Friday, July 31st, 2020 by Julian Karsunky
Art is a wonderful conversation starter. Which is why our regular talks with the talented members of the CGI community are always so enjoyable and fruitful. Sarah Petruzzi, our August 2020 ‘3D Artist of the Month’, is no exception! Driven by a seemingly insatiable thirst for knowledge, the Italian character artist and graphic designer pours her heart and soul into every project. Whether it’s a reimagining or an original design, her characters are flashy, yet intimate, dignified and empowering.
In our interview, Sarah’s talks about her ambitious schedule, the desire to convey meaning and controversial kitchen appliances.
Sarah Petruzzi’s rendition of ‘Emperor Haban Limaï’, leader of a peaceful alien population from Luc Besson’s ‘Valerian and the city of a Thousand Planets’.
Hi Sarah, thanks for joining us! To start things off, please introduce yourself to our readers.
Hi there! My name is Sarah Petruzzi, I’m a 30-year-old 3D character artist, motion designer and set designer from Turin, Italy.
Do you recall when and how you first consciously encountered CGI?
That’s a tough question. I come from a family of actors, which meant for the longest time, there was no need for computers at home. Still, I’ve always been fascinated by them, and every time we went to some friend’s house, if there was a PC nearby, I spent time playing games or drawing.
At thirteen, I finally got my first computer. A very bad one, but at least it was mine! Thus, I started drawing more often and writing sci-fi or fantasy stories. It wasn’t a big deal at the time, just a glimpse of the passion I would develop many years later at university.
Tell us about your studies! What made you eventually pursue a professional career as a 3D artist?
I studied set design for five years at the Albertina Academy of Fine Arts in Turin. Our curriculum included subjects such as video making, post-production, motion and 3D graphics, digital drawing and more. Compared to what I’m capable of nowadays, these were very basic courses, although to be fair, technology has advanced significantly since then as well.
During my third and fourth year of university, I worked on movies as set designer assistant on the side. Eventually, the head of scenography noticed my familiarity with computer graphics, and I became heavily involved with the graphics department as well, for the duration of two movies.
I received my degree in cinematic set design for an experimental thesis on matte painting using 2.5D, 3D and motion graphics. After graduating, I started studying motion design on my own and working for an English startup. At that point I was almost sure I wanted to become a motion designer! However, a couple years later I changed my mind and went in the generalist direction, obtaining an additional master’s in 3D graphics in the process.
Finally, I did away with all of these notions, realizing that I love reproducing reality in 3D, above all the human figure.
I’ve never stopped studying, really. I bought many online master classes from Gumroad, Gnomon, and ArtStation, as well as books and other resources. Even though I work full-time, I make sure to make time for studying and personal projects in the evening or during the week end. I don’t think I’ll ever stop learning, though I might slow down one day.
Sarah cites the intricate jewelry as a particular challenging part of her rendition of the character.
Please tell us about your current job at Alps VFX, the company, its field of work and your daily tasks and responsibilities!
Alps VFX is a Turin-based visual effects studio, providing a wide variety of services from pre-production to on-set supervision and post-production. I work as a 3D character artist, but I’ll probably make some environments as well in the near future.
Right now, we are in the midst of the production of a big project, but I can't talk much about it until it's released. Some of us are working remotely from other countries, some from Italy and others are always on-site at the studio. I digitally recreate the actors, both full character models and individual body parts and organic props. I’m involved in all stages of the process, from sculpting to texturing, sometimes also the design itself.
The only downside is that because of the amount of work, I haven’t had time to produce many new personal projects lately. I am really happy working with this company though!
Are you doing other freelance or contract work at the moment? If so, what services do you provide and who are your clients and target markets?
At the moment, I’m exclusively working on this movie, but I have some projects and commissions lined up for the upcoming months that I am evaluating.
As to services and clients, it’s hard for me to pinpoint, as I try to keep myself open to a wide variety of jobs. From a cover for a book or a music album, short movie and feature film productions, to video games, cinematics and advertising, even imagery for social media – everything’s possible!
I do enjoy freelancing quite a bit, it’s always a nice change of pace and a welcome challenge. It’s a great opportunity to broaden your horizon, learn new things and find time for personal projects!
