The Gnomon Workshop

Interview with David Meng

David Meng graduated from the University of Michigan with a Bachelors degree in fine art, before going on to study under make-up effects pioneer Dick Smith. Having worked as a designer and sculptor for effects houses in LA, he relocated to New Zealand in 2004, working at Weta Workshop on films including King Kong, District 9 and The Hobbit trilogy. Now a freelance artist, his recent credits include Pacific Rim, Crimson Peak and The Shape of Water, while his art has been exhibited at galleries worldwide, including New Zealand's Dowse Art Museum. Below, David discusses the lessons learned from an unconventional career, the value of traditional sculpting in an increasingly digital world, and the lateral thinking that informs his tutorials for The Gnomon Workshop.

GW: In the past, you've talked about the importance of 'thinking sideways' for designing creatures. How does that approach inform your tutorials?

DM: In A Pungent Character, my subject was a harpy from Greek mythology, but I approached the design in a way that did not conform with most people’s preconceived notions of what a harpy should look like. What I wanted to do was show viewers how you can give a nod to the basic concept of what you are tasked with designing, but still go off in a left-of-field direction.

Sculpting a Stylized Character is not so much a prescription for design as a sculpting tutorial. I chose to demonstrate the maquetting process for an ape, which is an animal form from which you can easily extrapolate many different types of monsters. The point was to give viewers a handle on the basics of sculpting anthropoid anatomy, which they could then apply to any sort of humanoid creature.

GW: Do you ever use digital tools in your work?

DM: I use Photoshop to color illustrations which I do in pencil and then scan in to the computer. I last used ZBrush in 2014 – I got to a point where I managed to get decent results with it, but as a workflow it didn’t quite resonate with me. There may be a day when I revisit it, but at this point, I feel I want dedicate myself to traditional sculpting and drawing.

Weta Workshop has been using digital tools in everything from design to manufacturing for quite a while now. I think their first major use there was in the design room: in the early days with Photoshop and Painter, then later with ZBrush. Around the time I left, they hired more ZBrush artists, so that was definitely the trend there, as it has been elsewhere.

GW: Traditional sculpting has never gone away entirely in the industry. What is its appeal?

DM: There is something about the immediacy of being able to see a clay sculpture in the round and turn it with your hands, which is what I think continues to attract clients to them. Turning a model around on a 2D screen doesn't have the same impact.

More abstractly, there is something about the inherent imperfection of doing things by hand that creates a sort of visual noise that has resonance with viewers. Clay sculpting does have its limits, and once you have covered your armature with clay, it is not that easy to lengthen an arm or shrink a head by the proverbial 5%. But I think that this is an advantage as well as a disadvantage. There is every practical reason in the world to use digital modeling for design work, and yet the vast freedom it offers can sometimes work against you. When there is no risk in trying anything, there is less weight behind the decisions you make.

Also, when sculpting traditionally, you cannot help but put some asymmetry into your creature, which is very important for believability. Most workflows I’ve seen in ZBrush have the artist building things with mirror symmetry on, so organic imperfection becomes something you reverse engineer after finishing your basic sculpt, which is, by its nature, a contrivance. I think the human mind is savvy enough on a subconscious level to pick up on that. But film is ultimately a bottom-line-driven endeavor, so, most of the time, this doesn’t matter to the powers that be. And of course, there are many brilliant artists who use ZBrush in a way that avoids these pitfalls.

GW: What benefit does learning to sculpt traditionally have for artists who mainly work digitally?

DM: I don’t think you will ever regret learning how to do things traditionally. Using your hands to physically manipulate clay does a great deal to burn in muscle memory. It also gives you a greater understanding of how to pose things naturally and create a sense of weight, because the clay is real and subject to the laws of physics, unlike a digital mesh.

The analogy I’d make is how we all learn to draw the figure nude, even if most people end up always drawing it clothed – the understanding of what lies beneath is fundamental to understanding what goes on top of it. Plus, if you learn to sculpt with real clay, you don’t have to be haunted with the question of whether or not you can do it without the computer.

GW: How much do techniques evolve in traditional sculpting?

DM: In traditional sculpting, nothing has changed for thousands of years, other than some basic advances in materials, like oil-based and polymer clay. There have been some minor advances in things like texturing, but the techniques we use are basically the same as the artists of the Renaissance; maybe even those of the ancient Greeks.

GW: Which single person has had the most influence on your career?

DM: The legendary make-up artist Dick Smith. I corresponded with him after leaving college, and it was he who opened the doors for me to enter the industry. If you are from the Midwest like me and totally unconnected from anyone in Hollywood, it is very, very difficult to break in. Dick’s recommendation got me past the front gates in many places, and I will always be grateful to him for that.

GW: Why did you want to work at Weta?

