Q&A: Yasmin Khudari


Yasmin draws and sculpts so that she may contribute to the worlds of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Her resume includes working on a number of varied projects, including: Sculpting collectibles for The Hobbit and The Lord Of the Rings and practical effects on The Hobbit for Weta Workshop.  Digitally modeling characters and props for projects such as Avatar, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Tintin, and The Hobbit for Weta Digital, and before that, character modeling for Tippett Studio and Massive Black.

Mold3D: You have quite a resume! Tell us about your 3D modeling experience in the VFX industry.

Yasmin: My experience in the VFX industry has been a very challenging and rewarding one.  I love movies so much, so it was very exciting for me to be a part of them.  I not only learned about sculpting and designing, but I also got insight into how directors get their visions realized throughout the whole process.

My background is in drawing and I had gone to school for fine art and illustration. I didn't expect to get into a career in CG back then, but thankfully all of my studies in anatomy and observation proved a very useful foundation for 3D modeling.  I've been mainly a character and creature modeler, as well as doing a lot of facial work. The part where you get to sculpt in ZBrush or Mudbox is the most enjoyable for me and I've been lucky to be assigned some really fun creatures. But the process of modeling for VFX requires so much more than sculpting, I feel like creative problem solving is an even larger part of the job.  You'll be working on technical things like precise clothing that will be simulated, or you'll be placing hair curves and trying to figure out why the fur is exploding in your render.  We're early on in the pipeline and our assets must meet the requirements of every department that comes after us.  It's a very demanding job!  And although it's not hero assets all the time, it's very rewarding to see everyone's hard work come together, with every little detail carefully crafted to make those worlds believable up on screen.

The highlight of my career was working on James Cameron's Avatar, my most favorite asset being the Avatar in my own likeness I snuck into the film.  My favorite memory on the project was our first crew screening of some completed footage.  Before that, we had only seen pieces of stuff, and we weren't really sure how audiences would react to the look of things.  But seeing it all come together-  in such well used 3D that it was an immersive thrill ride, and Jake and Neytiri looking gorgeous in the biolum forest-  we realized just how special Avatar was going to be.  I'll never forget the electricity I felt as we left that theater, everyone was buzzing. I feel so fortunate to have been a part of Avatar.

Mold3D: You eventually made the switch from working in front of the computer to working at the world renowned Weta Workshops as a traditional sculptor. When did you make that transition and what was the 'aha' moment where you felt, " I want to make the switch!"?

Yasmin: While my career in VFX modeling was amazing, my roots are in traditional mediums and I was never really satisfied that drawing and sculpting had become something I only did on the side.  I tried to keep up personal projects in between all the overtime, and fortunately one of my works led me to Weta Workshop (which is a separate and different company than Weta Digital).  I had been sculpting a little wolf skull, and Gino Acevedo, head of the textures department, lent me a skull for reference from his fantastic collection of skulls.  He previously worked at Weta Workshop himself, and he took me to the shop to get my skull molded and casted.  He introduced me to Richard Taylor, who was at the time teaching sculpting classes after work sometimes, and I was invited to join.  In those classes we focused on gesture and life more-so than the details, it was opposite of the VFX work I had been doing making photo real assets in t-poses. It was a new and joyful experience for me.  I learned so much from Richard and I wanted to be sculpting like that full time.  I decided to make the switch, knowing that the study in traditional sculpting would only add to my skills if I returned to VFX.

Mold3D: Can you talk a little about the maquette work you did while at the Weta Workshop?

Yasmin: I got to do Merry and Pippin for a commemorative LOTR piece, and Tauriel for The Hobbit line.  For each I made the armatures of aluminum wire with square brass tubing at the shoulders and hips for structure, and sculpted in green hard Chavant NSP oil based clay.  At 3 inches,the hobbits were so tiny I needed to make very fine tools to work at that scale, well, Tauriel also needed very fine details as well even at 1/6 scale. I would make mistakes and my mind would reach for an Undo Button, and I would curse because there wasn't one.  But I found it very satisfying doing practical problem solving and thinking outside of the box with the tools at hand.

Mold3D: Did Weta Workshop use 3D printing in their prototyping pipeline? If so can you explain the process?

Yasmin: Weta Workshop has been using 3D printing for film props like weaponry, armor and robotics, but 3D printing for collectibles started somewhat recently with Dwarves for The Hobbit line.  The Dwarven armor is full of geometric design and hard surface details, it would be insane to do it in clay.

I can't really explain the process as I did not use CG modeling or 3D printing during my time at Weta Workshop, but thankfully there's a thorough article on Weta's Website detailing the process they use, featuring the fantastic work of designer Lindsey Crummett: link

Mold3D: What did you learn from your own training that you wouldn't have if you’d only worked digitally?

