Paleoartist Interview: The Polygonal Prehistory of Kuzim

Interview

When I first spotted the art of Kuzim on Twitter, I was immediately struck by his unique style. “Low poly” is an art style that deliberately invokes the asthetics of early 3D video games. The recent revival of this style has, so far, mostly been the domain of indie video games, but Kuzim has taken this quirky flavour to the prehistoric realm. The bold colour schemes, the dynamic compositions and the deceptive simplicity make him a unique voice among the next generation of paleoartists, and he’s already gained the praise of the likes of Mark Witton.

Kuzim is the pseudonym of Adam Midzuk, a paleontology student based in Johannesburg, South Africa. You can find him on DeviantArt here and on Twitter here. I spoke to him about his influences, his creative process and his future plans. And, of course, we discussed that one burning question: When’s the video game coming out? Enjoy the interview! – Niels


You are a prolific artist, with nearly 200 pieces on DeviantArt in the “prehistoric” category alone, but you remain somewhat shrouded in mystery. Could you share something about the man behind the art? What is your personal, scientific and artistic background?

“Shrouded in mystery” “The Man behind the Art”: You describe as me as if I’m a sort of DeviantArt Bansky!

The truth is that outside of my artwork I’m fairly unextraordinary. I’m a 23-year-old student from Johannesburg, South Africa. I’m single, but looking for love and I am among other things a die-hard supporter of Manchester United, as well as sci-fi and fantasy. Other than that, I am lucky enough to be studying palaeontology at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. Obviously, it’s quite daunting having to balance my scientific and artistic interests, and I’m at a point at my life where I am still trying to figure out in which direction I want to end up. Whatever happens, I know that I will carry with me a deep passion for prehistory and the natural world as well as a constant desire to create.

Creatures of the Winter Forest: Leallynasaura amicagraphica, 2019. © Adam Midzuk (Kuzim). All images used with permission.
Wessex Community: Polacanthus, Iguanodon, Eotyrannus, Hypsilophodon and Baryonyx. 2020. © Adam Midzuk (Kuzim).

What was it that ignited your love for the prehistoric? Are there any artists or media, past or present, who have inspired you?

Truth be told, my love for prehistory and natural history is almost as old as I am! As a kid, I would tell people I wanted to be a palaeontologist when I grew up. Fast forward nearly two decades and, well, you get the picture. Only in retrospect have I realised that so many of the books I read, the television shows or films I watched, the games I played and toys I owned as a child contributed to a love for the subject of prehistory that is kind of emotionally bundled together with memories of my childhood. I think it is this childhood passion and sense of awe that is the reservoir I tap into whenever I create prehistoric themed art. Subsequently, it is often through art that I rediscover my love for the mysteries of the ancient past.

If you were to ask for specific influences I’d probably have to pin down the BBC’s Walking With series as one of, If not THE key influence on my visualisation of the prehistoric world. I have heard many paleoartists and palaeontologists of my generation or a bit before that point to the Jurassic Park films as being the spark that ignited of their interests in palaeontology. However, whilst I am obviously fond of the Jurassic Park films, the Walking With series was able to bring prehistory to life with the kind of majesty that, in my opinion, is still unmatched today. You can still see the influence of Walking with Dinosaurs on my art, if you look at, say, the colour scheme of my Iguanodon.

Today I’m often inspired by a lot of what I see online. Artists like Gabriel Ugueto, Andrey Atuchin, Julio Lacerda and Chris Mansa are some of the people I follow quite closely online, among many others. I also play close attention to certain prehistory themed indie games like Saurian and Prehistoric Kingdom, which I believe are really setting a new standard in realistic paleomedia

Older work in 2D: Coelodonta, 2016. © Adam Midzuk (Kuzim).

Looking at your DeviantArt gallery, you are skilled in several art styles, both 2D and 3D. What gave you the idea to use a low poly video game style to make palaeoart? Have (older) video games greatly inspired your art, or have you been more influenced by the recent emergence of low poly as an aesthetic onto itself? How long did it take you to develop that particular style?

