, by Michael Tanzillo

Photoreal Unreality: Abstract Sculpture in 3D

Michael Tanzillo discusses his artistic approach, and his experience creating in the Substance 3D ecosystem.

    I came to 3D through an unexpected path. I’d studied photography at Ohio State – and, ironically enough, was a darkroom photographer who disliked the growing digital art craze, assuming it was nothing more than a passing fad. It was only after getting an internship at the ROY G BIV Art Gallery in Columbus, Ohio, that my interest in digital art was piqued. I received a submission from a printmaker who created 3D mockups of all their work, presenting it as if it were hanging in the gallery. I was blown away, and so was the committee that selected this artist for a solo show. That was the moment I decided I might need to look into this 3D art thing.

    On a snowy night in 2003, a Netflix-delivered DVD of Finding Nemo changed my life. I had just finished college and was working as a photographer, but felt lost and without a career path. That night, I made the decision that would change everything. I was too comfortable to get up to eject the DVD after the movie had finished and I just let it continue to roll through the credits. This caused the bonus content to begin playing – and I’ve never been so grateful for my lethargy. I saw artists scuba diving off the coast of Australia gathering references for the film. They analyzed the ocean’s color far from shore versus how green and murky it became as they approached Sydney. They watched the broken rays of light dance in the water and the patterns formed by the caustic effects. It was then up to someone called the ‘lighting artist’ to translate these visual phenomena onto the screen. I was blown away.

    Until then, I hadn’t even realized that ‘lighting artist’ was a job that existed. But I knew then that that was what I wanted to do. I studied some more, and I applied for jobs for which I was completely underqualified – and, because I didn’t get any of them, I went back to grad school at SCAD, the Savannah College of Art and Design, and studied in their Visual Effects program for two and a half years.

    Democratizing 3D

    When I left SCAD, I got a job at Blue Sky Studios, the animation company that made animated features like the Ice Age movies, the Rio franchise, Peanuts, Ferdinand, Horton Hears a Who, and a bunch of other stuff. I started as a Lighting Technical Assistant – a fancy name for an entry-level render wrangler. I’d help manage the computers that render the images. And then, when the third Ice Age movie, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, was in full production I weaseled my way into getting a couple of lighting assignments, and I lit some shots for that movie. That was the coolest thing I’ve ever done. I was just thrilled to be there – I’d attended every single daily review of the movie before it came out. It was amazing.

    And after that, I did nine more films, going from this render wrangling job to junior artist, then mid-level artist, then senior artist. I did some teaching over that time period too; with Jasmine Katatikarn we co-founded an online school called The Academy of Animated Art where we’d give online classes teaching people how to light for animated films. That kind of led me to become Blue Sky’s head of training; we were switching to a new pipeline, and over my final year with Blue Sky I’d teach its employees how to use that as well as other artistic skills.

    But then Disney bought the company, and Blue Sky was ultimately shut down in April 2021. We all lost our jobs – and this is what led me to Adobe. I knew Alwyn Hunt, who co-founded The Rookies; he put me in contact with the Adobe 3D and Immersive Division. I did six months of contract work for Adobe, and then went full-time in November 2021.

    There was a very notable difference in the company culture between Blue Sky and Adobe. A big film studio like Blue Sky has to be very concerned with security. Everything is kept inside the building; you never share anything. You aren’t allowed to talk about what you’re working on – you have to sign a bunch of NDAs. You can’t post work on social media. You can’t even check email from home. The rules are strict, but it’s easy to understand why they exist – when you’re a company that only works on one product every 18 months to two years, and you invest $120 million in it, you have to protect it. If somebody can just come along and download 5 terabytes of data and steal everything, and release it on the internet, you’re screwed. That’s what happened with the Sony movie The Interview – that got hacked and stolen, and Sony lost a boatload of money.

    With Adobe, and specifically the Adobe 3D and Immersive division, the culture is much more founded upon this amazing, supportive, collaborative environment. This was one of the big reasons I took the job with Adobe – there’s a real effort to democratize 3D, and to make it accessible to more people. Now I spend most of my days helping 2D artists understand how to work in 3D, and to use their creative skills in the 3D space. It’s a very rewarding experience.

