Monday, October 29, 2012

Freelance work - jewelry animation

I had received an offer of creating a presentation video/animation for a jewelry company. The request is to model, texture and animate a sort of camera closing in on a ring box, which opens up. The camera hovers around the ring itself and then zooms back out, with the lid of the box closing.
The provided reference images were helpful enough in establishing the main visual style of the video and I had 10 days to finish the job. My aim was to learn from my previous experiences and pretty soon after the first talk, I wanted to send a somewhat roughed out test render to the client. There are multiple reasons behind this:

 1 - by sending a piece of work soon after the initial talk, you give the impression of being someone very active and committed to the job. It reassures the client of you being the right choice and they don't have to bite their nails up until the deadline day, wondering whether you will deliver or not. 
 2- by providing early test images, the client can immediately point out the visual direction you need to head in. If he/she can rule out an issue early on, that will save you time and money. Eliminating problems at the very early stages can save you a lot of headache. 

 Reference images:

The first step was to build the models with good proportions. At first, I had doubts about the ring itself as I didn't really understand the exact shape of the diamond itself, but I`ve managed to gather some schematics which cleared things up. This schematic was not provided by the client, so often times you have to gather your own... you won't be provided with absolutely everything.

Breaking down the reference:

It's really helpful to go in and examine the reference and make scribbles, notes. It makes you more aware and familiar with what you need to create.
The light is coming from above with a whitish color. The light is sort of a sky light with very scattered and smooth behaviour, hence the shadows are soft as well. The surfaces have a gradient type of shading. On the front of the right box you notice a kind of radial transition from light shade to dark around the edges.
This shading can be reproduced by positioning the lights appropriately and adjusting the material accordingly. That said, there is another technique, which involves hand painting in these shades directly in to the texture. So, if render times become an issue, or if simply the latter solution seems simpler, I will choose that.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Choosing the concept

Based on the research I have done, it became obvious to me that each job application I will hand in has to be tailored to that specific position. The portfolio needs to show that I am aware of that specific company's art style and other requirements. For instance, if I want to apply to a game developing company that specializes in car racing games then my portfolio has to show that I can create outstanding race tracks and the surrounding environment.

I am a huge fan of Blizzard Entertainment's games, so it makes sense to start creating work that matches their style. Although, I did create one work before which was based on one of their concept drawings: my "Haunted House" image. Because of this previous Warcraft work, I have already some experience and understanding of their own, unique style. Now, I plan to further that knowledge, hoping that one day it might just get me that desired position.

I was aiming for an area of their "World of Warcraft" game that is rich in color, has all sorts of interesting shapes and textures as well. I am a huge fan of creating architectural pieces, so it got me thinking that I could re-create one of the many cities found within the game. Their cities have barely been re-created in realistic CG as well, so this might even be interesting to the Warcraft fan community. I know for a fact that everyone's craving for more, realistic representation of the scenery found within the game, but this need has barely been satisfied.
The game's graphics (due mostly to the aging game engine's limitations) is not exactly the most realistic thing you ever saw, although that has never been the goal with Blizzard. They always value style and feeling over realism, but it never hurts to try and keep that specific style and try to blend it with the more modern technical opportunities available today.

That said, I went ahead and posted a thread on the biggest World of Warcraft community out there, I have asked the fans which city they would be most interested to see and I had suggested my top 3 favorites, which was Silvermoon, Stormwind and Dalaran.

Out of these two, my favorite so far was Silvermoon, due to it's strikingly emotional color palette. As you can see on the images, it uses all different shades of red, orange, soft white, brown and it even has vegetation which gives it's visual style good contrast.



Stormwind was appealing because it's just pure, human architecture with a bit of twist added to it. Warcraft style is all about non-linear, unperfect curves, shapes etc. I am really inspired by the medieval architecture style and all its details and adding that extra style to it, makes it all the more interesting. Why Stormwind falls behind Silvermoon on my list though is because of it's colour palette. It lacks that extra "kick", which Silvermoon has, because it uses mostly common, "everyday life" colours.



