You might know Mathias Pedersen from his "Starry Night" image that was used as the Blender 2.43 splash screen. He also is one of the authors of the "the Essential Blender" book recently out. It is quite an accomplishment for someone that is 16 years old. I see great promise in Mathias, as he comes off as being a very focused and determined person, who would be an asset on any creative team.
Q.1. When did you start using open source tools?
A. I was around 10 or 11 years, when I got tired of drawing in MS-Paint with its limited functionality. My father introduced me to the Photoshop like application Corel Photo-Paint he used at his work. A regular Danish kid would have very limited knowledge of English at this point, if any, but thanks to my 6 month stay in Australia, I was able to read the manual to the program and begin creating images in the application. With the emergence of Pixar and the release of "Toy Story" I had become interested in 3D. This led to me soon expanding beyond 2D into 3D. In this process I tried out many 3D applications looking for the right fit.
A friend of my family, who was an architect, had some graphics work he needed to have done. He had seen some of my work and offered me the opportunity to do some for him. In the beginning, this involved only simple 2D work, but later on a bigger 3D visualization project emerged. With really no experience within this field, I took up the challenge.
I was trying to find a 3D application to do this visualization in the open-source/free domain space. I already had low expectations based on my past experience with free applications. I happened to come across Blender at a forum. I installed it on my machine and opened the program. The first time I looked at that interface, I said "NO WAY!" and uninstalled it promptly. This was too confusing and different from anything I had ever tried before.
However, the architectural design project kept pressing on, so I thought Blender would have to be the tool of choice and re-installed it. I persevered through the project learning Blender as I went along. From my point of view, the best way to learn a tool is to use the tool. The more I got to know Blender, the more I came to realize that it does not limit me in anyway. I now knew I could do anything I wanted with Blender; I would just have to find out how. It also was a very unique experience using free-software that actually works and was stable. I have later found that Blender luckily isn't the only example of this.
Blender has been my choice as a 3D modeling tool for the past 2 years, starting with Blender 2.35a. It is a great tool for young people like me who cannot afford to pay for expensive 3D programs.
Q.2. What are some of the nifty and useful features in Blender?
A. I enjoy the new sculpt mode, especially the smooth brush, which I think it is excellent. Before sculpt mode, trying to smooth things out was a nightmare, often ending in moving vertices around one by one. It was painful, but now, you can just turn to sculpt mode and smooth brush it. This is a neat little feature.
I also love the support of my Wacom tablet. It is not a given for any application to support tablets. Blender does, and this is one of the under the hood features I probably enjoy the most in my everyday blending.
A big advantage of using open-source tools is that people create a bunch of effective and efficient scripts and make them freely available for the general masses to use. Such is the case with the Blender too. I like the way the python scripts are implemented which are widely available and relatively easy to use to do lot of neat things. Blender also makes it very easy to run these scripts in it for less technically minded people like myself.
When you get into Blender the very first time, you might think that its GUI layouts defy logic. But once you have learned more about it, it starts making sense. When you model in Blender, it is the GUI that makes working in it very efficient, stream-lined and fast in comparison to other applications. All the other 3D programs that I have come across are not as stream-lined as Blender, although Blender still has room for improvement. Blender is better at hiding the stuff you do not need, and only has certain features open and visible when you really need them (mostly). It's non-overlapping interface is a nice thing which is rarely seen.
I also love the addition of render layers and passes which aids me much in the compositing process of my work. This is one of the things that has made the internal render much more interesting lately. Although many other renderers obtain realistic results easier, I still prefer the internal renderer. I enjoy experimenting with it until I get what I want. I hope it will continue to evolve in the future.
I love the way that Blender compares to a Swiss army knife, it is extremely functional if you know your way around it, so compact it will easily fit on a USB pin, elegant, fast, and solid as rock (it has only crashed on me due to my own stupidities).
Q.3. What are the features that Blender is missing?
A. I think the interface leaves some things here and there to be desired. However, it looks very much to me like the developers are working in a nice direction with this. It'll be nice to see what they come up with. A complete GUI design isn't needed, just a bit of polishing, which is what seems to be the plan. It's the small details that needs to be changed not the overall interface.
One of these details I'd like to see changed is the default set up of Blender, also known as the b.blend file. When using other programs you normally have 3 views (top, front, side) and perspective view, but in Blender you only have 1 view by default and you have to split to get the same. At first I did not know how to do it and that scared me away almost the very instant I opened the program. But by just altering the default set up of Blender many people can get an easier start. They have a GUI that they are familiar with from using other 3D applications. Just altering a few little things to follow the standards set by both 3D and non-3D applications will make a huge difference for Blender, without necessarily compromising the differences that makes Blender great.
But I really hate to be the one to scream for new features. I just like to wait on the sidelines and marvel at what the developers do. Looking at all the awesome new features that the developers have added to Blender for just the 2 years that I have been using it, I cannot complain. I'm just happy that we have Blender and I'm riding the great exciting Blender wave, waiting on what is coming next.