    The origins of this project come from this very open, sharing company culture as well. Most of the time when you create something in 3D you’re making a specific thing – you make a car, for instance, or a blender, or a character. Sometimes it’s stylized, sometimes it’s photoreal, but you’re always making a thing.

    With this project, I just wanted to push myself outside this idea of making things in a 3D space, and just see if I could explore areas like the actual textures of things, and explore forms and curvature. I wanted to shake off the rust a little bit and get back into being an actual artist again, something I hadn’t done in thirteen years.

    My influences for this project relate more to how I established the tone of my finished images, rather than to any concrete end goal. I’d ultimately display the splashes at a massive scale; really, this comes from an influence I found while I was visiting family in Austin, Texas. While I was there, I took my kids to an outdoor sculpture garden, where there were beautiful sculptures at very strange scales – some were very small, and some were huge. I loved that place for its weird sense of scale. I found some of the descriptions of the pieces a little off-putting – you’d see a cube and some weird shapes, and the description would talk about how it relates to the form of man. I don’t know; I find that a large part of being an artist is the craftsmanship of it – a lot of the time it comes down to making something with skill and delicacy, and with knowledge of your tools. If you leave that component aside, and talk about art in an overly airy way, I find it can make things inaccessible, and cause people to shut off.

    Thinking more about textures, another influence was a series of sculptures I saw years ago by Kara Walker at the Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn. She made these incredible sculptures out of molasses. She’s an African American artist, and her work focused on the slave laborers that led to sugar being a profitable resource; it was a really powerful theme – and one other element that stuck with me was the visual of the molasses itself; I loved that textural side of it, and that’s certainly something I wanted to incorporate in this project.



    First of all, I have to give credit to the artists in the Substance community who create sculptural materials for projects like this. Their work is inspiring, and there are some great tutorial videos out there. Also, there are some fantastic resources you can find or purchase online, like SBSARs that artists in the Substance community have created. This really helped me to see how they were able to transition some of these elements into 3D space, and to learn those techniques, while also incorporating some of my own workflows.

    As I mentioned, I didn’t have a fixed objective in mind for this project; it was more about the process, and about breaking the cycle of my transition from working in a big studio, to doing something more independent outside my comfort zone.

    I started out by looking at the Substance 3D Assets library. The shapes I use here are splash elements from the 3D Asset library – specifically some of their Static Liquid Splashes: Splash 01, Splash 04, Splash 05, Splash 07, and Splash 08. They’re listed in the library as water splashes, but they’re also abstract shapes in and of themselves. I love that we provide all these assets, but it’s also cool to look at these assets as being something other than they’re intended to be, and to use them in unexpected ways.


    Each different model in the project is inspired by a basic material. One is molasses, as mentioned above; a couple more are different types of Japanese porcelain, and one of them is more marble-based.

    So, I always start with a base material. Then, for this project, my first consideration was that the models of the splashes are very smooth – they’re meant to be water. So how do I transform this liquid to communicate a different material. I tend to take a very methodical approach, and break things down into steps. So, my first step in every case was to establish the micro detail and the height in Substance 3D Painter.

    At this stage, I completely ignored the color. Instead, I focused on the surface quality of each material – I’d try to pinpoint what quality made that material unique. For the molasses, for instance, it’s smooth when it dries, but there are still subtle waves in it. The porcelain, obviously, contains cracks of various sizes.

    After that, I’d focus on the roughness or specularity of the object. Where is it smooth? Where is it shiny? Is there a glass-like reflection anywhere in there? Is there bump or micro-detail in that reflection; does that need to be represented?

    And then, once all those details were in place, I just painted on color, and that part was fun. I’d guess that a lot of artists start with the color of their materials. That’s usually what I finish with, because if everything else is in place, you really have creative freedom with your color. It’s possible to lean too heavily on your color to try to get your materials to look like your references, when color isn’t really responsible for that. It’s those other elements.

