Interviewing Idols: The Rusted Pixel

Ireland-based freelance 3D artist, Rusted Pixel a.k.a Paul McMahon, creates marvelously creative animations that have become so recognizable they just scream his name. His comprehensive skill set allows him to create so much content, from extremely cute characters, to wonderfully creatively environment scenery. Very few artists have such a distinct style as Paul, and it’s this, that really makes his work shine for me. His work is just brilliant.

Paul’s work was a reference in my university sketchbook since the very start of my course, and he continues to be a permanent feature on my Instagram and Linkedin feed. He’s very vocal, and has become an integral (for myself anyway) part of the 3D community, and seeing his work just makes me want to create!

Working as a freelancer for years, Paul has worked for a massive amount of clients. From MTV to Spotify, Google, Adobe & Three, and he’s worked with some of the biggest studios in the world — MVSM, Buck, Toast to name a few! His work has been posted all over the place, and he’s been featured on Motionographer, Stash, and a host of other publications.

Rua & Titch — https://www.behance.net/gallery/132861009/Rua-and-Titch

Why does he inspire me?

Paul is a very active member of the 3D design community, and he’s very well known. Not just for his work, but as being a genuinely top guy. I’ve been following his work since before my university course started 4 years ago, and I remember seeing his work and thinking ‘I want to make stuff like this’. I started university as a complete novice in motion and 3D design, and Paul’s work was a breath of fresh air from all the ‘Vapourwave’ and cyberpunk-esque work floating around Instagram. Through various projects such as the work for Hasbro, the ‘Sandwiches and Stuff’ personal project, and his work for Frames For Future, Paul’s style absolutely shines through.

Being recognized for a style takes time, hard work, and overall talent. Paul’s work is dynamic, fun and shows an amazing amount of effort and commitment to his work. Throughout his modeling and design, there’s personality to it all. It’s fun, dynamic and it’s very hard to find artists who guide you through the whole creative process. I watch the behind-the-scenes videos in awe.

It's extremely time-consuming and hard to achieve a cartoon/comic book style in 3D, and yet every time Paul nails it. In one of his more recent projects, “Rua and Titch Making Clouds”, Paul really shows off his skills. I mean just look at it. The visuals are incredible. The shaders and shapes of the objects work so well together, and his detailed and insightful breakdown just shows the passion behind it. Paul truly is the king of passion, for passion's sake, projects.

Paul’s also an educator, and not only does he have a design course (I’ve put a link at the end of the interview) but he has a great selection of great tutorials on his Instagram reels. As a junior designer myself, this sort of content is invaluable and it’s great to learn from such experienced designers!

He’s a much-loved designer in the industry and it was great to chat with him!

Rainy Days — https://www.behance.net/gallery/136788217/Rainy-Days

The Interview part

I was lucky enough to be able to ask Paul some questions about himself and his career. I hope this’ll give you a little bit of an insight into his life, personal and commercial as well as his design process. It’s not every day you get to interview an idol!

1. Who are you, and how did you start your journey into the world of design?

Hey all! I’m Paul aka The Rusted Pixel. I’m a stylized 3D artist and animator, who creates playful and vibrant artwork. My path into 3D and design is a lot like everyone else’s. I loved design from a very young age and it’s been the only constant in my life since I was about five years old. Nothing has changed or wavered much. I’ve always wanted to be an artist of some kind, just a 3D artist came as a bit of a surprise to me.

I studied classical animation in university, and hated 3D animation work as we had to learn 3ds Max 7! It was horrible. I didn’t understand any of the processes (I’m not that technically gifted!). I always preferred hand-crafted work like stop motion and classical animation. I was watching some After Effects tutorials one day, I think it was a tutorial on how to create a papercraft look and was shocked to discover a program called CINEMA 4D. Andrew Kramer was showing me how to create some simple motion graphics in C4D and I was blown away. It didn’t look intimidating at all. In fact the total opposite, it looked fun!

Since that day I’ve never looked back. I started learning more and more about motion graphics. I found an awesome 3D modeling tutorial in Maya and wondered if I could follow along in C4D. It took me quite a while to find the same tools and processes but from that moment onwards I was bitten by the modeling bug. It then became a years-long obsession to create clean topology with a stylized look. I guess you could say, it’s my signature thing.

Pink Party — https://www.behance.net/gallery/87768523/Pink-Party

2. Could you give some insight into your creative process?

My work process? That's easy! I jump straight into C4D and start modeling right away. I rarely sketch out anything except for character work, where I do tend to do a lot of blocking. Cylinders for arms, spheres for wrists etc... I build a simplified version of the character and then pose the character before jumping into zbrush to sculpt the model.

For large-scale personal work, such as“All the Things” and “Rainy Days”, I tend to take a different approach. Long before I jump into C4D I’ll spend weeks and even months thinking about one idea. Putting it through a few style frames in my head, imagining what the final outcome will be. I’ll almost “stress test” an idea.

