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Gavin's Underground

Nuclear Pixel

by Gavin Sheehan
- Posted // 2010-07-27 -

When you think of graphic designers, the immediate image that tends to pop up is that of a person slaving over a computer for hours on end just trying to get his highly sophisticated program to make the character's eye blink. That or someone putting in tons of code to make a simple display to sit in the background. But today we've got a guy who has done his best to make that kind of work fun and, dare I say, easy to learn.
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The graphics wizard known to most only as Admiral Potato has worked his magic to its finest to present 3D works in both graphic animation and papercraft, and then made those techniques and lessons available for free on his website, Nuclear Pixel, so anyone interested in the artform can learn at their leisure from someone who has dedicated hours of time to perfecting it. Recently he gained a lot of exposure teaming up with Trent Call to produce small models of his animated figures, with promise to incorporate more of them down the line. I got to chat with the Admiral himself about how he got into this field, the work he produces, and a few other topics. Along with samples of everything he does along the way.

Admiral Potato
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http://nuclearpixel.com/

Gavin: Hey Admiral. First off, tell us a little bit about yourself.

Admiral: Sure. I would describe myself as a Content Creator who is atomic, driven, inventive, torn for time, creatively sp
arked and graphically enabled. I'm Male, 26 years old, and I have the fashion sense of a Mad Scientist; I wear a Lab Coat and Goggles every day, for almost every occasion. Why? Because I think that Scientists are bad-ass. Dress style aside, I'm very passionate about my interests in Visual Design, Graphic Arts, and Computers and Technology. Occupationally, I am a Computer Graphics Artist and Web Developer. For the past seven years I have been working a day job at a local design firm downtown, where my current titles are "Senior Production Artist" and "Senior Web Developer". Sometimes I'm designing motion graphics for projection on 8x40' walls at trade shows, sometimes I'm working on print advertisements that are circulated in international magazines, and sometimes I'm designing and developing custom websites for pro audio hardware companies. Most of what I do there requires a rather high level of technical experience to execute properly in the relatively small amount of time I have work on each project. I'm a huge advocate of Free Speech and Open Source Software, and I try my hardest to make an effort to teach and share my professional skills and experience with others so that they can... do whatever they feel like with those superpowers. I take Wednesday afternoons off from my busy day job to help teach kids at a local community center. I'm usually either teaching them how to create multimedia content, or how to reach personal learning goals using Computers and the Internet. I've always been a bit of a computer whiz. When I spend time hanging out with other artists and content creators, I usually end up teaching them at least a few tips and tricks with their computers that help them significantly improve the efficiency of their own workflows. The artists I hang out with at Captain Captain Studios like to me call me their "Local Computer Genius". In my free time (and there's not much, between my day job, volunteering, and my girlfriend), I use computers to make cool and interesting graphics for myself, and I study up on the latest trends in web coding standards. I feel most alive when I'm working late into the night to create something new and beautiful.
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Gavin: What first got you interested in graphics and design work?

Admiral: Growing up as a child of the 80's and 90's, I was constantly surrounded and influenced by a million different flavors of advertisements for electronic neon high speed polyester rock and roll science cartoons with robots and explosions in space. I was fascinated with how effectively most of those advertisements were grabbing my attention through visual stimulation alone. I would say that was what first got me interested in the field. The first time I saw the movie "Hackers" is when I really made my mind up that I was going to become a Graphic Artist. Yeah, I thought it was totally bad-ass that these kids in the film were manipulating the world around them to meet their own needs with their mad hacking skills, but what intrigued me most about the film was the degree of personalization and visual customization that each of main characters applied to everything that they touched. I just had to become someone capable of creating those kinds of designs for myself.

Gavin: Did you formally seek out any college work for it, or was it something you did more on your free time?

