EK Interview: Neil Blevins

Neil Blevins is a Technical Director at Pixar. He could not tell us any trade secrets but seeing as he didn’t earn the job on good luck and a cheery smile he has plenty of other cool stuff to talk about. His work is, for lovers of science fiction, a dose of just what the doctor ordered. Fantastic landscapes that take your mind to places that are just too damn cool to really exist. Yet.

Introduce yourself.

Hi there, my name is Neil Blevins, and I’ve been an artist as long as I can remember. Raised on a healthy dose of scifi and fantasy films, books, and videogames, I started off painting and drawing traditionally, and then got into 3d graphics, making sci-fi 3d/2d hybrid artwork depicting creatures, robots and alien landscapes in my spare time.

Where are you from?  Where do you live now?  Where have you lived in between?

I’m originally from the city of Montreal, in Canada. After getting my BFA in design art, I moved to California where I spent 3 years living in Venice working at a company called Blur. Now I live in San Francisco and have worked for Pixar as a Technical Director for close to 10 years now.

Tell us about “Entry Point”?  What is entering the body?  What did you use to base the wound, the flesh off of?

Well, entry point was another in a series of images I made depicting the melding of humans with machines. As for what this machine does, I never made a firm decision, it could be a robotic umbilical chord carrying nutrients to the body. It could be an alien device attaching to its human host, linked to the brain. The part I am sure of is that this sort of cybernetic implant is a part of the culture of the host, as tattoos are grafted early in life denoting the point at which entry of the machine is to occur later in life. The wound is just a simple 3d plane with a hand modeled gash.

art blog - Neil Blevins - Empty Kingdom

Where is “Marianas II”?  What is the society like?  What are the people like?

Marianas is the deepest underwater trench on earth, so the thought was that in the future giant underwater stations were built to explore and exploit the trench’s resources. The top of the station is close to the water surface to harvest solar energy, and the lower areas include housing, factories, laboratories, etc. Small underwater craft like schools of fish constantly travel from station to station. The people are pretty much like you and me.

art blog - Neil Blevins - Empty Kingdom

“Marianas II” lists MAX, Brazil, WireBundler, and Photoshop as the programs you used, how did each program come into play?  What was the role of each program?

Well, as with most of my images, I start off with a painting in photoshop. I then model and texture parts (in this case, the towers) inside 3dstudio max. My wirebundler software allows me to make complex wires/pipes, which is the basis for the outside of the structures. Then I render the result using the Brazil renderer, which is a fast and easy to use raytrace based renderer for max. I then bring the render into Photoshop where I paint the rest of the image using techniques not all that different from a matte painter. So in this image, the structures are mostly 3d, and stuff like the rocks at the bottom are photographs manipulated and painted on top of.

What is your favorite piece and why?

It’s an old saying, but it’s a true one, it’s tough for a father to pick between his own children. I like so many for different reasons. I suppose my image “Gas Walker” is a personal favorite, and “Day’s End” took me a long time to complete, but I really feel the results were worth it in the end.

art blog - Neil Blevins - Empty Kingdom


How does your art reflect your personality?

I see my artwork as a way to vent my frustrations and a way to explore my imagination. So the more monster-y type stuff is probably more from my everyday anger channeled into a creative endevour. And my more scifi landscape type pieces are just me exploring other worlds, trying to capture the moment of wonder, a moment that seems to come more rarely as we get older and jaded.

Where do you find inspiration?  Where do you go when you’re feeling creatively drained?

Nature is my primary inspiration, I love looking at the natural world, either in person or through books and videos, and then restructure what I’ve seen through my own personal lens. One trick I’ve used to avoid being creatively drained is to every night before bed take 10minutes to flip through either a photobook or a book by a favorite artist. It tends to keep me wanting to make more. Although I haven’t been making all that much recently, as I’m a new dad and being a good father is taking up a lot of my time. Not getting enough sleep sure is the enemy of creativity, at least for me. 🙂

How do you think digital media has changed the world of art?

Well, it allows you to get complex stuff faster. It allows you to refine and refine your image with the undo. It allows you to merge different media like 3d model building with painting in a much more straight forward way. But it’s not perfect, undo for example can also lead to laziness since you can always go back and change a decision. Sometimes working with spontaneity is better.

art blog - Neil Blevins - Empty Kingdom

What source material has influenced your work?  What have been some of the most influential books or movies in your life and what about them stood out or influenced you?

Well, movies such as Alien(s), Predator, Terminator, etc have been hugely influencing, as they depict aliens and their worlds in a gritty and realistic manner, which I enjoy. Early in life, stuff like The Transformers and the TV shows Goldorak and Tranzor Z were hugely influential (new robots to fight every week!) Book wise, I mostly love the classics of scifi, Dune, Starship Troopers, Ringworld, etc. I’ve also been heavily inspired by videogames, from early ones like Rtype, spacegun and Strider to more recent games like Halo and Ikaruga.

What is necessary for a successful collaboration?  What can artists do that is detrimental to the collaborative process?  What can they do to help it?

Well, collaboration is an interesting beast. First off, the best collaboration creates a result that is something no individual would have come up with on their own. The worst collaboration is when someone tries to force the team to their own will. Doing this means you’re missing all these things the other people might be able to bring to the table. So one thing I recommend, which may seem counter intuitive, is to collaborate well, make sure you’re also doing personal artwork at the same time. That way, you can be your own boss on your personal work, which can help you let go when you’re collaborating. It’s also important when collaborating to have someone who makes the final decisions (after hearing the different views from the team). While it’s important to not be overly controlling, it’s also important to have someone to make the final decision, or else you can get the opposite stress, the stress of not having a clear direction.

What do you think you need to improve?  What are your strengths?

My 2d painting skills can always do with some improving. I feel my work in that area has gotten a lot better in the last 5 years (its an area I have been focusing on), but I still need so much practice. I’d love if I could take off an entire year and do nothing but paint in 2d, I feel I could make some real progress. I feel my strengths tend to be composition and atmosphere, modeling, texturing and lighting.

art blog - Neil Blevins - Empty Kingdom

How do you meditate?  Where do you go to find yourself?

Well, I used to actually meditate, I went to the Santa Monica Zen Center for a number of years, and found it really helpful. I haven’t done it in years though, it’s the usual excuse, not enough time in my busy schedule. The place I find myself is usually in music. Just me, a dark room, and some headphones, so I can concentrate on every nuance, those are usually the times I feel closest to myself. I get cranky if I can’t listen to music after a few days.

Do you prefer the sound of a piano or a violin?

Well, I guess I prefer the sound of the piano, in that the music I listen to rarely has violin in it, but I love all instruments, especially if they’re run through distortion 🙂

art blog - Neil Blevins - Empty Kingdom