Episode 285 — Beeple — Mike Winkelmann
Episode 285 — Beeple — Mike Winkelmann
Beeple is Mike Winkelmann, a graphic designer from Charleston, SC, USA who does a variety of digital artwork including short films, Creative Commons VJ loops, everydays and VR / AR work.
After he began releasing a set of widely used Creative Commons VJ loops he has worked on concert visuals for Justin Bieber, One Direction, Katy Perry, Nicki Minaj, Eminem, Zedd, deadmau5 and many more.
One of the originators of the current “everyday” movement in 3D graphics, he has been creating a picture everyday from start to finish and posting it online for over ten years without missing a single day. Mike has also created several short films which have screened at a variety of festivals.
Allan McKay interviews Beeple about finding inspiration for his daily art, the importance of discipline, building an audience and the myth of perfection.
Beeple’s Website: https://www.beeple-crap.com
Beeple on Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/beeple
Beeple on IG: @beeple_crap
Beeple on Tumblr: https://beeple.tumblr.com
[04:32] Mike Winkelmann (aka Beeple) Introduces Himself
[08:15] Mike Talks About the Inspiration Behind and the Evolution Everyday
[13:44] The Pressure of Meeting an Audience’s Expectation
[26:11] Seeking Perfection in Art
[32:22] Attracting the Right Clients
[35:23] How to Manage One’s Social Media
[48:25] Finding Daily Inspiration
[50:47] Working Under Deadlines
[1:03:45] Dealing with Burnout
EPISODE 285 — BEEPLE — MIKE WINKELMANN
Hello, everyone! This is Allan McKay.
Welcome to Episode 285! I’m sitting down with Mike Winkelmann (aka Beeple). We talk about a few things, but mostly about the discipline of doing daily art. I’m super excited about this Episode!
I’ve been fascinated by this subject of daily 3D renders because 3D is such a painful thing. There is always something that can go wrong. But mostly, it’s about using daily art to measure your progress. It’s amazing to see his art. It’s sometimes controversial but always inspiring.
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Let’s dive in!
FIRST THINGS FIRST:
[01:16] Have you ever sent in your reel and wondered why you didn’t get the callback or what the reason was that you didn’t get the job? Over the past 20 years of working for studios like ILM, Blur Studio, Ubisoft, I’ve built hundreds of teams and hired hundreds of artists — and reviewed thousands of reels! That’s why I decided to write The Ultimate Demo Reel Guide from the perspective of someone who actually does the hiring. You can get this book for free right now at www.allanmckay.com/myreel!
[1:07:41] One of the biggest problems we face as artists is figuring out how much we’re worth. I’ve put together a website. Check it out: www.VFXRates.com! This is a chance for you to put in your level of experience, your discipline, your location — and it will give you an accurate idea what you and everyone else in your discipline should be charging. Check it out: www.VFXRates.com!
INTERVIEW WITH MIKE WINKELMANN
[04:32] Allan: Cool, Mike! Do you want to quickly introduce yourself?
Mike: Sure! My name is Mike Winkelmann. I make work under the name of Beeple. I am a graphic designer. I live in Charlesville. I make a lot of concert visuals. I’ve been doing some personal projects. I do a picture everyday.
[05:15] Allan: I love it! For you, growing up, did you always want to be an artist?
Mike: No, I actually wanted to make video games. I went to school for computer science, but halfway through I realized I was making art things. And I also saw a number of people who really wanted to make video games. They wanted it way more than me! Then I thought web design may be fun so I got a job doing that, after I graduated. Then I slowly started doing this Beeple time and that took over and became my full-time thing.
[06:27] Allan: I’m just curious with your background in computer science, did you ever leverage that in 3D?
Mike: Not really. I never had a job programming. I in no way consider myself a programmer. I don’t even do that shit! Those days are long over. It helped me understand software and certain complexity, but not from a technical, down-in-the-weeds aspect.
[07:34] Allan: I was just curious because you must be doing some mathematical patterns.
Mike: Some but not a lot. Most of the stuff I do is not that procedural. I’m usually the person to do it brute force, winging it. That’s usually my method.
