They say do something that you love and you’ll never work a day in your life. No one knows that better than Merouane Zamouche. The Algeria-based former electronic engineer and indie game developer has been creating sci-fi-inspired 3D art since his teenage years, turning his passion for animation into a successful freelance career.
Read on as we pick Merouane’s brain on everything from how he comes up with original sci-fi concepts to how he launched his freelance business.
TurboSquid: Can you tell us about yourself and what got you interested in 3D art?
Merouane: I’ve been interested in world-building with computers since I first got my hands on one, around 2004. I was born in the 1990s and animations from that time are really inspiring to me. Particularly shows like Code Lyoko, Megaman NT Warrior, and Digimon Frontier.
I started off as an indie game developer, and my background as an electronics student made it easier for me to specialize in the technical programming side of things. I started to slowly learn 3D and saw I could make some extra bucks by selling my assets on TurboSquid. My freelance career really kicked off when clients started looking me up on the marketplace and asking for commissions.
We noticed a lot of science fiction work in your TurboSquid profile. What makes you enthusiastic about this genre?
I just feel at home surrounded by retro sci-fi and mecha anime from the 1980s and 1990s. My work is mostly inspired by favorite shows from childhood, as well as the incredible hard-surface artists that I follow. I feel that ever since artists started using sculpting software like ZBrush instead of traditional box modeling, it’s created an entirely new wave of 3D sci-fi. It’s great to see some artists really pushing the limits of what can be achieved.
One of these artists is Paul Dave Malla, who hugely contributed to the modern hard-surface style. Paul’s recent designs are really influential, largely because the time-lapsed tutorials he produces are famous across platforms like FlippedNormals and ArtStation. Another truly amazing artist that I follow is Marco Plouffe, who co-founded Keos Masons. I love how Marco’s characters communicate the stories behind them. One of my favorites is B.3.T.L from the Insectoids collection, where Marco gets straight to the point with a clear, bulky shape and color palette.
What does a typical day of work look like for you?
I feel so lucky to say that work is my therapy. I’m currently working on two projects at the same time, a video game and a YouTube Red series. Long-term projects take longer to finish and most of it is still under NDA, but you might find some hints as to how I’m spending my working day on my ArtStation page.
I have a little studio at home where I spend most of my day, usually working on characters, new concepts, modeling, texturing, rigging, or more technical things. An important part of my freelance work is also communicating with co-workers or clients throughout the day via chat or online meetings.
How do you keep focused on getting your work done while still feeling creative?
This is a very good question! I’m a naturally introverted person, so spending time on my own doing what I love is effortless for me. The problem, however, is that sometimes staying creative while treating this as a job you must do almost daily is tough. This is something most artists suffer from, and that’s why many of us like taking some time off to do personal projects.
To help, I remember the saying that “if I only had an hour to chop down a tree, I would spend the first 45 minutes sharpening my axe.” So, if I’m working on a post-apocalyptic sci-fi game, for example, I spend a lot of time watching movies and playing video games that help me indulge in that world and become inspired to create something that belongs to it! After all, that’s how artists work, we have to charge our inspiration batteries first, then create inspiring things.
How do you come up with new ideas?
That depends. If it’s a personal project, like my TurboSquid assets, it usually starts with me seeing something incredible and building something with those elements. A few days ago, for instance, I was listening to the audiobook of a great Arabic novel called Antichrist 2 by Ahmed Khaled Mustafa. Hearing descriptions of the biblical character Lilith, I started collecting references and can’t wait to start working on my next character.
My Pinterest board is another way I come up with new ideas. If I’m working on a game, animation, or film, I usually work with a concept artist and we discuss these ideas together until we come up with something new and incredible to put on screen.
Could you describe the workflow behind your favorite TurboSquid creation?
One of my favorite characters on TurboSquid is the Anthropomorphic Cat Robot. It was a personal project that I challenged myself to finish in under two weeks. The idea was a predator cyborg-like robot, inspired by the question, ‘what if Future Frieza from Dragon Ball Z was reincarnated as a robot?’
I started creating the concept directly in 3D using ZBrush. After creating a figure that I was satisfied with, I started adding minor details and different layers that would make up the robot body, from the inner skeleton through to the armor.
At this stage, it was important for me to ensure the character worked in 3D and nothing caused the armor to overlap or restrict its range of motion. After this, I always move my high-poly models into Maya or Blender to perform a full retopology by hand. This model was created for games, so I went with a low poly count of just 35K tris.
The next step is to give it a humanoid rig. In this case, I used a plugin called AutoRig Pro (ARP) to give it an Unreal Engine 4 mannequin rig and went straight to texturing the model in Substance 3D Painter. For texturing, I usually start by deciding what materials this particular model will be made of. That leads to splitting the model into separate parts for different textures. After creating the first layer of materials I’ll add details like wear, dust, oil leaks, or stickers depending on the story behind the character. For this character, it was steel with some slight battle damage.
For the final step, I brought everything back to Blender, making sure that the model met the TurboSquid CheckMate requirements. Finally, I made some cool renders of my final result. For this, I typically either use Blender Cycles or V-Ray with 3ds Max. My lighting setup is pretty simple, I like using HDRIs and doing some light post-processing in Photoshop.
What do you wish you’d known about modeling earlier in your career?
That specializing is key to becoming a master. You can’t be a jack of all trades, master of none in this field because it’s very competitive. I love modeling characters, so professionally I have chosen to specialize in creating them.
What is most exciting about the 3D industry’s future?
Sometimes it feels crazy to be a 3D artist right now. Things are moving very fast and it can be hard to keep up. From 3D scanning, VR, and AR to 3D printing and NFTs, it’s difficult to predict what’s around the corner. One thing is clear though, the use of 3D is increasing every day.
I always get briefs from clients that open my mind to new opportunities that I never thought about, such as creating avatars for VR streamers. It’s truly amazing, especially now that many huge companies are investing in metaverse projects. I’m excited to see how that will turn out, it’s going to be an immense opportunity for 3D artists to shine.
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