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Interview with CG Artist, Chris O’Riley

Interview with CG Artist, Chris O’Riley

Chris O’riley is a freelance CG artist living in New Paltz, New York, who creates work regularly for AARP, Golf Digest and ESPN and works with several New York City studios on advertising jobs. For over 20 years, his work has been in countless magazines such as Time, New Week, Fortune, Maxim, New York Times and more. With work ranging from Porsche sedans, Clinque product shots, 3D typography, CG gold courses and Nike shoes, Chris’ portfolio of work seems to have no bounds. I recently spoke with Chris about his work and life as a freelance artist. 

How did you first get introduced to digital art?

About the same time I started college in the early 90’s, my parents bought a “modern” home PC.  I recall it was an i486 and ran Windows 3.1.   We had had early IBM PCs before and I always enjoyed writing simple programs, but this was the first computer that could run a windowed OS.  In college, we started using Photoshop, Aldus Freehand and others on Macs, and it wasn’t long before I was upgrading the little PC so I could run those programs at home. 

I’d spend hours painting in Photoshop, manually dithering and fading colors to create shading.  Before my first scanner, I remember I’d create line drawings on paper, hook the computer to the phone line through a fax modem, and run down to the local stationary store and pay them to fax the image to the computer, where it’d come through as a crude digital copy that I could then paint in!  Those were the days! 

I was never particularly good at drawing in perspective, so when I saw early 3D modeling programs, my interest really focused there – I could model something in precise orthogonal views and then view it from any angle.  While I remember seeing the movie Tron, it was the water creature in The Abyss that really opened my eyes to the possibility of generating truly photorealistic CG.  I scraped together any money I could to buy whatever programs were within my budget – TrueSpace, Real3D, moved up to LightWave and now use Modo primarily. 

How did you learn your craft?

Countless hours over several decades!  In college, they had LightWave running on an Amiga, but they only used it to generate 3D text for their video productions.  There was no dedicated instruction on 3D at the time, so I’d stay after classes to play with LightWave, modeling and rendering whatever I could before the communications students needed access to the Video Toaster.  When I bought TrueSpace, I’d play with it all night long, no doubt at the expense of my other studies! 

What aspect of the digital art process do you like most?

I used to love building things - model cars, rockets, airplanes, bird houses, shelves, you name it.  I just like the process of planning and constructing something entirely new.  Digital creations are much the same, whether it’s compositing photographs together in Photoshop, or creating something entirely new in 3D. 

Each job is like a puzzle that needs to be solved – what tools and techniques are best suited to the task.   The continual challenge is what keeps me interested, if I had to so the same task over and over without much thought, I’d fall asleep!

What are some your favorite projects that you worked on?

I have three recent projects that come to mind. 

The first was a complete Photoshop job for AARP where I had to create about 20 images of babies dressed up to represent various pop culture icons from the 1960’s to the 1980’s.  It was a rare opportunity to do something just really funny, and not just 1 but almost 20!  

The second, also for AARP, was a cut-away of a house for a story on clutter.  I’ve done a few of these types of cutaway images, and what I enjoy the most is that they fall right in between an illustration and a photograph stylistically, which I feel makes them particularly compelling in the editorial context.  It’s easy to look at a photograph and just accept it as a photograph.  Similarly, the details in a clear illustration can capture your attention, but you still just accept it as an illustration.  I think hitting the middle of those two can hold someone’s attention longer – when it doesn’t look exactly real, but you can’t quite put your finger on what gives it away. 

The third project was an image for Direct TV of football players in a stadium tunnel.  I was provided photographs of the players, mostly in daytime settings, and I had to composite them all together, shading and toning them to look like they were in a dark tunnel, and then create the tunnel in 3D.  It was the combination of the different processes that I enjoyed more than any one of them standing out in particular.

What’s a normal work day for you like?

That depends entirely on what kind of deadline I’m facing. 

When I have a tight deadline, I usually get started at 9:00 am as soon as I get my son on the school bus, and can work straight through to the evening.  If the deadline is loose or (almost) nonexistent, I can blow entire days just playing around, experimenting with some new tool or technique, most of the time 3D related, but sometimes a little Arduino programming challenge that’s piqued my interest. 

Working freelance has the benefit of allowing you a lot of freedom in when and where you work, but the challenge can be keeping that freedom in check… which I mostly accomplish!

How do you find projects you work on? Is it mostly referrals?

I make no effort whatsoever to find work!  I occasionally pick up new clients through referrals, but 95% of my work comes from clients which I’ve had long relationships with.  Some of the magazines I’ve worked with for almost 15 years.  When designers and art directors move around, they often take you to the new magazine and develop a relationship with everyone there.  I should probably make more of an effort…  but I don’t!