    I can get really fixated on the details of different materials. I live near the Natural History Museum in New York; sometimes at the weekend I like to make my kids go with me to look at a gemstone exhibit there – the only people who go to see it are older people who like jewelry, and me and my kids. And I can really fixate on some of the fascinating materials in there. I’ve literally lost my kids in there a couple of times because I was so absorbed by the different materials.

    Staging and Rendering

    With Substance 3D Stager we have this powerful tool that not only renders but also integrates your models with real-world environments. When you look at a piece in scale it changes the feeling of it entirely – you can present them as being really massive, or tiny. Stager’s fantastic for that.

    When I first saw Stager I was blown away by how simple the UI was. Some rendering software I’ve used can do absolutely everything you need it to – but when you first open it up, there are a million buttons, and trying to use it is just tiring. Even as a computer-competent person, you need to go through tutorials, and have somebody showing you what to do before you can really start using it. The learning curve is incredibly steep. I’ve walked away from software like that time and time again.

    Stager is much more intuitive; a lot of its functionality is just dragging and dropping stuff where you want it to go. When I saw it, I kind of thought, ‘Why hasn’t rendering software always been like this?’ It’s a simple tool whose power is all under the hood; there isn’t much to master. It’s not a super-dense app at this point – there’s no animation; the detail control isn’t quite there yet – but it’s still growing, and for the basic functionalities, it’s strong and easy to use.

    I was planning from the start to use Stager for my renders for this project. The interconnectedness of the Substance 3D apps is a big help to me. I do a lot of my work in Painter; if I were rendering in, say, Maya, it’d be a fairly tedious process to send everything across to stage a scene. When I’m in my creative process, I’m very focused – I have headphones on, listening to music; I’m disconnected from any online distractions… And if I have to break that process to assign maps in my staging software, it’s a big problem.

    When I know that I’m going to set up my scene with Stager, I can just paint, paint, paint, paint, paint – and then send everything to Stager without losing focus. The whole thing takes less than 30 seconds.

    Another strength: Stager contains Adobe Sensei AI, the same AI that’s present in Photoshop. We leverage this in Stager to integrate 3D objects into photographic backplates very easily. Historically, this was a pain in the ass process – in college and grad school, I had whole assignments dedicated to integrating CG objects into real-world backplates. You had to learn how to position the camera just so; you had to match the lighting and ensure that the reflections of the environment were present on the object… You had to keep track of a lot of things. But with Stager the AI takes care of about 85% of that for you.

    As I mentioned, I wanted to play with scale and have these splash elements feel gigantic. With the AI, I was easily able to integrate them into some photographic images of different art galleries. In some cases, you have benches or other scale elements in the photos; these conveyed the feeling that the sculptures were immense. To integrate the models into the photos, I literally just clicked one button. In some cases, I made a tweak or two in addition to that, and then took the images into Photoshop to do a little light wrap, or edge blur, or color correct – just super-minor things. That’s all I did to get those images; they came together quickly.

    If I’d done that in other professional-level rendering software, the image would look roughly the same, but it would have taken five times longer.


    I’m a big proponent of completing projects. Once you’re into the grind of a project, I think it’s very easy to decide you just aren’t going to finish something, and to look for the next shiny new thing. But in this case, I wasn’t creating this artwork for a client – nobody but me cared that I was making it – so I had to be determined to push through and finish it. Whether it comes out good or bad, it’s a valuable learning experience.

    Also, I think that it’s just good practice as an artist to push yourself out of your comfort zone, and do something that you aren’t so familiar with. The types of materials I ultimately ended up working with never came up in my very cartoony background.

    And most importantly, a lot of people right now are interested in the metaverse, whatever that may end up being. And so there’s a big effort to digitize the world – we’re trying to take things that exist and make them in 3D; a lot of companies are trying to transfer their shoes or T-shirts or whatever into the metaverse. And that’s fine – but it also ignores one of the key strengths of 3D: you can create photoreal images of things beyond those that exist in the real world. You can create fantastical things that just wouldn’t work in reality. I live in a small Manhattan apartment; I could never make a massive, room-filling porcelain sculpture in reality. But working in 3D gives me that freedom of space, and freedom of material.

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