Artist Spotlight: Steve Mcardle

This sculptor with a passion for CG creates incredible art pieces using LightWave 11.6

Posted: Mon 17 Mar 2014

Steve McArdle is a designer, illustrator, animator, and director. But the majority of his work is for advertising, particularly product design, which often includes illustrations, animations, visualizations, and more. Over the years he has honed his skills and, in the process, has built up an impressive reputation and equally impressive clientele from his studio in Toronto.

“Commercially, I think of myself as a generalist, and that is why LightWave is a great program for me,” McArdle says.
While McArdle’s commercial work can run the content-creation gamut, he can fulfill his passion for design and fine art in his personal projects, which are also created in LightWave.

McArdle – who has a degree in fine arts – embraced CGI early on. A techie at heart, he began checking out 3D software while at Guelph University, thinking that it was a new and creative way to explore art. After other early packages proved limiting, he discovered NewTek’s economically priced Inspire 3D (a “light” version of LightWave), which made possible his foray into more advanced aspects of the genre. After using that program for approximately eight months, he went all in and bought his first version of LightWave – and began working 3D into his tool set. The genre was still fairly new at the time, “when not a lot of people were using it; it was a bit novel.”

LightWave was the first 3D animation package McArdle used. “All of a sudden all these new capabilities became available to me,” he says. “I had all these new ways to light and shade things, and present them in ways that people really hadn’t seen before.”

A sculptor at heart, McArdle found his way into illustration, which became the mainstay of his professional career. “I still like to hand-draw and paint, but I like manipulating things digitally. So a lot of the time I will create a foundation in 3D and build upon that, whether I draw on top of it or manipulate it with photography,” he says.

A Generalist Tool for a Generalist Artist

Using as his commercial front end, McArdle interacts with many major ad agencies and commercial entities, including Gillette, GM, Fox, and Warner Bros, where he may be called upon to do everything from an illustration, to an animation, to motion work, to an interactive piece, whether for a website, TV spot, or print. Sometimes he will be provided CAD data or an actual prototype of a new product that he will have to digitally model from scratch.

“That is where the generalist thing kicks in. I have the ability to do each and every one of those types of projects,” McArdle says, “and using LightWave, I can model the object, I can create stills with the wonderful renderer, I can animate, I have great lighting capabilities…. And, it’s fast. In advertising, they need four weeks’ worth of work in two, so you have to be able to get to the whole pipeline as quickly as possible. Often they will need a visualization because the product has not been produced yet, and they will need previs work on it. Or, they want special effects work and CGI sets. Or, they want the product manipulated in a way you cannot do with photography, and I will provide that.”

During his creation process, McArdle rarely moves out of LightWave, though sometimes at the very end he finesses a project in Photoshop and After Effects. But even then, he is able to often bypass the Photoshop component and do the final tweak in LightWave.

One of McArdle’s favorite tasks is modeling. “It’s problem-solving all the time, and I have become so comfortable with the tools that I do not need to fight with the software; it just becomes an extension of what I am thinking,” he says. One of the things he likes most about the LightWave modeler is that it’s a very direct manipulation tool. “It’s like virtual sculpture – you don’t have to have a CAD mentality, and you don’t have to write loads of extensions to do fundamental things. The features are just there, built-in.”

McArdle has had experience with other software used by his partners from previous studios. For some time, working between formats required the use of Point Oven type plug-ins and other cumbersome tools and techniques. But when LightWave’s FBX interchange enhancements really began to kick in, the ability to transfer between LightWave and other software became practically seamless. “We did not have to worry about it anymore. I could just do what I needed to do and pass it on down the pipeline with very, very minimal work,” he says.

A good deal of the work McArdle does is mechanical rather than organic in nature. As a result, the artist creates many passes within LightWave, taking advantage of the software’s camera, which he describes as “direct, like looking into a director’s camera, where you just point and move.” To get the same feel with other packages requires more work, he says, so when collaborating with partners and colleagues, he will do passes in LightWave and export the camera data to another program where the final work is done. “Or, sometimes, the camera work is just so clean that we will just keep it as it is.”


As McArdle points out, when LightWave introduced subdivision surfaces into the software, it was revolutionary. “No one else had thought about it this way, and it was easy to just hit Tab and all of a sudden this model was organic, like clay. When I got into subdivision modeling, it opened up a whole new world to me.”
Now a LightWave 11.6 user, McArdle feels that some of the modeling tools are a bit “legacy” and could use a modern boost. “The tools are there, they just need a little freshening up so they stay current.” That said, he does love a number of the new features, like instancing. He did a project for AT&T about two months after the new version was introduced that involved an animation of a world growing, from the core of the Earth to the infrastructure, buildings, and trees of various scales intermittently growing around it, and the instancing tool (and flocking engine) made it all possible. Each tree sprouted 100,000 leaves on average, and instanced with no slowdown.

“I was learning to use the tool on the fly while doing the job and ensuring everyone that it would work, and it did,” he adds. “There were some minor issues, which were causing some complications in one of the ideas I had. I brought it up to the developers, and the next day they gave me a work-around, and the following update of the tool had incorporated the changes I needed. That is rare these days.”

