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Digital Tools Transform Film Characters from Concept to Reality

The best special-effects makeup artists aren’t just doing a job – they’re creating living, breathing works of art. Rayce Bird, winner of Syfy’s Face Off competition plies his trade with his combined knowledge of 3D design, sculpting, casting, molding and prosthetics and his Wacom Cintiq 24HD.

Bird’s work focuses creating characters for films, video games and other projects. Some of these concepts eventually give birth to practical effects in films, while others stay in the virtual world as video game characters or CG creatures. But no matter what the end product is, Bird says working in a digital environment has transformed what he does.

Pen Tablet Eases the Pressure to Produce

“I’ll get a call from a studio or game design company, and they’ll describe a rough idea to me. Then I’ll sit down with a Wacom Cintiq 24HD and do as many as 10 or 20 renditions of a character,” Bird said. “I’ll knock out these sketches – usually with Photoshop – send those to the studio, and figure out what they like. Sometimes that requires a mix of two or three different concepts. It’s a dance between you and the client as you try to figure out what the character is going to look like.”

For Bird, the most impressive part about his current creative process is just how quickly it allows him to work. “Concept art is all about speed – there are times when a director wants something the same day. I’ll aim to have a set of sketches ready in four or five hours, and sometimes that makes the difference. If you can hit those crazy deadlines, they’ll come back for more. If you can’t, maybe they’ll go somewhere else.”

That pressure to perform, Bird said, was an issue when his workflow didn’t include a Wacom pen tablet. “My old workflow was to sit there with a piece of paper – sketch out something, scan it in, put it into Photoshop and then fumble around with my little mouse. Honestly, it was probably easier just to paint the whole thing by hand.”

Bird’s clients can quickly mark up the sketches he sends them, speeding up effective dialogue between the artist and the client.

Behind the Mask with Photoshop and Pressure Sensitivity

In August 2013, Bird got a call from one of Adobe’s design engineers who wanted to create something special to get Adobe out in front of the many creative artists who gather at Comic-Con. He commissioned Bird to create an eye-catching, live “aristocratic” werewolf character that would generate buzz at Adobe’s booth.

“First, I always talk with clients about the character’s background,” said Bird. “That conversation translates into the details that end up being in the mask—and even the mood and the directional flow of some of the face shapes.”

Using Wacom’s Cintiq 24HD Interactive Pen Display and working in Photoshop, Bird quickly worked up dozens of images of the proposed character and sent off the ones he liked best.

“For these preliminary sketches, I’ve got my pen size jitter, opacity and flow set to the pressure sensitivity so the pen feels just like a pencil,” noted Bird. “Doing 20 or 30 sketches in a day is no big deal, because I’m just focusing on forms and shapes.”

After they narrowed down the focus, Bird free-sketched several more finished shapes to include details like fur, hands, fingers and ears.

As the final image came into focus, Bird created “beauty shots” of the character in dynamic poses. He began by creating a dark gray silhouette and blocking in various shades of gray. Finally, he added lighter gray highlights and even lighter gray blocks to indicate light source.

“If you start with the black and the grays, then you’re already putting value in,” said Bird. “Then I use Photoshop to overlay colors and manipulate them with the multiply filter or other modes. That will lay color within those gradients and makes it easy to be sure your picture is complete.”

Aristocratic Werewolf by Rayce Bird

Once his client approved the beauty sketch, Bird was ready to go on to the sculpting, modeling and makeup creation process. He knew the beauty sketch satisfied the client’s objective and would be practical to build and make up.

By using his Wacom Cintiq for the concept creation stage, Bird makes sure all the experiments and changes are tied down, which translates into money and time saved in the build.

“I don’t have to worry about there being any issue when I build the character. I’m good to go,” he said.

“In the world of makeup, sometimes they do make changes even after they signed off,” Bird admitted. “But with these digital painting tools, it’s so much easier to make these changes rather than re-sculpt something. You talk about time being money.”


At Comic-Con, Rayce Bird holds the latex-based mask base as he prepares to bring it to life on the model.


The snout/mouth prosthetic is applied once the mask is fitted to the model’s head.


Bird poses with the impressive finished product.


Comic-Con fans got a big kick out of the sexy aristocratic werewolf character Rayce Bird created for Adobe’s booth.