What hobbies away from the computer do you have?

Growing up, my father had a small Cessna 150, and I absolutely loved flying with him on weekends during the summers.  I always loved to see how different the world looked from even a few hundred feet in the air.  With the proliferation of drones (although I hate that term), I’ve become interested in capturing aerial video and stills. (You can see some of O'Riley's aerial videos here:  Drone Videos on Vimeo) I’m still a relative novice, but I live in a fairly scenic area with several state and local parks, so there’s a lot of opportunities to practice.  And it’s impossible not to have 3D modeling tools AND fly drones without eventually designing and building them yourself, which has started devouring more and more of my free time!

What advice would you give someone starting out in this business?

While that question can often result in something along the lines of “don’t do it, find something else!”, I can’t quite say that.  It’s been a good career with a lot of freedom and satisfaction. 

Success isn’t guaranteed, but that’s true of nearly every profession.  My only advice would be to never stop learning – always investigate new tools and techniques.  Always experiment whenever you’re not actively working on a project, which should be fairly easy as most people come to artistic fields through an existing interest, not because they were pushed or otherwise stumbled into it.

What are your thoughts on 3D printing?

I think the technology is amazing in its accessibility, and depending on the requirements is the clear tool of choice, but I view them a bit like the very early color inkjet printers – the results were good for the time, but still primitive overall. 

As the quality improves and different methods (stereo lithography vs. extruded) become more cost effective, the potential is enormous.  Personally, some of the things I’ve built require higher tolerances than most, or any, 3D printer is capable of.  I have a small CNC milling machine and while it’s much more complex and time consuming to use, it’s precision and reliability is higher than current 3D printers.

What tools do you have in your digital arts toolkit?

The Adobe suite is a given, in addition to Modo, LightWave and ZBrush and smaller programs like Sketchbook, Mischief and AutoPano for stitching together panoramic photos.

What are some of the challenges you face as a freelance artist?

As a generalist, and especially doing a lot of work for editorial industries, the biggest challenge is the range of work you have to create.  One day it’s a Photoshop composite of a half dozen different photographs, the next day it’s a complete 3D scene, and the day after that it’s animating an illustration for a magazine’s iPad edition.  

Jumping back and forth between very different toolsets when you have several projects in various stages from creation to revision to finishing is probably the biggest challenge outside ever-present deadlines. 

What are you currently working on?

The only current project I have at the moment is a monthly column for Golf Digest, in which I illustrate a different hole designed by Jack Nickalus.  Every month, it’s from a different course, and he writes about the unique features and challenges of each hole.  I then create a bird’s eye view of the hole showing those specific details.  While I have the process worked out, it’s always fun trying to make each one interesting to look at.

What is the most unique project you’ve worked on?

It’s more of a personal project, but one that really stands out is a small electric motor I made for my son.  I built it mostly out of wood with some key parts from aluminum, and obviously some magnets and wire.  But it made use of pretty much every tool I have – from 3D modeling the shapes of the stand and armature, 2D outlines, cutting the parts on the milling machine, and just the whole planning and execution.  In addition to wanting it to look interesting, it had to actually work! 

How has your work changed over the years?

I think it’s become much more integrated. 

Early on, I got a lot of work from Time Magazine creating single objects – they’d need a simple, iconic image to highlight the main subject of the article.   I still do a lot of “objects” in product renderings for advertising jobs, but I try to integrate photography into editorial images whenever possible. 

Sometimes it’s a simple background, other times it’s a foreground element, I just try to use whatever produces the best final image.

What is the last movie you saw or book you read?

With a 7-year-old son, I unfortunately don’t get the time to read books these days, at least adult books!  But I do get to watch the occasional movie.

 I think the last one I watched was The Martian, which I really enjoyed in that it was at least remotely plausible.  The special effects in most movies today are pretty awe inspiring, especially as a digital artist myself, but it’s also nice to have a good story now and then. 

Thanks for taking the time to talk with us today.

Thank you for asking! 

I often forget that I’ve been at this for more than 20 years.  I still remember the first call I got for an illustration for Time Magazine.  They told me what they needed, asked if I could do it and, of course, I said “Sure, no problem”.  I hung up the phone and immediately thought “I haven’t the slightest clue how I’m going to pull this off!”. 

Truth be told, most jobs today are the same way, I just have more confidence that I can pull them off!   Interviews like this remind me of how long it’s been and that I might actually have some knowledge to share!

To see ore of Chris’ work visit his personal web site at www.Chris3D.com

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