Episode 354 – Ian Spriggs – Photoreal 3D Character Portraits


Episode 354 – Ian Spriggs – Photoreal 3D Character Portraits

Ian Spriggs is a 3D Digital Artist and a VFX Artist. He completed his first 3D portrait in 2014. His work has become widely known for being photorealistic because they seem to represent the subjects’ inner selves. 

As a Lead Character Modeler, he has worked for studios like Unity Technologies, Scanline VFX, ILM, Mr. X. His projects include The Mandalorian, Mulan, Bloodshot

He is also the author of A Portrait of the Digital Age, a book on creating his meticulous character studies.

In this Podcast, Allan McKay interviews 3D Digital Artist and Lead Character Modeler Ian Spriggs about creativity, importance of innovation and authenticity, how to niche yourself as an artist, difference between commercial and personal work, artistic freedom – and so much more! 

Ian Spriggs Website: https://ianspriggs.com

Ian Spriggs on IMDb: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm4791377/

Ian Spriggs on ArtStation: https://www.artstation.com/ianspriggs/profile

Ian Spriggs on IG: https://www.instagram.com/ianspriggs

Ian Spriggs on Twitter: https://twitter.com/SpriggsIan



[04:06] Ian Spriggs Introduces Himself and Talking About Starting Out in VFX

[15:47] How to Niche Yourself as an Artist

[17:55] Creativity and Importance of Innovation

[20:22] Finding Inspiration 

[22:01] NFT’s and What Defines Great Artwork

[25:28] Ian Talks About His Creative Process

[32:14] Working at Oats Studios with Neill Blomkamp

[35:38] Difference Between Commercial and Personal Work

[38:42] Ian Talks About His Work at Unity

[47:27] The Importance of Authenticity – and How to Stand Out



Hi, everyone! 

This is Allan McKay. Welcome to Episode 354!

I’m speaking to 3D Digital Artist and Lead Character Modeler Ian Spriggs about creativity, importance of innovation and authenticity, how to niche yourself as an artist, the difference between commercial and personal work, artistic freedom – and so much more! I’m sure you’ve seen Ian’s work. His portraits are so photoreal, you can’t tell the difference.

I’m super excited about this Episode. Ian and I get into a lot of cool stuff. His work is stunning! We also talk about his moving away from that type of work as a niche. He is an artist. He is always evolving. 

Please take a moment to recommend this Podcast to others. This would mean the world to me! 

Let’s dive in! 



[01:23]  Have you ever sent in your reel and wondered why you didn’t get the callback or what the reason was 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!

[49:07] 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!



[04:06] Allan: Thanks, Ian, for taking the time to chat! Do you want to quickly introduce yourself?

Ian: Yeah, my name is Ian Spriggs. Most people know me as a digital portrait artist. I’ve done a couple of portraits that are hyper realistic. A lot of people confuse them for photographs. I became known in the industry through doing photorealistic digital humans. But I am at Unity right now doing digital humans. I’ve got 16 years of working in visual effects. I’ve worked at ILM, Mr. X, Image Engine. I’d gone to an art school back in the day.

[04:55] Allan: Again, I’m super excited! I ask every one of my guests. Did you always think you’d become an artist? Or was it something that you fell into later on?

Ian: I was always an artist but having it as a career? I didn’t even know that was possible. Back in the day, in our parents’ generation, it was a nice hobby. “But what are you going to do for work?” When I discovered the VFX industry, it was an eye opener. It could be a possibility?! 

[05:48] Allan: What was the catalyst?

Ian: After art school, I couldn’t get a job. I was living in Montreal. Then my younger brother ended up going to Sheridan College in Toronto for animation. And he told me that Seneca was also accepting students. I didn’t even know that before! I could go to school and get a job in VFX? As soon as I saw that path, I knew that that’s what I’d be doing.

[06:44] Allan: To jump ahead, what was your job in 3D?

Ian: Did you ever see Veggie Tales? I went to work on that film. It was my first feature film. 

[07:28] Allan: What was that like getting to see your work on a big screen?

Ian: I loved seeing my name in the credits. That was pretty exciting! That’s how I realized that it’d be a cool career. Being in the industry for as long as I have been, you have to learn the language. It’ll take you a couple of years to learn Maya and Zbrush, other tools. You really have to dive into it. Trying to explain it to someone from outside the industry.