Q.4. Do you think the text tutorials & video tutorials out there help alleviate some of the frustrations of learning the interface?
A. I think they do. The video tutorials that are out there are great as they show you how to use Blender and what can be done with Blender. With Blender being a very visual application, this is often better than a text manual. Like for instance how to find the mysterious preferences menu. That is easier describing in a video than in a text tutorial. But text tutorials still have their place since they are easier to quickly refer to if you have forgotten little details.
Q.5. What other tools do you use for your production work?
A. Blender of course. I would use Blender even if I had money to buy the most expensive software. I use Inkscape a lot as well. It is not as stable and polished as Blender, but since I cannot afford Adobe Illustrator, I do find Inkscape a good alternative. For audio editing I use Audacity. I am however not someone who goes out only wanting to use open-source tools in his pipeline. Since I have Photoshop I very rarely use GIMP. I also use VirtualDub and MediaCoder for very basic video work.
Q.6. How do you come up with these amazing images?
A. I have to give credit to my mother who is a very visual person. I have my struggles with her like every teenager does with their mother, but we really come together when it comes to getting great ideas for images. I rely very much on her advice and insight on things sometimes when I am struggling with an idea. She comes up with some great perspectives on things. It sounds quite odd for a teenager like me to speak so highly of my mother, but she is truly great at this. She is my sounding board for some of my ideas. She may come up with an idea and I build upon that and she builds upon it again, all in a collaborative effort. As an artist I can get caught up with working on my project and sometimes need an outsider's view which I get from her. She is very good at expressing what she thinks in the form of advice and constructive criticism. When I am done with something I just like to bring her in for her opinion and receive her feedback which helps me a lot.
I also like to post my work for comments and criticism on various forums. Here I enjoy getting feedback. I'm very grateful that people take their time to come with suggestions and ideas which are always useful in one way or another. That really helps me in process of making images as well.
The process of making an image can be long. For example "Starry Night" took me almost 2 months to complete. I enjoy working on deep concepts that are complex and can hold my attention for that long period of time, but also less complicated and funnier concepts can draw my attention. I go through various iterations and changes to the initial concept and find it fun because I always put little stories, or ideas in my images. I don't enjoy "just" making an object, there has to be some motivation behind it all.
As a young kid when the other kids spent most of their time playing games on the computer, I spent my time creating 2D and later 3D art because that was I enjoyed doing (on the flip side I'm a terrible gamer). For me coming up with something and finding a way to making it tell a compelling story was like playing. And to this day I still enjoy it with the bonus benefit of other people enjoying my work and being inspired by it. I do believe that art should be something that inspires us all.
I don't really know how I come up with the initial concept or ideas. They are just suddenly there. I think it is essentially about having fun with the quest of finding what would be great to do. Once the idea is ready, it goes through a long evolution process of what it could be like, and you build upon that idea to finally end up with an image, a piece of art. It may seem long for some people, but for me it is an enjoyable process. I hope that if it good enough for me it may be good enough for others.
Q.7. Tell us something about "Starry Night"?
A. I am pleasantly surprised by the success "Starry Night" has gotten and how it has taken a life of its own and traveled around the internet. I do not know what it is in that image that makes it stick around. I have got a lot of positive response for it, and I keep getting emails from people saying how much they enjoy the image.
It comes from my experience of star gazing. I really love looking at stars and have done a lot of that with my father. Sometimes at night we would have a clear view of the sky from our backyard which is dark due to the absence of street lights. You look up into the sky and you think "WOW! That is really something!" It feels big and intimidating because of its vastness. But it also draws you to it and holds your attention. I spent many wonderful hours with my father pin pointing out stars and planets. I enjoyed that as a kid and still do. That is what inspired me to do "Starry Night". It also represents my feeling of awe with creation. It is so big and incredibly detailed that it would take an infinite amount of time for a modeler to model the entire thing and a massive render farm forever to render it. Add to that that it all happens in real time before our eyes. I actually hope in a way that 3D artists never really succeed in replicating it completely. It should always be something special.
Q.8. What is your advise to people starting out with Blender?
A. The answer to many questions often asked by beginners could have been found faster by typing a few words on Google and doing some preliminary investigation. The success rate is pretty high as there is an abundance of tutorials and notes on Blender now than a few years ago. So I would advise the new user to take time to attempt to find an answer either on the internet, in Blender manuals and books on Blender. Because when you figure out something by yourself, you tend to understand Blender better and add to your personal drive and confidence on overcoming the next hurdle in Blender. Personally, that is the reason I find this approach more rewarding than someone actually walking me through that process (though that helps often as well). I have then found after I have done my research and yet have not found the solution, when I ask my question, this research helps me fine tune it to exactly what I am looking for along with naming the possible solutions that did not work for me. This makes for much better answers in the end. In other words, doing my research speeds my process of finding a solution.
But above all: just have all the fun you can. And be determined to learn. Those two things can be combined - and should be!