[08:15] Allan: I want to dive into the daily art right away. I think it’s really fascinating. Do you want to talk a bit about what inspired you to do it?
Mike: What inspired me was that many years ago — 13.5 years ago — I wanted to get better at drawing. I saw an artist in the U.K. named Tom Judd who did a sketch a day. I saw it after he’d done it. This was back in 2006. I thought it was really cool. That’s what I did the first year and I learned a lot. It pushed me to try a bunch of techniques and mediums of drawing. I always wanted to learn 3D and I wondered if I could do a render every day. I started at absolute zero: “Holy crap! I can make reflections!”
[10:12] Allan: It’s kind of like the 3D Cafe, back in the day. Remember that?
Mike: I never used that. Before Cinema 4D, I think I used Poser for a little bit.
[10:27] Allan: It was a website with high end 3D. It would have personal work.
Mike: In the early days, I wasn’t that aware of 3D. I wanted to eventually do it. If you can do 3D, you can do anything: drawing, animation, etc. To me, it’s the most exciting medium. You can composite it with footage.
[11:32] Allan: I’m curious about you switching from 2D to 3D, did you feel things would go twice as long? Was there a stutter or a setback when you started?
Mike: I wouldn’t say it was that much of a hindrance. I was pretty shady at 2D as well. I didn’t have that many skills. I never went to an art school. I wasn’t a master at Photoshop. I knew some After Effects. The other thing that helped was that this was before social media. You could suck for years and nobody saw it! There was whatever you wanted to do. I think young artists feel a different weight now.
[13:44] Allan: To jump ahead, now that you have such a massive audience, do you ever feel that pressure to get something out? Is there a set level of expectation now?
Mike: Yes and no. I do understand that some people will see what I put out. It’s good in a way because it makes you want to try harder. You don’t want to put out a pile of shit. I don’t feel like it’s been pressure. I’ve never had this big thing happen to me. It’s been a pretty slow progression of following. If I did have that, I imagine it would be paralyzing. The other thing I look at is that picture that I put out tomorrow will be one in 5,000 projects. Each picture that I put out matters less and less, as I put out more pictures. Each one is a tiny piece of the bigger thing I’m doing. So it allows me to take the pressure off. I have a pretty realistic expectation of what what I can make in 2 hours: It’s not going to be a fucking masterpiece! It’s a sketch. It’s sloppy. It is what it is.
Mike: I met him in Toronto.
[17:14] Allan: I’ve started watching his work. He posts on average every 3 days. He was putting the pressure on himself to have his posts to go viral. He finally got that post! But he posted 5 pictures in the last 2 years because of it. When you get that instant result, you put a lot of pressure on yourself.
Mike: I’ve seen that a couple of times over the years: Something blows up and then almost invariably the next thing doesn’t do as well. Who knows why something goes viral: the right day or time, or the right person reposting it. But it’s like lightning in a bottle. It’s so random! You have to fucking do it every day! Each one is done that day, start to finish and posted somewhere before midnight. There is no playing with it until it’s perfect! It has to be done.
[19:14] Allan: I think it says a lot about why you’re doing it. You aren’t doing it for anyone but yourself.
Mike: I’m doing it because I fucking sucked and I still suck at so many things and I need to get better. Before I would see these people and think I needed to get better. Now, there are these 23 year old kids coming up that are amazing. So it’s different! I have to stay ahead of this damn kid. I just need to get better. It’s something I deeply, deeply believe.
[20:30] Allan: I think that’s cool! These days, the tools are a lot easier. Now you can pick up Zbrush and start doing it. You go on Art Station and there are 15 year olds doing some amazing stuff.
Mike: Are you fucking kidding me?! I think about the things I learned when I was that age. They’re completely useless. I spent years learning Flash, now it’s down the trash. The kids these days can learn Blender and it’s fucking amazing! It’s mind blowing the things that people can download and use immediately. As the tools get easier and better, it ups the expectations. Maybe 6 years ago, I was using Vray and it was time consuming. Now, you don’t even have to think about it. It’s interesting how the expectations go up.
[23:14] Allan: With having this daily practice to get better, have you applied that to other aspects of your life?
