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In Conversation with a Digital Art Star

A Digital Art Star shares an unabashedly candid and sincere account on his experience and his gigantic following on social media.

Michael’s massive social media profile and ground-breaking work make him one of the most influential 3D artists around. When he isn’t sharing the method behind the magic of his work on YouTube, Michael is the Director of Character, Weapon, and Vehicle Art at Certain Affinity in Austin, TX. He specializes in 3D concept art pipelines for video game franchises including Halo, Call of Duty and DOOM.

Can you tell me about yourself and why you wanted to be in animation design?

Like many around my age, Star Wars and movies like it were a big inspiration, as well as cartoons and toys marketed directly to my adolescent brain (He-Man, Transformers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, etc…), but the real one-two punch was seeing the CG in Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park — watching and reading about how it was made, realizing you could be employed making dinosaurs come to life digitally, was mind-blowing.

On the game side, on-rails 3D games like The 7th Guest and Myst were another early introduction to “digital” entertainment that I found endlessly entertaining, less about the gameplay or mechanics, but more about experiencing a 3D world which at the time felt totally immersive, even at 640×480 with a limited color palette. On the “3D-ish” sprite-based side, I spent countless hours playing games like Doom, Mortal Kombat, and Earthworm Jim, which eventually gave way to more actual 3D experiences like Mario 64 and Goldeneye. This is probably where my game playing peaked, as well as cementing the idea that I might actually be able to make a living creating 3D experiences!

How do you explain your extensive social media following?

I’m not really sure exactly, but if I had to hazard a guess it would be having consistent content that people find interesting. Although truth be told, I’m anything but consistent, and my content being interesting is certainly up for debate. I’d say “traditional” compelling video production, the “human” element, like me on camera talking, or having my face on every YouTube thumbnail, I’m absolutely terrible at. I’m also not great at doing video markup, spamming clickable links, reminding people to smash that like and subscribe button, and remembering to post something worthwhile on Twitter/Instagram/Facebook/LinkedIn/etc…


Truck collision scene utilizing many of the new features in ZBrush 2021, including dynamic simulation


Do you have a personal definition of what “talent” is in animation and 3d design?

For sure, and for any other field I’d imagine — practice, more practice, and then even more practice. I should say at least that’s the case for me personally — anything I do that elicits a “wow that’s really amazing” reaction from anybody is most certainly a product of what they didn’t see: countless hours of practice, embarrassing mistakes, stumbling into solutions accidentally, reading and watching endless tutorials and product guides, and taking notes on all of it because I’ll immediately forget the vast majority of what I’m learning.

On top of all that, my editing room floor is littered in video snippets of me being the opposite of amazing — even while doing things I’m relatively good at. I guess you could say my personal talent is smoke and mirrors, tricking people into thinking I might have talent. I’m endlessly jealous of anybody who can learn, apply technique, and absorb information without doing everything else above — that’s what I spend the vast majority of my time doing, and oftentimes it’s pretty painful!

What trends do you currently observe?

That’s a tough one, since the industry (gaming) is in a constant flux between an evolutionary maturing of the medium (it’s still pretty new compared to other forms of entertainment!), coupled with revolutionary tools, workflows, pipelines, hardware, and other technology that can make you a dinosaur literally overnight if you’re not careful. The easy answer right now would be procedural, AI, and machine learning solutions, but I’m sure in a few years that will be the answer equivalent of a jorts and mullet combo — the same with any trends I might have talked about 1, 5, or 10 years ago that are “ancient” history by now!

How do you see the future in this industry trend wise and people’s view and appetite for the Job?

I don’t think people will stop wanting to make movies or tv shows or video games, and using my unaccredited crystal ball, I’d imagine that demand will only increase over time. I was hoping AR and VR would have made a bigger impact by now, since I think there’s tremendous potential for 3D jobs and applications that go far beyond “just” entertainment, and I do think we’ll get there, but for now we’ll have to settle for what we have currently.

What makes an artist want to invest in hardware and tools?

For me, it’s knowing how much more fulfilling creation can be with the right tools. Yes, you can carve a statue out of marble with a pair of brass knuckles, and you could probably get some Instagram followers with that technique, but having a good set of tools can turn a potentially grueling task into something riveting for the artist, something that will get you in the zone and problem solving for the moment, iterating toward perfection (or, as close as you can get within reason), and not constantly fighting the medium.

There’s a few things that can make creating something a real pleasure — working knowledge of what you’re making, coupled with an intrinsic design sensibility you’ve honed over the years, along with a good set of tools developed specifically to allow you to focus on the task at hand, and finally the workflow for using those tools gained from prior experience that will allow you to put those tools to good work, in the right order, to facilitate the polished completed asset.

What problems do tools like the SpaceMouse Enterprise solve?

In development, especially asset creation, you often don’t get the luxury of using one 3D program with one method of navigation — from 3D poly modelers to applications specializing in UVs or retopology, to cloth simulation programs to particle effects to renderers to game engines to cad modelers to material and texture programs…you’re probably looking at at least 2 or 3 completely different methods of navigation in any given day. Having the ability to use a single navigation tool that is as intuitive as turning, rotating, and moving an object in your hand can make transitioning between applications much less clunky.

Even 2D navigation programs like Photoshop, Substance Designer, even Miro and Whimsical, could benefit from a 3D navigation input — you still move, rotate, and zoom, only now you don’t have to think if you need to hold down control, alt, shift, left mouse, right mouse, middle mouse, or any number of combinations!


Demo project created using many new features found in ZBrush 2020, including XTraction brushes and Morph UV painting


What do they help achieve?

Freedom of movement, and freedom to put more of your brain toward creating rather than having to stumble through your muscle memory searching for the correct navigation input depending on what 3 or 4 programs you might open that day!

What do you have to say about the younger generations, people graduating from schools and how they view this field? Do they approach work differently from older generations?

Tools and processes have changed quite a bit since I started, but at the end of the day the job is still mostly problem solving, finding elegant solutions for creating a compelling product, and balancing time and quality. Since this is an ever evolving (and again, sometimes revolutionary!) field, problem solving will remain one of the more important parts of your work, so maintaining a balance of heads-up development in regards to new tools and workflows, and a heads-down mastery of technique will continue to be important.

As far as I’ve seen, younger generations are just as good if not better than older generations at this, the only thing older generations have on them is technical experience — some of which may or may not be relevant still — and mileage, both in terms of shipping product, pitfalls, communication, and aesthetic practice and execution. But, that comes with time, something younger generations don’t have under their belt just yet!