Artist Spotlight: Salif Eric N'diaye
Determination, talent and LightWave lead this French artist to a successful freelance career working with high-profile companies
Posted: Mon 14 Jul 2014
Read the French version.
Developing a successful career in 3D animation is a challenge for anyone, but it’s been especially true for Salif Eric N’diaye. He’s had to overcome many barriers to get where he is today as a thriving freelance 3D animator in Paris, France where he currently works for many Paris ad agencies on high-profile accounts like Samsung Galaxy SII, Peugeot, L’Oreal, Ford C-Max, Lucky Strike, AC/DC headphones, Europcar and Mobalpa.
For starters, when this West Africa (Ivory Coast) native first discovered his passion for 3D animation, there were no real opportunities in his homeland. At that time, it wasn’t like he could just enroll in a local 3D animation school or become an intern at a computer graphics firm and hope to get discovered.
He did manage to get his foot on a bottom rung by studying desktop publishing and becoming a trainee at a communications agency in Dakar, Senegal. While he had the full support of his family, whenever he shared his passion for a career in 3D animation with friends, he often heard, “To do that kind of job, you need to study Fine Arts or be an excellent designer.” This was discouraging to him because he didn’t feel he had those skills. And one professional colleague at the Senegal agency essentially told him that 3D animation was not a realistic career goal and that he was wasting his time pursuing it.
Motivated to prove everyone wrong, he set out to learn 3D animation on his own, initially using 3ds Max and watching video tutorials online. Within a year, he found himself presenting his first professional project, a 3D animation of a telephone to a communications company in Senegal.
“All of this triggered in me a desire to go further,” said Salif Eric. “Since there was no school offering 3D training in Senegal, I packed my bags and went to France where I spent two years studying 3D animation.” It was here—at a NewTek Certified Center in France—that he became familiar with LightWave 3D animation and just fell in love with this software. He had finally transitioned from a young boy fascinated by cartoons and videogames like Tomb Raider to a 3D animator capable of doing professional level 3D animation work.
“Now, five years later, LightWave’s become my tool of choice,” he said. “The logic of this software and its creative possibilities seduced me and still amaze me today.” However, he recounts that his first impression of LightWave paled in comparison to his early exposure to 3ds Max’s colorful user interface and completely different layout.
“If 3dsMax was in my eyes a pleasant application to use, with colorful buttons and images meant to identify each option, LightWave’s interface—with its pastel colors and the separation between the Modeler and Layout—seemed rather complex and even disturbing at first,” Salif Eric explained. But once he recognized LightWave’s ability to realize his creative vision, the seduction was complete.
“LightWave’s logical approach enabled me to move from playing an instrument without knowing how to read the notes—as I was doing on 3ds Max—to being able to read the score on LightWave,” Salif Eric said. “With LightWave, you can follow a series of rules and logical steps that ultimately enable you to get great results.”
While LightWave is Salif Eric’s tool of choice, this is not the case with many of the French ad agencies he works for. Being a freelancer in France forces the individual artist to be on his own, Salif Eric says. This is because the local communications agencies and 3D studios unfortunately, rarely if ever use LightWave. 90% of the professional projects he’s worked on to date have been as an independent contractor to advertising agencies. And due to his confidentiality agreements with the agencies, he’s not at liberty to discuss the details of those projects.
There is, however, one recent project he can share: a 3D animation for UNICEF, for which he was hired by Paris-based agency, Studio 555Lab. The mission was to create a Paris floating in the sky with flying machines carrying dolls. For this project, Salif Eric used LightWave to design flying objects in a steampunk style as well as modeling and texturing them. For inspiration and a strong creative foundation, he drew upon a variety of images he found online for reference.
The 3D animation services Salif Eric provides range from simply executing concepts developed by ad agencies to complete end-to-end project management on behalf of his clients. “Very often, I can work from home, and whenever I do, I’m free to work with LightWave,” Salif Eric said. “A key advantage to LightWave is that it can be run on a very modest hardware platform.” His home set-up consists of two Windows workstations running LightWave 11.6, with Intel (i7), 16GB of RAM and ATI 3D cards. But, he continues, “There are times when I have to go into the agency to work on site with their creative team, especially when projects require creative collaboration or when the assets themselves are very confidential,” Salif Eric said.
The work he’s done for his big agency accounts have largely been 3D animations of products; for example photo-realistic 3D products spotlighted and slowly spinning in 3D space, many of which are now on his current show reel. His demo reel features a wide range of consumer electronics gear like phones and headphones, as well as shoes, colognes, cars, a drum, and a prop plane. The 3D objects are richly textured with chrome, leather, plastics, metals and other surfaces carefully lit to cast gleams, glints, reflections and shadows. The overall impression is one of appealing photorealism designed to entice people to buy the products.
