A chat with MoGraph, illustration, and comics artist Paul Caggegi. We touch on his artistic journey, balance between projects and family, and developing add-ons for Blender.
Hi Paul, how are you? What have you been up to lately?
Good thanks – and extremely busy this month! I’m currently working on an 8 page comic titled “Interwoven” . It’s written by my good friend Tara Naval, and will be published by Forward Comix in early 2020 as part of the Gwan Anthology Volume 2. I am also illustrating a number of comic strips for BMW to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Mini Cooper; continuing to produce strips for Homebased, and also preparing video tutorials for my YouTube channel and Patreon.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
Certainly. I’m a freelance motion graphics designer, illustrator, and video editor from Sydney Australia. I’m also a Stay-at-home parent, tending to the whims of my two daughters – one school age, one still in daycare. Between school drop-offs and pick-ups, household chores, and family stuff, I use my spare time to focus on my illustration and motion graphics work – both personal and freelance. I run a Patreon and Youtube channel dedicated to teaching people how to use Blender for their own comics projects. I also write and illustrate a web comic named Homebased.
What was your first exposure to art and how did that impact you?
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when, but I can tell you early morning cartoons – Voltron, Astroboy, Mysterious Cities of Gold – certainly had an impact. Later on I discovered comics. We were moving house, so I spent a bit of time over at my grandfather’s while my dad was renovating. One of my uncles had left his vintage comic collection behind, and I spent my hours immersed in titles such as Fantastic Four, The Spirit, and Heavy Metal. In high school, I began to collect my own comics – X-Men were my main title – but I also sought out smaller, independent titles. I was a huge fan of The Maxx, and Gen 13, for instance. I loved the work of artists such as Joe Maduriera, Jean Giraud Moebius, Richard Corben, Sam Keith, and Chris Bachalo. I was never the sporty or social type,. I’d rather spend my time just drawing, reading, creating.
Take us through your creative journey.
After graduating from UWS Nepean, it took a while to get any sort of employment. I lectured for a couple years until I landed my first editing job at a small outfit called Digital Empire (now folded into Steam: Motion & Sound) where I cut hundreds of promos, TVCs, showreels and EPKs for clients as diverse as entertainment procurement agencies, to games promoters. I went freelance in 2008, and soon after, I signed up to RMK – a talent agency that would take care of work bookings.
Around 2010, I began my own comic – Pandeia. I made some really great contacts in the web comics community, and eventually this led to creating a number of shorter work for several anthologies. Of course, family life is extremely demanding, and comics work is slow. I wanted to continue to produce work, but I needed to be judicious about the kind of work I could produce, given my current constraints. So a couple of years ago, I began to produce a series of comic strips based on my experiences as a Stay-at-home-dad. This was a project that allowed me to still be creative, but the content was quick to produce, inspired by what was dominant in my life, and could be shared almost as soon as each strip was completed. Homebased has now been running as a web-comic for a little over two years. In that time, I took on an editor to help me with some of the writing/pacing. The strip is nearing 100 and is just about ready for a collected edition.
You have been doing a lot of different things, motion graphics, vfx, comics so I guess it’s fair to say that you’re a very curious person. How do you keep up with those skills?
I am always working, in some capacity – I can’t help it! Even when relaxing, I’m asking questions of the world around me, and figuring out ways to incorporate what I see into my work. If I am commuting, or am waiting for my kids to get ready, I am either drawing in a sketchbook, watching a youtube video on the area I need to hone my skills, or if I’m doing chores or I’m at the gym, I’m listening to a podcast (my current favorites are The Corridor Cast and Comics Lab).
What are some of your favorite artists and works on any medium and why?
One of my favorite artists is Joe Maduriera. I first encountered his work in X-Men, and he was one of the few artists I followed out of that title to other work he did. I just loved his style. With an obvious Manga influence, his characters have impossible proportions – huge torsos, small hips, enormous arms, tiny heads – and yet they work. They are so emotive. He carried that style across platforms into video games – he worked on concept art for World of Warcraft and later Darksiders. His most recent work was on Battle Chasers: Nightwar.
Other artists tend to be either personal friends, others working in the field, and very often both. I follow the work of Steve Ogden – he’s a senior artist at Firaxis Games, and the mind behind Magnificatz. I also follow the work of Julien Kaspar – a 3D sculptor at the Blender institute, and my good friend Hjalti Hjalmarsson, an animator who recently won an award for the Blender short film, “Spring”.
Take us through your career. What have the ups and downs, key learnings, things that made you a better artist?