Admiral: I'm pretty much completely self taught when it comes to anything having to do with visual design or computers. My family was fortunate enough to have multiple computers in the home while I was a kid, and I will never once regret any one of those thousands of hours that I spent learning how to use those tools. Neither will I ever regret having spent that same time learning how to learn new tools when they come along, because in this day and age, newer tools for any purpose are coming out every day. The first graphics program I got to know inside and out was a vector graphics app. I had mastered the pen tool and every aspect of manipulating Bézier paths by the age of ten. I got my first copy of Photoshop when I was twelve. I was doing basic video editing with Premiere, and creating short animations with special effects in After Effects when I was thirteen. I think that I also started getting my hands on several different 3D programs too. I started with a program called Infini-D and then moved on to Ray Dream Studio, then Strata 3D... I probably learned how to use at least ten 3D apps that year. Thirteen years and hundreds of applications worth of computer experience later, you'd imagine that I'd also have spent some serious time dedicated to learning all of the specific P's and Q's of visual design concepts as well. Nope. Not really. All of my experience with graphic design has come from the time I spent playing in all of those programs, and simple trial and error. Of course, with thousands of hours playing with anything, pretty much anybody can be expected to have the hang of whatever that thing is. About five years ago, I did seek out some college level graphic design courses, but I was expecting a bit more of an intellectual challenge and some more in-depth study and than the course work they were offering. In retrospect, I should have taken that same investment of effort and finances and bought myself a more powerful machine to learn on at my own level. At this point, I'm doing fine analyzing the design I see around me and learning my own lessons from that. I find it kind of interesting how initially a lot of my friends and professional colleagues think of me as the kind of designer with years of academic design training under my belt. I've got a lot of artistic insight that I've gained through personal and professional experience in the field, but I haven't had any (useful) formal training for any of what I know about design. What I would say, is that I have good deal of experience in a lot of different digital production techniques, and a lot of practice mentally dissecting the of the work of others and using the knowledge I gain from that to produce more "informed" works of my own.
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Gavin: How did you officially jump into the field professionally as a graphic artist and web designer?

Admiral: Probably when I got my first serious full time job. When I as nineteen, my Dad got news that one of his clients needed someone to write and maintain a few websites for some of their clients. I met with the company (at the time, a one man operation), and thankfully our workflows and personalities were compatible. So I started working on those websites, and in the space of about three months, I probably completed about 6-8 websites with about a hundred pages worth of content each. After I had proven my competence in web design and development and completed those projects, I was given the opportunity to start working on design for print advertisement. When some motion graphic design work came along, I was more than happy to take that on as well. Over the years, our small design firm has taken on a pretty diverse spread of clients and projects. Some of those clients and projects are larger than you might imagine, some more specific to their niche markets than you would imagine could exist.
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Gavin: Who are some of the companies you've done work for during that time?

Admiral:
Thanks for asking! I'm actually quite proud of the list of companies that I've done work for. Most of the clients we handle at my day job are in the pro audio hardware industry, so some of your musician readers may recognize some of these brands, and even own a few pieces of their equipment. I've done print and motion graphics for most of the Harman Pro and Harman Music Group brands. In that group we have Digitech, HardWire, BSS, AKG, JBL, dbx, HiQnet, Crown and... Soundcraft. As well as having done some of their print and motion graphics, I also developed the websites for Lexicon Pro and Vocalist. A little bird told me that I may be re-doing the whole Digitech site at some point in the next 6 months. Over the years, I have probably written and designed three completely different versions of the Kurzweil Music Systems website, each change usually coming when the company was purchased by another parent corporation. Continuing to service KMS has been a particular honor for me because at the age of seventeen, I had read and been heavily positively influenced by several books written by the visionary futurist inventor of the brand, Ray Kurzweil. TASCAM is a new addition to my list of clients. I am currently about two months of development into creating a completely new version of the TASCAM web site. This project is a new and unique challenge to me because it's actually not just a design or architecture for one website, but several. This is to be their new international website, and the backend that I'm developing for it will have the ability to serve the site's content in multiple languages to multiple regions, with a consistent and unified navigational structure from one language/region of the site to another. I just had to laugh a little bit when I realized that not even Sony has this level of consistently between any of it's international websites, even per product category. I like to think that this one will be one of the larger and more beautiful feathers I will be able to stick in my hat. I've even done some interactive advertisements for BOSE. From what I hear, they loved what I did and will be coming back for more soon. I think it's really cool that I'm now doing graphics design and web development work for a lot of the brands of pro audio hardware that I grew up thinking so highly of. My Father has been a professional recording engineer since I was a kid, and because I was often doing some his tech support, I got familiar with most of his equipment and learned how to use and troubleshoot a lot of it. Anyway, it's super exciting to me each time our company lands another client in the pro audio hardware industry, because I'm already familiar with how a lot of it works and what it's used for.
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Gavin: On the side you also Mentor for the Kid’s Computer Clubhouse program. How did you get involved with them, and what kind of stuff do you do there?

