Epic Spaceman: From Novice to Blender Animator & VFX Pro - A Journey into Cosmic Storytelling
When the internet (and the Rokoko Team) first discovered Epic Spaceman's "scale" astrophysics videos, we were left in awe and admiration at the beautiful storytelling and VFX shots. Little did we know that Toby, the man behind behind these productions, was working as a one person team and had only just made his first Blender donut a few months ago. Toby went on to win a pair of Smartgloves in a Rokoko animation contest, and we thought it was time to share his inspiring story with you all.
In this interview, Toby discusses his transition from photography to video production, his decision to delve into educational science content, and his quest to master visual effects (VFX) despite having no prior experience. Epic Spaceman shares his motivations, inspirations, and dedication to creating accurate and engaging science videos (all while juggling a day job and family responsibilities) as well as some practical advice for any creator out there looking to start out on their own animated and VFX content creation journey. Happy reading!
Hello Toby! Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
Hi! I’m Toby but I go by the name Epic Spaceman, I make educational science videos about the Universe for a Youtube channel that I started a couple of years ago. I actually recently made a video about my background and journey for those of you who are curious about the genesis of my journey, you can watch it here.
How did you get started in 3D and how did you first start animating?
I have perhaps a bit of an unusual background: I have a degree in computer engineering but became a photographer about 15 years ago, then moved more into video about 10 years ago. Unfortunately, because of covid lockdown, I didn’t have any work for over a year and realised my freelance job was really fragile, with a young family and a mortgage that was a problem.
So in 2020, at the ripe old age of 40, I decided I was going to try and make a Youtube channel for the first time as a side project. I picked the subject I was most passionate about - science and the Universe - and decided I would make the best videos I could about it. The problem was that I envisaged it as fully CGI and I had no VFX skills at all! In January 2021, I downloaded Blender, my first 3D software, and just started trying to teach myself every evening while also trying to make my first video on what the Universe looks like. It took about 8 months to make that first video but I haven’t looked back since.
I’ve only made 5 videos so far but the last two both made the front page of Reddit and they’ve really been picking up in popularity and gaining me subscribers on Youtube. People really do seem to enjoy the style of educational videos I’m making, the VFX and animations resonate with them.
If you had to choose, what is the single most defining characteristic that makes your content unique and entirely yours? In other words, what would you say is your artist trademark?
I think that my defining style is visual metaphors. I’m aiming to use them for awe and education. What I try to do is take people on a journey where they learn something profound and interesting, that’s so visually clear that they can recall it years later and can describe it to others. I’ve had lots of those moments myself reading books on the Universe and it usually came from a simple metaphor, so that’s what I’m trying to achieve using VFX. I’m trying not to use numbers as I know how much that scares people off and I want it to be interesting and wholesome along the way.
There’s so much wonder out there that seems inaccessible to so many and I just want to help those people in particular connect with it. Plus I’m always so happy when people tell me they watched it with their kids or when teachers tell me they showed it in their class.
Do you have a favourite artwork or project you're especially proud of?
I think I’m perhaps most proud of my video on the scale of The Milky Way, it’s probably my best so far and from the "scales" series. It should be because it took me a year to make!
What has been the most significant change to your life, since you started creating 3D content?
I travel around quite a lot as a freelance videographer and that was great when I was younger but with kids now I just want to be at home with them. Making a channel with 3D content means I can do just that and work from home. I’m not quite there yet - and I didn’t expect to get here so quickly - but I’m at a point where I really can see this being my full time job in a year or so and I’m very excited about that!
Name three pieces of equipment (software or hardware) that you can’t live without.
Blender, my homemade face-rig setup (I was very happy to hear about Rokoko's new Headrig by the way) and my Smartsuit and Smartgloves (which I was very fortunate to win in a competition). Those are the only three things I need to make my videos, which is quite crazy to be honest!
Talking about gear, what do you love about Rokoko mocap tools? Why should anyone buy them?
Every tool has a certain use case. For me, I need really reliable, long takes that log my head movement just right and get subtle micro-movements of my body as I stand and narrate. The mocap suit does a great job with that and the gloves for the hand and finger capture are really accurate too.
Something I’m learning is to move more as I become more natural at narrating. I’m going for a high production value look and I’ve tried hand animating and it’s incredibly time consuming, I never want to go back to that!. It’s very hard to get AI capture for finger movement so I think the gloves are particularly special, I won mine in one of Rokoko's competitions judged by the Pwnisher! It was for this video that formed the basis of my submission for the contest.
I’m also excited about Coil Pro because perfect arm and finger movement will be great for my uses and should help solidify the fidelity of the rest of the suit too.
Do you currently have any artists that inspire you in your work?
I imagine this is a popular one (especially for those using Blender) but Ian Hubert is such a great inspiration for me. I just love that he’s just out there making these independent projects that he loves, that’s got that beautifully detailed, creative, Ian Hubert look to them. Obviously we’re doing very different things on different levels but I’m trying to take a similar approach, just working crazy hard on the thing that I’m passionate about.
What advice do you have for aspiring 3D creators? What would you say are the key ingredients when learning 3D you wish you had known from the start?
I can’t promise this is the best advice for everyone but I know exactly what worked for me, which is: find a personal project that’s harder than you think you could make, and just go for it. Do a tutorial or two to get comfortable with the interface and how things work.
Then find that one thing you would be so proud to make and then just don’t relent until you’ve done it. It’s so easy to be sidetracked by other ideas, other things, that’s why it’s important to pick that first project well. You’re not doing it for views, it shouldn’t matter if just 10 people see it, just make that thing you’d be proud of and if it’s hard you will learn so much on the way.
You’ll obviously go through lots of head bashing keyboard moments but so many problems are a google search away now, especially with Blender and its huge community. That’s if you want to learn fast as it forces you to. The downside is that you have gaping holes in your knowledge like I do! But trying to run before you can walk is definitely my advice.I just don’t have the patience to not get to the fun stuff straight away!
Can you reveal some of your next projects that we can look forward to?
I’m working on a video about black holes right now but I have a few others in the works too on galaxies, stars and the microscopic Universe underneath us. I have lots of different ideas on doing things in VR and games and have been tinkering with Unreal so at some point I might try doing something there.
What technology do you think is looking interesting on the horizon?
Unreal Engine is making some seriously interesting leaps, their Metahuman Creator is a big step forward for Metahuman and crossing the uncanny valley in almost realtime. I think gaussian splats are really interesting too, hopefully there’s a way to combine the strengths of polygons and point clouds. Photorealism in VR is one of the things I’m really interested in for educational use and we’re getting there for sure. I can’t wait to be able to stand on a photorealistic planet!
You can follow and support Toby, aka Epic Spaceman, on his channels: