For his Gnomon Workshop, artist Ehsan Bigloo combines Persian history, fine art, and his movie industry experience. Find out more about what to expect from his video tutorial.
Iran, the 1980s. Ehsan Bigloo slips a recorded tape into his parents' Betamax machine, which was forbidden under Iranian law at the time. The young boy is whisked behind the scenes of Hollywood's best creature features: Alien, Star Wars, E.T., The Thing, Aliens, and Predator. Inspired, he starts sketching, drawing on the documentary and his parents' love of films and storytelling.
"I drew animals a lot, in ferocious acts or with hideous deformities," Ehsan says. "My teacher told my mother that there must be something wrong with me! My mom was worried and showed my drawings to the psychologist. He said, actually, this is really good; you have to encourage him.
Special makeup effects, especially Rick Baker’s work on Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” really influenced me. I even started to do prosthetics on my family or friends using paint, bread, and tubes to mimic transformations."
And so began a 30-year journey that's taken him to Los Angeles, and the prestigious Aaron Sims Creative, where he's created incredible creatures for movies and TV series including The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, Prey, and Men In Black: International.
Now, Ehsan presents a guide to creature creation with "Div," a 215-minute Gnomon Workshop in which he breaks down creating an unsettling demon from Persian mythology – with touches of fine art and cinematic magic.
The Gnomon Workshop: What's one piece of advice you would give yourself if you could go back in time?
Ehsan Bigloo: I would tell myself to draw, paint, and sculpt more with traditional media. I was very active in traditional media and then went to digital, then back to traditional media and then entertainment. It's definitely a good idea to start in a traditional medium and transfer to digital.
TGW: How did it feel to be invited to do the Gnomon Workshop?
EB: The Gnomon Workshop library has been my Mecca of learning. I still have the early DVDs, even Alex's workshop. There are so many great artists that I consider as my mentors, and it's great to be among them.
TGW: You based your workshop on an ancient demon. How did you come up with the idea?
EB: Div is a completely personal project based on the history, philosophy, literature, culture, and the country I was born in: Iran. It was important to me because I'm developing my own IP based on Shahnameh, a 10th-Century epic poem by master poet Ferdowsi.
I figured I'd do one of the demons, Div, but adapt it to my own story. The character is three millennia old, and it's against everything joyful, and he's trying to corrupt the human race, and anyone who gets close destroys his soul. But this is a Gnomon Workshop tutorial, not a philosophy class, so I approached it as I would a film or TV series: with a brief from the writers.
TGW: Why did you choose a humanoid character for this workshop?
EB: I didn't want it to be a creature with 10,000 tentacles because, for reference, I always go to Renaissance-type drawings and paintings. Michelangelo is top of my list, but I also look at Dutch golden age, Venetian, and Spanish Baroque artists, and German etchers and draftsmen, My references included Hieronymus Bosch, Albrecht Dürer, Pontormo, Gustave Dore, Tintoretto, Diego Velázquez, Rembrandt, and Anders Zorn. I prefer to use books for reference, not Google!
I amalgamate all of my influences with a cinematic look, then I started to sketch and recorded it for the workshop.
TGW: What are some of the things you must consider when creating something like "Div?"
EB: Characters or creatures don't make sense without the environment. Even the color palette in your environment will dictate that creature's skin. Look at nature, the best design teacher; even a frog perfectly suits its environment.
If I know it's going to be in a film, there are more things to consider. How many seconds will it be on-screen? What kind of lens are they going to use? I like to take a photo of my monitor with my iPhone to see my character through another layer, another lens. Then I flip or reverse the image and work out how to convey the mood based on the script.
But the most important to me is the story behind the character. Why is this creature there? Why do we have that? Look at Alien. What's the story of the Xenomorph? Obviously, esthetically, H.R. Giger created an amazing design, but there's also the story behind it.
Every part of Div's anatomy has a story, even his elbow. Why does the elbow look like that? Maybe 900 years ago, in the Crusades, he started to shape his elbows to overcome something in Jerusalem, like a trophy. This is the language I live with. I love to play with these things. I love symbolism.
If you look at Div, I can tell you a story behind each part of it. The head shape looks a little bit religious. Why does it have that kind of mask? It looks ancient Mesotopian, or maybe Roman, or Persian. I don't want to show all; I don't want to tell all. I leave it to you to come up with your own judgment, and I enjoy that mystery. But there should be a reason for everything, even the shape of its fingers.
TGW: Can we get into the technical process of the workshop?
EB: The first step is just coming up with the idea, doodling around with whatever traditional medium you have. I could have done it in Procreate or Painter and Photoshop; I'm very well versed with all of them, but I prefer to use a traditional medium because there is this energy released from the pen and pencil.
I recorded myself drawing for two or three chapters, and by the second or third chapter the character started to take shape and I felt like the design was there. I brought it to Photoshop, cut it out, prepared it, and then went to ZBrush for organic modeling.
In ZBrush, it's important to get primary, secondary, or tertiary forms right. Think about silhouette, balance, line, and values. A really useful ZBrush feature is Fog, which I use for lighting. It's not really accurate like Unreal or Keyshot, but it shows the character is coming out of the fog, and it helps to establish the mood and communicate and sell the idea.
Because I knew at the end of the workshop I was going to put it in Unreal, I started to sculpt around it. Most of the time I sculpt one part. I fix my camera in ZBrush, and I don't move it. I don't sculpt in 3D; it looks like 3D, but I lock my camera and sculpt that part, because I know I will look at it from that angle. This approach means that even at the very earliest stage, I know how it will end up as a composition.
Then I put it in Keyshot. I like Keyshot because it doesn't care if you have a UV or not. Sometimes I send my DynaMesh with holes. I play with different lighting scenarios, using an HDR. And I like a split type of lighting a lot. Even in the poster, the middle character has a split type of lighting, one on the left, and one on the right. I like to break the rules, especially when it comes to lighting.
Then I bring everything from KeyShot to Photoshop, and that's my favorite part. I start to hand paint over the character and do the comp.
I decided the character had a mask. And this mask is a part of the bones, and this character doesn't have a soul. Maybe the mask is part of it. If it doesn't have a soul, why does it have eyes? Eyes are the windows to the soul. And I started to paint it in ZBrush, the texture.
Your workshop ends with the character in Unreal Engine. Could you tell us about your experiences with Unreal?
EB: When I was first asked to play with Unreal Engine, I opened it and said, "this gives me a headache!" and I closed it immediately. It seemed too technical for me. But I tried it again with one of the creatures I created for "Dive," an Aaron Sims Creative short film. The first time I saw the lighting, I said, "oh my god, that's the real lighting." It's so close to reality; the bouncing, the photons. I've never got the reflect light or bounce light that I wanted in KeyShot, even though I know it's possible. But in Unreal, the lighting is just there.
TGW: What's been the proudest moment of your career?
EB: All of them!
But I couldn't have done it without the love and encouragement my parents Soosan and Abdi gave me. And I must thank my current art editor, Sarah, who is also my wife!
Dive deep into character design with Ehsan’s workshop, and take a look at Gnomon Workshop’s library of creature and character tutorials.
Want to see more of Ehsan’s incredible work? Check out his website. Plus, tune into Gnomon School's live event on March 9, 2023 — or if you're in Los Angeles, attend the event and meet Ehsan in person! RSVP to secure your seat.
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