We recently had the opportunity to sit down with AnimSchool instructor and CG modeler, Koji Tsukamoto. Koji is currently teaching Environment Modeling and Intermediate Modeling: Intro to ZBrush at AnimSchool and has worked at DreamWorks Animation as a modeler for the past five years. It was a pleasure to learn more about Koji’s passion for his students and the art of modeling.

Tell us a bit about your journey. How did you get into modeling?

From childhood, I loved building and creating things.  My father worked in the auto industry and would take me to the Detroit auto show.  I became fascinated with car design and dreamt of becoming an industrial designer. My older brother is also a very artistic and creative person, he helped me realize animation was an actual career path. This quickly became my goal, I studied animation at BYU Provo and took courses online through Animschool.  I was determined to become an animator.  But I soon discovered whenever I felt stuck or stressed while animating I would model and sculpt to relax.  So I modeled.

What are some of your biggest inspirations in animation?

Studio Ghibli! I grew up watching Laputa, Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery, etc. I ate it up as a kid.  For most people who wanted to go into animation, they watched a lot of Disney films and thought Oh that’s why I wanted to go into animation. For me, it was Ghibli films. That beautiful storytelling is what made me want to go into animation. I wanted to be part of a story like that. When I was jumping into animation originally,  I was completely clueless about anything. I didn’t know who any of the artists were. I just really wanted to do animation. When I  was a little kid I wanted to be a pilot and fly planes and be in the air force. And then I found out I was color blind and was like “Ahh I can’t do it!”. I remember the day I found out I couldn’t be an airforce pilot was a little like Little Miss Sunshine. 


Do you think it is necessary to be able to draw or sculpt with clay in order to be a good modeler?

I always loved drawing.  I wasn’t amazing, but I loved it. Traditional sculpting, painting or drawing definitely helps enlarge one’s understanding of form, design, and style. But it’s not necessary. I’ve never really touched clay. I wouldn’t call myself very good at clay sculpting at all. So yeah I’d say you don’t need it. It’s something you should study if you are interested because any design knowledge helps. But starting off it’s not necessary to have that down. 3D art is like anything else. If you practice, you’ll figure it out.

Can you elaborate on your time learning at AnimSchool versus learning from YouTube tutorials and at a four-year university.

BYU (Brigham Young University) is a great school. For me though, I knew I wanted to get into modeling, but there weren’t any teachers who specialized in the technical side of modeling. Honestly, the reason why I started going to AnimSchool really was that I lacked confidence. I was unsure if what I was doing was correct. And even watching YouTube—there are so many YouTube videos—half of them are not good. Maybe they were good at the time, but now they’re outdated. I just wasn’t very confident whether I was modeling things correctly. 

So I was emailing artists. That’s something I recommend doing: finding artists that you admire in the industry and try to reach out. If they don’t respond then they’re just busy. But if they do respond then that’s awesome, right? I was lucky there were two modelers who responded to me and gave me some feedback.

I felt I needed a little bit more in-depth feedback than that, so I went to AnimSchool where I could learn from teachers who I knew specialized in modeling and could let me know whether I was doing it right or not. When I was taking my courses, a lot of my teachers asked me why I didn’t skip ahead to the later classes. And yeah, I probably could’ve skipped ahead, but for me, it was a confidence-building experience. There were small things here and there that I didn’t know, but really, the biggest thing for me was to see them model and see them confirm that what I was doing was correct, and that helped me become more confident in what I was doing.

How does environment modeling differ between feature film, TV, video games, and VFX?

A lot of the differences are technical or found in the level of detail. The budget, available software, and hardware all affect how one models. VFX and TV are more time-limited and some of the detailing will be baked maps or skipped for surfacing.  Video games rely even more so on baked detail because of the needs of real-time rendering. I believe they’re all pretty similar though. I think the biggest difference between video games and film and TV is style. If there’s a studio you like, focus on that style and that’s how you’d get into it. Like if you want to go to Pixar or Dreamworks, don’t go super realistic VFX style. It’ll be hard for them to tell if you can make models in their style. Definitely tailor your stuff to what you want to do.

Can you talk a bit more about the styles you teach in your modeling class?

