Artist and Animator FAQ

October 31, 2003

The artist/animator is an essential part of the game development team, working with the designer to turn ideas into reality and supplying the visuals that the rest of the team will bring to life. In this section you’ll find the answers to the most common questions we are asked about artists and animators in gaming, as well as a list of suggested reading materials.

Should I get a college/university degree?

In other words, should you spend the time/money/effort in getting a degree, or should you polish some skills and go straight to the job market?

Overall, traditional art training is indispensable — you’ve got to understand color, lighting, texture, anatomy, architectural style and construction. etc. Itâ??s all used in video game art. As you’ll see below, artists not only create characters, but environments, buildings, explosions, etc.

Game developers tend to look for veterans and/or diamonds in the rough. While it certainly couldn’t hurt, per se, having a degree (or any other certificate) means very little when applying for a position as a 3D artist. When it comes to getting your foot in the door, a PICTURE paints a MILLION words. So my point is that even a nice long resume with lots of text will not help — you need a web address or a video tape or an .AVI or a .MOV file to catch someone’s attention.

I suggest you make a a great demo reel at home, learning what you need from the Web, from other artists, from classes, from books, etc. Start a gallery online, somewhere like www.raph.com, because game companies watch sites like these.

Once you have your BEST POSSIBLE gallery online, then invite companies to come and see it. To get to the key people, use a mailer like the one here. Note that this mailer is somewhat out of date. Use the directory of game companies to create your own list.

Remember that you only get ONE visit from a company, so make sure your work is going to drop their jaw when you get them there.

How do I become a video game artist?

There are several different types of artists. These are the major types below. Note that these are not in any particular order, and the list is very generalized — different companies may use different terms. But these are the most common.

Art Director

Should really be the guru that knows all tools, technologies and with the most creative ideas and best artistic ability. They can inspire by example and can physically step in to fix problems as they come up. They also need to work closely with the producer & designer to manage the throughput of the art team. Good time management skills are essential.

This is often the highest paid art position, but it’s also got a lot of responsibility with it. It’s also a frustrating job, because it ends up restricting the time you actually get to draw and add to the game as you spend a lot of time in meetings and managing people. Expect future video game Art Directors to spend very little time physically making the game.

Special Effects Artist

This is a new kind of position that is going to become more and more important in the video game business as the hardware curve keeps on climbing. In machines like the Playstation 2, there is a lot of power to be harnessed by programming the special effects using mathematical procedures inside the video graphics chip. That said, don’t rely on the programmer to make this a beautiful thing, as usually the creativity and tweaking comes from this artist, someone with an eye for really cool and organic special effects.

The Special Effects Artist has to blend that artistic ability with an amazing technical prowess. This is now probably the most technical art job going in a studio. It’s all about explosions, reflections, object destruction, particles, smoke, clouds, flapping cloth, hair, etc. This artist must be SUPER flexible to move from task to task and tool to tool. They would benefit greatly from having previous programming experience. The good news is that you don’t have to be an amazing pencil artist for this position, but some cinematic and video processing experience is important.

3D Background Artist

These people build the worlds (both indoor and outdoor). Some are very technical and create very lifelike photorealistic worlds, while some create amazing new fantasy worlds with little reference. Some combine the two, using real world art and tweaking it to look more stylized (like a convincing alien green sky.)

The best background artists are pretty technical individuals and are able to push a programmer to generate new innovative looks, lighting and moods in their levels. To do spectacular work, they usually push programmers pretty hard and are flexible to change and modify their work, if it will result in a new feature improving the overall ambiance of the worlds. They do a LOT of work in 3D art packages, custom level layout tools and in texture artwork packages like Photoshop.

The background artist has a BIG responsibility to the game, as it’s usually his art that gets the initial “WOW” when a gamer first sees the game.

