Joby Otero, Artist

October 8, 2004 — 2 Comments

What’s your background? How and why did you get into the games industry?

I have been drawing and painting since I was a tiny tike of 4 or 5. I haven’t been without a sketchbook since. I used my creativity early on to make games for myself and tried to get my siblings to play along (usually they wouldn’t 🙂 ). I guess those were my earliest attempts to create interactive entertainment.

I got my 1st computer in 1979 and have been in love with computers ever since. I remember reading Popular Science and drooling over the early home computer kits. I saved every penny from my paper route until I could finally afford a machine. Once I had one I taught myself to program so I could make my 1st primitive art/animation applications (there were no paint programs available then). I programmed less and less until I got an Amiga and the commercial applications were far more sophisticated than anything I could do on my own. Nowadays, I program as a hobby and not out of necessity, but its very hard to make time to do it.

In 1990 I picked up the newspaper and answered an ad. I’d been making games since I was 9 or 10 and had always wanted to get paid to make entertaining experiences on the computer. I think my enthusiasm won them over. The company was Cyberdreams. I started there in 1990 and my 1st game was called Evolver. That didn’t get published, but my next game – Darkseed – did. I also worked on Darkseed Amiga and Cyberrace while at Cyberdreams.

I went to Novalogic in 1992. I worked on Armored Fist, Comanche CD, Comanche2, HardWired, Iron Hammer & a few other experimental things that never saw the light of day. In 1994 I went to Neversoft. They had been around for about 6 months prior. I became a partner there shortly after. I worked on Skeleton Warriors, Ghost Rider, MDK Playstation and others. In July 1997 I went to Shiny. I worked on the embryonic PC version of RC Stunt Copter and then started work on Sacrifice based on Martin Brownlow’s (lead programmer) initial concept.

I went to Luxoflux in March 2001. I’m working on a secret as-yet-unsigned project with them.

I can draw pretty damn well, I absolutely LOVE video games is that enough to get me into the games industry?

If you have a lot of talent, there’s a chance there’s a company out there for you. Loving games is a plus. Not everyone you’ll work with is an avid gamer. Folks that play games frequently are usually stronger contributors to the pool of ideas & solutions required for a good team.

However, these days there are a lot of artists trying to get into the industry. If you can’t get your foot in the door in an art position, try the QA/testing dept. Many people have gone that route and found it provided an interesting perspective once they moved on to an art, programming or producer position.

Can you explain to our readers what an Art Director’s job actually entails? What do you do day to day, what’s your main involvement/input in a game?

Art Director is a broad title and can mean many different things depending on the company and the team. I take a ‘lead by example’ approach. That means that I try to keep my hands dirty by actually creating at least some of each type of art asset required. This is very important for games where a distinctive style is desired. If you can’t easily point to examples of what you’re looking for in books and movies you must endeavor to create examples yourself. If you’re quite experienced you may also use this approach to provide a standard of efficiency and quality for the rest of the art department.

So, day-to-day, my duties involve: sketches, full-color art, interface design/gfx, special fx, characters, buildings, game design meetings, etc. I do what I can to stay apprised of all the key issues of whatever game I’m working on, including technical issues. A good game art director must understand the technology and limitations of the target platform as well as the intricacies of the game design. This helps avoid team frustration by reducing the ‘re-do’ workload, keeps the programmers from wanting to strangle the artists and increases the likelihood that the visuals will push the hardware while doing their best to convey the intentions of the game design.

Could an Art Director from Hollywood or from a Leading Graphic Design company easily step into an Art Director role in the video game business?

Sure, but I’d have low expectations for their ability to help a team produce an A title. As I said earlier, a good Art Director must understand the technology (not just art applications and poly counts) and the fundamentals of game design. It takes several years for most game artists to understand that no matter how good something looks, it will look terrible to a player that’s getting 5 frames per second during gameplay. Its easy to see the logic of this academically, but behaving on this principle, day-to-day, is quite another matter.

Looking from today and projecting forward 5 years, what ‘art’ related jobs do you think that game developers will be hiring for? Which of these jobs do you feel are the most valuable / difficult to fill?

#1 – Plug-in programming. Max, Maya, etc are great. But, most teams will have specific needs that just can’t be met with what’s built-in. We have a plug-in programmer at Luxoflux and it’s a godsend for the artists and for the other programmers. The game programmers are free to concentrate on the GAME and the artists have more time to concentrate on making things look good. Further, your plug-in programmers come to know the art apps in a way that no one else does. This can help foster a more positive relationship between programmers and artists in general.