In my environment class, I sort of let them do whatever they want. The scale of their model and design they pick determines how they model it. I had a student, Shanté Knott, who did this Paris-steampunk scene (design by Bogdan Marica). That scene was really large scale, so we modeled that scene how they would model it in video games: very low poly with a lot of bake maps on it. We went that route because if she modeled all those details to feature film level that’d be way too hard on her computer and it’d be way too large of a scene file. In my environment class, I try to tailor it towards what my students want to build. My class is pretty flexible. A lot of the time, they have questions about things I normally don’t teach, and sometimes I’ll take part of that class time to cover that information even if it’s not part of the curriculum. If that’s the kind of knowledge they want and I feel like that’s going to help them become a better modeler, then I want them to have that information.

How does your modeling process differ from project to project? 

Every show is different. The style and shape language the Production Designer and Art Director’s aim determine the process. There are just so many different styles. On Boss Baby, it was all ridiculously straight lines and sharp edges. I had to go back and fix so many models because the director wanted things so sharp you could cut your hand on it. But then you have other films, like Trolls World Tour, where everything was soft and round and felt like miniatures. The funny thing with How to Train Your Dragon 3 (HTTYD) is that I could get away with so much. With rocks and trees you could make a mess. A lot of it was covered with moss and dirt and foliage. Every film is very different. It’s definitely a process we go through with all the other departments. That’s one thing that makes DreamWorks really fun for me. All our films have very different styles. I get to jump around and try my hand at very different styles. Each time I switched from one film to another, I had to kind of warm-up and get used to working in that style.

How do you create stylized sets that still feel based in reality? Do you have any advice on how to best combine inspiration from the real world with stylized design ideas?

#1 Have a clear easy to read silhouette.  If you blackout the shape and can’t recognize what the object is, you are probably doing something wrong.  I like to build the basic structure based on reality (maybe simplified), and then push and pull from there. Don’t be afraid to go too far, play around.  I like to place layers of added detail on a blendshape.  That way I can pull back to find a balance. #2 Big, medium, and small.  Having repeated shapes and patterns in your object is fine, it can actually be really great, but when they are the same size it can become noisy, rigid, and uncomfortable.  Change up the size, have areas of rest (less detail) to contrast areas of higher detail.  #3 I like to see environments the way I see characters, they have personality and history.  Think about the weathering they face, the maker (if it’s man-made), and how people treat and interact with it.

In your class, how do you guide your students to grow and work towards industry-level models?

What I try to help my students do is capture the essence of the art piece. I really iterate over and over in my class that these environments aren’t just props or a set-piece. Think of these set pieces as characters. They have their own story. They have their own life. They have their own history that occurred to them. One of my favorite things I like to show my students when they first start off is stairs: really old, worn-up stairs. You can see exactly where people keep on stepping on these stairs, there’s a history. You can see people always walk in the center, always step in these two spots. You can see this indent where their feet lay and when it rains the water probably flows through. When you’re adding wear and tear into the model, when you’re adding character, you have to think: what’s affecting this piece? What’s rubbing up against it? We don’t want it to feel artificial? We want it to feel organic and real, like it’s experienced stuff. When I have my student take a concept piece, I want them to really nail that concept piece, but I also want them to add more to it. To make it feel like not just a copy of it, but an actual place where you can see things occurring at. You can feel it’s something people are actually living in and interacting with. That’s one thing I want to help my students do: to make a piece that tells a story and draws people and makes them wonder what this piece is about.

I also try to help my students get the tools they need to make their pieces as efficiently as possible. I could show them the slow way of making something. Like laying down the tiles of a roof, piece by piece and duplicating it, but one of the skills you need when you work in the industry is that you need to be able to make things fast. As much as I’d love having a lot of time to make things perfect, there’s a deadline. I try to give my students the tools to get their work done fast. I just noticed the video posted of me teaching MASH. I try to let my student learn tools that are outside the basic modeling toolset. I want to give them access to and knowledge about tools that are outside of what most people know so they can be competitive in the industry.

Aside from the technical skills, what are some soft skills that are essential to being a good 3D modeler? For instance, as an artist, can you talk about best practices for communicating with your art director?