Third option was Dalaran, which is failry similar to Silvermoon. It has these very interesting shapes and silhouettes. It is a blend between human... and maybe a bit of sci-fiction elements. It has that bit of alien feel to it, but you still feel that it's a human settlement. It is also a floating city, above the skies as you can see on the image and it's color palette is very intriguing as well. It mostly uses shades of violet, brown, blue and red.



So far, Silvermoon is my choice but I will wait for some feedback from the community and I will also read up on the history of these cities, as there is rich lore behind all of them. Maybe I can incorporate some sort of story element, or one of these cities will become more interesting to work on because I learn something new about them. We'll see.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

What it means to be an Environment Artist

It is one thing to understand the theory and a completely separate thing to apply it to your actual workflow.

The research I have done so far give me an insight and a general plan on how to achieve progress,but I need to translate that to actual, daily tasks.. I have to bridge theory with practice.

Now, one of the key things when it comes to environment art is to really make it look awesome. It needs to capture the viewer and set the mood. In order to achieve this link with the viewer, the work has to be top notch. Because of the technical possibilities out there, there is no excuse not to create something amazing. Everything you create has to be top notch, end of story.
How to make something look and feel "top notch"? Well, you need the theoretical knowledge, color theories, rule of thirds, composition etc. but the technical realization of the work has to be top quality as well. Especially when it comes to games because of the hardware limitations.
Achieving something with the less possible resources and as FAST as possible. Now, becoming fast and effective is all about practice and an open,free, creative mind.

When you are professional, you take into consideration every small detail of a work. That is how you have to do it, make everything look amazing. But, because of this need for quality, sometimes it's very very easy to get hung up on insignificantly small details and waste time. I have experienced this in the past several times.
It's very important to take the time you are given and use that time to focus on the MOST important elements of your work, which are the shapes (silhouettes), textures, color, lighting and effectiveness (resource usage). When you take 20% of the time to focus on an object in the background which is barely visible and not so relevant to the final outcome, that is not effective time-management. I have to prioratize the global, most influential elements of the work over small details. It takes practice and experience to learn this, so.. keep on practicing.

At this moment I will look at the art that interests me the most. That is the Warcraft universe art style, but any environmental work as well.
I will examine a host of concept arts and based on them decide which will best suit the purpose on developing myself in the right area.
I will examine these concepts, take a look at which one provides the best challenge for me that fits into the time-frame I am given for this project.

Here are some of the concepts:










Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Online community contacts and feedback

Since the start of third year, I have started to pay more attention in developing relevant contacts withing the CG industry. In the past I had uploaded my finished work to popular CG websites like etc. I have gained valuable feedback from this experience, but I am planning to make my contact with the online community a bit more interactive.

I not just want to upload finished images, but I am planning on starting forum threads which will be like a digital sketchbook, showing my progression with each of my projects. This is more beneficial than just uploading a final piece as you will gain essential tips, suggestions, criticism etc. as you continue your work, but it also makes people more aware of your art.
I feel that I have enough experience to start such threads on very popular websites like PolycountCGSociety3DTotal etc. When I first started learning CG I`ve uploaded my work to a smaller, Hungarian website called, where I made many new friends and acquaintances with whom I still keep contact. They helped me enormously back in the days to develop myself, so going ahead and sharing my work-in-progress (WiP) work on bigger, international websites sounds like a good idea.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Networking experiences - Anifest

Earlier this month I have attended the very popular animation festival, called Anifest in Canterbury. This event showed huge promise for learning new things and getting in touch with some of the leading professionals of the industry.

People from Pixar, Dreamworks, Double Negative, Aardman etc. have attended the festival and each of their shows left me with a couple of valuable thoughts I will keep with me.
There is this gap between what you experience from your own view and what you get from the online community and maybe even the university and the actual leading professionals. They always have one or two things to say that you had never really thought of, but once you hear it, makes huge sense.

First event was the presentation by Cassidy Curtis from Dreamworks. He pretty much went through the entire work pipeline that involves creating a final animation piece. The focus was more on the animation part of course, on which he gave quite an inspiring insight. He reinforced the idea that being able to act out, or having someone acting out a specific movement for you is crucial. Animation is the purest manifestation of acting, because it is all in the animator's head. You are channeling your understanding, your imagination and skills on to a puppet, which is fascinating.
Although, I tried to somehow take away something from an environment artist point of view. As I looked at his work I could tell that all the environments blended perfectly with the character's and the way they behaved. There was a tight connection between them and the surroundings did not only exist to hold the characters, but to be interactable.