Mike: No, I have not. That’s where I’ll admit I’m not that disciplined a person. I’ll try things. With things like exercising, I like running; but once I get hurt, I can’t run. The outside factors stop you. So I’ve thought a lot about the outside factors stopping me from doing [my daily art]. That’s by design how I structure things. To be honest, I’m not super well rounded. I work constantly and spend time with family.
[24:49] Allan: I think you can also overload things.
Mike: This is the only thing that I super care about getting better at. I don’t give a shit about anything else.
[25:23] Allan: What’s your routine? You’re more of a morning person, correct?
Mike: I used to be. I’ve gone through phases. I used to stay up all fucking night and sleep half the day. Now, I have 2 kids, 4 and 7 years old. I go to bed at midnight and get up at [7:00].
[26:11] Allan: With your whole journey, do you remember what it was like in the beginning, in terms of your process and wanting to improve?
Mike: You can definitely see the trajectory. Obviously, the technology has progressed too. That’s been fun to see too. There is a reason why I keep my old work on my site. There is work on my site from 2003. Everything I’ve released at Beeple is on there. It’s important for people to see the whole thing. There is no [gap]. I often see artists and don’t know how old they are. For me, you can see the first thing and [know it].
[27:52] Allan: How do you feel about that if people become well known and start deleting their old work?
Mike: I very much believe that art itself is subjective. All these things I’m saying are just my point of view. People curating their things are not bad. I am more interested to see the full journey of an artist and how they got to right now, or the piece I care about. But if people want to have a level of mystery, that’s their thing.
[29:08] Allan: Did you ever reach out to that U.K. artist Tom Judd?
Mike: Yeah, I’ve reached out to him a few times but I’ve never met him. I haven’t been to the U.K. in a while. I’d definitely love to meet him.
[29:40] Allan: You’ve mentioned that the stuff you’re doing right now is a bit gross. Do you go through phases?
Mike: There are definitely phases with the everydays. Some of the other work when I started doing them, there was some weird shit. It’s come a bit of a full circle. The direction it’s in now, it’s more of my personality. I feel like now I can do whatever I want to a degree, within limitations of my skill sets. You can understand what it is. It’s gone through phases but it’s not premeditated. I’m not planning or thinking. Everyday, I just go, “Oh, shit! What the fuck am I going to do today?” What can I do to get excited today. And lately, it’s been some weird shit. That’s what has been motivating for me. If I am not motivated, then I won’t try as hard.
[32:22] Allan: You’re already doing that for your commercial clients. So this is an escape for you, it’s not to make it appealing to everyone else.
Mike: And the client work that I do is pretty similar to some of the other work. I have a bit more leeway. It’s 50/50. There is plenty of “We want what we want”. That’s what they want and they’re paying for it. In a lot of cases, they want me to put my twist on it, but it’s more, like, they want what they want. They’re paying the bills. But with my personal work, no one is paying me for this shit, so I do whatever I want.
[33:51] Allan: That’s a good point too: Through your personal work, you’ve attracted the clients you want to work with. People recognize your work and they come to you for your style.
Mike: It’s always on a scale. I definitely have gotten to work on some cool thing. Anytime you accept money for something, that person is in charge. You could be working on a coolest project but there are still those moments of “Fuck. This.” I feel like younger artists need to be more realistic. The people who’ve been in the game longer, they’re still taking shit from people for money. It is what it is.
[35:21] Allan: As a commercial artist, you’re being hired to fulfill the needs of your client, not yourself.
Mike: To me, the difference between a designer and an artist is: A designer is someone that solves a problem for someone else. And an artist makes whatever they want — and then they sell it. Sometimes people don’t want it. That’s why it’s really hard to make a living as an artist. And I wouldn’t consider that I’m making a living as an artist. Most of my income comes from being a designer.
[35:23] Allan: What’s your opinion on the whole Starving Artist mentality? Do you think that social media is helpful with accumulating an audience?
Mike: I think it does help. It’s a powerful weapon but it’s a weapon that everybody has. It cancels each other out. And you need to look at it as a tool. You need to look at what you’re getting out of it — and what it’s costing you. What it often costs you is that it fucks with your head. That’s the whole thing! I’m really careful to not let it [do that]. It can be powerful and there are fewer gatekeepers. Back in the day, who is going to know you? I look at Instagram and see how many artists I follow and how many names I can name. It’s got tons of benefits. But there is a negative aspect to it that you need to guard against.