It’s very different depending on the art director. I’ve had art directors who have been like, “Hey you can email me directly, just send me screenshots and I’ll do draw overs,” and I’ll have other directors who are like, “No don’t do that, email the production people and they’ll email it to the art director.” What I would do is make sure you’re writing it down. I have a bad habit of just looking and thinking about things and then later I think Shoot, I should’ve asked that. It’s good to write your own questions and notes that the art director gives you. That way you’re sure you don’t miss anything. It also shows the art director that you care and you’re paying attention. It’ll make them feel more confident that you’ll get it done. Just create a good impression and find ways where you can create a good relationship of trust. It’s also good to experiment and try things. Don’t just do what’s given to you, try to make things better. Don’t go crazy though! Just add a little bit to it that you think will improve it. It’s best to make the project look as best as you can. But yeah overall, teamwork, friendship, communication are big.  It makes working much more fun and enjoyable.

What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to someone just starting out?

Open up, ask questions, show your work to the world.  Reach out to artists you admire, and studio recruiters.  If your work isn’t the best, that’s okay.  Getting feedback is the best way to grow and improve.  Showing progress is the best way to impress. I always felt like I needed to do things myself. Don’t do that—reach out and ask for help. The biggest reason you need to do that is people need to know who you are. It’s fine if you’re introverted, but you need to step out of your bubble to make it in the industry. You need to introduce yourself. You need to show your work. That’s really what animation is: showing who you are and telling a story. If you want to be a part of that, you need to show you can do that. Show that you have a story to tell, you have amazing taste in art and style. It’s ok to be a quiet person but definitely reach out to artists you like and recruiters. If you have good things and show it…maybe not everyone will remember you, but some may. And when opportunities come around maybe they’ll reach out to you. 

How has your experience been working remotely? Do you think in the future you’ll have to live in the same city as the studio?

Well….I think I’m going to have to go back to LA eventually. So…still expensive. It’s been nice working remotely. Just being able to spend more time with family and take care of my kids. At work, I’m stuck in that timeframe when I’m at work. I’ll be there for nine hours and then I leave. At home when I feel distracted, I can take a break and put in my hours more effectively. I’ll go back and work on it longer. Sometimes the hours I work at home aren’t exactly the timeframe I normally work (it’s a little later) but I feel like I’m being more productive with my time. What’s cool about modeling is that working remotely has not really affected me. I have my computer. I can do all my work from here. I know there are some departments that have struggled to work from home, such as surfacing and vfxs. They have their own technical issues that come up from not being able to use their computer. They have to work remotely controlling their computer at work.

How do you think working in the industry will be in the future?

What’s interesting is that Netflix, prior to the pandemic, was doing a sort of hybrid working situation where people would come in for meetings and some people work from home part of the week. There’s been talk at my company whether we might be working hybrid as well… where we come in some days and work from home other days. And that sounds really nice to me. Working completely remotely sounds nice too so I can live in a cheaper place but it is nice to see people’s faces. I do really miss a lot of my co-workers.  Working in the studio, it is nice to just be able to turn around to the guy sitting next to me and ask questions. Now you have to send a chat online and hope someone sees it. Another thing I miss is the DreamWorks campus, it is really beautiful…and there’s free food….and free soda fountains. Yeah…I miss all that a lot, actually.

Where do you see your career going in the future? Are there any other facets of animation/3D modeling you want to try out?

I would love to continue being a simple modeler, maybe eventually take a position as a lead or supervisor.  I love it at DreamWorks, but video games are interesting to me because software-wise they’re really ahead. Being able to render and do things in real-time is just amazing. There’s a lot of new things out there that keep popping up and it’s too many for me to really get into all of them, honestly. At DreamWorks, up until HTTYD 2, everything was NURBS modeling. So a lot of the models in HTTYD 2 were still NURBS. When I got to HTTYD 3,  a lot of my work was converting NURBS to poly. Modeling is always changing. I’m always going to have to be learning. I don’t know what modeling is going to look like in the future, but modeling is what I’m interested in and what I want to keep doing as long as I can. 

That’s one thing I really love about teaching is that it forces me to keep learning new things. When I’m teaching I have to do the process over and over in front of my students and that forces me to retain it and really understand how these new tools and processes work.

Thank you so much for your time Koji! If you’d like to see more of Koji’s work, follow the links below.

ArtStation: artstation.com/koji
Reel: vimeo.com/153656161
Instagram: @tsukachan

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