Inside the mind of hyperreal portrait artist Ian Spriggs

The Portrait of Scott Eaton

‘it’s almost like I’ve got to break down the complexities of what a human is into simple aspects.’

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I first met Ian Spriggs at Trojan Horse Was a Unicorn where he wow’d attendees with his incredible hyperreal CG portraits, including himself and close friends and family. People are often stunned by what seems like the relatively simple process Spriggs uses to acquire photographic reference of his subjects and then sculpt away – in 3D – at their likeness.

It’s fascinating to hear how Spriggs, who has also worked at VFX studios including Mr. X, Inc., ILM, Scanline VFX, Oats Studios, and Image Engine, works in 3D. In this befores & afters interview, the character artist reflects on how he arrived at his portraiture process, including the workflow he follows and the details in some of his portraits you may have missed.

Ian Spriggs
Ian Spriggs.

b&a: The first portrait you did was of yourself, wasn’t it?

Ian Spriggs: Yeah, it was my self-portrait. It was five years ago. Basically, I was working at some companies, and there was always that time crunch where they’re like, ‘You’ve got to go faster. We need this in two weeks. Now we need it in one week. Now you’ve got three days to model a character.’ It was cool, and I could do it, and it was pretty fun. But I felt like we were lacking quality, so once I left I just took some time off and I wanted to see how far I could push the digi-double.

I just wanted to see what my capabilities were, so I just did my self-portrait. It just started from there. I didn’t really realize – because portraiture’s got a lot of that content behind it, a lot of philosophy behind it – I didn’t really realize what I was getting myself into when I just started doing my self-portrait.

b&a: What did you get yourself into?

Ian Spriggs: It’s hard to explain. It’s like a rabbit hole, where it’s like doing a self-portrait is basically figuring out, well, you’re coming down to asking what a human being is. How we define ourselves, how we define our identity. Because you can have things like the way your clothes represent you, or how the pose defines who you are, the way the lighting affects the portraits. There’s unlimited possibilities of what makes us us, and it’s almost like I’ve got to break down the complexities of what a human is into simple aspects to try and understand, and I can start putting that into the portraits.

So, it’s like, are you your body or are you the mind? Some people think we’re just a mind in a mechanical body, being driven around. But if you change the color of your hair, change your hairstyle, people are going to treat you differently, so you actually become a different person. So, maybe your body defines who you are. So you start asking these questions, and it gets pretty complicated. When you’re trying to represent who somebody is, it’s not just about the body, it’s also the body and the mind. You’re trying to represent every aspect of the person, so that’s when it gets quite complicated.

Portrait of Jenn

b&a: In a talk you did at Total Chaos recently you dived into classical painting portraiture and compared it to what you’re doing now. I think, when some people see you work, at first they think it’s going for photorealism, but when they look at it more I think people realize you’re really trying to capture the ‘essence’ of the person. Is that what you’re going for in your portraits?

Ian Spriggs: Yes, and actually I only just discovered recently that hyperrealism is basically the style I go for. It’s like photorealism. Photorealism is based on photos, and you’re just mimicking one-for-one, copying it. But hyperrealism is different from photorealism, it’s very realistic, but you’re more trying to capture the essence of somebody. It focuses more on mood, personality, and the feeling you get from a piece, and trying to mimic the essence of reality.

b&a: Having said that, you still use all the tools in the toolbox – what are those tools?

Ian Spriggs: Maya, Mudbox, Photoshop. I use V-Ray. I use XGen for hair, and I have NVIDIA graphic cards in a Lenovo workstation.

Portrait of Jenn, and Mudbox UI
Portrait of Jenn, and Mudbox UI.

b&a: Let’s talk about your process. That starts with a photo acquisition session – can you break that down?

Ian Spriggs: When I choose to do a subject, well, all of my portraits are personal work, so I usually want them to be very personal. I pick my friends, my family, people who’ve affected my life in a positive way. I’ve done most of my family members, and then I started doing my friends and colleagues at work, and now I’m trying to do people who have influenced me career-wise, like the portrait of Scott Eaton. He was the person I learned a lot of the anatomy from. I usually pick my subjects by people who have inspired me, and then once I’ve kind of picked the subject then I go online and find a reference painting, which suits their personality.