[08:44] Allan: I think Chris Rock said that there are jobs and there are careers. VFX is a massive career. You have to put a lot of time into it.

Ian: Oh, yeah! There are so many hurdles along the way. Most companies ask you to work overtime; and if you have a family, it’s hard to split that time. It’s highly competitive. Most contracts are short. You go from one company to another. 

[09:34] Allan: What is your opinion of the industry right now? You work at Unity. It’s so hard to stand out and get work. There is all this content and we have more opportunity for work.

Ian: It’s a big question. There are so many different aspects to our industry now. Fifteen years ago, you’d go into 3D. Now those job titles are split into subcategories upon subcategories. There are a lot more jobs. I definitely think the industry is getting bigger. I think it’s the future. It’s an exciting time to get into the industry. We’re creating cutting edge tools. 

[11:49] Allan: That’s the exciting thing! I think back to ‘92 when I started dabbling with 3D. And when Toy Story came out, I could point it out and say, “This is what I do!” Now, students are learning VFX in high school. There are internships to support them.

Ian: I remember when I first started doing 3D, I had a couple of questions that people didn’t know and I had to go to a textbook to find it. There were no forums or support online. There were some in CGTalk. But to find out new information was impossible.

[13:06] Allan: Now it’s about finding the right information. Before, you’d have to find any information. What were the sites you’d visit? What forums?

Ian: CGTalk was my main one. I went there for everything. There were some elite sites that only the best could even get to the front page.

[13:47] Allan: I remember whenever you got featured, you’d get a notice, “Be careful! Your site might crash!” Now you get desensitized. And there is so much talent now! Some little kid with Zbrush is doing immaculate work.

Ian: Looking at it as an artist, you don’t want to be complaining. You have to adapt to this new, infinite scrolling through art. Now, you have to become a brand. So that it’s not just about your art, but about being consistent and proving that you can create. You have to adapt and brand yourself.

[15:47] Allan: What are your thoughts on that? You have to go down to a granular level to brand yourself. 

Ian: I’ve niched myself to do digital humans. I’ve been experimenting with new styles recently. Some have been successful. With some of them, people would be like, “What is this?” I did a digital portrait of Marie that had four heads. It was about identity. I wanted to see how easy it’d be copy and paste a digital human. People weren’t blown away by it. For me, it was one of the most exciting pieces I’ve done. Photorealism is boring. Looking at a deeper stuff that makes people people – that’s what I want to do. This piece was an eye opener. I’ve got to lead people into what I want.

[17:55] Allan: Is your creativity going to be held hostage to what everyone else wants? Once you’ve cracked the code of photorealism, you want to keep growing. But there is an expectation for you to do what people want.

Ian: As an artist, you have to follow your creativity. You’re trying new ways of seeing things. You’re trying to open to these new things. I’m not too interested in just photorealism. In 5-10 years, most people will be able to do what I do with new tools. If I want to be remembered in any way, I can’t just create the stuff that everyone else will do in 10 years. I have to be creative and be the guy who opens those doors for other people.

[19:19] Allan: You have to innovate. Innovation is important. 

Ian: I always want to be cutting edge. I have to adapt and grow. It’s important as a human being to grow, to do uncomfortable things.

[20:23] Allan: For you, both creatively and technically, where do you find inspiration?

Ian: For a lot of my career, I’ve looked at the old masters: Rembrandt, Caravaggio. I think they’re the pinnacle of art. They did the best possible aesthetic which we’ve lost a little bit, in my opinion. So I’ve always gone back to them for inspiration to see what they did. If you look at their paintings today, they still feel alive. These are dead people but you can connect with their paintings on a human level. I’ve been inspired a lot by those masters. But now I’m trying to figure out who I am and how to have my own voice. I’m trying to push myself to do something different. To find inspiration, I have to outdo myself. 

[22:02] Allan: I like that! What are your thoughts on NFT’s? I’ve had both Beeple (www.allanmckay.com/285) and BossLogic (www.allanmckay.com/303) on the Podcast. Looking at art, it’s the idea that someone was there putting it together.

