William “Proton” Vaughan – In The SpotLight


William, can you tell us a little about yourself, where you’re from?
Sure! Upon my release from a mental hospital following a nervous breakdown, I joined my friend Dignan, who was far less sane than myself. Dignan hatched a hare-brained scheme for a crime spree that involved his former boss, the (supposedly) legendary Mr. Henry. With the help of our pathetic neighbor and pal Bob, we pulled off a job and hit the road, where I found love with a motel maid named Inez.

…Actually, that’s the plot summary of Bottle Rocket, one of my favorite movies that was filmed in Texas where I was born, raised and lived most of my life.

I’ve since left Texas and I’m currently a Co-Owner and the Creative Director of AppleHead Factory, a design and toy studio based in Philly, as well as the Animation Director at World Wide Biggies in Manhattan. I live in South Orange, New Jersey and commute to Manhattan, which is an amazing daily experience that has no equal.

How did you first get introduced to 3D?
I was a major fan of Will Vinton Studios when I was growing up and followed their work closely. When they started getting into 3D, I started gaining interest as well. I went to school for design and illustration. Towards the end of my schooling another student started showing me his 3D work and suggested I start looking into it.

That student is now one of the best CG artists in the industry, so be sure to check out his work on his site: http://muharraqi-studios.com/ I think it’s wild that neither of us went to school for 3D but both ended up in this field using the same software. Khalid is an inspiration and I always enjoy seeing what he’s been up to.

I first became familiar with you when I started in LightWave, how long have you’ve been using it?
It’s been a little over 15 years now. Wow… I can’t believe I’ve been at this for so long, as it feels like only yesterday I was struggling with the concept of Inverse Kinematics.

I slowly introduced 3D into my workflow and tried to make it fit with every project that came through the doors at the multimedia studio I was working at. I learned LightWave on real projects with real deadlines. It was a sink or swim situation, and I think it helped speed up the learning curve. Within a six month time period, LightWave went from being a secondary application to my primary.

Paul Newman bust

What was some of the best advice someone gave you when starting in 3D?
The best advice I was given was simply to “Give LightWave a try”. I knew that Will Vinton was using LightWave at the time, but the entire industry in Houston was using 3D Studio release 3 or 4. Everyone I talked to told me that if I wanted to be a 3D artist, I needed to learn 3DS. I gave 3D Studio a go for about 2 weeks… and was pretty sure I was not cut out to be a 3D artist after that experience. I was very discouraged as I couldn’t model the type of character work I wanted to create. A friend of mine suggested LightWave and within 8 hours I had already created a character model and felt right at home. It was scary how different the two apps were for me.

Your nickname is Proton, where did that name come about?
I was given that nickname in school and it kind of stuck. One of my instructors told the class that he had never seen someone so “Positively Charged” and the students started calling me Proton as a way to make fun of me. I actually saw it as a positive and took on the nickname with pride.

Years later when I started joining online communities, no one was using their real names so I used Proton for my user name. Of course now it is more common to use your real name, so Proton has slowly faded into the background.

I’d suggest to anyone just getting started to save nickname’s for your games and use your real name in your career as it is important to sell yourself and build your brand. I can’t tell you how many people don’t realize that Proton is William Vaughan. I’d avoid that kind of confusion at all costs if I were to do it all over.

What other software do you use?
Anything I can get my hands on that will help me make my deadline. My main 3D applications are LightWave, Zbrush and Modo. I also use Photoshop and After Effects on a regular basis along with a collection of other applications that get used from time to time.

Over the last year I have found myself working more and more in After Effects and have really fallen in love with compositing. I have the same excitement level about compositing as I did during the early days of me getting into 3D.

What part of the 3D process do you like most; modeling, animating, texturing?
This is an easy one… Modeling. To be even more specific, character modeling. My day to day work involves being a generalist but the only freelance work that I take on these days is character related projects.

I would like to add that I have found being a generalist has made me a better modeler. I believe that until you experience the other aspects of production, you are modeling in the dark and missing out on ways to improve the functionality of a mesh, especially a character model.

I always suggest to artists that they should have a key skill that sets them apart from other artists, though it is still very important to be as familiar with all aspects of production as possible. It can only make you a more valuable team member.

What are some of the projects that you worked on?
I’ve been pretty fortunate to get to work on a variety of projects over the years. My work can be seen in all types of media like Children’s books, Print (Fortune, Macworld, Rolling Stone, Entertainment weekly, to name a few), Multimedia, Toys (Sculpted toys for Pokemon, Polly Pocket, Littlest Pet Shop and more), Commercials (Compaq, Care Bears and Sky Dancers), Games, and Film.

