July 20th, 2020

ARTIST FOCUS - Jeff Bartzis

He’s one of our favorite artists and it’s easy to see why. His fantastic visions of utopian or dystopian futures, often including impressive mech, are SO photoreal that you’ll often have to blink twice before realizing that those flying warmachines don’t actually exist Today.

Based in Vancouver, BC, his actual surroundings sometimes seep into his work either as inspiration or HDR panoramic landscape photos, adding just the right amount of subtle CG to make it work. In this interview we can learn about his techniques and motivations, enjoy!

Burnaby 2355 - Jeff Bartzis

Hi Jeff! Could you please tell us a bit about yourself and your 3D/VFX background?

Hey, For sure! Like many artists in this field, I have been interested in art since I could pick up a pen – always doodling on napkins, restaurant placemats, even the back of my tests all throughout school, and anything I could get my hands on really. I always used to draw these fantastical scenes or epic space battles, and I had a real fascination with cross section drawings when I was younger. I ultimately decided to pursue an art related career, after high-school, and found myself studying 3D modelling for games. To be honest, I did not really have much interest for visual effects at the time. I kind of just found myself adapting to the workforce needs and landed in visual effects, a few years after school, doing roto-paint and stereo conversion compositing as my first entry point into the VFX world. Something about the technical and logical nature of compositing had unlocked a hidden interest that I didn’t know I had, and I ended up staying as a compositor for about 5 years, while also doing illustration/concept/matte painting type of personal work in my free time. After that, I moved into more of a 2D DMP type of role and did quite a lot of work in the broadcast television area and had ton of fun! Even though I had a background in 3D, from school, I did not really use 3D in my professional career up until a few years ago.

How did you first hear about Clarisse?

I had a great opportunity to participate in a VFX start-up studio back in 2016. At that time, I was mainly using Modo for everything 3D, while the team had decided to utilize Clarisse. This was the first time I had heard of the software. So of course, I had an interest to pick it up. I got myself an evaluation license to use at home and began to experience something I had never experienced before.

How would you describe Clarisse to someone who doesn’t know about it?

I do not want to repeat the same “layout/set-dressing/lighting/rendering” with “unlimited polygons” phrases, to describe the software, because I think by now, everyone should already know this. At the start, though, that’s kind of how I saw it.

After using Clarisse iFX for several years now, my perspective has shifted quite a lot. From my point of view, I would describe it, not by what it can do, but by how it makes the user feel when using it – When you really get into it, it almost feels like painting on a canvas, but the canvas is the 3D world, and your brushes are whatever objects you want them to be. You are not hindered by visual limitations like proxies or slowed down when iterating. The nearly instant feedback makes all other tools feel dated and slow now. It’s truly a next generation feeling to use Clarisse.

How smooth was it integrating Clarisse into your workflow? What’s the learning curve like?

I will admit, it took me a bit longer to really integrate the tool and begin to unlock its potential; this was mostly due to my own stubbornness really. So, the learning-curve for me was more like an annoying hill, not steep but not comfortable, if that makes sense. The hardest part for me was getting into the mindset of “ok, this is a specialized tool for ‘x’ purpose, stop trying to use this like Maya, or Modo”. And once I actually took the time to learn the fundamental concepts of how Clarisse was meant to be used, it kind of just clicked into place. The funny thing is, over the years, I keep learning new things about the tool, new concepts, new best-practices, and my workflow just becomes more and more efficient and quick because of this.

What resources did you use to learn Clarisse?

A the beginning my only resource was a friend and colleague Tristan who I think was learning it at the same time as well. I am quite sure I could have annoyed him a lot less by reading the effing manual. Eventually though, the isotropix YouTube channel, and the Clarisse documentation did become my main way to learn the ins and outs – those and the forums, there’s a wealth of information on the forum that helped me out immensely along the way. More recently, the Discord community has become an extremely valuable resource when I need help in an emergency and do not have time to research or come upon the solution myself.

Castle, clay render and final - Jeff Bartzis

Photorealism is a big part of your professional work and personal concept art. How important is it to you that your images look ‘real’?

To be completely honest, for my personal work, it is not really a priority at all. I like to have fun with my own work, when it is only for me, and I try not to get bogged down with things that I do not particularly enjoy.

When it comes to client work, however, then my priority must align with whatever vision they need, and I am always happy to do that in a professional setting. Also, I think a lot of my background as a compositor has most likely ingrained some “muscle memory” inclinations towards photorealism, like my obsession with matching lens effects, grain, values, and saturation, atmosphere, and things like that. It’s not because I really want to make an image to look like a photo, I think it is more about not being satisfied if something does not sit right, if that makes sense (also I’m never satisfied with the outcome anyway, so maybe it is futile).

At the end of the day, though, I do not really put too much thought into it – I care more about expressing an idea, story, or moment, regardless if the technicalities are accurate or correct.

Hawaii 2142 - Jeff Bartzis for Mattepaint.com

The subject is often military with combat units floating in the air, do you have a personal interest in military history and technology? Are there any science fiction stories or narratives that inspire you?

Absolutely, I have always been fascinated with military weapons, stealth airplanes, heavy lift helicopters, and especially naval vessels like the huge WWII battleships and the modern aircraft carrier. There is just something about the raw utility of their appearance that really appeals to me. How their visual appearance is a result of their function, and not the other way around, like consumer goods are.

Military history is something that has always been interesting to me – I am half Greek on my father’s side, and we used to watch the 300 Spartans (1962) every now and again – I think this was the first war movie I ever saw, and most likely, this still plays a large part in my interest with military and history.

Obviously, World War I and II, became a large part of my interests, as we were taught about these events in school. I remember being absolutely captivated by the tanks, planes, and ships of these eras, not because of their use in killing, but simply because of the quantifiable advancement of human engineering between these two major and terrible periods.