3D Model Builder (Objects)

This person builds physical objects, pickups, vehicles, furniture, etc. A 3D model builder should be very organized and be able to build models quicker and quicker over time as they generate a good library of basic objects. The biggest mistake they make is when they get a model 95% there, then take forever just tweaking it — adding detail you can see in a high-end artist package, but can never see in the game. I have seen some model builders just not able to break this habit.

It’s not a terribly technical job, but I find that the best guys are the one that you could say, “Build me a Mars Exploration Vehicle,” and they would run off and draw something cool and original that LOOKS LIKE IT WOULD WORK! That’s that trick — understanding machinery, balance, gearing, etc. They tend to use 3D art packages and texture tools all day long. It’s a nice, rewarding, focused job with a major impact on the game.

3D Model Builder (Characters)

This person builds the characters in your game. This is a really cool position. The old days of building characters in 250 polygons is long over (models at Shiny come close to 500,000 polygons now). That said, some teams still use the older style of engine and some are working on more simple 3D interfaces (like online games).

So you need to decide — are you a HIGH-DETAIL Character artist, or a LOW-DETAIL Character artist? The high-detail guys are the ones at Hollywood quality levels that can easily make a movie-quality 3D character. The low-detail guys have a knack of making a character look cool, even when they have VERY little detail to work with. The high-detail guys usually work on Silicon Graphics or killer PC workstations, whie the low-detail guys tend to work on decent PCs.

Both jobs are very important, but expect to see a gentle drift towards the high-end as hardware gets better and better over time.

3D Cyberscanning Artist (Actors)

This is a relatively new type of game artist that uses a laser-scanning machine or complex video capture software to generate a very high detail 3D model. He then hand-repairs and enhances this 3D character to look absolutely photorealistic. This artist is responsible for getting the future synthetic actors into video games. It’s not as creative as many artists would like, but it’s an amazing challenge to deliver the best actors. It’s also complex, when you start considering clothing, hair, teeth, eyes, muscle movement, etc. So this artist is probably best being a top 3D character builder that now wants to try his hand at something fresh and new.

3D FMV (Full motion video) Artist

Working with the conceptual artist and as part of a team, these artists need to be able to follow a storyboard and generate a high quality cinematic movie sequence. This requires cameras, lighting, animation, seamless integration of characters and worlds, ambiance, music, etc. The reality is that this job is huge, and so it is common for entire teams of artists to work together while concentrating on their own speciality (lighting or special effects or camera moves or environment, etc.)

My personal concern is that quite often the best artists on the team end up wanting to do this, and then the game itself suffers. These guys usually can do great characters and backgrounds and can make up a really compelling movie sequence. They generally belong in Hollywood, but you will find video game teams fighting for them in the coming years.

Conceptual Artist

These artists generally draw worlds on paper. Some just do pencil, while some are “matte painters,” like the guys that paint the “impossible to build” backdrops for movies. A good video game conceptual artist needs to be able to draw straight into Fractal Paint or Photoshop using something like a Wacom digital pen and tablet, generating high quality digital images quickly that will inspire the team and can even be used as temporary placeholder art.

They need to be very very good at “perspective style” artwork and real and organic architecture. If you don’t know what I mean, then you are the wrong guy!

The conceptual artist would also lay out a storyboard for movie sequences. Now, don’t get too carried away with this — the guy needs to understand game development and to be able to agree to terms with the programmer, but it’s OK for him to present ideas that will be very hard to achieve. Next-generation creativity is never easy to do, so this is a good guy to challenge the team. They generally would never do actual game art, but they are responsible for the basic “look” of many things.

They are also important in design meetings as they will often sketch out ideas during brainstorming sessions, as a picture paints a thousand words. Finally, they often sketch a lot of the stuff that appears in the original design document for a new game. Comic book artists are often well suited to this job.

2D Texture Artist

On 3D games, this is now a common position that some larger teams hire for. The job is to paint the walls of buildings, the surfaces of the environments and objects. There IS a real skill to this. They often work closely with the 3D background artist, trying to help increase the speed that the worlds are generated. Most of the work is done in Photoshop and 3D tools.