Kiss M&M's

Illustration by Joe Zeff Design at Splashlight

I’m a toy collector, so getting the opportunity to model Pokemon and Littlest Pet Shop toys for Varner Studios in LA was a real treat for me. (Cheesy segue in 3…2…1…) Speaking of treats, I recently worked on some of the celebrity m&m’s like the band Kiss and Brooks & Dunn while at Splashlight. A couple of months ago, I worked with Joe Zeff Design modeling hundreds of heads and faces for a website that allowed people to build mannequins that looked like themselves.

Brooks & Dunn M&M's

Illustration by Joe Zeff Design at Splashlight

Earlier this year I directed a pilot episode for Nickelodeon and I’m currently working on properties for SyFy and Spike in my role as Animation Director at World Wide Biggies. I look forward to being able to show some of the work soon. Until then, here are a few frames from the Nickelodeon pilot.

What was the most fun project you’ve worked on & why?
This is another easy question to answer. Getting to work with the amazing crew at Pixar on the animated short, “Partly Cloudy” is a tough one to beat. It was definitely a dream project getting to create a cast of characters for Pixar.

Partly Cloudy short animation
Copyright© Disney Pixar

If you would have asked me a few years ago whether I’d be working on a Pixar film or not I would have probably laughed at you. It’s an experience I’ll never forget. I keep going back and forth on which character model is my favorite but it changes every other week. This week it’s the Croc but last week it was the Ram.

Tell us about your time at The Dave School?
For several years, I was the Director of Industry Relations and Head of Curriculum at the Digital Animation and Visual Effects School at Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida. I have trained hundreds of students to become professional animators at major studios such as Rhythm and Hues, Digital Domain, EdenFX, Zoic and EA Sports ,to name a few. It’s an amazing feeling to watch a television show or movie and see one of the students names scroll by. Getting to see several of my students names at the end of Avatar was probably one of my favorite experiences.

I’ve always enjoyed teaching and I wouldn’t trade my time at the DAVE school for anything. I’ve become close friends with many of my students and I think it’s safe to say I learned just as much during my time there as they did…if not more. I have a passion for teaching and I can definitely see myself getting back into teaching at some point in the future.

Where did the idea of Tofu the Vegan Zombie come from?
I’ve been a Zombie fan since I first saw Night of the Living Dead and wanted to put my own twist on the genre. I love the idea of a friendly zombie that also has the risk of turning at any moment. The basic story of “Tofu” is he is a friendly zombie, created from a botched experiment in Professor Vost’s laboratory. Monkey # 5, one of Vost’s lab animals, stuffed a block of tofu into the zombie boy’s open skull after accidentally losing the brain. As a result, “Tofu” eats only vegetables and grains and has no taste for human meat. However, if “Tofu” ever loses his “tofu-brain”, he turns into a dangerous zombie creature, craving human flesh.

Tofu The Vegan Zombie

You can read the birth of it in the teaser comic that was released at Toy Fair a few years ago here.

Although I have created thousands of characters over the years, Tofu by far one my favorites. I’m drawn to the story and feel he has a lot more potential then what we’ve seen from this little guy. I loved him so much I had him made into a Vinyl toy a couple years ago, which was my first step into the toy industry and Applehead’s first vinyl toy.

You can watch the animated short, play a game and even add the toy to your collection by visiting the official site here.

What’s a normal work day for you like?
My days at Biggies are so random it’s hard to say. One day I might juggle three different properties/projects. I’m usually the first one to arrive at the office which allows me to tackle any last minute tasks before any morning meetings start. I’m lucky in that I get to work on character designs most of the time as well as develop show concepts with an amazing team of people that are passionate about developing Characters.

For lunch, my choices are endless although I keep ending up at a Thai restaurant at least once a week. New York offers any type of food within walking distance no matter where you are located.

By 6 o’clock, I’m off to Penn Station to start my commute home where I now have the time to get back into sketching. I’ve filled over 20 books since I’ve moved here and feel I’m starting to get my traditional skills back to where they were before I got into 3D.

You seem to like the cartoony style, have you always done that?
It’s why I got into 3D to begin with. What most people don’t know is that for the first 4 years of using 3D I mainly produced technical animation for the Oil and Gas Industry in Houston. That type of work afforded me the time and tools to hone my skills on character work which is where my true passion is.

