Digital Sculpting and the Industry

I was really hoping to continue the portrait discussion for a couple more interviews, but unfortunately the artists that I asked were too busy to get around to the questions. This means it's time for a new topic. Next on the list (as you can tell by the title of this post) is Digital Sculpting.

Since I started doing commercial work, I've heard more and more about digital sculpting. It was something that piqued my interest, but I never really looked into it much more than the few passing glances at some web sites. In 2007, I met Scott Spencer while taking an anatomy course with Andrew Cawrse. Scott told me he worked for Gentle Giant, and being a big Comic-Con nerd, I knew exactly what he was talking about. When I got back from the course, I called up Scott and scheduled a tour of Gentle Giant Studios. It was really cool to see such a place. There were lots of traditional sculptors working on stuff. Scott showed me their scanning equipment. The stuff they use to scan actors, objects, even whole environments, and reproduce them in a digital world. Then I got to see Scott's office. He had a huge Cintique screen coming out of the wall, on which he had a digital sculpting project under way. He told me the program was called Z-Brush and he showed me some the cool features it could do. It was really amazing to see this program at work for the first time. Scott then showed me the digital printers where the things they scan and sculpt digitally, become a physical object. He showed me examples of earlier printers and what they were capable of. You could see the scaling from the many layers of printed material, which would require someone to go in an clean it up. He then showed me what the newer printers were capable of. The tiniest detail was fully captured and it required no clean up. Amazing. It opened my eyes to a world that (for me anyways) was about to be changed.

Since 2007, I've kept one eye on digital sculpting - Ever reluctant to actually take the plunge. I've looked at work being created for Bowen Designs, Gentle Giant, McFarlane Toys, and more, that was all done digitally. The number of toys and collectible figures that are sculpted digitally, is on the rise. Some companies have abandoned all together their traditional sculpting departments and focused solely on digital sculpting. McFarlane toys is a well known example of that, having shrunk it's entire sculpting department down to two digital guys with a couple traditional guys left to be trained as digital sculptors. The shock-wave that moved through the industry after that can still be seen in blog and forum posts, as people talk about the future of this industry. I know I've already come face to face with the reality that digital sculpting is poised to take over. I've applied for work at a number of places and while they like my work, one of the first questions they ask is: "Do you sculpt digitally?" I answer honestly and say "No", and that usually ends the conversation.

So how real is the "threat" (for lack of a better word) that digital sculpting poses to traditional sculpting in this industry? For some it's already very real. For others, their skills are so in demand that perhaps they haven't seen any effect at all. I know several sculptors who have openly stated that they will never sculpt digitally. I don't know if that stems from a feeling of being threatened by the technology, or that they feel that it is somehow inferior to traditional sculpting. I can't do much more than speculate on their reasons, but I know for myself, that as each week passes, the level of sophistication that is achieved by some of these digital sculptors is unbelievable. And in regards to finding work, well... I already said how that has gone.

Digital sculpting and scanning technologies are here to stay. In fact I read recently that 3D home printers are already a reality and that they're becoming more sophisticated and cheaper in price. In a world that's becoming more wireless and digitally immersed, it seems like traditional methods are being pushed out. So we're faced with a choice. Hang on with tooth and nail to our traditional methods of sculpting, or embrace the new technologies as just another tool to create the same things we're already creating. After all, it's not the computer that's doing the sculpting. A keen eye and strong sense of anatomy and proportion is still needed to sculpt a convincing figure (in either traditional or digital methods). If we look back at history, there is always a time when a new technology rises and there are those who embrace it and those who fight against it. When cars came onto the scene, there was concern about the wagon wheel makers. So many of them would go out of business so how could we, in all good conscience, buy an automobile if we knew that the wagon wheel makers were going out of business. In the end, the automobile won. You can still find wagon wheel makers (even today), but the demand for better and faster technologies is always there. We're now faced with the same wagon wheel dilemma. Do we fight against the rising demand for digital, or do we add the digital to our list of abilities? I can tell you where I stand. I would really like to have a future in this industry. And as it stands, I'm a newcomer with little more to offer than the hundreds of other newcomers trying to find work. If I can increase my demand by having more of the desired skills that are being called upon in this industry, then it's time for me to take the plunge. It will be a slow start for me, as I'm not that well technically versed, but you will start to see digital work coming from me in the near future.

We are all faced with this same choice, whether we think it holds much weight or not. It's up to each individual to look at what's ahead and what's at stake for them, and then choose. I certainly hope that it won't become an "Us vs Them" kind of battle, but only time will tell. For now, we must hone our skills and practice that which we love - Sculpting!!