Mix that with having grown up watching sci-fi movies like Star Wars, Terminator, Independence Day, Deep Impact, and many, many, others and you might quickly see where the basis for a lot of my inspiration lies.

CAF Quad Mech Training Grounds - Jeff Bartzis

How is Clarisse helping you make these images? What features help the most?

Clarisse iFX has completely changed the way I go about personal and client work. For instance, I have spent some considerable time building templates, workflows, and asset libraries to reduce the time spent getting new projects off the ground with just a few clicks.

Because it’s so flexible I am able to jump from a scene with a single image output that I might paint-over/finalize in Photoshop, to a massive full 3D environment with 20+ image outputs/AOVs/and utilities passes, and still maintain the same project structure and organization.

I am not a pipeline TD either, and have only a small amount of experience with scripting, so having Clarisse take care of the technical aspects has allowed me to spend less time managing files, naming conventions, and overall project organization, and lets me spend more time iterating and creating.

The variable and expression systems are one of the cornerstone features to maintain organization in my workflow. For example, not long ago I had four full 3D environment scenes that each had almost 30 outputs rendering to disk, for later assembly in nuke. In the end there was maybe 20-30 versions of each shot sent to client. By using variables and expressions I was able to quickly modify specific parts of the file paths, such as drive letter, version number, etc. on all images at once. This might seem like a trivial thing, coming from a studio with a pipeline team, as all this functionality is already done for the artists with custom tools. However, for someone like me with no tools of the sort, having this easily implemented functionality, probably saved me several hours of time by not having to manually update each file path.

That is just one example, but Clarisse is full of optimizations and workflows like this that really empower a single artist to focus on the work, and not on managing the project.

How does a project start, do you use sketches, start drawing on a photograph or just import everything into Clarisse and try out several things there?

It really depends – if its just a one-off project, like a lot of the stuff I post online, I will usually just start off with a photograph, or a 3D terrain, and do some quick blocking in Maya or grab some references, or scans and start throwing things around until something starts looking cool. I’ll still have a general idea of what I want to accomplish in the back of my mind, but it usually stays pretty fluid and might completely change as I progress through the work.

If it is a longer form project, I will usually start a notebook and do a considerable amount of research, gather references, write a back-story or brief for context, and then plan out several images.

I usually do some very quick and rough sketches on paper if there is a unique problem that needs to be solved quicker than if I were to sketch/design in 3D.

Osoyoos fuel refinery - Jeff Bartzis

What other software do you use and how easy is it to integrate them with Clarisse, bringing in assets etc.?

I have a variety of tools at my disposal. Maya, Houdini, 3Dcoat, for various types of modelling. WorldMachine for terrains, Terragen for making skies, Megascans and Turbosquid for premade scans/surfaces/assets. Substance (as needed) and Mixer for texture painting, Photoshop for DMP and paintovers, Nuke for compositing, and Clarisse sitting right in the centre of it all. Everything flows through Clarisse in one way or another.

Because I use a templated structure for all my work, it is very easy to integrate in Clarisse, as long as files remain where they are supposed to be, and are named properly, everything plays nice.

For asset libraries, like Megascans that I utilize quite extensively, I use the Clarisse Survival Kit, which further reduces the amount of time spent importing and making materials for these assets.

You have used Clarisse for a few years now, how do you feel the software is evolving, are you satisfied with the progress it has made for the way you are using it?

Quite a lot of improvements over the years have helped optimize and speed up my workflow a significant amount, so I am absolutely satisfied with the progress thus far. Also, participating in some of the local Clarisse user group events here in Vancouver, we are treated previews of future and upcoming advancement to Clarisse iFX. I personally enjoy that kind of openness and transparency with the community.

Which feature would you like to see implemented the most in Clarisse?

I would like to see some improved functionality related to the user interface. Having tool icon locations adjust their positions, when scaling UI panels, so that they do not disappear would be a welcome feature when working on small screens. Other major improvements, which are already on the roadmap, like emissive material improvements, are things I am looking forward to seeing soon!
Winter environment - Jeff Bartzis

What project, personal or professional, are you currently working on?

I just recently finished making a small tutorial course (details at the end of the interview), in my free time that was released online not too long ago. I have also been continuing research for another series of, more realistic and grounded, future CAF military imagery. I do not usually post that work online, but perhaps sometime down the road I will be able to showcase it.

For client work, I do not think I can share the title of the project, but I can say it’s for the second season of an anticipated animated streaming series, and has kept me busy and indoors through most of the lockdown days. I’m having a lot of fun working with some great clients and feel fortunate to have been able to keep busy through this time.

Metropia (Nvidia Artstation challenge) - Jeff Bartzis

What would you consider a dream project?

I think having the opportunity, and funding, to bring together a solid team of artists and work together to create unique interactive experiences, or longer format animated content, would be very fulfilling. I have a lot of ideas for projects that I want to do, but simply cannot complete since it would require more time than I could possibly put into it on my own.

Any advice you would give to concept artists, whether they’re working in games, VFX or other?

I think some good general advice for anyone would be to always keep learning new things, embrace change and adapt to the climate around you. Sometimes things do not work out as originally planned, so you must adapt your outlook and strategy to keep progressing. Technology is always moving forward as well, and you do not want to be the one who is left behind, so stay in the loop, stay interested, and stay humble. Also, do not be afraid to take a step outside of your comfort zone either; this is something that I struggle with on the daily, and need to remind myself of all the time.

And lastly, always think bigger than necessary from the start. It’s easier to dial things down to meet expectations, than it is to try and fill shortcomings.

Thank you Jeff! Do you have anything you want to add?

Cheers, and thank you for letting me share some insight into my experiences and thoughts! And a big thank you to everyone for reading!

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