Next presentation was Aardman's which at first glance might seem a bit irrelevant, since it is a stop-motion animation company. This was quite far from the truth as I`ve learned once again that the theoretical principles are absolutely the same, no matter the medium you use. Even with stop motion, I could see that the environment's and prop's color palette was carefully developed and blended nicely with that of the character's. It was obvious that everything was textured very carefully and by artists who understood color, texture and light theory. It's all very similar to Computer Graphics, it's "just" the techniques they use what are different.
Another crucial thing I take away from Aardman's presentation is the fact they admit, CG is being utilized more and more in stop-motion. Their new animations all have a significant amount of CG in them, like the backgrounds and some effects like smoke, water, splash etc. After the show I had the opportunity to talk with the two gentleman from Aardman and they pretty much reconfirmed that CG is being used more and more. This presents me with the knowledge that I might even utilize my CG skills in the stop-motion industry. This is good to hear as it provides more opportunity for work.

Pixar's show was incredibly inspiring, but hey.. what would you expect?! They've reinforced the idea of how important story and storytelling is. All of their work has an incredible amount of planning, research, testing and re-doing going into them. Another thing was interesting to know that they use all sorts of "cheats" to get the final visual result they are aiming for. By cheats I mean problem solving methods that might sounds insane at first, but in the end gets you from A to B.
In Bug's Life, there was an issue with the rocks in a puddle. The rocks' bottom half was in the water, whereas the upper part was sticking out. The artists did not want the bottom parts to be seen as it did not provide the intended visual result. They could not just delete the lower part as that would have affected the reflections and refractions on the water. Long story short: they came up with a so-called "Death Ray" which was a type of light source. Whatever was caught by the Death Ray's beam was completely invisible in the scene, yet it still affected in physically (it could still be seen in reflections, refractions etc.). This was an insane idea at the time, but hey.. as long as it works.. who cares.
On some occasions when I work on my own projects I stumble onto some weird problems that do not have a "you have to fix it like this" stamp on them. Rather, it requires some sort of individual work-around. By taking Pixar's Death Ray example, I feel more confident on going ahead and coming up with my own ideas to sort my problems out. Yes, the internet is a wonderful source for problem-solving but if you have the experience and creativity to do it yourself then you have a very valuable skill.

The last presentation was that of Double Negative which is a VFX Studio. They blend live footage with CG elements to get that absolutely realistic quality of supernatural shots. The presentation provided a nice, in-depth to their entire workflow and at the end I approached their staff to ask them regarding what they would expect to see on en Environment Artist's showreel. I wanted to know how I should develop my work so even a company who produces very realistic work would be interested.
The response I got was: "make your work look very cinematic". They went ahead and told me that color/tone, lighting and mood is crucial for making environments look interesting. They want to see places that by first glance look very appealing and draw the viewer in.

One of the best things I have done so far this year was attending Anifest. It made me shift my view somewhat on the more important things I need to concentrate on. CG is so vast and there are so many possibilities that it is easy to stray away from the actual important stuff. You need people to tell you and remind you of things you might have already known but forgotten. The human mind is very frustrating sometimes, because you actually forget things that you knew to be essential in the past. Networking events like this inspire you and refresh your mind and also provide you with the opportunity to start making yourself known in the industry.
You never know when you will again "bump" into a person you have already met and help you out.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Specialist Study 1 - Aims

In light of the research I have done throughout the last month, I now have a better understanding of how I should use my ambition to achieve a career in Computer Graphics.

My aim is to understand, practice and apply the main principles that are required to be successful as an Environment Artist in the Computer Graphics industry. Through several micro-projects and collaborative work, I will study and utilize the fundamental color, lighting, texturing and modeling theories in order to achieve fluency regarding these. Color studies will include reading sessions and also painting in order to experiment with how various moods and tones can be achieved. To develop my lighting skills I will look into the very basics of photography and how light can affect the general feel of an image and also what affect it has on macro and micro detail.