Often, real photographs are used as a basis for a texture and then edited or manipulated. Often textures are just completely hand drawn. For advanced texture artists, the textures are generated by creating 3D models that when rendered flat (2D), become a texture that can be put onto a 3D object. (Like building a watch face in 3D with all the detailed bits like hands/moon-phase/stopwatch/numbers, then rendering it to 2D, then putting that 2D texture on the wrist of a 3D character already in the game.) The watch will look cool and 3D even though it’s just a 2D texture.

This job is now also moving into the area of bump-mapping, where the artist needs to create another shaded texture to show where the lumps are in the 2D texture that they created. Modern 3D video hardware will combine the bumps with the 2D texture to make the surface of something like a tiled floor to appear to have real grooves.

So 3D or 2D? That is the question. If you just don’t have a knack for drawing scenes or images with perspective or correct detailed shading, you’re going to find it hard to keep up in the 3D world. There are still many 2D games being made, but if it’s just a matter of training, then I would take the time to learn the skills. More on that elsewhere.

Level Layout Artist

Again on big teams, usually the layout artist is working closely with the level designer to place structures, objects, and characters into the actual game levels. They also fix seams if things don’t join up properly, set triggers for doors/characters and make sure the level plays the way it’s supposed to. It’s a crucial job to the team, but needs reduced artistic ability. The reason it’s called an artist position is because laying out a village using structures can look really cheesy if the level layout person has no eye for quality.

Intern Artist

Very basic skills, but has great passion and talent. They will be taught by the Art Director and the rest of the team. The goal is to generate artists that are completely comfortable and familiar with the company’s development tools and think like the rest of the team without always complaining about how they used to do stuff elsewhere. It’s a great way to get the foot in the door (just be patient).

The most common email that I get from “newbie” artists is that they are too old or have children and therefore *cannot* accept the low salary of an intern, yet they are getting offered only intern positions. This is a tough problem that usually ends in tears, so if you are young and single, then now is the time to get started learning. The other way is to study in your spare time and then apply for a different art position when you can clearly demonstrate your prowess and talent at using the latest graphics tools.

How do I become a video game animator?

The different animation jobs people seem to be hiring these days are:

Animation Director

Same kinda stuff as the Art Director above, but must completely understand classical animation, motion capture techniques and tools. They eat and sleep anatomical locomotion in people and animals. Just loving cartoons is not gonna cut it these days. They can spot subtle problems in animation and quickly identify how to fix them, rather than just saying “It looks wrong,” which is absolutely no help at all.

Animator

Works under the Animation Director. This animator needs exceptional ability to quickly key-frame an animation in 2D and 3D to keep a programmer motivated and working. That needs to be followed by an internal desire to polish the motion until it looks perfect, even if it takes all night. The biggest problem I see is the inability to go from fluid cartoon motion (exaggerated, showing weight, etc.) to stiff heavy robot/mech animation. If you can do both really really well, you are one in a million.

Most good animators are also artists, so the above description for becoming a game artist also applies to you

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As an animator, read up on animation techniques. Learn the Disney 12 points of animation. Traditional animation skills give you an invaluable base to start. “All an animator really needs is a light source, paper and a pencil.” I think Chuck Jones said that. After that, itâ??s all just technique, style, and experience. Oh, and a computer.

Look at animation by the masters; Disney, Warner Brothers, Tex Avery and Don Bluth, to name a few. Rent or buy videos and go frame by frame (laserdisc or DVD works best).

If youâ??re already a traditional animator and want to get into 3D quickly, just download simple models from the internet and animate those.

My main comment is that if you don’t understand animation, you won’t see what’s wrong, so you won’t be able to fix it. That’s why many people are jumping on motion capture as an escape route that will excuse their lousy animation abilities. Animation will never go away, trust me, as long as we want things that don’t exist, like monsters, to be in our games, we will need talented animators on our teams.