DM: The Lord of the Rings films, like everybody else. They had a look that was different from almost everything else that was around at the time, and Weta seemed unaffected by the general cynicism that I sensed in a lot of other places.

Also, I knew that in Hollywood, I was never going to rise above sculpting toenails and elbows on sculptures keyed by other, much more respected guys. It was obvious that everyone in LA was already very well established, and a low-key personality like myself wasn’t going to get very far. I could see that the young New Zealand film industry was a new frontier, like the Old West, and I thought that I had a better chance of rising up by traveling to the far end of the Earth than by staying in Los Angeles.

After my first meeting with [Weta Workshop co-founder] Richard Taylor, I could see that he was a hugely charismatic, amiable guy, as were the other guys from the shop, like Greg Tozer and Dan Falconer, whom I met at the same time. My time at Weta had both ups and downs, but it paid dividends as I made many friends and learned so much from guys like Jamie Beswarick and Greg Broadmore.

GW: Are there any Gnomon Workshop tutorials that helped you in your own career?

DM: Some of my favorite Gnomon videos were those done by Wayne Barlowe, Ian McCaig, Terryl Whitlatch and Carlos Huante. All four are huge heroes of mine. While I do feel a bit helpless watching as they just sit and pour out these brilliant drawings, it is interesting to hear their thoughts on their working processes.

GW: What's the biggest compliment anyone has ever paid about your work?

DM: Someone said that my work was some of the most character-rich that he had ever seen. The person who said it is an artist whom I admire greatly. Character is the most important aspect of creature design to me, so the compliment was very, very much appreciated.

GW: What are the key qualities required to work in creature design?

DM: Being able to draw or sculpt out of your head is the most important one. Of course creativity and a good imagination are absolutely necessary, but they need to be backed up with good anatomical knowledge and a wide-ranging familiarity with animals.

Necessary character traits include persistence, patience, a good temper and the ability to get along – you are sometimes asked to revisit something many, many, many times, and the ability to do so without tearing your hair out or losing your cool is important.

GW: What about working in physical effects? What should people know there?

DM: My advice for anyone thinking of working in physical effects is to make sure that you really want to do so. It is a very demanding field and you have to be prepared to work long hours, which cuts into any sort of social life you may want to have.

Another thing that not enough people warn you about is that it is a field that involves using a lot of chemicals with toxic fumes, and a lot of dust. It is extremely important always to protect yourself in such environments, or you may pay dearly later on.

Also, now that digital effects are in the forefront in the industry, people expect physical things to get done in less and less time, so you don’t often get time to do things right. These points may discourage many people, but I would strongly urge everyone wanting to get into the field to be aware of them.

GW: Who are your inspirations as an artist?

DM: My first inspirations were Maurice Sendak, Shel Silverstein and Jim Henson. Later on, people like Dick Smith and Rick Baker, plus Ray Harryhausen, Phil Tippett, Judson Huss, Alan Lee, Brian Froud, Zdeněk Burian, Frank Frazetta and Claire Wendling.

But I think it’s important also to go to the people who inspired your inspirations, so I became interested in people like Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac, Ernst Fuchs, Charles R. Knight, [Albrecht] Dürer, [Matthias] Grünewald and Japanese Ukiyo-e prints, among others.

GW: Your work has been shown in many galleries. What drives you to work outside the day job?

DM: You don’t truly own anything you do for big-budget films. Some directors allow you a much greater feeling of ownership than others, but ultimately what you do is work for hire. So it is very important for me to continue doing my personal work above and beyond anything I do for film. I can’t imagine not making time for my own stuff; not having anything that I own in its entirety.

GW: Do you have a dream personal project?

DM: A pipe dream I have is to be personally responsible for designing all of the creatures for an ultimate, all-out, mega production of Journey to the West. I have some very specific ideas for these characters which I believe would make them definitive, iconic versions.

Aside from that, I want to put out a coffee table art book that is for me what Monstruo is for Carlos Huante and what Creature Core was for [Yasuchi] Nirasawa and [Takayuki] Takeya. It would be full of photos of my sculptures, and would also have drawings, paintings and a monograph. I really hope I will be able to do this.

GW: What's your biggest piece of advice for other artists?

DM: Just to take pleasure in doing your work for its own sake. Be obsessed with the pure act of creation because it’s fun. Of course, the reality is that you work amongst people that you also compete with, and it’s important to take note of where you stand in your skills and conceptual abilities. But if that starts sucking the joy out of making monsters and characters, that’s no good.

GW: You once revealed that the secret of success is to ship work to magic gnomes on the Moon. How do local gnomes feel about you outsourcing to cheaper competitors overseas?

DM: Unfortunately, outsourcing work to the Moon has led some Earth gnomes to bend towards a certain unsavory brand of right-leaning populism – a disturbing trend.


Check out A Pungent Character with David Meng
Check out Sculpting a Stylized Character with David Meng