Texturing skills will develop through the study of various video-tutorials from revered online CG schools (e.g Digital Tutors, Gnomon Workshop) and then taking these studies and trying to utilize them in order to create different types of texture maps.

To enhance my modeling skills, I will use a software that is absolutely mandatory in the field and which is less technique orianteted. The sclupting program called ZBrush perfectly suits this purpose, because it allows more visual expression than most of the other software in the industry. I will schedule several modeling studies such as rock, wood, soil and various other assets.

My main audiences are the gaming and the film industry.

For feedback I will post my work to several Computer Graphics societies like ZBrushCentral, CGArena, 3DTotal etc. The very best artists post their work on these websites, as a result they are an excellent source for objective opinion.
I will also attempt to contact industry professional to get advice.
Frequent consultations with my tutor will ensure I stay on the right progression path, as often times it's very easy to focus way too much on insignificant details. Objective opinion is crucial.

By the end of the project I expect to have gained significant experience in Environmental work and have produced several work and research material as proof.

My main approach is to bump into as many problems as possible and then anylize them to further my development.

Job requirements research

As the lest step of my research, I will be looking at what he big names of this industry require from an Environmental Artist. This includes examining game companies like Blizzard EntertainmentBethesda Softworks, but also Visual Effects (VFX) ones such as Double Negative.

What Blizzard asks

By looking at Blizzard's official Career's page I have come across the following:

"The ideal candidate has experience modeling and texturing assets for a diverse visual range of environments. A solid grasp of form, color, and light for both 2D and 3D art assets is essential. The senior environment artist must have skill in another art task as well -- illustration, modeling, texturing, animation, concept drawing -- and be well-versed in related tools --3DS Max, Photoshop, etc. The ideal candidate works well in an environment of peers who are passionate about making great games.

  • Have shipped AAA PC or console titles as a senior environment artist
  • Strong foundation in the traditional arts, including but not limited to figure drawing and/or environmental and/or architectural illustration.
  • A passion for developing online games
  • Understanding of the visual style of World of Warcraft and a passion to push it to the next level. "

These requirements sound very similar. These are pretty much what the various Enviornment Artists I have researched recommend.

The essential note to take away here is that it is all about a deep understanding of art and have significance experience through practice and work. I continously need to develop my understanding of color, lighting, not only in terms of 3D, but 2D as well. As an Env. artist I am often required to paint textures. Now, texturing is not just taking a photo or downloading one from the internet and then just throwing it on a model. In games, I would often have to hand paint them from scratch. This is because games have their own visual style and the textures have to corespond to that. Often times the texture itself has to contain light and shadow information, to name a few. Games are very limited technology wise and it's crucial to achieve the look you are after through absolutely the minimum hardware calculations as possible.

Artists use various tricks to lighten the burden on the game engine. This is because calculating elements like reflection, shadow, specularity, sub surface scattering etc. are very heavy tasks and can raise the system requirements throught the roof. Games have to run on all sorts of computers, even one's that are not very performant. So, to make the game less hardware demanding, 3D artists often times hand paint various information straight into the texture map, so that the game engine does not have to calculate these. The result looks believable and at the same time frees up resource.
Being able to do this requires thorough studies and practice in color and lighting theories

Blizzard also requires Env. artists to have skills in other fields that are closely related, such as illustration, animation etc. This again shows the necessity to have a good understanding of the work pipeline and have a good collaboration with the different departments involved in the creation of the game. I will be able to better optimize my work if I am concious of what I need to create and know how my work will be used in the later stages of production. This ensures that the development process is less problematic and more fluid. For example: if I am aware of what the animators have to do with my assets (blow them up, animate a certain movement etc.) then I can optimize my topology to better suit that purpose. This way, the animators won't have to tweak my assets, which would lengthen the work process and make it more costly overall. It's all about the look and efficiency.

Being a good team player/collaborator is crucial. This is one of the fundamental building blocks when it comes to working in any field, actually. My ability to take initiative and being able to see how my actions will effect the work in the long run is valuable. It's not about standing out or thriving to succeed on a personal level (that is important in a certain way of course, but should not come as nr. 1 priority), but rather helping the team overall. I need to be able to analyze situations and make short-term decisions so the work does not come to a halt. Luckily, I am in love with what I do. My ambition and eagerness to succeed fuels such situations.

