By: Travis Bourbeau
Scott Patton started his career as a make-up effects artist in the 1990s, developing his sculpting, painting and design skills under the tight production deadlines of the movie industry. Patton’s work as a make-up effects artist can be seen in a diverse range of films from Sin City and Kill Bill to Amistad and The Green Mile. While working on the Academy Award winning The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Patton discovered ZBrush and quickly realized that this tool could speed up the often frustrating character design process. Joining practical and digital sculpting in his production workflow, Patton joined Stan Winston Studios and the design team for James Cameron’s Avatar. After the unfortunate death of Stan Winston in 2008, Patton helped the remaining S.W. team in creating a digital design department for their new company Legacy Effects. Since that time, Patton and Legacy have designed characters for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, John Carter of Mars, Pandorum, Iron Man 2, Thor, Cowboys and Aliens, Terminator Salvation and more.
GW: How did you get started in the industry?
SP: I was always drawing and painting monsters as a kid, but it wasn’t until I was out of high school and I heard that they were going to make a movie of Edgar Rice Burroughs “a Princess of Mars” that I felt any pull toward movies. The “John Carter of Mars” books inspired me more than anything as a kid, they had all the creatures you could ever want!! So, I set out on a plan of deception!! I had to work on the film, but I had no idea what I was going to do. One day I picked up a Fangoria magazine and Bam! I would be a make-up effects artist! All I had to do was find out what they did and how they did it. It only took three months to fake my way into a job. I did make-up effects for sixteen years…They never made that “Mars” movie, but when I switched to digital and to designing characters, that movie came back around and I’m the key Character Designer on it!!(dumb luck)
GW: You’re relatively new to 3d modeling, how did you end up working on blockbuster films like Avatar, John Carter of Mars and Iron Man?
SP: As I said, I was a make-up effects artist and I was transitioning out of effects and into the digital world. I sent out a few resumes and the first bite was from Stan Winston Studios a make-up studio ironically. Stan’s studio was doing some designs for long time collaborator Jim Cameron on a project called “Avatar” (who knew?) I met with John Rosengrant (Stan Winston alumni and Legacy effects co-owner). He said he needed a designer who could do digital designs because the film was ninety percent 3D. I think I got the job because I could speak the make-up effects language and that put him at ease. On Avatar it was trial by fire for my digital skills, so I think I got about ten years experience on that film. From there, the word got out about the “Hybrid” design pipeline that we were developing and it wasn’t long before we had some of the biggest projects in town.
GW: Were you quick to pick up digital or hesitant? How do you feel your traditional background gives you an advantage?
SP: I have been trying digital tools since the early 1990s, it has always interested me but just didn’t click for me until I discovered ZBrush, then it was off to the races!! As far as pipelines go, I have a business card that says “pipeline anarchist” on it. My traditional background tells me, “if it looks good it is good!” Sometimes people forget that the end product is the “look” – they get hung up on how to get there.
GW: What specifically do you do at Legacy that separates you from other companies? What is significant about your pipeline?
SP: Well, we really focus on design and we do it digitally, oh, and we do it fast!! The rest is a secret… kidding, what I mean is “secret ingredient” – experience! We all have years of practical experience on sets dealing with directors, having to figure stuff out on the fly. You can’t rattle us, we have seen it all! We can deliver usable models and finished concept art at any point in the production as well as props, maquettes, full animatronics, anything needed for the completion of a project. We will do what’s needed to get a final product and it will be better than expected.
GW: Most of your 3d designs are printed out into maquettes. Why take this extra step or spend the extra time?
SP: Why? Because every director was a kid once, and every kid wanted to make their own toys. Characters seem to get approved really fast if the director thinks he is going to get one to sit on his desk. With these printers you can have any toy you can think up, and it is an amazing tool for showing how a character will translate into the real world. I have seen things that look good in 3D and get printed and look like the coolest thing you have ever seen, and I have seen some that look great in 3D and print like crap! It is a bit of science and a bit of art in making something look good when it’s printed. We also have some of the most talented painters and model makers in the world in our shop, that helps!
GW: You often work directly with the director as opposed to an art director or production designer. What are some of the challenges? What are some of the differences?
SP: The challenge is often the production designers themselves. They often feel we are trying to take over or push past them. That is not the case at all, we design characters, no middle man needed. We work with the director, we tweak the characters right there in front of him, we get his feedback in real time and we adjust in real time. You just can’t get that when you have walls put up between you and the director. That’s not to say that all production designers are like that. Most understand that we are there to deliver the best work possible and it can only benefit the film and take some of the load off of them. Now that films like Avatar have come out and productions are starting to understand how we work, we are hired as a “Character Design Department” and we really work for the director at that point. It makes things easier.