To be honest, when it came to my low poly style, it kind of emerged organically with my progress as a 3D artist. I wish I could pinpoint a particular video game from my childhood which influenced my style, but the low-poly style is really the by-product of the process of 3D modelling. As any 3D artist can tell you, the best way to model is to begin with a low polygon count. Of course, nowadays I am very conscious of the aesthetic style I want to produce, one that is realistic in proportions and colour but that still carries the kind of sharp blocky edges of a low poly style. In that way, I think I am part of a larger renaissance of the low poly aesthetic, but I also really hope that what I produce in this style is offering something new to the paleoart scene.

It’s taken me a good few years, but I now have over 100 low poly animal models, many which I can use and re-use in to tell new and interesting stories in my renders. The main bulk of these figures belong to an unofficial project I call “Mesozica”, where I want to depict the diversity of the Mesozoic Period. I have made a concerted effort to include in my roster of creatures not only famous dinosaurs like Tyrannosaurus and Stegosaurus, but also to tell the stories of mammals, crocodilians, sharks and therapsids.

Saurian Superstar: Tyrannosaurus rex. 2018. © Adam Midzuk (Kuzim).

Let’s talk about the nitty-gritty of your creation process. Stylized though it may be, you strive towards scientific accuracy in your art. What are the resources you use when researching a piece?

Its true that I generally strive for accuracy in my art. However, i must admit that a lot of that accuracy comes from good references, especially skeletal diagrams. I have a lot of respect for the people who labour over the scientific literature to produce accurate skeletal diagrams that paleoartists like me usually rely on.

Typically, my process willl involve my tracing over skeletals in 3D to get the overall proprtions right. Once that is done, I often look to other paleoartists or living animals for inspiration with regards to soft tissue, colour and sometimes composition.

Sometimes, I have the idea of featuring two or more animals in a single render. In that case I will read around to check if the two species were contemporaneous and what kind of landscape they lived in. This kind of reading has inspired, for example, my scene involving a Purgatorius observing a fight between a Tyrannosaurus and an Ankylosaurus from a sequoia , among others.

Hell Creek scene with Tyrannosaurus, Ankylosaurus and Purgatorius. © Adam Midzuk (Kuzim).

Can you tell us about the software and techniques do you use? How long does it take you to finish a model? And how much time do you invest in rendering the environment as well as the animal?

My tool of choice is Blender 3D. Basically, for most scenes I can break down my process as following: 1: Modeling. 2. Materials. 3. Rigging and posing. 4. Camera, light and environment setup, and 5. Rendering. Usually steps 1 and 2 can take one or two afternoons as I build up a model I like. Rigging will take a hour or so by itself.

Where my process is really variable is the last steps. It all really depends on how complex the scene is and how quickly I get to a place where I am satisfied. Suffice to say that part can take anywhere from an hour to a few weeks. I have a library of extinct plants and other ‘scene fillers’ that can reduce the time spent on the environment, but a lot of the time I find myself having to create new assets, and new materials to create an environment that actually captures the scene in the way I want.

Maeverano Community. Rapetosaurus and Majungasaurus in the back, Simosuchus, Mahajangasuchus and Masikasaurus in the front. 2019. © Adam Midzuk (Kuzim).

I suppose it might be difficult to get a handle on just how detailed your models should be. Too detailed, and you loose that unique low poly aesthetic. Not detailed enough, and the animal becomes less recognizable or starts to look “cheap”. Is that a difficult tightrope for you to walk?

I guess that balance is tricky to get right, especially for someone new to 3D modeling, and new to the style. But at this point I’ve made so many models that I have a general intuition as to how many edges or faces I’ll need to make a shape look good without going overboard. That’s not to say my style hasn’t evolved. Indeed I sometimes find myself remaking old models that I no longer feel are up to scratch, whether they have poor topology or are no longer as accurate as I like.