If you are interested in learning about locomotion, I suggest Eadweard Muybridge’s Photographic Investigations as a great reference.

What kind of software should I learn to use?

3D Cafe has a lot of links to places where you can get 2D and 3D programs to try out, as well as plug-ins, IPAS routines, sample meshes and filters on their site. Itâ??s a great site for any artist to check out.

  • www.discreet.com
    Great 3D Studio Max Training Videos (Warning: Expensive!)
  • www.adobe.comMakers of Illustrator and PhotoShop, two of the best packages out there for drawing and image manipulation.
  • Another place to get package demos is from the CD on the excellent “Computer Arts” magazine printed in the United Kingdom.
  • Other good magazines from the United States are CGW (Computer Graphics World), 3D Artist, Cinefex, and Animation magazine.

Great conferences are Siggraph and the Game Developer’s Conference. These take place in America each year and are very focused on 3D graphics technology and, specifically GDC, for teaching how to make art for video games.

As a sidenote, something I do not recommend is to acquire warez versions of 3D tools. Not only is it illegal, it hurts the developers of the tools, and can contain nasty stuff like viruses, etc.

What Kind of Hardware should I buy?

If youâ??re planning on doing any 3D work, youâ??ll need a pretty fast machine. The faster the better. There are video cards out there that are specifically designed with that program in mind, otherwise you may wind up waiting for your stuff to display on screen as you move your view around. A good sized monitor (at least 19″ or 21″) is optimal, and a graphics tablet complete the setup. The ones that we use around here are the 6×8 Wacom tablets. Theyâ??re easy to learn, accurate and last forever (as long as you donâ??t lose the pen!).

Many artists stupidly make video game art at really high resolutions, which make the computer they are working on CHUG as it attempts to calculate millions of pixels more than you will ever see in the game. So a really good tip — if your game runs at low resolution, render in low resolution. Sounds obvious, but I have seen tons of artists sit for 20 minutes to see something that could have rendered in 2 minutes, but they just like to see it spiffy. These are the guys that help make games late.

How do I sell myself? How do I make a demo reel?

Get your best work together and put it on a video tape (NTSC or PAL, depending on where youâ??re sending it). Document what youâ??ve done on the tape, which models you made, what animation you did or did not do, etc. Usually, we can tell within the first 30 seconds whether to keep watching or not, so put your best stuff up front. We donâ??t care if thereâ??s a soundtrack or not; I would actually prefer to hear you talking about what you are most proud of.

Our general rule of thumb is the bigger the presentation materials or packaging, the poorer the actual contents. Unique box + cool folder + nifty stickers with your “logo” on it + tons of sketches = lousy reel. Go figure. Of the people weâ??ve hired, most were just a simply labeled video tape, resume, cover letter and another sheet detailing what they did on the reel. No fancy folders, boxes or other little stuff.

Now render up some demo art — the best thing to do is render a screen that you think looks like a great game.

One trick I always suggest to artists is not to build what you see in current games. I’m sick and tired of seeing Quake stone walls! Create something inspirational — a room that contains interesting architecture, static and moving objects, interesting textures, atmosphere and lighting.

A good example I give is when you walk along a street, if you past a boring, old, wooden park bench, you barely notice it, but if you were to walk past some interesting, fresh, new, funky/cool park bench, it would grab your attention. That’s what you want people to do with your demo.

Personally, I rate artists by the WOW factor I hear from others when they see their work. If they all say “that looks weird” or “it’s colorful” or “nice door handle,” then that artist is not gonna be winning any awards.

Classy, inspired artwork is of HUGE value in getting people to show interest in your game.

What kind of schools are there for artists and animators?

I’m ready to apply for a job!

Really? Go back and look over your demo reel. Does it really have a WOW factor? If not, think about it some more.

Now, are you really ready? Check out the list of game companies and get started!