[40:01] Allan: How do you handle that? What’s your mindset?
Mike: One: I rarely read comments, especially with the Trump things that I do. I know there will be a million comments. I said my peace, you can type whatever you want. I also try not to look at how many likes a picture gets. I get out of that part of the app. I look at people’s DM’s and there is less shittiness there. But I think it’s important to be conscious of the feedback you’re looking at. If you read all the comments, it’s unfiltered feedback. It all looks the same. You see something and there are 30 comments. Immediately, you’ll focus on the negative ones. The second thing is: If you saw the person that posted, “This fucking sucks!” — and you knew them and their education level — you wouldn’t give a shit. But you don’t know those things. It could be some 13 year old kid or someone who doesn’t know shit about art. So why would you listen to that person?! It’s not valid feedback. It’s just noise. It’s some jackass posting negative shit because they had a shitty day on the internet.
[42:14] Allan: That’s the funny thing. When you challenge those people by saying, “Sorry you’re having a bad day,” most of them don’t expect to be read. They’re trolling everything because they are having a shitty day. You don’t know them. But the negative comments will stick with you for days.
Mike: So yeah, it’s about trying not to see that shit. And it’s good to be honest with the positive comments. They can be helpful. But I know when I’ve phoned it in, so my reading a million comments, “Oh, this is fucking amazing!”, I know it’s not. That’s also not healthy to read people jerking you off. In general, feedback is good but it’s about being mindful from whom that feedback comes. Your monkey brain treats it all the same.
[44:17] Allan: I think you nailed it! Two aspects of this is: The positive and negative feedback shouldn’t be taken to heart. It’s not healthy to think you’re the best.
Mike: It’s going to make you complacent. It’s going to make you think that anything you put out is good. It’s not that helpful, in many respects.
[45:07] Allan: I think when you do stuff for social media…
Mike: That’s the thing, we’re all human! I want people to like it and to see it. I’m not a monk living on a mountain. I think it’s about knowing that you’re wired that way. That’s where social media can be negative because it plays on that thing. So be mindful of the mind fucks this will present. How can you use it and get the most out of it?
[46:31] Allan: While we’re on the topic of other artists on Instagram, who are the artists you tend to follow?
Mike: Honestly, there are so many now! And I go through phases. Even the things I like, they last for a few weeks. I’m more drawn to specific images. I don’t often see where it even came from. I’m drawn to collections of images. Right now, I’m in this weird, gross, viny, veiny, skinny aesthetic. The people that are making that, I don’t even know their names. It very much changes. Three years ago, the work was totally different. I just have a ton of influences I’m throwing together.
[48:25] Allan: What’s your creative process? Do you have an idea in mind before you get started?
Mike: I usually have an idea. Otherwise, I’ll fall into things that I always do. There are themes, of course. But I usually have an idea or a direction. Lately, it’s been more specific. It will evolve as I’m doing. I’ll go on Pinterest or Art Station and look at other work that inspires me. I’ll do that for 10-15 minutes. I’ll go to Twitter to see what’s trending. There may be something going on in the world. That’s what’s fun too: Some of the stuff I do is more like a political cartoonist, but I’m doing it with the most advanced 3D digital tools. What can we do to comment in real time with the most advanced tools? That’s where I’m at right now.
[50:47] Allan: You’ve mentioned phoning it in. Are you very critical of your work after the fact?
Mike: Yes, I am. Probably 70% of the nights, after I’m done it’s like, “Ugh! That did not turn out how I wanted it to.” I ran out of time. It’s gotta be done by midnight. So there is a hard cutoff. There are a million things. But that’s the whole idea. At times, when it turns out sweet, I get lucky.
[52:40] Allan: Do you think that the hard cutoff is your saving grace?
Mike: A hundred percent! I think (and this is my only good quote) that “People don’t have a lack of ideas — they have a lack of deadlines.” Most of your ideas are shit, but you have to get them out to get to the good one. When I don’t have a deadline, I don’t do shit. I was working on a 4-minute short film, and I spent 2 years getting it done. I just wasn’t doing it. I didn’t want to make any choices. Finally, when I had a deadline, it got finished. I think deadlines are super important for creatives.