I have been in quite a lot of collaborative situations before and I feel confident about performing well in similar cases in the future.
Actually, one of the best examples I can come up with relates to World of Warcraft. It`s probably my favorite game of all times and I have played it a lot in the past. I remember when I was in a guild, where 30-40 people had to contribute to achieve a specific goal. I was so ambitious to do my part that I was up all night completing the tasks that were asked of me and even doing a bit more to help others. The key point here is that it wasn`t a personal "shof off" thing, rather trying to help the whole group reaching the set goal as fast and easy as possible.

Knowledge regarding the game you would like to work on counts as a plus. If you are familiar with the gameplay, the art, the general feel of what the game is trying to achieve, then you will blend into it's development easier. As I have mentioned earlier, I have played WoW quite a lot in the past and have been up to date with the happenings ever since.

Unreal 4 Engine - model test.
Of course, these big players always ask you to have experience in the field, so kick-starting your work there is not very likely... but could happen. A good way to gain some experience beforehand is to either aim for smaller companies first or you can test out your assets in the modern game engines that are freely available to download nowadays. By doing this I can see how my models, textures etc. react in an actual game environment and can learn a lot from that. It even allows me the possibility to add these tests to my showreel to prove my understanding and experience when it comes to games. Game engines like CryEngineUnreal Engine or Marmoset are more than suitable for this purpose.

I will write about the companies I have mentioned at the beginning of this post at a later point, because the difference in what these top players of the industry ask is not very different to each other.
All of them require the same fundamental skills: excellent skills in color, lighting, modeling, texturing etc. and a Generalist approach as well.
Nowadays, Environment Artists are not just asked to model the assets of the games, but also to achieve excellent lighting, texturing etc. Also, veing able to create concept art really fast (either through 2D methods or even 3D) is mandatory.

I feel that I have made enough research to be able to set out my learning aims and goals for my Specialist Study 1 project.

Reference:   Blizzard Entertainment Career's Page (WoW)
                      - Blizzard Entertainment Career's Page (Diablo 3)
                      - Bethesda Softworks - Environment Artist career page

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Learning from the experts

My next step in learning what an Environment Artists job is all about was to look at industry professionals and learn from them. I think you have to take the opportunity and learn from people who are better than you. It can speed up your development process and they inspire you along the way as well.

There are a lot of amazing artists out there. I have chosen a couple to mention in this post.

- David Lesperance

David Lesperance has worked for companies like Midway Games, Robomodo, Blizzard Entertainment and is currently working for Microsoft as the Lead Environment Artist for their upcoming Halo game.

David Lesperance work.
I have been researching David's portfolio website, examining his work. What makes him unique I feel and inspiring for me is his constant eagerness to learn and improve. Even though his work looks amazing, he does not allow himself to spend an eternity on one project. One should always decide on a time limit by which the work has to be done. You can work on a piece of work forever, there is always something to refine or tweak, but that's really pointless. What makes you valuable and good in this industry is being able to produce quality work in a certain time frame.

David's main focus is not on technique, but on pure art itself. His aim is to better utilize his art skills in the work he produces. One of the important methods he always utilizes is the "rule of thirds". This rule is about creating a layout for your images that is pleasant and natural for the human eye. The technique is to divide your illustration in 3 parts horizontally and vertically as well. You will get two horizontal and vertical lines separating your image. The key is to put crucial elements of the picture in the intersection of these lines. A general approach from artists is to focus the viewers' gaze towards the center of their images because they've placed their model there. Although this might be a good approach in some cases, when it comes to pure art, it is not the best way to illustrate things. The human eye and the perception of an image feels much more natural, appealing and interesting if you obey the rule of thirds. David's work heavily relies on this technique., a revered Computer Graphics website, interviewed David not long ago, where he mentioned some interesting things about how an aspiring Environment Artist can develop. One of the key points I take away from this interview is his advice to focus on growing as an artist. My aim is to look into fields that will support my CG work, fields like fine art, colour theories, photography etc. I've been intimidated by these areas in the past due to lack of self-confidence. As you mature a bit and gain experience and confidence, you realize that all it takes is hard work and experimenting. If you have the will, you will find the way to do anything. Period.