I’ll pick a Rembrandt painting or a Sargent painting, and I’ll say, ‘I think this is a good way, how these artists have done it.’ And then basically I’ll pose and light my subjects in the same idea, almost like a starting point, just to guide me. Usually I will go completely off direction from the painting, although sometimes I’ll try and keep it very similar. Then once I’ve figured that out, I’ll do a whole photoshoot. I’m going to do a portrait of Chris Nichols [from Chaos Group], coming up soon. I don’t know when, it’s probably within the next year maybe. So I took photos of him, and I took about 1000 photos just as references, just to make sure I got everything I needed.

b&a: Do those photos really end up serving you as reference, only? You’re not necessarily producing a photogrammetry model, or are you, to help you with the sculpting process?

Ian Spriggs: No, I just use them as reference. But if you think of it, it’s technically the same idea as photogrammetry. I’ll take photos of every single angle, and basically it’s like I’m just manually sculpting a scan by hand. Because it’s the same process. With a scan, you’ll have photos from every angle and it’ll compute it for you, whereas I would have photos of every angle and I’ll just sculpt it from every photo.

b&a: How long does a portrait typically take you to do? And actually I know the answer to this already, but people are often shocked by the answer.

Ian Spriggs: Usually it’s between two to three months. Yeah, I’ve noticed that people are shocked. I feel like – I don’t know – I’m kind of shocked that they’re shocked.

b&a: I’ll be honest, I’m not sure if they’re shocked that it’s a long time, or not much time.

Ian Spriggs: I think that they’re shocked because it’s a longer time than they expected. Say for the portrait of [Trojan Horse’s] Andre Luis, I did it really fast. I did it in like a month, and some guy was shocked and he was like, ‘Oh, well, I thought you spent like two weeks on it.’ And I was like, ‘There’s no way I could do this in two weeks. I’m shocked that you would think that.’

Scott Eaton xyz texture maps
Scott Eaton xyz texture maps.

b&a: Do you ever go down a certain road on a sculpt and realize that you haven’t got it right, and have to start over?

Ian Spriggs: Yeah, for sure.

b&a: Can you go back and re-do stuff?

Ian Spriggs: Very rarely do I do that. I think my workflow’s backwards. I kind of already know exactly what I want before I’ve started the portrait. I’ll do some Photoshop sketches and stuff, so I know exactly where I want to take the portrait. I know everything I need to know before I start, and basically all I have to do is just get to that point. It’s not like a drawing or a painting, where you build up and then go, ‘Okay, I’m just going to go with the flow of it.’ It’s almost like a very controlled method of getting to exactly where I’m going.

But, there’s been a few times where I start doing it, and then I’m like, ‘Do you know what? I was actually wrong. I’ve got to delete the hands, or I’ve got to just remove stuff or crop stuff out.’

b&a: So, you mentioned there you do some Photoshop sketches – do you think of these as concepts before you launch into sculpting?

Ian Spriggs: Yes, I do do concepts. So, I’ve got all my photo references, and then it’s almost like I’ll do a collage, so I’ll just cut out stuff from photos I like and then kind of patch the stuff together. I’ll do paint-overs, just do little quick drawings over the top, and I’ll collage this horrendous portrait together. But it’ll give me enough idea of what I need to accomplish.

Andre Luis Mudbox sculpt
Andre Luis Mudbox sculpt.

b&a: Right, so that’s the guiding principle for the ultimate sculpt?

Ian Spriggs: Yeah, so basically I’ve got a set thing, like I know this is what I’ve got to achieve at some point.

b&a: I wanted to ask you about the evolution of your work. When you go back to your original self-portrait, and then look at others since then, can you see your own style improving or changing? What do you feel about your original self-portrait compared to what you do now?

Ian Spriggs: I think my original self-portrait’s quite old, and I don’t actually think it’s very good. There’s improvements on many different levels. As an artist, I feel like I’ve improved. I mean, it’s been slow, but I think I’ve slowly got better over time. I still like the composition and the lighting of my self-portrait, so there’s aspects of it I like. So there’s the artistic side, which I think I’m slowly improving, but then there’s also the technical aspects where it’s like, you can kind of tell that portrait was done five years ago, just by the technology used on it.

