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Luca Nemolato

Luca Nemolato InterviewWith credits on Westworld, Pacific Rim Uprising, American Horror Story, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and Guillermo del Toro’s Oscar-winning film, The Shape of Water, concept artist and costume illustrator Luca Nemolato has found himself designing right at the heart of some of the coolest films and shows out there, with contributions in plenty to see in his portfolio, like organic behemoths in Shadow of War, expressions for GOTG’s Baby Groot, and detailed character and creature designs for American Gods, Hulu’s Future Man, and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 & 2. Luca shares insights with us below on his experiences, recent projects, his personal workflow, also found in his title for The Gnomon Workshop, Sci-Fi Costume Design in ZBrush, and how they’ve all helped him become quite a sought-after freelancer in the industry today.

GW: Tell us a little about your background. What types of studies did you focus on at school in Italy or on your own that enabled you to begin working as a concept artist at such a young age?

LN: I went to a fine art school in Italy, and my majors were mainly painting, sculpting, and the basics of architecture. But pretty much what enabled me to learn about concept art were the amazing Gnomon DVDs that I was constantly watching. They really gave me a chance, from so far away, to learn techniques and software that were not popular in Italy at the time.

GW: What inspired your move to Los Angeles? Was working in Hollywood something you had always hoped to do?

LN: My first inspiration was The Lord of the Rings. I remember I was a kid watching The Two Towers with my brother, seeing all those creatures and effects; I was hooked, I knew I wanted to do that. So I started watching all the "making of" footage of the movie that showed the incredible people working at Weta Workshop and Weta Digital. That's how I found out that there was an actual profession of "designing" those monsters.

I then decided to move to Los Angeles after high school. Because of The Gnomon Workshop DVDs, I knew there was an actual school and I really wanted to go there, learn from professionals, and be surrounded by people that had my same interests.

GW: You took classes at Gnomon for a while. What was your focus and were there any courses in particular that really helped define your career path and develop you in the direction you were hoping to go?

LN: Yes, I took a total of four classes at Gnomon in the course of two terms. The two courses that really were fundamental for the beginning of my career were Creature Modeling with Mark Dedecker and Creature Design with Jerad Marantz. I learned so much from them, pushing my skills and understanding forward and in the right direction.

GW: Did you already have knowledge of 3D prior, or did you learn that at Gnomon? What kind of doors did learning a 3D workflow for your designs open up for you as an artist and working professional?

LN: I had some basic knowledge of 3D when I got to Gnomon. I used to play with Maya and ZBrush a lot, but really the classes I was taking and the time I was spending there in the labs, surrounded by amazing artists, that's where I really learned 3D. The use of 3D for design is fundamental nowadays, is pretty much a requirement on every job I get because of its versatility, speed, and amazing final results. It's really valuable for a client to look at your designs in three dimensions, to ensure that it doesn't just look good in one view, but that it will work in the final product.

GW: So, you worked on The Shape of Water! Congratulations on its Oscar success and your contributions to the film! Can you tell us about that experience and what you got to work on?

LN: Thank you! I'm really proud of the movie, and I feel really lucky to have worked on it. I really had an amazing experience that fulfilled one of my childhood dreams: working with Guillermo del Toro. I was called on the project by Shane Mahan of Legacy Effects, with whom I worked before on other projects, and when I got onboard they were sculpting the life-size creature on Doug Jones’ body cast, so they needed someone to work on the look development - so, creating the color scheme of the creature, working on the look of the eyes, details and the bioluminescence design. I was really thrilled when del Toro liked one of my many first options for the color scheme and I got to shake his hand.

GW: What is it like working as a costume concept artist and was that something that always interested you? In that type of role, how closely do you tend to work with the project’s costume department?

LN: I've always been interested in working on costumes because they are an integral part of creating characters. A couple of years ago, I was able to join the Costume Designers Guild as an illustrator, and this has given me the chance to work directly with costume designers in the costume departments. Being there directly teaches you a lot about the construction of the costumes, and that ultimately makes your concept art more efficient and accurate.

There, you are also not just involved in the final beauty illustration of the costumes, but also the construction drawings that inform the cutter and fitters about the designs, and I find this process really fascinating and challenging.

GW: You’ve been lucky to work on some of today’s top films, tv shows and games. What do you find are the differences working in each, and do you love the variety or hope to focus more on one medium in the future?