Is it new? Is it challenging? Will I be able to expand on the idea? Will it live within my style while also allowing me opportunities to add new strings to my bow? Then other questions like will this idea sound fun to work on six months down the line? I try to imagine all the answers in one large Venn diagram, and the more that fall into the center the more sure I am that it’s a good idea to pursue.

Once I’m happy with the idea, I’ll jump straight on to Pinterest and start building a mood board. I get all my inspiration from 2D illustrations and Pinterest is a goldmine of great ideas. I try to take ideas from places and mix in plenty of my own. I try to add things I’ve not seen before. I also rarely ever get inspired by 3D work.

I can admire other 3D artwork but to me, the story feels “told”. That thread has come to an end and I find it hard to expand on it. But with 2D artwork, I see tons of potential and challenge.

That’s why I love clients that send me 2D images for references!

Seinfeld Fanart — https://www.behance.net/gallery/96981277/Seinfeld-Fanart

3. Where do you get your inspiration for projects? Who inspires you!

I used to be heavily inspired by 1950s Americana. I loved retro, chunky design and lots of baby blue and pastel colors. Now I’m more inspired by the countryside around me. I try to make my work more tactile. I live in Donegal and there is no shortage of stunning beaches, sea cliffs, and huge forests. Every day while walking my dogs I see something beautiful and I want to go home and add it to my work.

Charlie here! I can relate to this answer by Paul so much. Living in rural wales, a considerable amount of my work is inspired by my surroundings. All my nature work was inspired by morning walks around my village, and it’s this that really makes our own artwork unique! These experiences!

4. What are some of the largest challenges you had to overcome during your artmaking process?

At the start, things felt easy. I started using C4D R11.5 around 2010 or thereabouts. The C4D community was thriving and a really helpful place. I had no shortage of passion and drive to learn. Everything was possible and even though it seemed like a massive mountain to climb, the process was fun so it never felt like work nor did it feel intimidating. Now though, when you have an established style and have laid down some projects already, there is this pressure to always produce high-quality, interesting work.

It can feel like a bit of a burden. I can almost no longer just post any old WIP or a quick doodle. Everything feels it needs to be completed to perfection.

That word has caused me so much heartache, “perfection”. It really is the killer of good artwork. For 2022, my resolution, which I’ve been sticking to very well, is to question myself less. I’m an extremely analytical person. So when you ask what challenges I had to overcome, I’m in the process of doing that now.

I’m trying to break free of my rigid thinking and just create more work on a daily basis that doesn’t have much of a purpose. It almost flies in the face of my personal project process of asking questions. I’m trying a new way of working. To create with a general and very loose goal in mind. I’m trying to “play” more as people have put it to me. To worry less about things being perfect and more about expression and exploration.

“It can be really scary to try new things when you have a style that clients have come to expect from you or your audience has gotten used to seeing coming from you.”

I’ve always shied away from character design but now I’m trying it more and more. I remember I said to a designer and he was baffled, but his reply confused me even more! I said:

“I’d love to make more characters but I don’t know what kind of characters live in the worlds I create. I can see the environments and all the small details that make it feel lived in, but I have no clue what the characters look like.”

To which he replied: “Really? Cos I can see them!”

That was it. That one reply had me stumped. How can someone else see how characters in my world should look yet I don’t know. It made me worry a fair bit. So that’s where my latest project “Rua and Titch” came from. I took my “Rainy Days — Summer Forest” sequence and tried to build two characters that would live in the world.

Turns out it was not only easier than expected, it was a hell of a lot of fun.

Rainy Days — https://www.behance.net/gallery/136788217/Rainy-Days

5. Do you have any big designs/projects in the works or anything that excites you about the future of your career?

I have to admit, I’m quite excited about NFTs and Cryptoart. I’ve sold some pieces on SuperRare but I’m planning something new. It ties into my big goal project for this year of having more fun with work. I’ve got a broad idea for a project. I’m not sure it’s a great idea but I’m going to focus on it for a while and see what comes of it.

I’ve been chatting with some friends about crypto projects they’ve taken on and I’m weighing up their experience and advice against how I like to work and what I’d like to create…that analytical side of me always finds a way to say hello!

I’ve got an idea but I’m worried it’s not got legs, nor if it’s a good use of time but I’m charging ahead with it full speed. It involves me making a lot of very different characters for a whole universe. So far I’ve made three “Chewbies”. Characters based on dog chew toys. They are going to live in a universe full of very diverse characters. The plan is to start a discord server and have members help me write the lore of the characters and pitch ideas for new races of characters too.

I’ve seen friends start some very successful discord servers and build super active communities that help craft the world. I’d love to have a larger group of people help create something together.

6. As someone who’s struggled with a work/life balance, whats your best advice for young designers wanting to get into the 3D space/career path?

Charlie here! Please go and watch Paul’s, ‘The Pressure of Personal Work’. It’s a fantastic video, and well worth a watch. Anyway, back to Paul!

I get this question so often. I don’t know why people reach out to me. I chat often on LinkedIn and Twitter but people seem to ask this a lot. I’m always happy to give my opinion but that’s all it is. I could be wrong though!

