An Interview with Jose Alves da Silva

When we started working on the Margo project, Robert immediately thought of Jose Alves da Silva

Jose Alves da Silva and his MakerBot Replicator 2

Jose has developed characters for the fields of advertising, games, and film. Most recently he has also been dedicated to creating collectible figures and model kits. He's done an amazing job of creating and 3D-modeling the characters for the Margo movie. We asked him to answer some questions for us: 

What inspired you to start doing 3D modeling work?

My 3D modeling days started back in 1992 during my Architecture degree. 3D was starting to be used in the simulation of architectural solutions with software like AutoCAD. Also pre-rendered 3D was starting to be used in video games using software like 3D Studio (DOS version) and Silicon Graphics. When I had the opportunity to use the first version of 3D Studio, I thought it would be great to use this tool, that was mainly used for games and film, but which had the capacity of rendering light, texture, and materials, in the simulation of architecture. That was how my first company was born.

Most of my first years in 3D were spent creating models of buildings, landscapes, and furniture for architectural visualization. The tools were far more limited than today's arsenal and it was not uncommon to have to build 3D objects face by face. With the evolution of hardware and software, 3D modeling evolved to a point in which you can sculpt millions of polygons interactively. Organic surfaces that were so hard to create in the past can now be created in an intuitive way as someone that approaches a block of clay or stone.

I always loved character creation and these new tools gave me the power to materialize my ideas into 3D models. With a background on hard surface modeling, I can now mix organic and non-organic modeling to get the best final result. And, things got even better with the arrival of 3D printers, allowing us to hold our creations in our hands! 

What was your workflow like, from start to finish to create Margo? How many prototypes did you make? What digital tools do you use?

Margo was the first character I designed to be printed with the Makerbot Replicator 2. I understood that one of the most important things to take into account with PLA printers is that the material has got to support itself during printing. At the beginning I had the idea that this could be limiting, but after making several characters I realized that there is a lot more freedom than one initially expects.

My objective was to not sacrifice design to the 3D printing technique, so I started by sketching the character in 2D trying to find its look and personality, not too worried about the 3D printing aspects of it. After receiving Makerbot's approval on the character sketch, I made some more drawings trying to create a pose which revealed the character's personality but also in which it was possible to divide the character into several seamless pieces that could be 3D printed.

Fig.01

For every body part I planned a side that was completely flat which would lay on the printing tray and tried to keep these flat planes hidden or at logical places like the belt line, for example. (Fig.01)

Fig.02

Using Zbrush, I started by sculpting the character in a T-pose (neutral pose) to benefit from the software's capability of replicating the sculpting with symmetry and speed up the process. This is my usual approach to create characters for games or film. The only different thing was that I was very careful to keep certain elements aligned so that they could be cut with straight lines and result in flat surfaces. For example, I made sure that the line that connects the hat to the hair was completely straight. Even though it is not very noticeable in the design it is extremely important to be able to print it. (Fig.02)

Fig.03

After having finished the model in a neutral pose, I started posing the character and re-sculpting some parts in order for the cloth folds to be coherent with the new pose. I tried not to refrain the creative aspects and see how far the design could be pushed, so I made this floating scarf on her neck. (Fig.03)

Fig.04

After having the final pose approved, I started cutting the model. In Zbrush, I fused the parts of the model that would be part of the same printed piece using Dynamesh, and sculpted the connections between parts mainly by using insert meshes and projection. Then I used the Decimation Master plugin to reduce the number of polygons and exported the parts to 3DS Max where I rotated the parts and laid them flat on the surface. (Fig.04)

Fig.05

The parts were then exported in STL format and imported into the Makerware printing software to print the parts on the Makerbot Replicator 2. (Fig.05)

Fortunately, the initial planning paid off and there weren't a lot of reprints to make the connections work properly.

What tricks did you use to make Margo come together without any support materials?

The main trick is to think 3-dimensionally and understand that the material is self supported.

If you're not using support materials, you will want to have a flat surface somewhere so that there is a good contact with the printing tray.

Also, you can take for granted that a 45 degree angle is safe for overhangs and you can even push it further to angles like 65 degrees.

Another trick is that you can create small bridges. If, during printing, the hot PLA goes from one support point to another that is quite near, the plastic filament won't fall and you are able to create a flat surface parallel to the printing tray that is not supported.

Fig.06

Rotate the 3d piece and find where a flat surface could exist. If it is not in an obvious place it will go unnoticed. For example, the floating ends of the scarf have a flat side but it not noticeable because it is not aligned to any reference. (Fig.06)

Try to think of the printing process as a growing tree and imagine it building from the ground up, if at some point the branches go horizontal or downwards, you have a design problem. After some time it becomes instinctive to design for 3d printing.

What advice do you have for someone who might just be beginning to learn 3D modeling?

3D modeling can be very rewarding and pleasurable. If you want to get started in 3D sculpting don't jump into Zbrush, you'll most probably find it a bit overwhelming and quit as the learning curve is a bit steep. Try using a software like Sculptris which has a limited set of tools but which is very easy to work with. After having some practice move to Zbrush, Mudbox or another sculpting software.

For hard surface modeling, if you're a beginner, consider trying Sketch up to get the hang of how 3D modeling works. It is simple and instinctive.  Start with these simpler software and you'll make sure that you won't bump into a technical wall that will prevent you from enjoying the creative process.

Thanks Jose, we look forward to continuing to work with you!

Jose Alves da Silva is a 3D character artist and illustrator. He has a degree in Architecture and co-founded the 3D visualization company Pura Imagem in 1996. Since 2009, after winning CGSociety's XXIV Challenge First Prize Master Award, he has been exclusively dedicated to creating characters. Expect to see more of the Margo characters right here on the Bold Machine's blog as we explore the frontier of character design and development with Stratasys, MakerBot and Solidscape 3D printers.