David Lesperance rock study.
David does a lot of studies in his spare time. He has a significant amount of work that concentrates on building rocks, soil, hard surfaces etc. He just builds and builds more of these. These individual studies slowly build up your arsenal of skills which then later on can be used for professional projects.
He does not neglect the technical side of the arts either. With each new software releases he immediately starts to experiment and learn the new tools. It's crucial to always look at the new possibilities and try to implement them into your workflow. This way, you allow yourself to better express your art through the new tools that are available. Advancing your techniques enables you to concentrate less on the technical side and more on the art.

The main software he uses are: 3DSMax, Maya, Softimage, ZBrush, Photoshop etc. anything that helps him to get the job done as quickly as possible.

- Hogarth “Hogie” de la Plante

Hogarth is the Lead Environment Artist on the Bioshock games. He is responsible for all the art assets of the game, excluding the characters. His success is based on the detailed research regarding his projects. It is important to understand that even as an Environment Artist, you have to have a thorough understanding and FEEL of the atmosphere the game is trying to establish. The key to produce good environmental work is to understand and know the game inside and out. What characters are going to take place in the environment? What are their personalities like? How will they interact with the assets? etc. 

Studying the story of the game is important. Also, you must have a good collaboration with the design department and the concept artists. Communication has to happen back and forth, throughout the entire work process to make sure that the work you, as an Env. Artist are creating, matches the expectations. 
Concept art is not just about shapes and forms, but mood and feel. I have to recreate the feel of the scenes these artists draw up. This involves paying huge attention to textures, lighting, silhouettes etc. This is clearly pointing me in the direction I need to head in: studying textures, lighting etc.
Hogarth loves creating 3D space in which people can interact with objects, characters etc. He enjoys creating things that exist in the mind and bringing them to life.
The main goal is to tell a story through your work and the environment is a fundamental building block of that. My environmental art has to fit into this big picture the companies I work for are trying to "paint".

- Gary Platner

Gary is the Lead Environment Artist at Blizzard Entertainment for their World of Warcraft (refered to as WoW from now on) franchise.
Gary is probably the number one candidate I should study. He is working on a game that inspires me to a length I could not describe. What they have achieved with this game is absolutely breathtaking. What needs to be noted here is that, even though technically WoW is not up to par with the latest releases in the games industry, it still manages to be the number one game today on the PC. I will not go into the records it holds as that is a long list, but I will talk about some key points I take away by studying the work of Gary.
Even though he is not directly modeling and creating the assets himself for the game, he is responsible for the final look of it. The points I take away from him are more of theoretical nature, not technical.
Due to the fact that WoW is an MMORPG, meaning it's environment is going to be inhabited by thousands of players, they had to create the areas to suit that purpose. The game has no end, it is a cycled/loop style game, so one of the challenges was to somehow keep the environment interesting even if the players had seen it a zillion times before. The key for this was not realism, but style. The Warcraft universe was already a set one, meaning they had built up a style beforehand on which they wanted WoW to rely on. It was of course polished and developed even further by creating a huge amount of concept art.

To create that unique Warcraft atmosphere, they had to achieve the style visually inside the game. Every model, texture, light etc. was created to match this. The shapes found in the environment are sometimes a bit different compared to the real world, but these differences are achieved in such manner that they still remain believable. To achieve the mood they wanted, they had to pay huge attention to colour and tone. The scale of some assets and some funny bending here and there created that undeniable Warcraft experience.
I, as an artist have to thoroughly research the art of a game before going ahead and creating it inside the software.
In games, but also in films (Pixar, Dreamworks etc.), believability is preferred over photo-realism. You often times hear feedback, like: "Wow, that place looks so REAL man!", whereas actually there was not much detail built into that environment. Actually, the key to its success was the focus to make it believable. For a gamer/viewer "real", or "realistic" means believable. And that is the key. Make you audience believe the story you are trying to convey. The environment is a huge factor in this.
There are a lot of "goofy" , and far-fetched designs in World of Warcraft, but people still love them and say they are real, because of the appeal they generate through their style.