The human, or in this case: humanoid anatomy is among Sarah’s favorite subjects. ‘Emperor Haban Limaï’, wireframe.
How are you holding up in these trying times? Has the current crisis impeded your work?
When the outbreak hit earlier this year, I switched to working from home, which has generally been working out great. Actually, I’ve been working even more since. We have slowed down a bit overall due to logistic reasons, but thanks to smart working solutions we fortunately haven’t had that much trouble overall.
I hope for the best for all of my colleagues and companies affected, it’ll get better soon, I’m positive!
What are some of your personal career highlights thus far or projects you particularly enjoyed working on in the past?
One thing that always stands out in my mind is working as set designer and graphic designer on ‘Questo Nostro Amore 70’, an Italian TV series. This was a crucial point in my professional orientation, and really helped me figure out which direction I wanted to go.
Last year, ArtStation featured my Pro Portfolio, which not only gave me quite a bit of exposure, but more importantly, having my work highlighted next to so many talented artists was a huge confidence boost. It was a huge honor and made me think that, maybe, I was doing something right after all!
What is your favorite subject in CGI? For what reasons?
I don’t have one, really. Of course, as a character artist, I’m more inclined towards everything involved in the creation of human or creature figures. But I love designing as well as sculpting, texturing, shading, lightning and so on; every single step is so important for the final result.
A testament to Sarah’s abilities as a character artist, she holds her own even when “competing” with a feature film CG department.
As a traditionally male-dominated field, it still seems somewhat rare to find women in certain positions in this line of work. Do you think women generally have a harder time breaking into the industry?
While it’s still a bit harder for women to break into the industry, it’s also true that on average men are more attracted to this field than women.
Many times, men choose to give jobs to other male artists because of preconceptions. In a similar vein, I’ve been told that women are commonly associated with specific professions in the industry: illustrator, concept artist and as a character artist, you’re expected to only be proficient in a cartoonish style.
It’s also sad knowing that in some countries, women are less paid for the same amount and quality of work. Unfortunately, the exploitation of cheap labor affects up-and-coming artists everywhere regardless of gender.
What has your personal experience been like in this regard?
Well, at the very least I’ve always felt trusted in doing my job. Maybe I’ve been lucky, or maybe it’s because I’m really dedicated and giving it my all. Either way, I’d like to think that if you work hard and demonstrate your worth, it ultimately doesn’t matter if you are man or woman.
What could be done to increase female representation in the CG industry?
Like in many other fields, motherhood is a delicate subject, for sure. I attended a talk at a previous View Conference about this topic. A group of women from a famous animation company spoke on the problems mothers face, and how much they had to fight to keep or get a good position in the department after pregnancy.
In conclusion, even though my favorite artists are all men, I think we’re already witnessing a steady increase of women in CGI. Maybe one day, the playing field will even out, but it might easily remain a field of predominately male interest. Only time will tell, I guess.
Generally speaking, is there a specific design philosophy or school of thought you adhere to? What inspires you as a 3D artist?
Generally speaking, I adhere to different design philosophies, because my goals change depending on the project.
Yet my most representative philosophy is that of French architect and designer Philippe Starck. Among all the things he designed, the infamous ‘Juicy Salif‘ still stands out to me. The piece itself and its usability as an everyday kitchen utensil are quite controversial. However, Starck himself says: “It’s not meant to squeeze lemons, it is meant to start a conversation”.
Inspiration can come from everywhere: websites, books, movies, a conversation, a dream, even a random thought.
Let’s talk about your work in more detail, namely your submission to our campaign, a 3D recreation of ‘Emperor Haban Limaï’, the genderbent alien leader from Luc Besson’s 2017 space opera ‘Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets’.
What attracted you to this character initially and how would you describe your main motivation for this piece?
The origin of this project dates back to the beginning of the pandemic crisis. At the time, I felt the urge to create a character who represented a society that lives in perfect harmony with nature, on a clean planet without pollution and disease, free of racism and hatred. With hard times ahead, I wanted to send a positive message and maybe make people reflect on the way we are living and think about how we treat our planet and each other.
The Emperor was not only perfect for my purpose, I also found the design equally fascinating and challenging to recreate.