Ian: I think NFT’s are the future. It’s a matter of time before almost everything becomes NFT. Right now, it’s now at its best quality. Maybe I have it wrong. I feel like it’s subjective. People buy work that will sell as well. Because it’s going to make money – it’s good artwork. Money shouldn’t be the definition of good artwork. Good artwork is how well it serves its purpose. Jackson Pollock is what good artwork is. Most people don’t like it. His drip paintings seem like anyone can do it. But he painted those paintings during the Cold War. Those paintings meant to represent freedom, there was no control. Back in the day, they meant to show what democracy was; so his artwork is a representation of that. Because it served its purpose so well, that makes it a good artwork. It moved a nation to believe that! That’s amazing. But if you’re thinking of it out of context, you’ll probably think, “A kid could do this!” 

[25:29] Allan: Yeah. That’s a really great point! I think of photography trying to sell print. The reason a lot of value gets put onto that photography is for the story behind it. It’s the backstory that creates the value or interest around the piece. With your work, when you’re doing a portrait, is there a lot of thought going into it?

Ian: Absolutely! It’s hard to see. If you’re looking at them individually, I’m trying to express that person’s identity. You can do it through clothing, body language, and lighting. There are so many techniques through which you can express someone’s identity. I’m trying to be honest about who they are. But if you’re looking at them as a collective, they’re actually portraits of me. It’s how I see each person, you see who is important in my life – and how I see them. 

[27:34] Allan: I like that a lot! I remember this tiny thumbnail of your work but I instantly recognized the person in it. You’re still connecting with that person.

Ian: I think when it comes to portraits, there are a lot of levels. It’s interesting to discover them. Chris Nichols’s portrait is about his pose. His pose represents who he is. I had him sit at the table and give him the same vibe as Steve Jobs. Chris doesn’t look like he’s waiting to talk. He was listening. Everything you feel from that painting is about that.

[29:13] Allan: And that’s the story behind the art! I love that! I keep going into nostalgia. With your first CG character, what was your process back then versus what it is now?

Ian: It’s relatively similar. Usually, when I do a portrait, I do a photoshoot. When I did my self portrait, I did a photoshoot of myself. It’s kind of like doing a 360 scan with flat lighting and no shadows. I did a bunch of poses just to figure out what kind of style I wanted to go for. Once I had all those photo references (I wanted to recreate a Rembrandt painting, in that case), I chose the lighting that matched it. I collaged this idea and started executing it with Maya, Lightbox, some PhotoShop for color correction, V-Ray for rendering. Fast forward to what I do now. Now, I take a thousand photos (I used to take a hundred). I spend 4-5 hours photographing a person. I have a much better camera. I have stage lights. I have a light wand. Programs and tools have gotten better, rendering in GPU. Reiterations are much quicker. I’ll render and then fix that render, then do another render. It’s about fixing rather than building. 

[31:52] Allan: In terms of your photos, are you doing them for photogrammetry or just for reference?

Ian: Just reference. I try not to use scanning too much. I’ve tried it in the past but ended up doing so much cleanup. It’s faster for me to sculpt it.

[32:15] Allan: Obviously, you do a lot of commercial work too. What are some of the more memorable projects you’ve worked on?

Ian: Career wise, working at Oats Studios with Neill Blomkamp was one of my favorite [experiences]. It was such a cool experience! Neill would come to you with a rough idea, with the shortest description – and you’d just go with it. You have to build something crazy. I had to draw some zeitgeists. He gave me a rough idea. I spent a couple of months building it: Ninety bodies all stuck together.

[33:25] Allan: I’ve always wondered who modeled that! Interesting character. Neill was meant to come on the Podcast. There are a few outliers who want to do cool projects, and he’s definitely one of them.

Ian: I think Neill would be really cool to have on the Podcast. He’s one of those guys who’ll turn down money for his own creative freedom. People will come to him, “Hey, can you do this and we’ll tell you how to do it?” And he’s like, “Oh, you’re gonna tell me how to do it? Then, no!” Give me a project and I’ll do it my way. 

[34:44] Allan: I’ve got friends who wanted to become film directors. Feature films are the top tier. But a handful of my friends who’ve made feature films realized how little control they had over their stuff.

Ian: Neill has told me a few stories about how people were trying to control him and which actors to pick. He’d say no. I respect him for standing up for his own beliefs.

[35:39] Allan: For you, creatively and commercially, what are the pros and cons of each? Do you find one preference over the other?

