3D Rendering a Mechanical Ibis
Michael Kevin McFadyean. I was born and raised in Southern Africa. I have never left African soil, although I am of British descent. I live in Durban, South Africa — a sub-tropical paradise city, the Miami of Africa — a veritable melting pot of British colonial, Indian and African influences reflected in its food, art, music, languages and people.
I am a self-taught designer and artist. Never did art at high school — I studied psychology at varsity, but always had a private passion for drawing, art and design. Way back before computer graphics, I got a job at an advertising agency on the strength of my airbrush art skills (using a traditional Badger airbrush, compressor, hammer board and frisket). I learned a lot about the industry through hands-on experience.
I hated computers at varsity, they terrified me — this was the early 80s with punch cards and terminals. My first foray into computer graphics was a little application called Harvard Graphics. I sat at someone’s old DOS computer one day and started playing around. I got instantly hooked on the potential for computers to become a new drawing, art and design tool.
Then I found a little app called DrawPerfect and tinkered with that. In a way, I was ahead of my time — I think I imagined the computer graphics apps of today before they happened. From that point on, I couldn’t get enough of any new application that gave me the opportunity to create digitally. Next CorelDraw, then Photoshop, then Lightwave 3D, 3ds Max, After Effects, etc… I spent countless hours teaching myself all this software and all the time looking at ways of integrating these skills with my traditional drawing and art.
Today, while I still keep drawing, painting, designing etc, I make my living out of graphics training. I fell into training completely by accident. I was asked, way back in the late 90s, to train a few people in the digital software I was using. In those days there was very little in the way of formal tuition on computer graphics software. It just grew from there. Now I make my living out of training as an independent certified instructor — basically freelance training wherever the work is. I train at colleges all over Durban and South Africa and even as far afield as Zimbabwe. I also go into companies and up-skill their design staff, as well as doing one-on-one training at my home studio.
“Honestly, if the iPad vanished tomorrow, I would miss it terribly — it fills that awkward gap between analogue and digital.”
Enter the iPad
I was a late switcher to Mac. Since Apple never had any footprint in apartheid South Africa, many of us had never heard of them until the mid-90s — I honestly thought Microsoft was our only choice. Then one day I saw an iMac. I decided, “this is the future of computing.” Although I still have an affection for Windows, many years later, I am firmly a Mac man. The only time I use Windows these days is for 3ds Max because unfortunately there is no Mac version.
When I got my first iPhone (3G), I obsessively collected any app that gave me some creative opportunity. But the small screen was always a limitation. I thought to myself, “Why doesn’t Apple bring out a big version of the iPhone for artists and designers?” From my lips to Steve Jobs’ ears! I was ecstatic when the iPad was released. I continued my journey of digital exploration using as many iPad creative apps as I could.
In my opinion, the iPad has now reached a level of maturity with the Pro series, and the apps have reached a level of sophistication to the point where it is not an exaggeration to say that an iPad Pro and Apple Pencil is an “essential designer’s tool set.” Honestly, if the iPad vanished tomorrow, I would miss it terribly — it fills that awkward gap between analogue and digital. Before the iPad, it felt like you were either a traditional artist or a digital artist, there was very little sense of a natural switching between the two. Now I feel completely comfortable skipping from analogue to digital and back again — it all feels right, and is only set to get more seamless in the future.
“What I love about Concepts is that it blurs the lines between raster and vector graphics.”
I have over 100 apps on my 12.9” iPad Pro, and I’m always curious to see what new updates bring. I have my favorites, Concepts being in the number one spot together with Procreate. What I love about Concepts is that it blurs the lines between raster and vector graphics. As someone who has done a lot of computer-based design, one of the first things you learn is when to use a raster graphics application like Photoshop and when to use a vector graphics application like Illustrator. There is a fairly clear distinction.
Concepts, for me, smudges that line quite a bit. At first it feels weird to be sketching as if in a raster-based app, and yet still have the ability to select strokes and transform them. It’s a unique perspective on computer graphics and allows for a greater level of creative freedom. I would even go so far as to say that Concepts may disrupt the industry and force graphics software companies like Adobe to rethink things, because it questions the entire basis of computer graphics, i.e. when is the right time to use a raster drawing app and when is the right time to use a vector drawing app. Others may disagree with me. Time will tell.
This bird can be found in most coastal parts of Africa. In South Africa we call it the “Hadida”, pronounced “haa-dee-daa”. I don’t know why. I draw much of my inspiration from my surroundings.
I live a stone’s throw from Durban Botanical Gardens. A large population of indigenous ibis birds frequent this area. They often come to the gardens where I live and peck away for grubs and worms in the grass. They are very odd looking birds and make a most peculiar sound, like a cross between a baby’s cry and a goat bleating. They look quite jurassic, but also quite alien. I often sit in the garden and sketch them.
One day I thought, “Imagine if the ibis birds around here were actually alien drones spying on humans….” That silly idea started to take shape in my head and eventually evolved into the idea of a biomechanical ibis. I had also just finished watching the HBO series “Westworld” which nudged me in the direction of biomechanics.
Stage 1. I started just sketching in pencil. Playing around very roughly.
Stage 2. I played around in Procreate with a scanned version of one of my sketches.
Stage 3. More experimentation in Concepts.
Stage 4. Final ideation completed in Concepts and exported as a JPG for further development.
Stage 5. In 3ds Max (running on Windows on my 5k iMac through Parallels), I created a reference plane and placed the JPG exported from Concepts. I used this as my reference to start modeling the ibis. This is a time consuming process. I mostly used editable polys.
Stage 6. Once each part of the ibis was modeled, I created a UV Map for it and output this as a high resolution JPG. Think of UV Mapping as creating a “pelt” for each 3D mesh — kind of unwrapping the skin and flattening it out to paint on.
Stage 7. I then Airdropped these JPGs to my iPad and used Procreate to paint the textures. After experimenting with my original high-tech glossy biomechanical texture idea, I played around with the Procreate grunge brushes and rather liked them. So I did some research online into rusted metal, like on old motorcycles and cars, and decided that my ibis would be a badly corroded, ancient biomechanical drone.
Each piece had to have three texture images: a Color image for the Diffuse map, a Spec image for the Specularity map, and a Bump image for the bump map. Basically the Color image is mapped onto the mesh as its base color, then the Spec map determines what is shiny, and the Bump map determines what is rough or smooth.
Stage 8: Once the textures were painted, Airdropped back to my iMac, and applied in 3ds Max, it was just a case of setting up suitable lighting and setting up a camera and doing some test renders.
Stage 9. The final render was sent to Photoshop for some color correction.
To a seasoned professional, the above process may seem a little long-winded and tedious. But this job had no deadline, it was just me exploring new workflows — no client breathing down my neck. These days I try and do as much as possible on my iPad, just simply because it feels closer to sitting with a sketchpad than sitting at a computer or laptop does.
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Interview by Erica Christensen — Director of Community at TopHatch