For many aspiring visual effects artists, the work being done on huge comic book films like Iron Man 3 and The Avengers is a source of inspiration. Visual effects receive their most prominent placements in films like this, and Gnomon alumni Josh Herman is one of the folks behind the scenes making that magic work. We sat down with him to talk superheroes, digital sculpting, and what it's like to help design characters with such well-established pedigrees.
How did you first get involved in the world of visual effects?
I kind of just fell into it. When I graduated high school I tried a few different things. I worked as an auto body mechanic, I went to business school, and just generally didn't know what I wanted to do. I was up late one night and saw some ads for an art school and I decided it would be something I would want to do. When I was there, they had a 3d modeling class and I fell in love with it. After I graduated from that school, I applied and was accepted to Gnomon so I picked up my stuff and moved from Colorado to LA. The rest is history.
Tell us a bit about your VFX background.
Primarily I have worked in pre-production. I've done a lot of concepts and models, all having been done while the script is being written, and actors and directors are being chosen and cast. While I was working at Legacy FX we did a lot of modeling and sculpting for things that would be made into a practical effect or suit. Because of that, I have a bit of a different experience than most modelers or 3d artists with whom I went to school.
When I was working at Legacy FX, most of the projects were rapid prototyped into a plastic or foam which is a pretty unique experience. Seeing your work printed and standing 8 feet tall in front of you is something that's very surreal because inside the computer it's intangible, you can't touch it, but you have so much control over it. Once it's in front of you, it's amazing, but all of a sudden that control you had is gone and it's on its way to the final product.
After Legacy I worked at Naughty Dog during Uncharted 3: Drakes Deception. Working in games is totally different and I absolutely loved it! When you work on a film, you are a small piece in a huge machine. You may be a very important piece but you have a smaller impact. From my experience in games and at Naughty Dog, I felt like I was really able to put more of myself in the game and in the characters that I worked on, mostly because there are fewer people between me and the final product.
Then I was recruited by Marvel to work on Iron Man 3 and I've been there ever since. I've made several Iron Man suits, several props, and was even able to do designs, some of which will be seen in the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy.
What is your primary role at Marvel?
My role is a Visual Development Digital Sculptor and I occasionally do designs as well. If there is a specific character that needs to be built, such as Iron Man for example, I will start from the final approved design and make the model. That model is then given to the VFX companies and toy vendors so they are all starting from the same starting point. I also do designs that tend to lend themselves towards 3D as well like creatures, or CG characters like Groot, Rocket, and Hulk. Or I will help on designs or models for props or costumes, such as Star Lord's helmet or other miscellaneous props that will be rapid prototyped.
What are the responsibilities of a character designer?
I Break down the script into what the essence of the character is and how they would appear on screen. I go through different variations until the right one is finally chosen for the project and the tastes of the directors and producers. Every person is going to have different things that appeal to them. My ideal version of a character probably isn't going to be someone else's. So part of the job is to find what they are imagining in their head.
What is your average day like?
It really varies like my role does. Sometimes it will be modeling an asset, other days I will be designing and doing concept illustrations for characters.
What would you say has been your most challenging project so far?
The most challenging was probably Guardians of the Galaxy because it was the first non-sequel I had on at Marvel and so much new stuff had to be explored.
What would you consider a dream project?
I don't know If I really have a dream project. When I first graduated school, I really wanted to make Iron Man. I thought he was such a cool design and character, and I eventually got to do that… several times! But now I think a dream project would be something where I have more creative freedom, maybe something where I'm steering that ship.
How did your VFX education impact your ability to work in the field?
It had a huge impact. At Gnomon I took a generalist approach, but with a focus on modeling. What that did was it allowed me to understand what all the other departments actually do; I can talk to them to help solve problems, and communicate and find ways to get to a goal. Aside from the obvious artistic things that were taught about modeling/sculpting/etc., knowing what other people around you do is a big asset.
How did you approach landing your current position?
When I was working at Legacy I got to work on the Mark 7 Iron Man suit, as well as the Hulk design maquette for Avengers. The two people I worked closely with from Marvel were Ryan Meinerding and Charlie Wen; I had a great experience working with them. After I left Legacy and was finishing up Uncharted 3, Ryan called me and asked me to work on Iron Man 3 to model the suits in house at Marvel. Since then I've hung around and worked with both of them on several projects.
What advice would you give to aspiring VFX artists?
My two piece of advice I can give are these:
1: Work Hard – Work hard, but not just in school. When you get a job you need to continue to push yourself. People will be watching you.
2: Be Nice – If you follow my first piece of advice and can manage to do that while being nice, you shouldn't have a problem in your career. I've gotten all my jobs through friends, connections, teachers, and people I've worked with before. You don't really understand how small the industry is, and people like to work with people they like.
Thanks so much for your time!
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