Lately, many queries for his services have come from the architecture industry, including the need for modeling, animation and rendering of objects and/or scenes, and so his skill set is continually expanding. But, regardless of the type of 3D project he’s asked to work on, he’s dogged by certain challenges that most 3D animators face: time constraints, budget constraints, and client expectations that exceed what can be done given the timeframe and budget. Nevertheless, the new workflow enhancements in LightWave 11.6 make it easy to streamline the process and quickly show clients imagery they’re happy with.
There are many strategies he employs to move projects through in the most expeditious manner. “We can optimize the objects based on their position in the image. We can also decompose the scene by rendering by pass and plan to respond quickly in order to not have to recalculate everything,” said Salif Eric. “And, most of the time, the creation of complex models requires me to make a reference images bank, even if they aren’t exactly the same as the final object. This allows me to have a global vision of [the assets] that already exist. I then modify these images the way I want.”
Regarding complex compositions, I try to optimize my scenes to reduce rendering time (delivered by plane and pass),” he continued. “In terms of modeling, I try to have a light mesh. If the latter is a sub-patch, I have the advantage of being able to increase the level of detail when rendering the layout with the render sub-patch. I pay close attention to ensure that I have a connection with the final definition textures of my image. A close-up on any area with a poorly prepared texture can cause bad results when rendering, especially for bitmapped images.”
Much of Salif Eric’s work is centered on 3D modeling and rendering, so the LightWave features he uses the most are Modeler, the 3D lighting and radiosity tools, and the Viewport Renderer (VPR). He finds LightWave’s Modeler particularly powerful. Among the many sophisticated 3D modeling tools he relies on are: Extender, which allows him to extrude edges or faces; the glue band for reducing the number of polygons on the object; Multishift, which allows him to extrude numerically; Band Saw Pro, which is beneficial for adding edge lines on a series of polygons; and the nodal system for adding textures with very precise results.
For Salif Eric, the VPR is a major timesaver, especially when rendering scenes with complex lighting. “My way of dealing with lighting depends on the stage I have in front of me,” he said. “I usually try to achieve lighting that’s close to photo studio lighting by playing with 3D lights and reflectors (polygons with a color or map HDR environment.) I should point out that it’s difficult to talk about lighting without mentioning shading as these two parameters are closely related.”
“Depending upon the shading, the light really responds in multiple ways. For example, using reflection in my shading rather than specular lighting gives me greater photorealism,” Salif Eric said. “You might think that just lighting a scene with an HDR is enough, but that’s not the case. For example, it doesn’t let me get a directional shadow. I t doesn’t show the effects of bump- or normal-mapping. I always keep in mind to add 3D lights to my scenes to handle this kind of detail.”
With respect to rendering in LightWave, Salif Eric says he works closely with radiosity to increase the realism of his images. Depending upon the scene he needs to light, he can have multiple settings. In general, he says, “I start with very low values in the parameters of the global illumination but also in the sample camera parameters and shaders. Once my tests are completed in low resolution, I increase the settings of my GI and as well as my samples. Speaking of samples,”he adds, “You can choose to increase the Shading/Light or Min/Max samples separately. This is because increasing both at the same time doesn’t necessarily provide a better result. It significantly increases the rendering time with less than stellar results.”
The VPR is then indispensable for evaluating the results of 3D lighting, shading and other illumination in the scene, and the rendering engine is advantageous for accelerating the rendering process. He also occasionally uses other LightWave tools, such as Instancing, Flocking, Bullet and the Genoma rigging system.
“With each new version, the LightWave environment is further optimized,” Salif Eric said. “This not only improves the quality of our work but the speed with which we can deliver incremental visuals and ultimately finished work to our clients. LightWave’s price is very fair in view of the modeling, lighting, animating, rendering and other work we’re able to do without quality compromises.”
Now that Salif Eric’s 3D animation career has become a reality, he is interested in helping others achieve this dream, especially budding talent in the African market. He sees tremendous potential for developing new talent in Africa as well as a distinctive animation style that’s unique to Africa.
In the future, Salif Eric would like to establish a studio of his own and further develop and perfect his skills on 3D animation projects for television, film and new media outlets. As part of this goal, he’d like to help develop and support talented people seeking to enter the 3D/CG field in Africa, perhaps through the creation of new training centers or through a direct mentorship where young talent could benefit from his years of experience.
“My advice to those starting out with LightWave is to practice, practice, practice…,” Salif Eric said. “There’s no secret really. You first have to learn the way the software works and then develop your own unique methods for realizing your own creative vision. There is no one right way to build an image, don’t think that other 3D programs are necessarily the best, and most importantly, always remember that it’s the designer who creates the image!”