Ian: It took me a while to learn but I had to draw a strong line dividing the two. I don’t mix them anymore. I used to go to work and make stuff I loved, and I wouldn’t own it so I couldn’t show it. I emotionally attached myself to a lot of projects. It’s a business transaction and I had to become okay with that. That’s what your personal work is for. You do your personal work, whatever you feel like, but not for the industry. When it comes to personal work, I do whatever I want. Sometimes, I reject freelance work because I want to be free to do what I want to do. So far, it’s been pretty good. It’s pretty important that I get a creative outlet.

[37:51] Allan: That’s what we were talking about earlier: You go online to get your creative outlet. But the gods of social media have spoken and you cannot do a four-headed portrait. But it comes down to who are you doing your personal work for?

Ian: It’s easier to get persuaded to do your personal work for other people. You feel like you should do that. But you have to listen to that inner voice. Back before social media, I’d do my sketches in my sketchbook and no one would see them.

[38:43] Allan: I think it’s a really fascinating subject! It’s also one of those people who’ve made it: “Do it for yourself!” Moving over to work for Unity, what has that experience been like for you?

Ian: It’s been pretty good! Working in the VFX has been awesome, but working for Unity has been nice to see a change of pace. I work in the labs department so I’m allowed to make mistakes. In VFX, you have to do whatever you can so that it works. At Unity, I can try [things]. I love the freedom of that! I’m mostly focusing on digital humans: looking at hair and skin solutions.

[40:37] Allan: I’ve seen Unity’s Enemies (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eXYUNrgqWUU) and I love the fact that they chose someone who wasn’t perfect looking. Do you think realism comes with imperfection?

Ian: I think it’s something that I value which we haven’t gotten over yet. I still think that motion wise and movement, there is still going to be the uncanny valley effect. So I think I need more time and research for that. 

[41:45] Allan: What limitation, if any, are you finding in your typical process?

Ian: With realtime, you don’t quite get the number of rays, I guess. The quality isn’t as good. With time, I’m sure, it will get better. There is a lack of quality in realtime. Aesthetic renders look better.

[42:37] Allan: I’m sure your personal work gets a lot of attention online. When did that happen and what was the piece?

Ian: I’d say my personal portrait. That’s when people started recognizing my work. I went with the flow. Each time I did a new portrait, I’d get more and more likes. Artistically, I’ve gone through stages. When I did my personal portrait, with my second self-portrait I used more techniques to make it more believable and more photo realistic. I feel I made another jump at that moment. 

[43:59] Allan: Are there any favorite pieces that stand out to you? 

Ian: It depends on what mood I’m in. My latest one is my last self-portrait. I’ve defined a new style with that. I might say Jasper is one of my favorites, my 7-year old nephew. Marie from Prometheus has been one of the more fun ones.

[45:14] Allan: What was the inspiration behind that, with doing all the muscles?

Ian: I’ve been focusing on trying to capture people’s identity that I’ve been focusing solely on the skin. But identity goes to the bone. I’ve worked so much with the anatomy, I wanted to go another layer deep. And then I thought, “I can’t just do muscles” so I came up with this plain transparency where you can see the muscles underneath [the skin].

[46:12] Allan: In terms of upcoming technology, are you keeping an eye out for something specific?

Ian: I’m not too sure. I don’t know. The stuff I look at: My eyes are mostly on art and how people are breaking down their own barriers. I look at what artists are doing creatively. Technology wise, I’m just making sure I get the latest GPU renders from V-Ray. I rely on other people with technology stuff.

[47:28] Allan: Do you have any advice for people starting out and how they can stand out?

Ian: Being original is one of the most important things. If I were to hire someone, and I’d see someone who’s copying another person’s work – I might as well go to the source! I like originality and people who push the limits. And they’re doing it because they’re passionate about it. 

[48:35] Allan: This has been really awesome! Where can people go to find out more about your work?

Ian: You can just Google Ian Spriggs. I have my website: https://ianspriggs.com. I’m on IG and Twitter.

[49:08] Allan: This has been really awesome! Thank you!

Ian: Thank you for having me!


Okay, what did you think? I want to thank Ian for taking the time to chat! I appreciate you taking the time to listen.

Please take a moment to share this Episode with others, if you feel like doing that. That would be a great way to show your support for the Podcast.

Next week, I’m sitting down with Clinton Jones whom you might know from Corridor Digital. But now, we talk about his own work, his own YouTube Channel and his journey into filmmaking.

Until next week – 

Rock on!


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