My advice to anyone new, would be to give yourself the time and space to grow. When I started out the only social media channel was Facebook! It was pretty low key and people joined groups to share work before posting your final piece to Behance or Deviant Art. Now there is massive pressure for artists to:

- Produce amazing work

- Post daily

- Network with other artists

- Keep up to date on trends (crypto, design trends, twitter spaces)

- Have a Twitter, IG, Behance, LinkedIn, Personal site/blog. While also creating tutorials to give back to the community

- And most importantly, not have a mental breakdown in the process!

That’s just too much pressure. Then there are the endless adverts from different sites saying who’s workshops and tutorials you should be buying. It’s a lot and honestly, I don’t know how I could cope with it all. Sometimes I feel I had it a little easier.

I’ve always had tons of free time. It was mid recession when I started learning 3D. I had no job and no plans for every day other than watching TV. I lived in a tiny village of 400 people with two shops and three pubs…that’s it! So when I found C4D I was set for years of things to do. I would stay up until 3am watching tutorials, get up the next day, walk my dogs and then sit down again for hours to study and learn. My rent was extremely low at the time, I had nobody depending on me. I had nothing but time so I studied and experimented a lot.

Time is really hard to come by for most people, so my advice is to be aware of that. Good things take time and if time is limited, it’s gonna take a while to get to where you want to be. There’s no point in being your own enemy. Beating yourself up when you look at other artists’ work and compare yours to theirs. A negative cycle almost never produces a good situation to work in. I always try to tell people to be a little kinder to themselves. It will go a much longer way.

“So what if someone is producing amazing work!”

“So what if you don’t have 5,000 instagram followers”

In the end, none of it matters. How you feel about yourself and your work matters so much more.

My best advice is to be easy on yourself. Grow at your own speed and try everything! Don’t decide that “animation is for me” and never try out lighting or modeling or rigging. I hated the idea of modeling when I started out. I thought it was super lame and boring. “Clean topology?! Who cares!” (Or so I thought haha! I tried out a little of everything — motion graphics, xpresso, simulation, modeling…turns out I enjoyed it more than I expected. I didn’t think it was for me but something clicked. I always advise people to give something new at least three months! So plan a year out in quarters. By the end of the year, you’ve had a lot of experience in four areas and you’ll know a little more about yourself.

I see people jump from new YouTube tutorials to new YouTube tutorials or from trend to trend but when they look at their portfolio a year later it’s a mish-mash of replicas of other people’s work.

That never appealed to me. To me, I always wanted to have a Behance page that had a unified look. A whole group of images looking back at me in a style I was proud of. For that to work though, I had to give myself at least five years or more!

Adobe Client Work — https://www.therustedpixel.com/work/adobe

7. What’s the main thing you look for in a creative brief from a client?

A very healthy budget! :D

I can satisfy my own creative needs very well. Much better than any client brief, so I expect to be compensated well for the hard work I do for my clients. I love working with clients that support me, and I love being able to create the work I want to create for the brief!

Trivago Client Work — https://www.therustedpixel.com/work/trivago

8. I absolutely loved your ‘All the Things’ project. So much content was created for it!

Thanks so much! I’m super glad you like it. I still have “All the Things” in my showreel and features prominently in any work I share. It’s a project that was so much fun to work on. It was really sad to see it come to an end in fact.

Myself and Chris Guyot had a fantastic time bringing the project to life. We didn’t expect the reception it got at all. We just loved the process. Adding John Phoon to the team to add the sound and music was the icing on the cake. John’s ability to add depth and layers that I would have never thought of always amazes me.

All The Things — https://www.therustedpixel.com/work/all-the-things

9. What do you like to do in your time away from work?

I have a very unhealthy gaming habit. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I play way too many PC games. I’ve always been a gamer. Playing on my brother’s Gateway 2000 PC and further back to his Amiga 500! Showing my age now, but gaming and art are the two massive pillars in my life. Along with my partner.

But I play a lot of games. I’ve had a GamePass since it came out and I love to try everything. Although, I do have three Overwatch accounts. One of which has over 3,000 hours played on it. Mostly as support…I like to help others haha!

Aside from that though, I love walking my dogs in Donegal. There are some of the most breathtaking walks I’ve seen in my life in this county. I’ve got three rescue dogs that need three walks per day. It can be a bit much walking them that often so every third day or so I’ll take them off in the car to a beach or forest for a 2 or 3-hour walk. My dogs almost always appear in the background of every client video call and tutorial that I upload.

Hasbro Client Work — https://www.therustedpixel.com/work/hasbro

10. Thank you for taking part in this for me, Paul! For the people who will read this interview, what are your social media links for people to follow your future work?

My pleasure Charlie, thanks so much for reaching out! I’m almost always on LinkedIn but you can find me on Twitter and Instagram too.

Here are my links! Website, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, Behance

Want to see more from me? Follow me on Medium, or my Instagram :)

https://www.instagram.com/c.ellis3d

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Trying to make my way in the world of design. Nottingham Trent Graphic Design Student.

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Charlie Ellis

Trying to make my way in the world of design. Nottingham Trent Graphic Design Student.