It was before xyz maps had really come out. Everybody was creating pore details from photos, and so you can tell that’s what I did on the portrait. Now all of a sudden there’s a trend of using xyz maps, and micro-pore details. So, you can kind of see that, and I’m sure in five years from now micro-pore detail is not going to be a thing, because it’s kind of being overdone now. I think it’s going to be more about soft, subtle shapes, so I feel like that’s going to be the next trend.

b&a: In relation to Scott Eaton’s portrait, one thing you’ve mentioned previously is that the skull he’s holding is effectively his skull, right?

Ian Spriggs: Yeah, that’s his skull. Because he’s an anatomy instructor, I thought it would be pretty cool that he holds a skull, because he teaches anatomy. So I said, ‘Well, holding a skull is basically him holding his career in his hands.’ And I was thinking, ‘Well, whose skull is it?’ And because it’s his career, I said, ‘Well, it should be his own skull.’

So after I’d modeled his head based on all my photo references, I got his proportions as close to reality as I could. Once I’d got the head shape down, I could get a skull, put it in his head, and do reverse forensics and figure out what the tissue depth is. I could calculate the exact measurements of his own skull, and so that’s basically what I did. I re-modeled the skull inside of his head based on all this data I found online. And then now he’s holding his own skull.

b&a: I think that’s so great. It’s like a fun in-joke for 3D artists.

Ian Spriggs: Yeah, it’s like one of those things where it’s, unless I tell somebody, nobody would ever really see it, because you can’t really measure an actual skull like this.

Scott Eaton reverse skull forensics
Scott Eaton reverse skull forensics.

b&: The other thing is, you have that skull facing him, and I think you’ve also mentioned you originally had it facing towards the viewer.

Ian Spriggs: Yes, facing the camera or facing the viewer, it didn’t really make any sense. Compositionally and for content, it didn’t make sense at all. It was almost like compositionally you’ve got two heads looking at you, so you’re split between which head you should look at, about whether it should be a skull or Scott’s head, so you’re divided by the two. So when I flipped it, it’s as if the skull’s looking at him. So you look at the skull, and then compositionally it’ll focus your eye to look back at his face. His face is the number one focus point. Also, it’s not to reflect us. The skull’s not our skull, it’s a reflection of his own skull, like when you look in the mirror. So it’s also to also show that it’s his skull, by reflecting him and not us.

b&a: Part of all this was you getting into digi-doubles. What about that side of things, I think you are making digi-doubles for sure but again there more hyperreal portraits. If you were given a task of creating a digi-double – and I’m sure you have in visual effects work – is the approach you would take similar, or is it very different?

Ian Spriggs: It’s pretty different, I guess. I do a lot of digi-doubles for work. That’s basically what I do most these days. But I feel like a digi-double for VFX is mostly just a scan clean-up. I mean, it used to be, before scans really were a thing, you would actually have to really know your anatomy, and work hard. Now it’s almost like you’re just cleaning up. It’s a little bit of the same workflow. You just go through every camera, clean up things, match the clothes to the photo reference. It’s more about matching.

Digi-doubles is photorealism. You just want it to match the photos one-to-one. You want no personality in it, because the animation on the actor, they’re the ones that add mood and personality into it. If you’ve already got that in there already, you’ve got this conflicting mood where it’s like, the actor might think of something else, and you’re trying a different personality. So you basically want no emotion in a digital human, whereas my work, obviously I’m trying to get that myself.

Prints of Ian Spriggs’ portraits will be shown at Gnomon School right around SIGGRAPH, and he will also be attending Trojan Horse Was a Unicorn once again as a Knight in Malta in September 2019.

For an in-depth discussion with Ian, and with Paul Debevec and Scott Eaton, check out this CG Garage podcast interview with Christopher Nichols.

You can check out more about Ian here at his website.

Portrait of Scott Eaton
Portrait of Scott Eaton.

This week at befores & afters is #3dartistsrock week, diving deep into a different 3D artist each day to reveal their work and their process.

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