GW: At Legacy, how much freedom to do you get when it comes to concept? Are you basically concepting in 3d or do you still work from 2d concepts?
SP: I’m lucky, I work for some really good guys and I guess I have their trust, because they just let me go and do as I please. I usually start in 3D. With the schedules as short as they are these days it doesn’t make sense to do it in 2D. I ruffle a lot of feathers when I say that 2D artwork means that I have to do everything twice at least. When a director see a 2D piece, say from the front, he will imagine the side of the face in his head and so will I and so will you. Guess what? we all imagine something different. When I do a sculpt everybody knows what it looks like from all angles, no guessing. It seems to work best for me.
GW: What were some of the challenges on Avatar? What were you responsible for?
SP: The challenge on Avatar was…everything! We were designing the characters at the same time that the world was being created. We had no idea what was in, what was out, what it was going to look like in the end. The whole thing was a big question mark right up until opening day. My first day I was handed a sketch of the viperwolf that Jim Cameron had done. In case you don’t know, that means it’s pre-approved no need to re-design! I started doing ZBrush sculpts (ZBrush 2, no subtools…ouch!). Jim really responded to ZBrush in a big way, he could do what he does best, Direct! The Viperwolfs went pretty fast.
When I came on to the project, the Winston team had been on the film for about eight months. They had tons of work done on the two lead characters Jake and Neyteri, which was mostly photoshop by artists Joe Pepe and Chris Swift. So I moved onto the other avatars, Grace (Sigourney Weaver) and Norm (Joel Moore). The biggest challenge was how to work with the scans and do “avatar” sculpts in ZBrush with no subtools and work live on a laptop. If you don’t know what I mean, try loading Zbrush 2 on an old laptop, get yourself a really heavy scan and figure out how to work on it quickly and make changes while Jim Cameron stands there tapping his toe….
After getting past that, I did a whole lot of background Na’vi! Jim liked the idea of digital sculpts so he asked for digital sculpts of Jake and Neyteri so we could work out facial expressions. While all of this was happening we had practical sculptors working in clay on other Na’vi. We did digital and practical sculpts back and forth. Jim called this approach dual streams of development. I also did a lot of work on the head of the Banshees. Jim wanted them to have a really fleshy feel, so I took Neville Page’s design and did a lot of detail work on it. I even inherited the task of making the banshee mouth work. Jim explained how he wanted the mouth to open like a fish but he wanted the teeth to retract and lay back like a snake. In order to do the design renders I had to rig it first (I had never rigged a model in my life…ahh sleepless nights… good times) but it all worked out.
GW: You still remain active on the forums. How do you find time to post and what are the benefits of staying active?
SP: I post work that I have done on films because it is closure for me. You have to remember that the work is almost always a year or more old by the time I can show it, three years in the case of Avatar. It becomes a sort of marker or milestone. If I feel I have grown as an artist from the time it was done, that’s all that really matters to me. I post it and let it go knowing that the work I’m doing now has a year more knowledge and ability behind it. I think what I get from the community is that I forget that I am a “professional” when I see some of the amazing work out there, I’m really just someone who loves looking at and doing artwork.
GW: What is proto-concepting?
SP: Well, proto concepting is a term that I use when I talk about the processes that we developed. It just refers to the earliest form of our concept sculpts and how diverse we can make that asset. I try to make the first assets that I create accessible to the production from the beginning of a film to the end. I also try to do design sculpts that we can translate to lo-res for pre-vis, high-res for animation, generate concept art for every department’s needs as well as make physical maquettes, lighting stand-ins and full size animatronics, while keeping the look of the original design consistent during the entire process and do all of it in house!! Don’t even get me started on merchandising.
GW: What do you look for in a modeler? What do you want to see in their reel? What do you want to hear in the interview?
SP: First I look at their design abilities. That is key, that’s what we do. I look at originality, execution, and most of all speed!! Then I look at their sculpting abilities as if it were in clay. Every design we do has a good chance of being a real object at some point, so the sculpt is important. I have to say attitude is very, very important here as well. We get a lot of “Superstars”. They don’t last long and they usually leave in tears! We need people who are confident and ready to give 100% but are not afraid to ask for help or advice if they need it. Tell me what you bring to the table, don’t ask what we can offer you.
GW: What can a viewer expect to learn from your DVD series?
SP: That there is more than one way to do almost anything, and that design is not a formula. It is a way of looking at things. You have to go through a process to learn how to make the best decisions for your characters. I don’t make a lot of rules to follow but you can see how my decisions affect the look and feel of the final character, and it’s all real time. I think it’s important to see how quickly other artists work.