Artist Spotlight: Oscar Palma

See how this self-taught Spanish artist delivers impressive results for his clients using LightWave 3D

Posted: Mon 08 Dec 2014

A love of art drew Oscar Palma to become a professional artist. However, making a living as a 3D artist in his native country of Spain, where he resides, can be a bit challenging. Opportunities are limited there; nevertheless, he embraces the demands that each project presents, using LightWave 3D as his not-so secret weapon.

The world of 3D presented itself to Palma in the pages of an Amiga World magazine many years ago. The CG landscape was just starting to come to life, and then LightWave made its debut. “By this time, I was 20 years old and knew what I wanted to do. However, there was neither training nor work available in Spain, so this became a hobby for me,” says Palma. After trying various 3D content creation software – some he liked, some he didn’t – he returned to LightWave, running it on a Mac and a PC. Hard work and many hours of training from a range of sources (books, magazines, the Internet, and so forth) made the artist faster and more proficient with the software.

“I have learned on my own. I never had the opportunity to take any courses,” says Palma. “Dan Ablan’s books were a helpful start. Nowadays, there is a lot of information, including forums and tutorials, which did not exist back then.”

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At his wife’s urging, Palma pursued his passion and turned his hobby into his profession. “We all know what that means: crazy schedules, impossible deadlines, complex customers, underrated knowledge for little or no payment, and so on,” he says. But, it also offers the ability to follow one’s passion.

Initially, Palma worked at companies and studios. But now, for the most part, he works independently from his home. The projects he takes on are local, as his lack of English presents an obstacle that he is working to overcome so he can expand his client base, since the digital art opportunities in Spain still are not as plentiful as they are in other locales. “It is difficult to work in this industry here. Studios prefer junior artists, who work lots of hours for little or even no money,” Palma says.

It is sometimes difficult to find work in Spain as a LightWave user, he contends, and blames this on a number of reasons, including artist pride. “It does not matter if you prove that you can fix something in a couple of hours [in LightWave]. Something may seem impossible to a team of several artists who have spent a week trying to make it work in other 3D programs, then they feel intimidated when you solve it in LightWave,” he explains.

While the situation is frustrating, Palma is intent on becoming an evangelist for LightWave every chance he gets. He recalls an instance where a producer asked him why, with his experience, he used LightWave, to which Palma answered, “You will be able to deliver on time tomorrow because I use LightWave.” He points out, “LightWave is superior on projects with tight budgets and limited time.”

Because of the limited availability of projects in Spain, Palma has become a true 3D generalist. “For me, a generalist can get through any type of project from the beginning to the end and know each phase of the process: modeling, texturing, animation,” he says. “I think this is more fun than just doing one thing.”

Jack-of-All-Trades

Palma is truly a jack-of-all-trades. He works on projects, gives private lessons, and advises studios on their pipeline setups. The same can be said when it comes to content creation. Over the years, he has done a bit of everything: info-architecture, stereoscopy, planetarium films, real-time applications, visual effects for films and TV series, television commercials, corporate videos, video mapping, and more. On one occasion, he spent three weeks modeling bathroom furniture, making a catalog for a large chain store. “Maybe other artists would be reluctant to do it, but that is not a luxury I can afford,” Palma says.

And LightWave fits his needs, no matter the project at hand. “I believe LightWave users are a bit like Spartans. We train under precarious conditions to become unbeatable 3D machines. We model quickly because we do not navigate through menus and submenus,” he says. “We have both hands occupied on the keyboard and the mouse, not like some ‘one-handed’ artists.”

Palma used that “training” for the three-week animation project “MotoGP2014,” a stunning animation that contains meteorites and motorbikes on fire. The work opens with a CG trophy with a volumetric light, HDRIs for reflections, and two shaders. To handle possible changes in the slow motion from the customer (Dorna), separate layers were rendered to save time and control the quality settings. Palma did the LightWave and After Effects work, while another person on the team handled the motion graphics. For a project update, he added a particle emitter on the motorbikes to create a heat-wave effect–the tire had to interact with the road, so he used Instances for the rubber chippings. “This data is collected on the motion pass, so thanks LightWave 3D Group!” he adds.

LightWave: The Tool of His Trade

While LightWave may seem counterintuitive to some beginners, Palma thinks the software is easy to learn. For the most part, he tries to use the most current version, which means he is usually upgrading mid-project so he can test the new releases under working conditions. He mostly runs LightWave on a laptop (Alienware i7 with 16GB RAM and a GTX 580 graphics card) in case he needs to travel – part of the “crazy Spartan training,” he says.

Without question, LightWave tools have evolved over the years, making it easier for artists to expand their limits, says Palma. For instance, lighting changed radically when radiosity was introduced. Rigging – and, therefore, character animation – was difficult for LightWave users, he adds. “All that changed when Lino Grandi (a master of creature and character rigging and 3D content and character technology lead at The LightWave 3D Group) showed us how to use the existing tools.”

Then, Genoma was introduced in LightWave 11.5. With the Genoma Rig Modeling System, artists can build a rig in Modeler and combine SubParts using connectors, easily adapting a rig to a new character. “With Genoma, anyone could make practical riggings in a short period of time. Now the number of possibilities has increased further with NevronMotion,” says Palma. NevronMotion, a motion retargeting plug-in for LightWave 3D, lets artists use the Microsoft Kinect camera to load motion-capture files in FBX or BVH format and easily retarget the motion onto a character directly in LightWave Layout.