LN: I think the ability to work on different products is really important for a concept artist; it keeps your creativity fired up and refreshed all the time, since each product entails a different approach to designing. One day you find yourself dealing with a very grounded design dictated by the dynamics of a live-action movie and another day you can push your imagination to crazy limits thanks to the absence of physical restrictions in a video game. I'm definitely not ready to settle with just one type of medium. I want to explore all of them more and more.

Roman Soldier Zombie Costume

GW: Do you have a favorite project (or projects) from what you’ve worked on so far? How come?

LN: Well, of course, I have to say The Shape of Water has been one of my favorite projects for obvious reasons, but last year I also had the chance to work with the amazing director Gore Verbinski on one of his projects and it was a really challenging experience that I think made me better as an artist, pushing my skills a bit further.

GW: How do you network and find your next job as a freelancer? Do you go to any events or conferences, or does work come mostly from personal and professional contacts? What advice do you have for finding work and standing out as an artist?

LN: Networking as a freelancer is fundamental and is what reminds people that you are out there. Having strong relationships with your peers, creating a community with your friends in the business where you can help each other is a principle I follow and advocate. I also do whatever I can to reach out to new people, apply to companies, showcase my portfolio and have an updated reel and website.

The best advice I can give is to create a really strong, professional-looking portfolio, made of just a few images (only your very best ones!) and publish your artwork on every portfolio website to show people what you can do. That's for sure the first step to make.

GW: You’re also an educator with a title for The Gnomon Workshop, Sci-Fi Costume Design in ZBrush. Tell us about what artists can expect to learn from the tutorial.

LN: In this tutorial, I focused on my hybrid techniques of 2D and 3D for the creation of sci-fi costumes. I basically show, step-by-step, my entire pipeline for the creation of my concepts, from sculpting the design directly in ZBrush, guiding you through the way I sculpt with just a few brushes to obtain better results, to rendering the 3D model in Keyshot, where I explain my own way of creating render passes useful to create the final illustration in Photoshop, where I show my way of using photo-bashing. I use this pipeline professionally everyday for every kind of design, and I find it's the best way to obtain realistic concept art.

GW: Were there any Gnomon Workshop titles that especially helped you when you were a student?

LN: Absolutely! The titles that really inspired me were tutorials by Aaron Sims, Neville Page, and John Brown. I loved all their titles; I used to watch them over and over again, absorbing information like a sponge. They were really invaluable to me; I even got to learn a bit of English by constantly listening to them while I was a student in Italy. I still watch them to this day.

GW: How is your process and workflow similar and different when you approach creating a hard surface design, like in your tutorial, or something more organic, like a creature design?

LN: I have to say that my workflow is almost the same for hard surface and organic designs. The only main difference with hard surface is that sometimes I integrate more polygonal modeling in Maya and retopologizing in TopoGun to really clean up the forms. But mainly my pipeline stays the same, starting in ZBrush, rendering in Keyshot, and painting in Photoshop. Really straightforward.

GW: What tips do you have for creating that right bit of realism or detail on successful designs that help bring directors’ visions to life, even when doing iterative work with a super short timeline?

LN: I think the most important but hardest technique to master is photo-bashing, the seamless integration of photos with your 3D renders and your painting. Knowing how to properly use this technique pushes your concepts to the next level of realism that directors really want to see. You have to basically deliver images that look as close as possible to the final result that will appear in the movie. The closer you get to that, the easier it will be to have your design approved.

baby groot

GW: Are there any new tools or software you’ve gotten into lately?

LN: The big software that I have been integrating into my pipeline these days is Marvelous Designer; it's really amazing software that makes the difference. Easy to use and learn, it helps you create realistic clothing thanks to this astonishing real-time simulation power. But, I started using MD for all sorts of things that I could use this simulation power for. I recently came up with different ways of using the software not just for clothing, but for simulating hair, foliage, and even ripped-off skin. I think this software will evolve so much it will become essential for any 3D artist.

GW: What have your experiences taught you that you wish you had known when you were just getting started?

LN: I think the most important lesson that I learned is not to be afraid to ask questions. It’s the best way to learn from the people around you. Don't miss that chance.


Check out Sci-Fi Costume Design in ZBrush with Luca Nemolato