I’m lucky enough now that I get to focus solely on character related work, which sometimes I feel is getting paid to play.

Whose work do you enjoy looking at and that inspires you?
The list is endless. I’m inspired by everything around me, from artists that are just getting started, to the masters with years of experience. I get inspired when I visit online galleries, head over to the Museum of Modern Art here in NY, or when I’m staring at my toy collection in my home office.

I get inspired by the artists that I work with as well. I recently had the opportunity to work with Glenn Southern, who is simply brilliant and brought an amazing amount of talent to a project we’re in pre-production on for SyFy. I also follow the work of Rocco Tartamella, an amazing toy sculptor that has mastered the art of wrinkles. I have an entire toy shelf dedicated to his work and anytime I’m looking for inspiration I just look over at his work.

I have hundreds of sites bookmarked that I visit on a regular basis for inspiration. Like I said… the list is endless.

How do you find the process of getting projects? Is it mostly referrals?
I used to get all my work from my personal website, but haven’t had one in years. That changed a month ago, when I launched pushingpoints.com. I haven’t really been out looking for work for many years as all of my freelance work has come from referrals.

The trick is to remember that the 3D industry is very small and word travels fast. Always do your best and do what is possible to take care of your clients. They’ll keep coming back and can become your primary sales tool as they will come back with new projects and will even send new clients your way.

I also try and stay very active in the community and have had over 150 articles published in magazines and online sites like HDRI3D, 3D World, Computer Graphics World, and more. All of those have been a big help in bringing in new clients and projects.

What do you like most about Lightwave & Modo?
Ease of use! It’s obvious that both of these tools have been created by teams that understand the way an artist thinks. I’ve used just about every 3D application out there and have yet to find anything that matches the ease of use of LightWave and Modo.

Ivan Character

You can read a small making of that I created for 3D total that talks about some of the things I love about Modo here.

I’m currently teaching an intern at work LightWave that has had a few formal years of Maya training in school, and it’s fun watching his expressions as he realizes how easy modeling really is with tools built with the artist in mind. Every application has its workflow and the trick is to find one that works the way you think. LightWave and Modo do this for me.

Where do you see the 3D market going?
It’s scary to think about sometimes.

I think we’ll continue to see smaller studios popping up which will increase the importance for artists to become proficient in all areas of production. This has been common for broadcast work for years but we’re already seeing more and more feature work being handled by smaller studios.

What do you attribute your longevity in the business to?

I’ve always tried to stay active in the community and keep up on not only the software, but the industry itself. I try and be extremely open to every opportunity to that comes my way which has afforded me some amazing experiences that I would have missed out on if I was close minded.

Keep in mind… I’m a Texan living in New York City! (said with my best Pace Picante accent) If you’re up for trying new types of projects in new locations then you’ll stay busy without question.

What are some of the challenges you’ve had in balancing family, fun & work?
I’ll be honest…. I’ve struggled for years and still don’t have the balancing act down, though I’m getting better at it. The problem for myself, and most people that I know in the industry, is that we get paid to do what we would do as a hobby, which makes it difficult to walk away from the work after a full day.

I also have so many things I want to accomplish outside of work ,that I never seem to find enough time to stay ahead with my personal projects. I’m without a doubt a workaholic, but I’ve changed up my schedule over the past year to allow for time with my grandson and my new interest in motorcycles. I recently got my motorcycle license and a Russian bike with a sidecar so that my dog Jack can hit the road with me. You can follow my ride reports here.

Jack in the sidecar

What advice would you give someone starting out in 3D?
Love it or Leave it!

If you don’t have a passion for this kind of work you’ll never last. Although I believe 3D is an easy thing to pick up, it requires a massive amount of time and patience. If you’re in it for a cushy job with a 9 to 5 schedule, you’re looking down the wrong career path. Don’t expect there to be a plug-in or script to do all the work for you. Sometimes the only way to accomplish a task is to muscle your way through it. Remember that knowing a piece of software isn’t as valuable of a skill set as problem solving. Hone your problem solving skills and you’ll be more valuable then someone that knows what every button does in a given piece of software.

Always remember that no one started creating Pixar/ILM quality work right out of the gate and that anyone can over time. Set realistic goals for yourself and take full advantage of all the free resources that are available online.

William, I have to say that I really enjoyed your responses and look forward to doing another interview in the near future, Thanks for you support and we look forward to seeing what comes next from you.

Thanks William!

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