Admiral: I actually started going to the Clubhouse as a member when I was about sixteen. They always had computers readily available for the members to use, and that is what had attracted me to the program. Each time I went, I found that a lot of people, both members and mentors, had a lot of questions about how to use the software on the computers. As I overheard most of the conversations around me, it seemed that many of their questions would be very simple for me to answer, and I started helping out to try and reduce the work load of the wonderful mentors at the under-staffed Clubhouse. The kids (most of which were younger than me) loved calling out “Potato! I need some help!”. They used to think that it was so funny for a person to have “Potato” for a last name. They all usually got the giggles when one of them would decide to call out “Tomato” when asking for help. Eventually I turned eighteen, and it just seemed natural to me to transition from being a member to a mentor. Most of the other mentors did it as a part time job, but I did it on a volunteer basis. Back when I started going to the Clubhouse, the activities that the mentors and program leadership used to be able to set up for the kids were pretty sweet. I remember that they used to have days where the kids would come in and there would be one solid activity plan and one set goal that all of them were to achieve, with a specific lesson plan in mind. Some days they would all be working on designing their own iron-on shirts. Some days they would all be working in teams of four to build the fastest rubber-band powered Lego cars, and there would be prizes of candy bars for the winning team. Some days, the program would receive special funding for a "Girls Only" technology day, and the girls would get special training sessions from guest professionals on how to accomplish different things on the computers. Lately though, I'm not so much involved in the activities that large numbers of kids participate in. When I get off of work at 16:00 and head down to the Clubhouse, it seems that most of the younger kids that are there don't have the concentration to stay focused on any one task or activity unless that activity involves a video game that they're playing. I usually at least try to help manage a bit of the chaos that is inherent with littler kids until 17:00, when only kids thirteen and older are allowed. From 17:00 on, I gather two to five students capable of focusing on a specific lesson, and we'll delve into that topic in detail, sometimes for several weeks per topic. Over the last year or two, some of the topics that I've been able to teach to the older kids have been pretty cool. The following list is some of what we've covered this year.


*How to count to 1023 on your hands using Binary, and why #4 is offensive.

*How to understand those funny numbers that somehow represent Web Colors.
*How to write all of the code for a single webpage, from scratch.
*How to write all of the code for a whole website, from scratch.
*How to create your own 3D models.
*DRM will rot your brains and your wallet, now put down your silly iPhone and start acting like a Creator instead of a Consumer.
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Gavin: Where did the idea come from to start Nuclear Pixel?

Admiral: There never really was any one idea that lead to the creation of Nuclear Pixel. At it's inception, Nuclear Pixel was never even meant to be any one particular thing. I had been writing my own websites to show off the graphics that I made, and I would usually link people to my work with these hard to remember URLs that I was assigned when I signed up for hosting at GeoCities or other free hosts. One day I decided to change that and get a domain name of my own. The name of the website came from when I was a member of the Clubhouse and mentor and I sat down and had a brainstorming session on what could be the most absurdly awesome domain name possible for a graphics geek and mad scientist. Through the all of the site’s previous incarnations, I never really had any kind of formal idea on how to present all of the different kinds of graphic and creative content that I come up with in my spare time. It was only in February of this year that I finally came to the conclusion that I could probably do a decent job of showing it all in a blog format. Thus, Nuclear Pixel v5 was created. The major goal that I have given myself for this version of the website has been to learn how to make the time to consistently create and post new content. So far, I’ve been failing miserably at making that goal, but I have a feeling that when life starts to slow down and get out of my face a bit, I’ll have a massive explosion of personal productivity that will finally really allow me to start to develop my writing skills. I'm really excited to start making more frequent posts, even just for my little graphic sketches that would normally never see the light of day.
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Gavin: You've included some of your graphics work, but a lot is 3D modeling. Why specifically that form of artwork?

