Career Advice: Working as a Character and Facial Modeler at an Animation Studio
Meet Sarah Rivelli, a Character & Facial Modeler renowned for her expressive characters. Sarah, a talented artist and 2020 Rookie Awards Finalist, shares her inspiring journey from student at Bellecour Ecole to professional in the Animation industry.
What's your current role and what does it involve?
I am currently a character modeler and facial modeler. My role involves taking a concept artist's drawing and transforming it into a 3D character model. Subsequently, I focus on creating the character's facial expressions, which entails bringing its emotions to life and making it more expressive to meet the narrative requirements.
Where have you worked and what types of projects where you involved with?
I began my career at Framestore, where I worked on the 'Tom and Jerry' film, focusing on the facial modeling of the main character. This experience took place during my studies, and I took a two-month break to work in London.
After completing my bachelor's degree, I joined Illumination MacGuff, contributing to the 'Migration' project.
I had the opportunity to model the film's antagonist and work on the facial expressions of certain birds.
Subsequently, I worked in Illumination's Marketing department, teaching facial modeling. I also worked at Mikros Animation on a series, although it's currently on hiatus. During this time, I taught at two different schools, Brassart École and Conde École. Later in my career, I joined Karlab and Superprod. Throughout my journey, I've also freelanced with Stim Studio.
When did you first realise you wanted to work in this industry?
I've always known that I wanted to work in this industry because I've been passionate about films since a very young age. Since I was five years old, my parents used to show classic films to my brother and me every Friday. This experience left a profound impact on me and ignited my fascination for the world of cinema and animation.
How did you get your first big break?
I owe my first big break to one of my professors at Bellecour, who also served as a mentor, Felix Ferrand. He provided me with the opportunity to work at Framestore while I was still a student. This allowed me to gain professional experience even before completing my studies.
Why did you choose to study at Bellecour Ecole?
To be honest, I was a bit lost after high school. My initial goal was to work with doctors and surgeons to create 3D organs. I didn't extensively research schools and ended up choosing one that was closest to my home.
What is the most valuable lesson learned at Bellecour Ecole?
The most valuable lesson I learned at Bellecour Ecole is the importance of teamwork.
Collaborating with individuals of diverse talents has taught me that our best achievements often arise from the synergy among individuals with complementary skills.
Furthermore, I have acquired patience, which is essential in the creative field where refinement takes time. Additionally, I have honed the skill of self-promotion, recognizing its critical importance in showcasing one's work
What would you say to students looking to start here?
I would advise students considering joining Bellecour Ecole to remember that their professors are human beings. While teachers can provide valuable guidance, it's equally important to be self-reliant in your learning journey.
Actively seek opportunities to learn independently, explore your own passions, and nurture your personal creativity. The school provides you with tools and resources, but it's up to you to proactively utilize them to make the most of your experience.
Tell us more about the skills you developed during your studies and why you think they were useful on your journey thus far.
During my studies, I primarily focused on developing my skills in character modeling and facial modeling because I am passionate about creating expressive and engaging characters. However, I also remained curious and open to other related areas such as texturing, grooming, and body rigging, which enriched my technical abilities. This versatile approach has enabled me to gain a better understanding of the entire production pipeline once I entered professional studios.
Day in the life
What third-party and proprietary tools do you use on a daily basis?
I use Autodesk's Maya and Maxon's ZBrush for character modeling and animation. For personal projects, I rely on Mari and Substance 3D for texturing, along with 3dsWrap for various 3D modeling tasks.
What does your workflow look like?
My workflow typically starts with ZBrush for sculpting, unless the initial sculpt is provided by the client. From there, I move to Maya to work on topology, clothing, eye and tongue placement. Once these tasks are approved by my supervisors, I proceed to the facial modeling phase.
Which departments and key people do you work closely with?
In my work, I collaborate closely with several departments, including the Rig department (for creating the character's control structure), the Surfacing department (for applying textures and materials), as well as the IT team (for resolving technical issues related to 3D modeling). Effective communication and collaboration with these departments are essential to ensure the success of the project.
Are there any industry trends that are changing the nature of your role?
I believe the most evident trend is the rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI), but I see it more as a tool complementing my role rather than fundamentally changing it. AI can assist in various aspects of character modeling and animation, making certain tasks more efficient, but the creative aspect of character design remains a distinctly human skill.
One thing you’d never change about your job?
The natural dynamism and the sense of acceptance among the teams. It's a place where you can be yourself, and judgment is never a concern.
Is formal education essential for someone aspiring to do your job?
No, I've never been asked about my school or diplomas. However, attending school can be practical for building your network and learning more easily. But someone who wants to learn independently has just as much chance of succeeding as anyone else.
What tasks would you be typically asked to do as a junior artist?
It varies from company to company, but typical tasks for junior artists might include clothing modeling, general modeling, or other foundational tasks. It's relatively rare for juniors to start with facial modeling, as it often requires more experience and expertise.
What skills do you look for when hiring an artist?
I look for artists who have strong topology skills, are open to revisions and feedback, possess artistic intuition, and have a basic understanding of anatomy.
What skills seem to be missing all too often?
In the field of character modeling, a skill that often appears to be lacking is a deep understanding of topology. A clean and well-thought-out topology is crucial to ensure that the character behaves correctly during animation.
Describe your attitude towards your job?
I approach my job with passion and determination. Every day is an opportunity to learn and create, which keeps me consistently motivated.
Where do you get your inspiration from and how do you implement it into your work?
I draw inspiration from my mentors like Felix Ferrand and Jerome Gordon, who have greatly influenced my work. Additionally, I closely follow the work of artists I admire, such as Gabriel Soares and Pedro Conti, among others. Their creativity and innovation serve as a constant source of inspiration that I integrate into my own work to push my boundaries and strive for excellence.
Describe a project brief that you’d recommend artists create for their portfolio?
I would recommend artists focus on one project that they have mastered to perfection and that leaves a lasting impression. For me, it was the 'Modular Grandmother Facial' project, which still gets talked about to this day.
What mistakes do you see artists making when applying for jobs?
Some common mistakes I observe include having excessively long demo reels, a lack of specialisation, and demo reels that don't align with the specific job or studio's artistic direction.
For character modeling, the most significant error people make when applying for a job is often neglecting proper topology. While beautifully textured and visually appealing projects are valuable, having solid topology is crucial and takes precedence.
If you could give one piece of advice to artists starting out, what would it be?
I would advise beginner artists to be active on LinkedIn and to take care in presenting their personal projects. LinkedIn is a powerful platform for networking within the industry and showcasing your work. As for personal projects, they are an excellent means of demonstrating your creativity and skills to potential employers. Be sure to present them professionally and highlight what sets you apart as an artist.
If you could go back in time to when you first started out, what advice would you give yourself?
I would advise my younger self to remain authentic and true to my personality while also working on enhancing my focus to minimise absent-mindedness. Moreover, during the initial three years of my career, I would emphasise the importance of not losing sight of the fact that I might be the youngest person in the studios, having started at the age of 20. It's crucial for others to evaluate me based on my capabilities and experience rather than my age.
You can reach out to Sarah via LinkedIn and check out her student work on The Rookies here.