Palma received LightWave 11.6, NevronMotion, and ChronoSculpt software for his snowflake animation (above), which won the LightWave 3D Christmas Contest in 2013. ChronoSculpt is a stand-alone application for sculpting over time. Users like Palma can save hours of work using the program to make changes to baked dynamic simulation cache files to address simulation jitter, soft-body penetrations, or to remove stray simulation pieces. 

Palma dissects the Christmas Contest animation. The snowflakes were fashioned from a SubPatch logo with displacements to make it look irregular, and an emitter with instances. The volumetric light is a low-quality spotlight on the snowflakes made of textured planes. More difficult was the roof, for which the artist reduced the grain on the render using Neat Video in Fusion and used the emitter for the snow on the roof. Lastly, the residential area is “less” than it seems: It is the same SubPatch logo, frozen and subdivided for generating instances (simple houses fashioned from the Bevel tool). He added trees and seven houses textured with Christmas decorations from Google pictures (UV mapping). He then created a mask that could be used as an alpha channel in After Effects for the animated procedural on the 3D luminosity channel. “The radiosity did the rest, and the flickering looked surprisingly good,” he says. The transition at the end to the 2D logo was also done in After Effects. 

Overall, the tools that have proven the most invaluable to Palma are those within Modeler, simply because he uses them the most. “I am quick to model in SubPatch mode (for soft-edged, organic forms and curved surface). But, I prefer the lighting and texturing with the VPR in Layout,” he says, referring to the Viewport Preview Renderer, which enables 3D artists, animators, and modelers to make changes and receive visual feedback in real time. According to the artist, he prefers not to mix layers in post. Rather, he tries to achieve the final shot directly from LightWave, and only uses multi-pass rendering to save time, not to build the image. “I can check how it looks in real time with VPR and refine it without delay,” he says. “Rendering hundreds of passes and layers is for the big boys with big budgets.”

Most LightWave users build their images in Modeler, then create their scenes in Layout, but for “La Casa Batllo,” a video mapping project “on the most exasperating façade you can ever imagine,” Palma found himself moving back and forth between the two programs. For the project, he modeled a façade in just two days time, but it took four days to match it with the video projection. “I really appreciated being able to zoom within VPR mode, so I went back to the old-fashioned but amazing FPrime (preview tool and rendering engine for LightWave),” he recalls. “I must say that contrast of jumping between Layout and Modeler is not the best way to face these projects.”
Another favorite tool of Palma’s is Instancing, which enables him to create a large amount of object duplications quickly and easily. With the native Instancing, he can add objects of incredible detail yet have reasonable render times. “Instancing is a very productive tool,” he adds.

While LightWave continues to be the software of choice for Palma, he uses other programs such as the 3D painting and sculpting programs 3D-Coat (from Pilgway) “for its simplicity,” as well as ZBrush (from Pixologic) because of its “powerful tools.” In fact, the GoZ feature for polypainting objects in ZBrush can be used to streamline surfacing workflow within LightWave. Additionally, Palma uses Neat Video, a video filter for reducing visible noise and grain introduced by digital video cameras, and Genuine Fractals Print for image upsizing, which he calls “project savers.”

When asked why he prefers LightWave tools, he responds, “The most remarkable thing is their usefulness.”

“I am rather tired of ‘useless applications.’ LightWave tools work without annoying the users. You can do amazing things in just a few steps,” Palma says. “People who watch you [using LightWave] think you are a magician because their 3D programs are still starting up while you are well on your way. Sometimes users without a lot of experience say to me they want to examine a specific feature of another software, which drives me crazy. I have never needed [other software features] when using LightWave.”

There is a popular quote, “The most important thing is not the tool but the artist who uses it.” However, Palma disagrees. “I am more technical that artistic, but I do not work with other 3D software as well as I do with LightWave.”

LightWave has helped Palma overcome hurdles on many projects, including “Mascoteros.” The work was for an animal welfare organization that rescues mistreated and abandoned greyhounds, a large problem in Spain. Nearly 150,000 dogs are abandoned each year in the country, and he portrayed that by filling a football stadium with dogs. “This 3D work is a good example of what you should not do,” he says. All the elements – city, volumetric sky, stadium, and dogs (filmed) – are contained in a single LightWave file, but impressively, LightWave was able to handle it and render it in “a heartbeat,” even with motion blur.

For “Puerta de Alcala” from the Victor Ros TV series, Palma stepped back in time, re-creating Madrid in 1890 with horses and buggies traversing an expansive dirt road lined by townhouses and a park, which he created and textured in LightWave, while other artists worked in 3ds Max. Palma prepared geocaches (horses, carts, drivers, passengers), optimized 3D library models, and used motion capture; he also modeled and animated loops, changing the position of the objects to add variety to the shots). The trees in the park are four-vertex polygons oriented to the camera. The La Puerta de Alcala stone statues were modeled with subdivided planes. Palma projected an image of the statues as a weight map, and then used the map with falloff to give thickness to the surface. He then used the mirror tool, merged the vertices, and reduced the polygons, solving the lack of polygons at the edge of the statue with a clipmap image.

While some 3D artists pride themselves on their use of a certain artistic style, Palma prides himself on not having any a particular look or genre for his work. “As Bruce Lee said, ‘Become like water, my friend.’ I adapt the style and treatment to the project at hand. Maybe this is what makes my artwork unique, a kind of [martial artist] Jeet Kune Do at the 3D level.”

Palma has been grateful for the work that The LightWave 3D Group has put into making the software such a fantastic product and for its continual development in pushing it to new levels for artists like him. And, Palma is not the only one who is noticing. He says that he is finding more and more professionals who are willing to say “I am a LightWave user. And that sounds good to me. It is about time!”