Admiral: Probably because of my two largest sources of personal inspiration since I was a kid. Pixar, and video games. The first time I saw the original “Toy Story” movie in theaters, I told my parents: “That was so COOL! I want to make things JUST LIKE THAT! I’m going to work at Pixar when I grow up!”. So, in order to try and live up to that dream, I have been playing with 3D as much as I could since that day. In reality though, I don’t think that I have all of what it would take to work there. Not quite yet, anyway. While my specialization for the past ten years has been in using software to create graphics, I've heard interviews with Pixar's hiring squad where they say: "Software can be taught to anyone. You have to have start out with raw analog art talent coursing through your veins and wicked awesome traditional hand drawn animation skills if you're going to work here at all." That kind of crushed my dreams a bit when I heard it for the first time. Regardless, I still want to get to the point where my work is at the level of quality that I see other impressive professional full time 3D artists creating. The video games I played when I was a teenager had big impact on me too. When my brothers and I all got summer jobs for the first time, we all saved up to get a Playstation One. That was really our first console, and we practically played that thing to death. Now, myself being the kind of person to analyze everything to death, and with my attention obviously fixed on one thing for so many hours at a time, I started noticing all kinds of different things about the graphics on screen. I took thousands of mental notes on each of the ways that I saw any one visual effect accomplished, and I kept telling myself that all of those notes would someday mean something more to me when, I was creating that kind of content myself. I'm at the point in my 3D career that those mental notes are starting to pay off, and I'm able to implement some of those cool seedling ideas that I planted so many years ago.

Gavin: On a technical level, what kind of software do you use to create those designs, from concept to final product?

Admiral: When I'm working on designing and developing a website, I usually only actively use three programs. I use Photoshop to create all of the graphic elements of the layout and content on the sites. I write all of the code for my sites by hand, so they can be as lean and efficient as possible. For that, I use BBEdit, or it's little brother Text Wrangler. They're the best text editing programs ever. The last program in my web development workflow is always a good web browser. While FireFox with FireBug used to be my favorite browser for testing, I've lately favored Chrome for it's awesome efficiency and how it doesn't hang my whole system at random. The primary language that I write code in is PHP, and while the webserver software Apache (for which PHP is a plugin) is technically a part of my workflow, I use Apache more passively than the other three apps, because it only serves the data that I'm creating in Photoshop and BBEdit to the browser. When I'm working in 3D, I'm using mostly just Photoshop and Blender 3D. I use Photoshop to prep my 2D artwork and lay it out so I can basically 'trace' the concept sketches in Blender. All of the actual 3D work is done in Blender, and I typically work to create the model's mesh by manipulating and generating only a few polygons at a time. When I have finished the the base Mesh, or Wireframe of the model, I un-wrap it back on to a 2D texture map to give it some color. Sometimes I take that texture map back into Photoshop for some additional touch-up, but the vast majority of the work I do on a 3D model is done in Blender.
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Gavin: Most recently you made a Trent Call figure from that Blender program into a physical figure. Why did you choose that design, and what was it like creating him?