My career has never been roadmapped – as much as I would have liked to have had some sort of plan. Too many external pressures existed which seem to push me in one direction or another. Case and point: in my first job, I was hired as a video editor, but my boss required I produce motion graphics for much of the work. My boss literally threw the After Effects manual at me and barked “learn it” so I dedicated some time each day to learning After Effects, and applied several effects to my work. It was so often the case that I gained a new skill or learned a new program through trouble-shooting!
More recently, the pressures of raising a family have brought new challenges. For many years, I was freelancing, and tabling at various comic conventions. This is all very time-consuming. When I opted to become the stay-at-home parent, I had to limit what I said yes to. This was a very powerful learning experience. I only had so much time each day to dedicate to my career. I had to be brutal in how I approached projects. So I had to stop taking bookings from RMK which required long commutes and long hours. I quit the comics convention circuit. I also quit producing long-form comics. I drew up a list of what I could reasonably focus on given my new constraints. I said goodbye to a lot of stuff and it hurt, but what I did focus on got much more attention – both from me, and from the audience that grew around it. While technically I wasn’t seeking these projects for money, I didn’t want to rely on my wife’s income to sustain them. Thus the choice to start a Patreon came about. Between Patreon, Gumroad and Youtube, I earn enough to sustain my activities, and to me, that’s a measure of success.
Can you tell a bit about some of the best advice you received during your career so far, either from colleagues or elsewhere?
This one is easy. From the late Archie Goodwin, and passed on to me by my good friend, Jason Badower: A potential employer/client looks for three things in this order: Be nice, be reliable, then be talented. What he meant by that is nobody wants to work with an asshole. An employer will choose somebody with 80% of the skills who can deliver a project to an acceptable standard and be a pleasure to work with, over a shit-hot primadonna who is constantly blowing deadlines, hoping to ride on their reputation. Be nice. Be reliable. Get your skills up to an acceptable level, but know your skills will improve over time.
What have been your most difficult struggles and how did you overcome them?
A few years ago, I was diagnosed with clinical depression. it’s pretty common, and you’ll hear a lot of artists talk about their struggles with mental health.
For me, it impacts so many areas of my life. And there are so many triggers! An offhand trolling comment on the youtube channel; an argument with a friend; the news of a mass shooting – anything can kick off a downward spiral. Once I’m heading down one, working becomes hard. I go into survival mode. I turn robotic. I am barely able to go through a daily routine – get up, brush teeth, get kids ready, do chores – and I can’t think straight. My mind is totally occupied with doing what is needed. I quickly forget things, so I write a to-do list. I’m entirely focused on the next step I have to take.
I don’t know if “overcoming” is the right word exactly… more like managing? I try and look after my health. I go to the gym about 3-4 times a week. I see a therapist who helps me with coping strategies. I use an app to track my daily activities and mood. When I’m riding a high, I do all the prep work – the writing, the thumbnailing, the creating. If I feel that I’m about to go into a funk, I set up work I can do robotically: file compression, social media posting, those sorts of tasks.
Of course there are times when nothing works. I don’t get to the gym. I spend my therapy sessions either silent or endlessly talking about every little thing that has pissed me off. Some days I can’t get any work done at all, and I have to physically force myself to take a break and make plans to begin the work on a set day so that I know this isn’t indefinite.
You are very active with personal projects particularly comics, how does that benefit you in terms of personal development?
My routine on any given weekday allows for one or two hours in which I can focus on actual work. These sorts of time constraints give me a focus I’ve not had before because if I procrastinate or choose to do something other than what’s on the agenda, I will fall behind.
This has had a huge impact on my personal development as a creative. I need to be active, I need to make those hours count. I look for times in my day when I can actively learn or be inspired, and incorporate that into what I have to do.
Artists can be inspired by many different things. Where do you get inspired and how do you process those into your own ideas, concepts, and designs?
For my tutorial content, I began with a brief: how do I simulate a 2D style using 3D software? I read a lot of comics, and I am constantly thinking about how I could recreate certain scenes or looks, and if it is a simpler process for me than just drawing them. It test it out, and if it works, I can create a tutorial with a working file for others to watch, download and play around with. Now that I’ve been running my Patreon and YouTube channels for a couple years, it’s the subscribers and supporters themselves who are often sending me suggestions. If they fit the brief, I consider them and research a future tutorial.
For Homebased, my wife and kids will say or do things which trigger some idea that I can then incorporate into a short comic strip.
For your own projects, can you take us through your pipeline/workflow? What software and hardware do you use in each step and why? How has this flow changed over the years?