Another challenge they have faced was having to introduce new play areas into the game. This was hard to do with an already well established world. How do you add to something that has been very carefully thought out and planned before? The new assets have to add to the game, not stand out and become obvious "add-ons".
The key to this was matching the environmental work to the lore. The new areas they had to introduce was the homeland of the new characters Blizzard was introducing into their game. The artists used the characteristics of these new races and built the environment based on these. 
The environment has to reflect the life that inhabits it. For example: a new race called the goblins entered the game. The goblins were business and money orientated creatures with complete neglect towards the environment. Their main city was a very industrial one, full of factories and casinos. A ghetto type of place, polluting the land. These characteristics had to be reflected in the environmental work, so one of the things the artists have done was created a grey sky, because of the smoke in the area. They've created pipes that dumped waste into the nearby lake, which in the end had this greyish coloured water in it because of the pollution. Lack of surrounding wildlife also was a sign that this is not a very nature friendly place.
These kind of environmental details helped create the believability and unique style of WoW.

There are several other artists that I learn from and who inspire me. I've realized that constantly researching their work and trying to learn from them not only widens my perspective, but also motivates me.

Reference:  -  David Lesperance Portfolio website

                     -  David Lesperance interview at CGArena

                     -  Hogarth “Hogie” de la Plante interview on Bioshock 2

                     -  World of Warcraft Art Gallery

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Looking at the development of games - Part 2

(Due to the amount of content in this topic, I have divided the research into two separate posts. This is Part2, for Part 1 CLICK .)

If you do not want to read through the entire post, rather read a brief conclusion regarding this research, scroll all the way down to the bottom of this post.

In the early days, game developing companies had a small staff. There was 1 person who designed the game, 1 programmer, 1 artist etc. Nowadays studios have over 100 people working on their games, because as technology advanced and limitations started to disappear, quality requirements went up. This meant that each element of the game had to be very well done. This separated the art department into several "sub-departments". Companies had people who could perform throughout the whole artistic pipeline before. These artists were called Generalists. Generalists exist even today, but the focus now is to specialize in one specific area. Art department today consists of concept artists, character designers, environment artists etc.
Today, it helps to have Generalist experiences to better understand the entire work-pipeline, but you have to specialize in a specific area as well. The biggest and most successful game-companies rarely look for Generalists, they need specialists (more on this in another post).

Another important topic when it comes to games is visual realism. People often think that the more realistic, in terms of physical accuracy means a better gaming experience. History shows that this is not the case. Realism is only a tool to achieve a better gaming experience. What I have noticed is that style is often times favored over realism. There is a good example nowadays to enforce this theory: the game World of Warcraft. It has been around for 8 years now and its graphics engine has become quite out-dated. In terms of technology it's nowhere near to the flagship visual games of today (e.g. Crysis 2 etc.), but it is still the WAY most popular MMORPG game out there. How did the developers manage to keep the gamers interested? It has to do with pure art: they have put an extensive amount of effort into developing a specific visual style to the game, which makes the environments and the characters beautiful. They do not consists of hundreds of thousands of polygons, but the gorgeous way they are designed compensates for that.
Games are about art. In a way, they simulate culture, art etc. The technology is there to help us artists express ourselves all the better. The tools and their advancement allows freedom of expression.
Photo-realism could also support a surrealistic environment. You create something super-natural in a realistic way, so that the viewer/gamer actually feels that this place exists somewhere.

World of Warcraft: favor to style over realism.
It is important to understand to not just create photos. Always thrive for uniqueness!

Games today are still perceived in our culture as a kids' medium, but with the advancement of technology, they don't have to look like cartoons anymore, thus enabling them to appeal to more mature audiences as well. The same content can have different meanings or reactions depending of the visual style. For example, a murder scene might be funny in a cartoony visual way, but shown photo-realistically can have a whole different affect. This requires the artist to have a good understanding on how different visual elements influence the viewer. Again, this prove that studies outside of CG itself IS required.