Admiral: Why did I choose that design? There is no particular reason that I chose that design other than it is what Trent created for me when I described that I would like to create a 3D model and toy of one of his characters. I mean, of course I was inspired by the character sketch when I saw it for the first time, but at the same time, it's not like I was given an option of "choose from this character or that one". What was it like creating this model? Extremely awesome, and in comparison to some previous models, really, really easy. Other artist friends that I had asked to provide character sketches for me sometimes had not understood the concept that what I wanted from them had to be a perfect front and side mug-shot of the character, with little or no perspective in the drawings. Trent drew his on Graph Paper and lined up all of the features from the front view to the side absolutely perfectly, so it was really easy for me to create the model. While I worked on basically “tracing” the sketch in 3D, it was like I was in a perfect Zen trance. My production oriented brain was completely in auto-pilot mode, and I hardly if ever had to stop and contemplate why a certain part of the model based on the sketch just wasn't lining up and working out. When the source material I have to work with is so great, it makes my job so much easier. After having created the 3D model, it was really only a trivial matter to have it physically produced. I uploaded the file to my Creator account on the Shapeways website and ordered a copy. Fourteen days later, I was impressing the crap out everybody I showed the toy to. Even after having produced a second batch of ten of the toys for Trent and I to start selling, I'm still finding it a little hard to believe that 3D printing is already here.

Gavin: Do you have plans to make any other toys from artists or your own designs, or was this one too much of a hassle to create?

Admiral: Will I make more with other artists? Yes. Will I make more of my own? Very yes. Was this a hassle? The task of creating the 3D model itself was almost no hassle at all. The only reason that the production of this toy was put off 6 months from the point when I was 99% done with the model... is that life got all up in my face just before I was able to finish that last 1% of the work. It took me six months and 1000% of the original effort to finish up that last 1% of the project. At this point in time, I'm working very hard to cut out the parts of my life that prevent me from working on these projects, because I find the prospect of making my own line of designer toys very, very appealing.
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Gavin: You also showcase 3D paperworks. What made you venture into that kind of artwork?

Admiral: Well, originally I got into working with Papercraft for a single photography assignment that I had in College. The assignment was to photograph one of my passions. The passion I chose was video games, so I had to find a creative and interesting way to pull one of my favorite games out of the computer so I could photograph it. I had chosen to create one of the Tanks from one of my favorite old-school Mac games, called "Spectre Supreme". After trying and failing at creating the model using about five other techniques, I finally came on the idea of trying to create a Papercraft model of the Tank. I had seen a lot of other people's papercraft models online, but it seemed that all of them were using a proprietary Windows-only program to automatically un-fold their 3D models and lay them out on paper. Being Mac user, that process was not an option for me. I had to do a lot of original research on how to manually do what that program was doing automatically, and work with the programs I did have access to. Based off of that research, I was able to create a workflow to take my models from screen to paper. In the end, my new process worked out great, and the shot was a success. The process of creating that first model was so new and uniquely inspiring to me that I created a whole series of other papercraft models just for fun. I was really thrilled at the idea of actually creating accurate physical 3D models of those shapes I made on the computer. Imagine my surprise when I came across the affordable 3D printing service that I now use to output my toy models!

Gavin: The designs, like the Abstract Crystal, are very complex to build, let alone design. What's the process like in creating one of those just on the paper?

Admiral: I actually start with using my computer to create a low detail 3D model file in Blender. Then I digitally cut that model on it's edges and un-fold it to lay it out flat. Then I take that flat layout and do some work on it in Illustrator, where I add tabs on the edges that I previously cut, and add dotted lines where I will need to fold it up again. It sometimes takes me about six hours to complete this phase. From there, I print the design out. Usually, the hardest part of the job is when I need to cut the flat shape out of the paper that I just printed. Being the perfectionist that I am, I always fell that I need to get it just right, or I'll never feel happy with the piece. It can be quite a laborious task to line up my steel edge ruler and cut along each edge with an exacto blade. Depending on the complexity of the design, there can be many, many edges that I need to cut along. It may just be that when working with physical tools I'm such a slow-poke, but this phase usually takes me between 1-2 hours per model. It almost always feels like an eternity longer. After the shape has been cut out, I carefully fold the paper along each of the dotted lines, and glue each of the tabs to the edge of the face it was originally separated from. This sometimes takes between half an hour and an hour.
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Gavin: You've also made a small line of t-shirts with unique graphics attached. What made you decide to create those?