McArdle is also impressed with the VPR renderer, which has been refined to the point where he has almost no inconsistencies between the VPR and final renders. “When I work, I will do it in the VPR because I like the real-time update and how clean it is,” he says. “It is probably one of the biggest workflow improvements NewTek has brought in.”

While McArdle has long been a LightWave user and enthusiast, he noticed big changes (all good) when Rob Powers joined NewTek in early 2010, first as director of entertainment and media development, and later as president of the LightWave 3D Group. “He cleaned up the studio pipeline and got LightWave integrated with Maya and other products,” he says, adding that the changes save him days of work. Powers also shifted the direction from Core to a new vision that made sense for those who had been using LightWave as well as for newcomers. He also likes the robust changes that have been made to the shader system and the new edge tools.

Personal Reflection

Just as the tools have evolved, so, too, has McArdle’s work. “It is more sophisticated,” he says. “I think of things differently now than when I was younger. When you are just out of art school, you think you have to be overly edgy and you try to force your hand a little. But as you mature as an artist, you realize that does not have to be the case. If you create good work with a good style, people will take it for the merit it is.”

McArdle credits his fine arts background with helping him bring color theory and an understanding of space and composition into his work. “I like the beauty of things even when I am working with a product, whether it’s a can of beer or a razor,” he says. “Most of my work has an illustrative feel to it.”

Never having enough time to stop and create personal work, McArdle has given himself a mandate of creating a triptych, and found some love recently in the imagery of skulls. “I am not a skull guy or into heavy metal. I just like the form. It is very humanistic and people understand it. It also can be very beautiful,” he says. For this personal journey, he has created two of the three posters for the series, starting with the print “Baron Samedi.”

“I saw a tattoo of a skull and it was nicely designed, and I wondered what I could do in 3D to get the concept across but make it my own,” he says.

To this end, McArdle sketched out flourishes and created a skull from that. He then came across an image of the Haitian voodoo character Baron Samedi, with his signature top hat, and began adapting his image to incorporate that iconography. He transferred the image from Illustrator to LightWave as a flat, vector piece, and began extruding the various parts to see what he could accomplish with depth. Realizing that the image was still flat, the artist began to light the image in various ways using different angles.

Still not satisfied, he turned off the main lights and started using very small lights as painting tools. It is a concept that McArdle developed and calls “light painting,” whereby he uses a succession of very little lights that affect only a tiny portion of the image. But, as the lights overlap, they create different colors, different volumes, and different types of shadows.

All told, there are approximately 120 lights in the image, with very little falloff – “sort of a Lite-Brite approach,” the artist says. And rather than using color to define the image, he used light. “There is no shading,” McArdle explains. “The whole image is gray, but the lights create the color. I think it’s a novel approach.” And so did many in the NewTek online forum and at SIGGRAPH, where the image appeared on the LightWave reel, showing off the lighting capabilities within the software.
For the second image, “Saṃsāra,” McArdle wanted to maintain the skull imagery but create it in a different way. “The word’s meaning is about continuous flow and the unsettled mind through which reality is perceived.” So he started with a model of a skull he had found online and began modifying it, retaining the raw building blocks of the process but countering that with a color palette and an organic disposition. “So I created the skull sitting in a bed of flowers. I wanted to introduce a pagan-like feel, so I added horns on the skull; the background contains very geometric-like extruded shapes that I let live as they were, so you can see the geometry and edges,” he explains. Then he began light-painting, only with a variation of the technique: The “Baron” image is dark and mysterious, so the base was black and the image illuminated only with the small lights. But “Sanserra” is more ethereal, so the artist used a large ambient light and individual lights to accent areas.

“I wanted to play out the idea that you could see the building blocks of [the image]. I used the edge tools in LightWave and lots of multipasses – some very thick and others very thin, and composited them together to get this nice, almost hand-drawn line work around all the polygons,” McArdle says. He then imported the image into Photoshop, did a bit of compositing, and added some streaks of color to solidify the design.

Presently, McArdle is working on the third piece, which contains special effects, such as depth and transparencies, and hopes to have the triptych completed soon.

Reliability is Key

According to McArdle, a transformation has been occurring in the industry to make 3D tools more artist-friendly and less mechanical. “It needs to be as easy as taking a pencil and making a mark on a page. If you have to perform 20 steps just to get that mark on the computer, people will avoid using the software because it takes so much work to create,” he says. “The whole purpose is about creating, and the software shouldn't be an obstacle to that.”

That said, McArdle finds LightWave an underrated tool due to the evolution it has taken over the past few versions. But more recently, it has become a really strong contender in the DCC space. “LightWave is the one tool that I use from start to finish. You can complete a project in LightWave, but the same cannot always be said for other packages,” he says.

Looking back, McArdle is thankful that 3D piqued his interest so long ago. “There are limited avenues for the traditional arts. You have to evolve. You need to move forward commercially,” he says. While “the overtly 3D style” has had its heyday, he sees a resurgence of the genre that meets the needs of the traditional, non-photorealistic, non-plastic-like look with a pipeline that offers the right tools to create good, solid imagery.