From draftsman to Spider-Man: Heavypoly and his unlikely path to 3D

From draftsman to Spider-Man: Heavypoly and his unlikely path to 3D

What does Titanic director James Cameron, NBA superstar Kobe Bryant, and 3D artist Vaughan Ling--a.k.a Heavypoly--have in common?

An Oscar award.

Yep, Heavypoly is indeed a heavyweight in the world of 3D. His input to the dazzling visual feast that is Spider-man: Into The Spider-Verse is nothing short of a landmark achievement not just in 3D but in all of the visual arts. It was like a comic book come to life in the most spectacular way. Putting it into words is kind of useless, actually. It’s simply something nobody’s ever seen before. In case you have been living under a rock, check out the trailer here.

Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse
Uncle Aaron's Apartment - Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse

And Vaughan is by no means a one-hit-wonder. His work for the episode called The Witness in Netflix’s Love, Death & Robots with his mentor Alberto Mielgo calls to mind a similar aesthetic as Spider-Verse but also different. No, not just different. Evolved. At some points in the episode you’d think you are watching live-action footage but then some sequence or transition or shot happens and you go, “That can’t possibly be real life. But it’s awesome.” The Witness is jaw-droppingly beautiful, with a narrative that’s as mesmerizing as the visuals. Get a sneak peek here:

So how did Heavypoly reach this level of success? The way he tells it in his characteristically self-effacing and humble way, he’d say it is pure luck.

It all started back when he was finishing an internship in Los Angeles, USA. He was about to head back home from LA when, out of nowhere, he got an email from concept artist Annis Naeem, offering him a job with the team working on Tron: Uprising. Without even a proper shirt to do an interview with, Vaughan said yes. He bought himself a dress shirt, rented a car, drove to the studio, and did the interview. He got the job. (Incidentally, that Tron job was also where he met Alberto Mielgo, the eccentric and brilliant genius artist who was the head art director for the project. Alberto was also the first art director that did the animation tests for Spider-Verse, whose original vision carried through and inspired the rest of the film. Heavypoly was the first artist Alberto called to join the Spider-Verse team. This Alberto-Spider-Verse connection has a contentious, kind-of-controversial story to it. Look it up.)

VL-1 Roadster
VL-1 Roadster, Tron: Uprising (ep. 8: The Reward)
Plus Quad
Plus Quad, Tron: Uprising

But let’s unpack that “from out of nowhere” part because I’m sure you are not buying that. You see, during that time, Heavypoly was posting his sketches, digital paintings, and other artwork onto a blog. It was work that he simply wanted to do. They were not commissioned, they were not assignments for school. His blog started having some followers, people who would occasionally chat with him on the comment section and talk art. People who were drawn and impressed by his art. As it turns out, Annis Naeem was one of those people. 

Of course, luck is not the best word for how Heavypoly became successful in 3D. While luck played a role, talent and courage had more to do with it. Before he was in 3D, Heavypoly was in industrial design. He studied it in Detroit when he went to college there. Detroit, of course, is Motor City, the automobile capital of America. He was trained in line drawing, perspective, and orthographic stuff. He could do it by hand but it was tedious and boring for him. This was why he got into 3D in the first place, so as to avoid having to create multiple orthographic drawings for whatever it was he was designing. You can see this influence in his spaceship sketches.

Spaceship sketches
Spaceship sketches by Heavypoly

The courage part comes from trusting his instincts and following them wherever they take him, even to unlikely places. For example? Vaughan started with line drawings by hand. But because he hated the tediousness of orthographic drawing, he learned 3D. Now that he was in 3D, he wanted his 3D models to look closer to the vision in his head. So he learned digital painting. While he was getting deep in 3D modeling and digital painting primarily using Blender (he’s a big fan of our render farm!), he learned some coding in order to develop scripts in Blender to create shortcuts for actions that he constantly did. He grew to love digital painting so much that he wanted to do it all the time, but he realized that the current software and apps out there for digital painting were lacking in some way or another. So he learned more coding mostly via YouTube videos and created his own app called Heavypaint.

Heavypaint app
Color portrait painted using the Heavypaint app

From drafting to 3D to painting to app-making. Does Heavypoly even sleep?

He does. He has really just found a way to make his time work for him the way he wants it to. But you might ask, how do you know what to do today in order to get good? 

Vaughan doesn’t overthink it. For him, it’s all about what you like doing, what you enjoy. Going back to his roots of posting artwork online, he says that no one told him to do all that. He just liked it. And even had it not led to a job making Tron over at Disney, he would have still done all of those sketches and posted them on his blog. Because that was what he liked at the time. For him, personal projects have a way of leading to the next thing. It is when something is created with real passion and authenticity that something stands out; Heavypoly’s experience surely is a testament to that.

These days, Heavypoly likes the engineering side of app-making. His main thing these days is putting out demos and tutorials for Heavypaint, and geeking out under its hood to make the app better and better. Even in this, he trusts his instincts: he loves getting feedback on ways to improve Heavypaint’s UI, but there are times when he makes UI choices that go against the advice of seasoned coders and digital painters. He wants Heavypaint to reflect his style and priorities as a digital painter, and that leads him to UI design that’s quite unlike other apps. Now that’s trusting one’s gut. 

What’s next for Heavypoly? He did say that personal projects have a way of leading to the next thing. Who knows, maybe Heavypaint leads to Heavyplay, a video game by Heavypoly.

If it does, I’m buying that game.

This article is based on an interview Vaughan gave to the GarageFarm podcast crew, listen to the full interview here. You’ll definitely learn a thing or two from one of the industry’s best.

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