Admiral: Well, I'm always creating interesting looking graphics on my computer. At the end of the day, I'm the only person who ever ends up seeing most of those designs. The first design of this set happened to be one that I was pretty enthusiastic about, so I showed it to a few people. The all independently told me that they'd love to wear shirts with that design on it, and that's where the idea came from to actually get this series of designs produced. Sadly, not many of the shirts that I had produced sold in local stores. Two of the three stores that I was selling them in went out of business only months after I started offering my designs there. I like to think that says more about their business models than it says about my designs. I do sell my shirts directly to individuals, if you know anyone who's interested in buying. Wink, wink.

Gavin: One of the big ideas behind your website is that you encourage people to use the same resources you used, but to make those very products on their own as well. Why open your material up for open use as opposed to say, teaching a course or selling instructions?

Admiral: It is probably a good thing to point out that I have pretty much no interest in charging others for any of the educational information that I can offer to anyone. I feel that education and educational materials should be freely available to anyone willing to take the time to learn something. If I could get payed to teach a course or two through some grant or special educational funding program, that would be awesome. I do want the students to have the chance to learn, but only at no charge. As for the sharing of techniques and the assets for the projects and graphics that I work on, that's for educational purposes as well. I want others to be able to download those files and learn from what I have done. Some of my greatest sources of education have been from analyzing the work of others, and the more in-depth that analysis can be, the more I was able to learn. if someone downloads one of my works and is able to remix it and make something cool and derivative of their own, more power to them. I only want credit for the part of the work that I provided.
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Gavin: What's your main goal for the website and for those who pop in to check the stuff out?

Admiral: At the moment, my website is intended to display some of my current projects, as well as some of the cool stuff that I've done in the past. I hope that in the future I'll be able to post more tutorial and how-to type content, as I really enjoy being to help others along on their own learning paths as well.

Gavin: What can we expect from both you and the site over the rest of the year?

Admiral: What can be expected of me? I hope to have completed 2-3 more toys. Alsom In the next 4 weeks or so, I will be finishing up the design and development of Trent Call's new website. Near the end of September I'm moving to Leeds, UK for a year to live with my girlfriend while she gets her Masters in International Communications. Something tells me while I'm away from all of the distractions of my hometown, I'll finally find the time to accomplish a lot of my personal learning and content creation goals. So as much as I'm dreading the unknown of this new situation, I don't know if I've ever come across such an opportunity for personal development as this. I'm sure that I've already said that I'm excited about a zillion different things going on in my life right now. Fact is, I'm the kind of person that's always got something new exciting going on, and I am very happy that I'm able to keep my creative juices flowing and my skill set nice and sharp. What can be expected of my site? At least six more 3D models, no fewer than two timelapse videos of the development of those future models, perhaps another papercraft design or two, and much more frequent status updates on my active projects. I'll also probably try to start a log of the new things that I learn that would have been nice to have known a lot earlier in my career.
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Gavin: Is there anything you'd like to plug or promote?

Admiral: I really have to give a shout-out to the creators of Blender here, as I think that it is probably one of the coolest and most functional programs I have ever found on all of the internets. Blender is a free and Open Source 3D content creation suite. It has tools that allow you to Model, Texture, Animate and Render 3D content. It even has a built-in programmable Game Engine and a wicked powerful Python Scripting API. If that's not impressive enough, it also has Video Editing and Compositing components capable of producing quality output equivalent to what you might expect out of Hollywood. It's download size is usually around 25Mb, It's install size is less than a 100Mb, and the program is open and ready to be used within two seconds of the time you double click on it's icon. It's one of the most efficient programs that I have ever used, and for all that it does with such a small install, it really puts a lot of competing bloated commercial software to shame. I'm looking at you, AutoDesk and Adobe. I'd also like point out that having met the artists at Captain Captain Studios has been an extremely positive experience for me this year. I know that you've already interviewed most of those artists individually, but I just want others to know that it has been awesome getting to know and work with them. I would encourage all parents to see if there are any secular community centers or community programs that they can get their kids interested in and involved in. Giving kids engaging extracurricular activities like that to participate in is one of the best things you can do for them, and at no financial cost, it's really easy on the pocket book too. Having been a part of the Sorenson Unity Center's Computer Clubhouse program is one of the best things to happen for me both socially and educationally.


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