Grüezi Diana! What do you do here at Blue Sky?
I have the honor of working with an amazing team of material artists as a Lead Materials Technical Director. The Materials Department at Blue Sky is responsible for applying color and surface textural properties to all of the 3D characters and set models in our movies. We have to make sure that the materials aren't just colored correctly but also have proper material properties and interact correctly with all the different lighting scenarios in the films. I mainly focus on the character side of things.
We hear you grew up in Switzerland, cool! What was that like?It was awesome. It is, after all, the country of cheese and chocolate! It was a great place to grow up, I had so much independence as a kid. I spent a lot of time outdoors in the mountains. My parents have a house way up on an alp where I ran around with no shoes, exploring the great outdoors. The house has no running water or electricity which means you must get very creative with your free time.
Did you always know you wanted to be a Materials Artist?No, I didn't even know I wanted to do anything with computers until my last year of college. As a kid I aspired to be a professional skier and then a freestyle skateboarder. As a teenager I used to ride the train around Switzerland and Germany to compete in freestyle skateboarding competitions. I always loved drawing but because I grew up in a practical Swiss family, becoming an artist was not an easy sell. My parents felt I had to have a back up plan in case the ‘art thing’ didn't work out. So before college I went to business school in Zürich, and then completed a three-year apprenticeship in one of the biggest department stores, similar to a Bloomingdales here. It's weird thinking back on that time now; I spent 6 months in an accounting department, very strange. While I learned a lot there, I knew that path wasn't for me. I needed to do something artistic, and drawing always made me happiest. I also wanted to learn better English, which is why I chose to go to art school in America. My original goal was to become an illustrator but during my last year in college we were required to take computer art classes, that is when I realized how interesting computers could be.
What did you find so interesting about computers/ computer arts?
I think I just fell in love with how flexible things were. If you made a mistake or changed your mind about something it was so easy to undo or change. On paper there was always this pressure not to mess up because I didn't want to ruin my piece in some way. Computers are a great medium for brainstorming and doing any kind of exploratory work, which still today I enjoy doing most.
Tell us about some of the jobs you had before Blue Sky.
I started out working in Manhattan doing postproduction work. I worked for almost four years at a company called Spontaneous Combustion doing mainly broadcast advertising work. It was a great place to get started because every job that came through was so different. I got to do compositing work using After Effects, as well as 3D animation. I did a little freelancing for a year but I didn't like the lifestyle. Some freelancers enjoy the time in between jobs and like not being tied down but I thought it was stressful always having to worry about the next job. Also, I wanted to grow with a company. I tried medical animation for a year at a company called Anatomical Travelogue, which was actually very interesting work. We were working on episodes of the TV show called Nova. When I heard there was an opportunity to join Blue Sky I couldn't resist the pull of the silver screen. I had seen their short Bunny and I wanted to be part of the team that had created it.
Wait, you’ve been here how long??
It's hard to believe I've been here for over 10 years. It's amazing to me how big the studio has become and how we're working on multiple shows at once. I started as a lighting TD on Robots and worked in lighting through Ice Age 2. I always had my eye on the Materials Department though. The work coming out of that department seemed very creative and inventive to me. I liked how you got to put your own mark on things. Of course you are working with the Art Director and the Designers but there's always room to add your own personal interpretation. I also like the process of building a material and thinking of all the different layers that will make up the final result. I really enjoy working with the other artists in the Materials Department; they are so fun to work with. We're not a very big team but we have people from all around the world, such as China, Russia, Bulgaria, India etc. It's neat to have all these different minds working together.
What do you like about working here that has kept you coming back after all these years?
For me the most important thing is that the work doesn’t become static or boring. As long as I keep learning new techniques and am working on projects that are challenging, I'm happy. Sometimes the constant technical changes can be a bit exhausting but even they can present exciting challenges. I like that I’m still growing as an artist. I also enjoy that we have the opportunity to work with the Directors, Art Directors and Designers. They teach me new ways to look at my work and watching them make decisions is fascinating.
How do you find inspiration?
To me, people are where I find most inspiration. When you talk to great artists, athletes, politicians, musicians who have made it their mission to follow their calling, their passion is very infectious. I like surrounding myself with people who follow their own paths and have unique skills. I also find inspiration in people who think differently than the norm, look at things from a different perspective or make me go back and take another look at something.
What is your favorite character or thing that you have done materials for?
Originally I was creating materials for sets and environments, which I enjoyed. Then on Rio I got the opportunity to start making materials for characters and was lucky to be assigned to Nigel. He was my first lead character so he'll always be one of my favorites. I had a blast working on him and of course it helped that he ended up with such a fun personality!
Let’s say I want to be a materials artist, what advice do you have for me?
I believe that you must have a critical eye and understand color. Understand how a material is composed with it’s layers and how the different elements that make up a material interact together. Don't just think of the top layer; think of what the cross section of the material would look like if you took a slice out of it. Then try to find a way to put your own spin on your material that will make it stand out. In addition, it helps if you are comfortable with problem solving and exploring. Things are constantly evolving here and you have to be able to adapt and be willing to try things that are out of your comfort zone.