What parts of the image were particularly important or challenging to you?
In the movie, the VFX department created a special effect for the character’s skin, which makes the glitter scales change color and transparency according to the lighting. As I’m not a programmer, I tried to render it in a more basic way without losing this effect entirely. That was the main difficulty, next to the complex interpretation of the necklaces and jewelry.
On top of working full time, the project took me one month to complete, more or less.
Can you briefly walk us through the development process step by step?
First of all, I gathered all the resources I needed, including references from the film itself as well as photos of the real props such as the headbands. I watched the movie again and again. Eventually, I chose a specific frame for my final image, which affected my subsequent workflow for the project, and then started sculpting.
What software did you use to create this project? Any plug-ins you found particularly helpful?
A still from ‘Krog’, one of Sarah’s latest sculpting endeavors. Check out the full project, including animations, here!
Looking at your personal portfolio, there are a lot of exotic (mostly female) characters, both original and based on preexisting sketches. Do you enjoy one over the other? What are you looking for when designing or reimagining characters?
I equally enjoy all of my pieces. There are aspects I like and dislike about every single one of them.
Perhaps ‘Krog’ and ‘Doll’ are two of my personal favorites. The first captures an intimate moment of an athlete and one of my own passions; the second one has a more profound meaning. I also enjoyed interpreting one of Vladimir Vilimovsky’s characters for my ‘#02 Cyberpunk series’.
When I choose my subjects, whether original or from a preexisting sketch, I always look for something that I like, that speaks to me. When I design from scratch, I’m most likely to include a message, not necessarily explicit, but something that makes the viewer think or “meant to start a conversation”, if you will. While this might not be the most original take, I just can’t help myself: I want all of my art to be aesthetically pleasing and meaningful, at least to me.
From photorealistic to cartoonish, your art covers a wide variety of aesthetics. Do you have a stylistic preference? Or is it more important to be creatively and artistically flexible?
Above all, I always set new goals to achieve. I reckon it’s a good way to improve, learn new things without too much effort and to have fun. Eventually, people may even like the results!
I prefer to be artistically flexible, mostly because I simply like to explore different creative processes, techniques, and designs. Learning new things is fun and helps not to get bored or stuck.
What is your approach when transposing characters from sketches or other media? How do you walk the line between remaining faithful to the original versus putting your own spin on a character?
This is a very complex question, and I have no universal answer. In order to do this topic justice, I would need to talk about each project individually, as my approach varies accordingly. Sometimes, remaining faithful to the concept is my main goal. At other times, I like putting my own touch on things; I don’t really know how I walk the line between the two. More often than not, ideas just spring to mind and I follow my artistic instincts in seeing them through. It’s like an urge I can’t resist!
How important are personal projects for you as an artist? How do you make the time?
Personal projects are very important to me. After all, these are the initial point of contact between an artist and their potential clients most of the time. More importantly, personal projects give me the opportunity to be my own art director, to explore, to express, to fall in love, to collaborate with other people.
Finding the time for personal pieces can be challenging, but I try to put in a little extra work in the evening almost every day, even if it’s just something minor or following a short lesson before bedtime.
Sarah’s character artwork is intimate and empowering. This ‘Doll’ holds as special place in her heart.
From your personal experience, what is some advice you could share with aspiring CG artists?
You’re more likely to get good results by just making what you like yourself! It’s a tough path of course, requiring a lot of study and discipline, but in the end it’s all worth it.
Have you used RebusFarm before? If so, please tell us about your previous experience! Is there anything you especially like about our service?
Unfortunately, I haven’t used RebusFarm yet, but I really look forward to trying it out soon. I’ll probably use my RenderPoints for a personal project in collaboration with other artists.
In closing, is there anything else you want to say? Any present or upcoming projects you’d like to mention?
There’s a couple of projects coming up, amongst others I’m currently in talks with a renowned online platform to make a class on character creation. If you are curious, stay tuned!
Finally, thank you for picking me as your 3D Artist of the Month. I am really happy and I hope you enjoyed reading!
The pleasure is all ours! Sarah, thank you so much for taking the time and all the best in the future!
Keep up with Sarah Petruzzi and her work here:
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