There aren’t many hard and fast rules but I try to keep certain things consistent, like limbs should have six sided cross sections and eyeballs should be 20 face icosopheres.

The River Crossing. Lystrosaurus and Silesaurus. 2019. © Adam Midzuk (Kuzim).
Diictodon. 2019. © Adam Midzuk (Kuzim).

As you mentioned, you don’t only focus on dinosaurs, but on other critters al well, such as synapsids and pseudosuchians. Are they underrated, in your opinion? Are they more challenging to research than are dinosaurs and pterosaurs?

Synapsids and pseduosuchians are absolutely underrated, apart from the occasional superstars like Dimetrodon and Sarcosuchus. In my art, I try to make a conscious effort to include the ‘little guys’ and interesting non-dinosaur taxa.

One of my key drivers in this regard is my South African heritage. In the Karoo supergroup, we have a near continuous terrestrial fossil record that goes from the Carboniferous to the Early Jurassic, and is among the most productive in the world. Yet our therapsids like Moschops and Lystrosaurus, and even our dinosaurs like Heterodontosaurus are very much at the pheriphery of the paleoart scene.

As such, its always been a challenge to depict these animals. As much as there is a wealth of good skeletals of dinosaurs, there are a lot of animals that I wanted to depict that I cannot find any good references of. An animal like Lystrosaurus is an incredibly well studied genus, and yet finding any good references of its anatomy was a real struggle. This is a real pity, but I hope I can play some small part in giving synapsids, pseduosuchians and other overlooked extinct animals more of a spotlight.

Jurassic Classic: A Morrison scene with Stegosaurus and Allosaurus. 2019. © Adam Midzuk (Kuzim).
Yutyrannus courtship. © Adam Midzuk (Kuzim).

Let’s talk about the sauropod in the room. As many people have no doubt pointed out, your work is begging to be animated and made into a video game. Is that something you’d like to see, or are actively working towards?

Haha, I get that kind of comment pretty often! The problem is that I am an artist at heart, not an animator, nor a game designer. So, if I wanted to produce a game, I’d probably have to rope in a game designer and possibly an animator to realize that goal, which probably would require some kind of funding I don’t have. Having said that, I, too, would love to see a game with my models in them one day, but its not something I can realistically see happening any time soon.

If money was no object and you could have it all your way, what sort of video game would that be?

That’s something I’ve actually been pondering over, in a mostly speculative way. I’ve always loved zoo management games, and open world games, so it might be one of those. However, I know that there are some excellent paleo themed games in development in both those genres that are probably going to be far better than anything I could produce. Something that might be cool to produce would be some sort of educational Virtual Reality experience, putting the player inside the world as an observer, and having them interact with extinct animals and past ecosystems in a very visceral way.

What does your palaeoart future look like?

To be honest, that’s not something I think about. I think the low poly series still has a lot I can add to it, but I am also tempted to begin creating more detailed 3D paleoart pecies in the future. I’m already working on a new set of models featuring animals from the Middle Permian of South Africa, those will be the first of my models to have detailed textures whilst keeping a low poly geometry. Perhaps in the long term I see myself working with museums and academics. I would love to eventually produce pecies for journal articles or museum exhibits. I would love to shine a spotlight on many new or underhighlighted animals as I do so.

And yes, perhaps one day I’ll get to create that video game!

Dawn of Thunder: a South African scene with Ledumahadi and Heterodontosaurus. 2018. © Adam Midzuk (Kuzim).

Finally, what’s your favourite dinosaur?

This is actually a harder question than one might think! As a kid I was always wowed by the size and majesty of sauropods. Even today nothing quite wows me like the image of a herd of sauropd colossuses on the move. However, if I had to pick a particular taxon, it might just be Heterodontosaurus. Its got a sort of attitude to it, which I find quite endearing. Plus, it’s a South African fossil, which is a bonus in my books!


Many thanks to Adam for taking the time to do this interview! You can check out his amazing work on DeviantArt here and on Twitter here. Send some good vibes his way! And if you happen to be a video game developer…

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