Game developers have to take into consideration the hardware changes that are going to take place after the release of the game. They need to be aware about the direction and the speed at which technology is evolving. Their games have to have longevity in order to ensure success. This means that they have to somehow figure out what hardware their product needs to support.
This might affect my work as an artist as well, because the hardware changes that keep happening keep changing our workflow. How Environment Artists go about creating their assets today is very different compared to how they've done it before.

I have to learn to adapt to change and constantly improve and optimize my workflow to become as effective I can. The new possibilities provide swifter and more efficient ways to experiment and create new things. Change is constant and learning how to adapt is crucial.

Modern games are allowing players to customize and influence their gameplay even more. Assets become more interactive, meaning I have to adjust my work to not only satisfy as a static visual element, but as something you can interact with. As lot of games have a "never-ending" style to them, my art has to remain interesting enough so that players do not get sick and bored by looking at them over and over again.
The need for quality is drastically rising and the better understanding of what appeals to the human eye becomes more and more important. 

Will Wright would like programming to allow art and story content to be generated in a procedural way. He thinks that we are "brute forcing" the matter by having hundreds of artists manually place each blade of grass, each stone etc. in the environments. This results in higher costs as companies have to pay more and more artists. The next step in this matter would be an algorithmic solution on creating these details.
The algorithms today, though, do not match or requirements, meaning they cannot produce the visual quality and experience as an artist can. But, as programming and artificial intelligence progresses, this might be possible in the future. The players themselves in the game can create their own content through these algorithmic solution.
I identify in this a potential danger to my job, because if such algorithms do become used, than the need for artists might decrease. 
Game designer Rand Miller (Myst series) thinks that the answer is somewhere in between the two solutions. Procedural solutions can be a great benefit, but the manual, artistic approach will still be required, because nothing can match it and the details that these algorithms would place around the environment have to be created in the first place. 

Will Wright would like for the input to match with the output as much as possible. Today, for example a game designer can provide through their product 200kbyte/sec information to the user. The problem is that the user only perceives and consumes about 10kbyte of that data (illustrative numbers only). This is a problem and somehow balancing these numbers would be an important step.
I can really relate with this, because there have been a lot of cases when the effort, time, research and passion I have poured into a work did not match the user interactivity of it at all. The input was WAY higher than the output and bringing symmetry to these "numbers" would be a valuable thing.

Very cinematic look of Crysis 2.
Another important matter to talk about is the influence of films on the gaming industry. More and more "film-people" start working on games. Writers, composers, technicians, artists etc. produce more and more cinematic work. Games are starting to become interactive films.
I have talked to several professionals about the direction I should take as an Environment Artist and all of them shared a same view: make your work cinematic. It is obvious from the games of today that this is an important skill to have. Films revolve around story-telling, visual experiences. Although, games rely on gameplay. To achieve good gameplay you must use tools like story, art etc. Conclusion is clear: make my work cinematic.

Key notes I take away from my research of the history of computer games:

-a huge amount of great discoveries and new concepts were born through experimenting. It is important to look outside your own medium, play around with other things, because inspiration can happen anytime. You can't plan some things. You'r brain conjures up new ideas by looking "outside the box" and discovering other areas outside of CG.

-  even with limited technology, it is possible to interact with the consumer.

-  the appreciation of today's possibilities. The achievements of the past might seem "normal" and easy nowadays, but in truth they were the result of HUGE effort and creativity, due to the limitations that existed back then. Today, often times we take for granted the opportunities that are presented to us. I, as an artist, am only limited by myself. The technology is there!

-  what I have noticed is that style is often times favored over realism.

-  make my work cinematic.

-  the technology is there to help us artists express ourselves. The tools and their advancement allows freedom of expression.

-  it is important to understand to not just create photos. Always thrive for uniqueness!

-  studies outside of CG is required: fine art, anatomy, shape/form, colour etc.

-  I have to learn to adapt to change and constantly improve and optimize my workflow to become as effective as I can be. The new possibilities provide swifter and more efficient ways to experiment and create content. Change is constant and learning how to adapt is crucial.

-  identifying potential dangers (like procedural methods to generate art content in games) to my job and knowing how my art needs to change can later on raise my chances of remaining valuable to the CG industry, thus ensuring employability.

-  matching input (effort invested) with output (user interaction).