Yeah, that’s our conference room.
It was 12:59 AM.
I had just finished another grueling, crushing day at the office. My fingers were so sore from gripping my Wacom pen that I was convinced that I must have blisters, a quick glance down at my fingers merely reminded me that it was too dark to tell. I grabbed my finger with my other hand to do a quick tactile check, it felt like there was a blister. “Hm.” I thought, and continued on my way.
I was walking to my car which I had parked a few blocks away from our office that morning, because when I arrived early; at 7:00 AM or so, our lot was already completely full. I decided to park a bit away and walk the difference. I needed it. I had left the office at the same time the night before, and the same time the night before that. This cycle had been looping for months, it seemed, and there was no end in sight.
As I made it to my car I glanced at the clock. 1:14. Doing a quick calculation in my head, I figured out how much sleep I could steal if I drove home quickly. It would take me about 15 minutes to get there, another 15 to eat a quick meal, take a shower, and with any luck I could be passed out by 2:00 AM- giving me five solid hours of rest before I had to be back at the office in the morning. Nice.
We were far behind, and not because of anything that we had or hadn’t done. This is just how things worked. Environment Art teams tend to be work-horses, and our schedules were often compacted as tightly as possible. To add to that, it felt each development cycle seemed to be more impossible than the last.
Closing my eyes and nodding off that night, I knew that in the morning there would be meetings, finger pointing, and general cluster-fuckery, and when that was all finished, our team would be back eating Chinese food, and building our levels in silence until the early morning again, when we either had enough work done, or were too exhausted to bang away at our workstations any longer.
There’s a lot of down sides to being an environment artist, and in the
media blogs perhaps those sometimes tend to over-shadow all the good. Often, it isn’t even clear what it means to be an Environment Artist. In this article I’ll examine some must-have abilities, some goals you can shoot for, and I’ll attempt to clear up some of the questions regarding Environment Art, work ethic, and success.
Sure, the video-game industry can have some darkness, some bad PR about “crunch time”, but don’t let that fool you. It’s not always bad, in fact, most of the time it’s the complete opposite. Being an Environment Artist can be a treat. You get creative freedom, you get to indulge yourself, experiment, and try new things every single day. You will work with a team of your friends which will ultimately become part of your family. You will bleed with them in the trenches (not hyperbole. I once got a paper cut, and my friend Toby broke his knee like 10 times.). You will work with some of these people for your entire career.
The best part of all of this? You get to be part of something much bigger than yourself. If you’re lucky, millions and millions of people, celebrities, Beliebers, and unsupervised children will hop through the levels you’ve created every day. You have an opportunity to build a world which gives context to a narrative that will change people’s thinking and challenge them on levels they didn’t even know were possible.
It’s a job/path that rarely gets old, and when you’re not knee deep in crunch-mode, you probably will really enjoy it, and even then, it’s still not that bad*.
Here’s some stuff you should know about that path, and some directions you can go to make yourself “the-real-deal” to recruiters, bosses, and yourself; because confidence is everything.
The Matter of Confidence
I don’t just mean confidence in your work, but if you want to operate on the pro-level, you need to be confident enough to communicate with your team, which means:
“Don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself. -Abraham Lincoln “-Michael Scott
If there’s an important thing you can take away from this, it’s that. I’m not saying you need to (or ever should) tell your Art Director or leads that they’re wrong, but if something isn’t feeling right you need to tell them.
You need to have confidence in your ability to produce under pressure, and you need to be able to tell someone “This isn’t working, we need to take a different approach.”.
(continued in the next section).
The Matter of Concept Art
Look. Concept art is awesome. It’s the best thing ever for an environment, and there is potentially not a single thing more useful to an Environment Artist. Here’s the problem.
You will not always get concept art. I dare to say, you won’t even get concept art half the time. I can count the amount of concept art I’ve received on a single hand in my career.
What does this mean to you? Well, you have to be prepared. There are going to be moments where you’re faced with a task and you have no direction aside from a vague “Make something cool.” from your director. This is that moment when you have to turn to your resources, be comfortable searching the Googs, looking through art books (Which you probably should start collecting as soon as possible), and looking through concept art online. You will need to compile this information, you will need to make it into meaningful direction for yourself.
The ability to synthesize ideas from outside sources is extremely important to an Environment Artist.
The take away here: it’s important that you know that video-game art is not all copying concept art verbatim. It requires you to build, and it requires you as an artist to be at the top of your art-game. This goes right back to the matter of confidence above.
The Matter of Collaboration
My favorite. The best part of working with talented people is learning FROM talented people. You need to be prepared to teach, you need to be prepared to learn. People that don’t learn, don’t expand or don’t take the initiative to stay on top of their discipline fade away. It’s just that simple.
People that are willing to teach are what make these jobs so fun. The first year of my career I learned three times as much as I learned in school, if I could quantify it somehow. My peers were willing to teach, my comrades were willing to lend an ear, and thoughtful advice which steered me into a direction that our leads and directors would enjoy. This kind of collaboration is common in studios, and if you are open to it, this same collaboration will give you the type of long career you’re looking for.
Make it known that you can’t learn? You’re not willing to change? This probably isn’t a job for you.
The Matter of Classical Drawing Ability
It’s true that classic art fundamentals might not have applied [as much] to Environment Art in the past. Those days are gone. If you’re choosing Environment Art because you think that we don’t need to draw, understand color, composition, and form as much as a character artist you’re sorely mistaken.
I’m not saying you need to be DiVinci, I’m saying you need to be able to handle yourself in a sketchbook, handle yourself on a white board. Your leads are not looking for you to be the worlds best traditional artist, however, they are looking for you to be able to explain your ideas in a visual way.
Just the basic understanding of layering, composition, color and form can take you most of the way, and these are skills you can develop rapidly by practicing with thumbnail exercises. (By the way, if you haven’t got it yet, I absolutely LOVE Ctrlpaint – you can learn to draw, paint and compose for free from very talented and dedicated instructors.)
If you’re not totally confident with this, spend a few hours a week (Early morning is the best for me!) and just do some thumbnail studies.
The Matter of Pride
Pride is a tricky word. By definition, it means to be arrogant. This has less appeal to game-development studios as a snowball does to an alien.
Arrogance has no place, however, there are many ways to be proud which don’t include the A-word. As a company-runner, and person who helps lead artists I’ve learned that I’m looking for the type of pride in regards to ones work. I can’t stand artists who don’t take pride in their work, who turn in things they’re not proud of; who do not take the extra mile.
That extra mile is how mediocre things become great things. That extra mile is how Call of Duty Modern Warfare (1) was such an innovative FPS. Did you know that level where you’re in the C-130 protecting soldiers on the ground was developed by a single designer; after hours. That person had an idea, and they went way out of their way to give it a quick test and see how it worked. That turned into a level that every person who ever played that game remembers. That is the kind of extra-mile that is going to get you noticed.
I’m not saying you need to invent a new type of normal map, I’m saying that those people who make those one extra steps happen are the ones that get noticed, and those little details that a prideful worker, and an average worker make are what set exceptional apart from extraordinary.
These are just a handful of musings I’ve had in my head for a while and wanted to get out.
Any thoughts, comments, concerns? Hit me up in the comments!