[54:13] Allan: I always talk about Parkinson’s Law: “The work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. Have you seen the documentary on South Park called Six Days to Air?
Mike: No, I have not.
[54:42] Allan: I saw it years ago. This should be a weekly thing to watch. Their creative process is: They come in every Thursday to figure out what they’re doing for South Park, for next Wednesday. It goes through this creative process. If they had a month to do it, it would take a month. But they would start to question themselves.
Mike: I’ve only worked on a few feature films. I’m used to working for concert visuals. There is not a lot of time to fuck around! But for concept work for feature films, I would spend a week on a tiny concept or one frame. It seemed like it could be moving faster. I definitely think that if you can impose deadlines on yourself, it will help you put out more work. Something is always better than nothing.
[57:06] Allan: Do you feel like your creative process has changed?
Mike: It’s completely changed. One: The tools have changed. The things you wouldn’t even things of doing before are now possible. The other thing that’s changed is the work I’m doing. I used to do abstracts with color and form, with no narrative or message. Back then, I had a process for creating work like that. When I first started 3D, I didn’t know how to model. I learned to do it from scratch every day. Then I realized I was more interested in telling narrative stories. Then I started using models from other people. When I hit 10 years, the chains came off. I look at it like a paint brush. Now I have a shit ton of models I can get from TurboSquid. What can I do on top of that? It’s not just about rendering out a model. I didn’t make the model. The workflow now is to take the library and break them apart, put a head on this or boobs on that. It feels like I’m breaking up toys and taking a picture of them. It’s very simple. It’s like taking digital assets and fucking with them to make a story.
[1:00:44] Allan: You’re focusing on the bigger picture. I’m sure there are some stupid people out there who don’t think that’s art. You go back far enough, people would say that if you’re using a computer — you’re cheating.
Mike: You can always go back! To be honest, there are people who think that any digital art is cheating. And there is no right answer! To them, it’s oil to the canvas. That’s art. I will say one thing about that: In our industry, for your personal work you can have whatever opinion. If that’s cheating to you, model it yourself. But the thing is clients don’t give a fuck how you made it, if you bought or made the model. Clients just want the quickest, cheapest, easiest way. It’s going to be harder to have a career in this industry without utilizing the fastest, easiest tools. You can impose those restrictions on your personal work. That’s awesome! If that’s cheating, more power to you! I don’t think that’s wrong. But the client doesn’t give a fuck.
[1:03:45] Allan: Time is money and they only care for the end result. My final question would be: Do you deal with burnout or creative blocks?
Mike: The creative block? I deal with that every single day. What the fuck am I going to do today? And so that’s where the everydays are good. If you struggle with a creative block, do everydays for 30 days. It’s manageable. You can always keep going but having a taste of deadlines will help you push through it. I personally think that’s the easiest thing: make some shitty work and get it out. In terms of burnout, I think everydays are good as well. It’s not about cramming for 3 days and going apeshit. It’s about taking a long lifetime career of learning and growing and making it manageable. If you want to do everydays, set a time limit. Speed pain for 30 minutes. If you make that clear, people will look at it that way. Take the steps to mitigate that. If you get burnt out, it’s hard to come back to because now you have this negative association with something you used to love. It’s hard to come back from that! I’m very conscious when I have too much on my plate. I dial it back. Sometimes the everydays are just that. If you want to have a long career, it’s very much something you need to be cognisant of!
[1:07:02] Allan: Thanks, man, for all the insights you’ve shared.
Mike: I appreciate you having me on here!
[1:07:12] Allan: Cool, man! I appreciate your time! Where can people go to find out more about you?
Mike: You can just type in Beeple in Google and something will show up. I might not want to do that on your work computer. Wait until you’re in the confines of your home.
[1:07:37] Allan: Good idea! Thanks, Mike!
Mike: Thank you!
I hope you enjoyed this Episode. I want to thank Mike for taking the time to do this! This was really cool and really fun.
I’ll be back next week. Until then —
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