on the game world.

Konig goes on to describe his background as primarily in the movie vfx industry, where hes worked as a sculptor, designer, fabricator, animator, animation supervisor and art director for nearly 19 years. His personal specialty is creature design and character previs.

For a person like me, Konig says, Mudbox feels very natural and has a very straightforward interface. More than any other program I've tried, I feel like I'm actually sculpting using Mudbox. I particularly like how little time I spend thinking about how to use the interface. I just get down to work immediately. Also, having a background using Maya, I didn't have to learn a new interface from scratch, I was literally off and running in about 15 minutes.

Miguel Ortega, a character artist currently working on James Camerons Avatar, in addition to freelance work for Brain Zoo, Sony Cinematics, Pixel Magic FX and McFarlane Toys, echoes Mudboxs ease of use. What attracts me to Mudbox is not so much what it can do as opposed to other apps, but the feel of it. It just acts and feels the way you want a 3D app to work; very easy to use and beyond easy to learn. I see guys get on it and start running within one hour.

Comparisons to ZBrush were inevitable. Finlayson suggests that while he does have significant experience with ZBrush, Mudbox offers an alternative. Often there are days that I will be using both. What jumps out at me, though, is the feeling of just more precision in Mudbox. In Mudbox, I feel I can have individual control of each polygon, where in ZBrush I just dont feel I have that same level of control. The other thing is flexibility; it already seems like there are multiple ways to do everything in Mudbox. There are several capabilities in Mudbox I really like; for example, the tangent symmetry, which lets me sculpt posed characters. The ability to extract a displacement map from an arbitrary mesh is very nice. At this point in time, it is hard to really compare ZBrush and Mudbox feature for feature because Mudbox is still in beta and ZBrush has had several years of development.

This seahorse dragon was created with Mudbox. © Rich Diamant.

This seahorse dragon was created with Mudbox. © Rich Diamant.

Charlesworth agrees: I started out on Mass Effect using ZBrush and struggled at first with its quirks, eventually becoming comfortable with its working environment. When I first had the opportunity to beta test Mudbox, I have to say I jumped at the chance. I had never really been satisfied with the way in which ZBrush forced me to work. Mudbox feels like much more of an extension of the other tools in my pipeline than ZBrush. It has the same 3D laws and logic that apply when Im using Maya and the same 2D functionality that I enjoy from Photoshop. Smooth shaded sculpting and a perspective camera were also welcome additions.

Konig observes: I think it will be a bit like the Photoshop vs. Corel Painter argument that 2D people have. Once Mudbox implements all the things they plan to, I honestly don't think I'll be opening ZBrush very often. The fact that you are manipulating an actual 3D object is a big plus, so is the fast way Mudbox handles data. Another biggie is the layers; for someone used to Photoshop, this is an amazing feature.

However, Ortega views ZBrush and Mudbox as more complementary: In my eyes, they are two tools that I use together (e.g., Photoshop and Illustrator). Im sure ZBrush will have some amazing things in 2.5, and then Mudbox will try and outdo them, and back and forth. Competition brings innovation. At the end, the winners are all of us users. This shouldnt be seen as something we need to take sides on. We now have two options and thats great!

And what improvements should we look for in the next generation of digital art creation software?

Id like there to be a day when point orders, topology and UVs are after thoughts, Finlayson suggests. These things can all be automated. We all know what good UVs and good topology look like. Eventually, we should be able to lay out some rough markers and have the computer fill in the rest. I think as tools become more sophisticated the art of digital sculpting will be very close to working with its analog counterpart, clay. We wont be thinking about line flow, polycounts, vertex ids and other distracting things: Just how does my model look? Lets add another arm, or use that ear I made last week on this guy. It will just feel like adding more clay to a sculpture.

As far as game development, Charlesworth adds: Next-gen game production is demanding a lot more from artists, who in turn have to demand a lot more from their tools to keep up with the pace and quality benchmarks that we aim for. With the industry reliance on huge teams and talented art school graduates, those tools need to be able to have their users up and running in the shortest possible time. This has always been an issue in the past, where an artists technical background was in a lot of cases more important than his artistic capabilities. This was often due to difficult to use, bloated software. In my opinion, the software that will succeed and mold the future of our industry will be the software that lets great artists produce great work with as little technical knowledge as possible. Lets keep things simple. My favorite tools, ones that I couldnt live without, echo that sentiment.

Konig offers: I think that many, if not most of your readers are from the film industry. I would let them know that their talents are needed in the game world as games and game technology is creeping ever closer to movie quality. As a movie guy, I wouldn't have considered the games industry 10 years ago, but looking at next-gen and ahead, I can say that the line of quality and realism between movies and games is becoming more and more blurred. Companies like ours need high end talent.

Ortega muses: Its a good time to be a modeler. There is a lot of work because of the game industry. I used to not want to work for games because I wanted to only work on high poly characters. Now that normal mapping is being used more frequently, the quality in terms of modeling is the same in both film and games. As for greatest challenges, its always keeping your skills up to date and practicing as much as possible.

For more information on Mudbox check out its website. VFXWorld will pass along final release date and pricing information as soon as Skymatter Ltd. makes the announcement.

Fred Galpern is the art manager for Blue Fang Games, located just outside Boston. He is also a part-time Maya instructor at Northeastern University and a co-creator of the game development program at Bristol Community College. Since entering the digital art field more than 10 years ago, Galpern has helped ship more than 10 products and held management positions in several game and entertainment companies, including Hasbro and Looking Glass Studios. He began his art career in comic books and also has interactive, print and web graphic design experience.

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