How concept artist Ben Mauro turned a graphic novel into NFTs and an entire sci-fi world that includes a feature film and possible TV series.
By Helena Swahn
“HUXLEY” is an original post-apocalyptic adventure by Ben Mauro , a talented concept artist, character creator and world builder. Over a decade in the making, “HUXLEY” is a trailblazing project that spans NFTs, digital and physical collectibles, film, video games and ultimately immersive experiences in the Metaverse.
Hinting at his meticulously imagined universe, Mauro used 3ds Max, ZBrush, Substance Painter and Redshift to create a CG trailer introducing Huxley as the robotic hero at the center of the story, which began as a graphic novel. The novel is also being developed into a feature film in collaboration with Marvel Producer Ari Arad, as well as a potential TV series.
A lifelong fan of French and Japanese graphic novels, science-fiction, film and video games, Mauro was drawn to the creative process from an early age. After starting out in 3D animation and game architecture, he switched gears to study industrial design and entertainment design, the foundations of concept art.
After earning his degree from Art Center College of Design (https://www.artcenter.edu) in Pasadena Calif., Mauro’s first job was working on concept design for “The Hobbit” at Weta Workshop in New Zealand and he has contributed to “The Hobbit” trilogy, “Elysium,” “Chappie,” “Valerian,” the “Call of Duty” franchise and “Halo Infinite.”
Always ambitious, he attributes his skills and experience crafting credible environments, humans, aliens, weaponry, vehicles and robots to strategic choices he’s made to master every aspect of world building with the aim of eventually creating his own IP (intellectual property).
Building the Huxley Universe
Mauro sketched the early robot designs that made it into the graphic novel in 2008, but the final Huxley design wasn’t completed until 2014. An epic sci-fi adventure set on a desert planet on the edge of a far-flung galaxy, “Huxley” is a “melting pot of all the things I like as an artist,” Mauro says, explaining that he funded the entire project himself while studying narrative and dialogue to go with his visuals in his spare time.
Wanting 100 percent ownership of the IP, Mauro opted to release the graphic novel series as NFTs. He used the profits to help him fund the project much more quickly than he figures he could have by traditional means. “The Huxley series is a pure expression of my universe, which can exist as a product on its own while also being a blueprint for expansion into other content categories,” he explains.
As he developed the story and characters, including Max and Kai, the scavengers who find Huxley, Mauro moved from paper and pencil to illustrating in Photoshop. Next, he began experimenting with Blender and ZBrush to block out bigger scenes and characters in more detail, allowing him to illustrate complex environments and more dynamic shots.
Making the Trailer
By 2019, Mauro was ready to start work on a CG trailer for “HUXLEY” to help spin the idea out into film, video games and immersive experiences. After meeting with Director Sava Sivkovic , he chose a team of eight artists and designers to work on the trailer using his graphic panels as storyboards.
Mauro art directed the trailer while working closely with Sivkovic and 3D character artist Antonio Esparza. Hard surface modeling and final scene assembly was done with 3ds Max with Esparza doing the bulk of the character sculpting in ZBrush and Mauro using ZBrush to adapt characters and design elements as the project progressed.
Much of Mauro’s work was focused on the Huxley model he blocked out using a specific set of ZBrush tools. “I mainly used SnakeHook, Clay Build Up, hPolish, Inflate, Move, CurveTube, and Dam Standard brushes and masking tools to pull out and push in shapes to get the milled chassis forms I was after,” Mauro explains.
Knowing that human characters usually get the most scrutiny audience scrutiny, Mauro and Esparza spent a lot of his time working on Max and Kai, who had no idea what they were getting into when they discovered the robot Huxley. “I did a lot of paintovers to make sure their proportions were right and figuring out how to make their armor more realistic,” Mauro recalls. “I wanted them to feel like live-action interpretations of my drawn designs.”
Esparza also used ZBrush to sculpt Karmak, the mutant crime lord character, who has an internal glow Sivkovic created using a combination of translucent and emissive materials in Redshift. Each character took around one month to complete, and once they were finalized in ZBrush, the team used Substance Painter for final textures before moving back into 3ds Max so Sivkovic could assemble everything before rendering in Redshift.
What Comes Next
As “HUXLEY™” gathers momentum, Mauro is excited about the future and has been surprised and thrilled by viewers’ reactions to the trailer: “Having the general audience enjoy it was amazing, but it was great to know that my peers, colleagues and respected industry figures think it’s really well done and something special.”
With his focus now on getting the two remaining graphic novel issues out the door, Mauro is looking forward to developing films, games, prequels, short- and long-form CG content and everything in between. Whether or not “HUXLEY” will take over Mauro’s career remains to be seen, but one thing is certain — this is just the beginning.
Helena Swahn is a writer in London UK.