For any comic, it begins with an idea. The moment I get one, I write it down on my phone – I use a note-taking app called Wunderlist (it’s cloud based and syncs to the PC version for later referral). Next, I will sketch the outline as a thumbnail sequence directly in Clip Studio Pro. I’ll add preliminary text, and save out a draft JPEG. I upload this to a shared dropbox folder ready for my weekly production meeting with Jason. He will offer changes, suggestions, tell me what is working and what isn’t. I’ll take notes, then go back to edit the strip outline and text further. I then draw the pencils, inks and tones. If any complex elements need building, I will construct them in Blender, shade them and render out the asset to composite back in Clip Studio. I will then resend the final to the editor for sign off. I then prepare versions for the website, instagram and Webtoons, upload them, and finally share them on social media.
For tutorial work, I first have to come up with the concept I wish to teach. I try and distill it down to just one or two points to cover – no point in overwhelming the audience. I will do a quick run through in Blender, see if I can get all the steps right myself, then when I am ready, I set up my webcam, microphone and screen capturing software, then talk right through the process, recording everything. I then do a quick edit in DaVinci Resolve, and while it’s compressing and uploading to YouTube for scheduled release, I produce the thumbnail, write a Patreon post, and often contact a relevant blog to publish an article about it at a later date.
The flow has evolved over the years – mainly because of the software being used, for instance, I moved from Premiere to DaVinci Resolve to cut overhead costs of production. I once used Photoshop for the comics, but found that Clip Studio took a lot of the set up legwork out of the process – plus it was a one-off purchase, and not an on-going subscription. Part of the process is often trialing new software, but the benchmark will always be: can this program be as good or better than what I am currently using?
Almost always, an artist is part of a team. In your eyes, what are the factors that separates a regular artist from a great one in terms of working together?
While I haven’t worked in a studio environment for some time, I do work with an editor on Homebased. I also interact with my Patreon supporters in a semi-professional way. Many artists – including myself – are introverts. Introverts feel drained by interaction, and recharged by solitude. Yet we need to learn to collaborate. The one factor above all is a willingness to listen, and take criticism. Don’t be too precious about your work. Not every piece is going to be a showcase. Sometimes it is just a job. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.
Can you share how it’s like being part of a studio? Do the creative boundaries set by higher-ups make it more challenging? And how do you get your voice heard?
My studio experience was a real grind. I learned a lot, I tried to make every job exciting, but often it was a paint-by-numbers jigsaw puzzle of media assets to be assembled, transferred to tape and sent to broadcast. My boundaries weren’t so much creative, but rather technical: trouble-shooting problem shots that couldn’t be recaptured; flattening photoshop files so that after effects could render faster on cheaper computers – that sort of thing. Boutique post houses were trying to compete with bigger studios on a budget.
If there is one character, full feature, or short that you wish you have made, what would it be and why?
If there was one, it would be The Expanse. My early drafts of Pandeia dealt with similar themes, and I wanted to inject some science fact into the distopian future I had written, but they did it way better!
You also created the Manga Shader for Blender. How long have been working with Blender? What made you decide to create that shader?
I’ve been working with Blender for almost 20 years. I discovered it when searching for 3D software to incorporate into my motion graphics pipeline.
I wanted to produce comics quickly and more efficiently, without losing quality in the detail. I was better with modelling assets in 3D than I was at laying out perspective lines, drafting and inking scenes and assets. I asked myself the question “can I produce a convincing renders from 3D which would meld seamlessly with my 2D work?” Toon-shading – or NPR as it’s more affectionately known – is a vast area which addresses this problem. There have been some great effects produced by some talented artists, but very little in the way of comics. So I began creating procedural textures for my own comics, and eventually streamlined that into a small collection of self-contained nodes which could be easily applied, combined and customized to produce a comic-style render. I use this shader in my own work, and I’ve made it available to others via Gumroad.
What are your personal goals for the next two to five years?
Things move so quickly, – my girls are growing up and will need less attention, for example, and that would naturally allow me to focus more time and energy on my work. I have a few goals in mind. I’d like to publish Homebased in a collected edition, preferably through a mainstream publisher. If Patreon and Youtube are still a thing in five years, I’m hoping I will have grown my audience to a point where my income from those streams could sustain a small expansion, mayber I could take on a little help. Maybe I wouldn’t have to seek out work, but could run my little business right from the home studio!
After a week of hard work, where is the one place you go to relax and just enjoy free time?
I do like gaming, even though I am limited in what I can play because most games these days give me headaches and motion sickness – I don’t know why. It’s something I can do when the kids go to bed, and my wife wants to enjoy her own shows. So I’ve currently dived back into No Man’s Sky – it’s so zen, and it got a sweet update recently. I enjoy the Fallout games – FO4 is probably my favorite still – and occasionally I’ll jump back into classics like Mass Effect, the Myst Series… or even play some Diablo III online with friends – we can kick butt and just talk crap all night over the headsets.