Yasmin: I feel that because the repercussions of making mistakes traditionally were much more laborious than while working in CG,  my eyes were opened to a lot of my shortcomings.
For example, if I made the head too small on a digital model, I just scale it up and move on. The error doesn't leave much of an impression on me.  But if I sculpted a head too small in clay, sometimes there's nothing you can change to make it better.  I might have to just start it over from scratch and make another head completely.  It's such a painful thing to discard something that you'd worked really hard on for ages. It's like being punished for poor planning and the lesson is reinforced.  What's more, is that the more fixing and redoing I did, the farther away I got from what initial gestural force the piece may have had.

So I realized I have a lot to learn in order to be one of those people that can make something look good without needing to overwork the life out of it.  I am working to strengthen my knowledge of anatomy and gesture, as well as that sense of appealing design, so that hopefully the technical side of it all will be less in the way of creativity.

Mold3D: How would you describe your aesthetic style? Do you have any favorite artists that inspire and influence you?

Yasmin: I am really attracted to a combination of strong angles and planar forms, that flow with rough gestural quality.  I like things that feel "sketchy" somehow in either 2D or 3D, I think because looseness appears effortless, but when it hits the right marks despite a "lack of effort", to me the skill of the artist really comes through.  I am envious of artists that can do it, and I'm working towards it.

Sculptors that inspire me, outside of the ones I've worked with, are Richard Macdonald and Kent Melton.  Richard Macdonald does amazing fine art figurative works, and I love that he keeps some amount of spirited roughness to his very anatomical statues.  Kent Melton makes the most beautiful and fully appealing animation maquettes, he really captures even subtle moments of life.  My favorite artist is Claire Wendling, I feel she embodies everything I've described of the aesthetic I admire. And I am very inspired by Miyazaki and Aeon Flux animations.

Mold3D: Have you worked on any personal sculpture projects?

Yasmin: I've worked on many scraps of things that will never see the light of day, and old projects that I no longer like enough to share.  I'm sharing photos though of a fine art piece for an exhibition in New Zealand, it's titled "Animal" because she was made from a series of drawings I did that gave an impression about the nature of forest animals.  I sculpted her in water based clay. She's about 2 feet high, casted in Forton Modified Gypsum, and painted with spraypaint, washes and stains. 

Mold3D: Do you plan on creating more maquettes in the future?

Yasmin: I do want to do more fine art style sculptures, but currently I'm focused on the 2D drawing and animation.  I'd like to sculpt animation maquettes that keep the gestural quality of the stylized drawings, and I look forward to taking on the challenge of realizing designs that may be somewhat abstract and not translate immediately to 3D.

Mold3D:  As a sculptor/3D modeler, how would you make use of 3D printing?

Yasmin: 3D printing sounds very exciting, and perhaps more accessible for creating tangible statues than having a whole studio of traditional equipment.  I've been working with clay lately, but I bet 3D printing can be useful even to that process.  Perhaps instead of making an armature, you could mock up something in zbrush and print it out, and build up clay or wax on top of that.  You might combine methods if you wanted some hand made marks and natural accidents that you can't get in the computer, but have a solid foundation that is easier to design and change digitally first.  Also perhaps you want to print out hard surface pieces, accessories, or even statue bases, that would be too much of a pain to do by hand.  Also I was thinking, for any artist, even if you're drawing, 3D printing can be awesome someday if it's really easy to print out models for reference. If 3D printers were common in the home or in the studio, maybe you can just download a model of something you intend to study, like a human anatomy model, or an animal, and you just print it and have it in your hands ready to go.  You could print out scans of famous historical sculptures, or planar models of the face, like how classical ateliers use for their studies.  In the far crazy future where we can scan anything and print anything at home, how cool would it be to get into a pose for reference and print out a mini you maquette to work from?   I think 3D printing will be an amazing tool for for artists of any medium.

Mold3D: What benefits do you think 3D printing has to offer the digital artist?

Yasmin: As modelers in the VFX industry, making big budget movies on big teams, we don't all get to work on the hero characters that are easy to spot on screen.  We're often not allowed to show the work we've done outside of how it appears in the movie, and we're sitting in the theater trying to point out work that buzzes by in the background, motion blurred, for a fraction of a second.  Personal work is where we are guaranteed to have control over what we do, and full permission to show it.  With 3D printing we'd have the extra satisfaction of getting it out of the computer, able to hold it, display it, give it and even sell it.  I think it would be really rewarding and I look forward to it becoming commonplace.