#2 – Motion capture specialists: Nowadays, almost every game company is working on at least one game that will require some amount of mo-cap. Technicians and animators are required.

How would you recommend people with no previous experience of the games industry to get into the industry as a game artist? Is an art and design degree a good idea, or is there another way I can get qualified experience?

Work your ass off. Nothing, I mean nothing, is as important as a good portfolio, especially if you have a good demotape. Academic credentials can help, but they won’t get you hired if you can’t produce anything impressive with what you’ve learned.

If you’re serious, work at your skills every spare minute. As Salvador Dali said “painter, paint!”. This applies to 3D artists every bit as much, if not more, than traditional painters. I find that I get rusty on the technical skills far faster that I do with sketching/painting. You must work that magic every day. Don’t get caught up in the idea of creative block. That’s just an excuse for laziness.

Last, don’t be afraid to take a job that isn’t exactly what you’re looking for. You may not get to work on the kind of project you want right away, but industry experience counts for a LOT in this business. You’re a far less risky hire if you’ve shipped a title.

If I were to apply for an artist job, what is the best way of showing potential employers that I have the required talent and skills? What would you like to see most in an interview?

Do’s:

If you have time and skill enough to be so flexible, try showing that you can create art in a style similar to what the company is working on. Sometimes I get otherwise nice looking reels that give no indication that the artist can work outside of a particular style. This can seem too risky for some teams.

Do take the time to show all your skills. Sometime it is assumed that because you didn’t show Skill X that you simply don’t have it. If you’re applying for a character modeling position, but you have structure modeling or fine art skills, show it! Even if they don’t ask for it. At the very least you will have demonstrated that: 1) you are trying to broaden your skills. 2) you really want a job. 🙂

Be prepared to be tested. These days, more and more teams will require applicants to demonstrate their skills onsite, especially for junior positions.

Don’ts:

Don’t be nonchalant about the game your being presented. Teams want to know that you’re excited about their project. An artist produces better work if their excited about what they’re working on. Further, many teams will take a lack of interest as an insult.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions. If you’re seeing things you don’t understand, don’t nod and play along as though you do. Experienced employers may become suspicious or at least be concerned that you aren’t interested. Questions about the gameplay itself are particularly important. This helps to demonstrate that you’re an artist that doesn’t just think about making things look pretty.

Before I apply, what job do you think beginners should ask for? I mean should I apply for assistant artist or is the word “intern” a swear word?

It all depends on your skill and the company. If you have good work samples AND you’re applying as an intern, you may get a job even if that company wasn’t looking for interns. However, it is important to accurately convey your experience level. If you’ve never had a game job before, don’t apply as a Sr Character Designers, etc. 🙂 The terms “intern”, “assistant”, “jr” etc, are useful to employers in as much as they convey that you understand your need for more experience. This may make you a safer hire in an industry where teams are often already filled with folks that think a little too much of themselves. 🙂

If I create a show reel (on video cassette or CD ROM) of all my work, what advice can you give me in putting it together? What should I include in it, and much more importantly, what should I NOT put on my show reel?

Don’t bother showing tutorials that anyone with your 3d application could have done. The art team will see right through this. Its OK to use techniques from the tutorials, but use them in a scenario that’s all your own. This at least demonstrates some imagination.

Do include text explaining what percentage of the what aspects of the work shown are yours: IE modeling – 50%, texturing 100%, etc. Include a printed document that covers this in more detail: EG – I modeled the 3-horned creature in the swimming pool and did all the texturing for all the creatures.

Do show the ability to work with more than 1 technology. If you only know NURBS you may want to brush up on poly skills or surface tools before you send out your work.

If I was to start learning today, what software should I get proficient on before I start applying for jobs.

My impression is that 3D Studio Max is easily the most widely used 3d application in the game industry. Followed by Maya and then Softimage and Lightwave. I know Discreet (makers of 3dsmax) has great student deals and some kind of cheap version that should be easily accessible. Maya, Soft and LW probably have similar, so don’t aim for the cheap stuff you can get at CompUSA unless there’s just no alternative.

For 2D you can’t go wrong with Photoshop (a MUST!) and Painter.

Knowledge of the following is also a big plus:

  • Debabelizer (scripted batch processing and kick-but color register editing)
  • Paint Shop Pro (thumb nails and obscure format conversion)
  • MS Excel & Word (yes, documenting is a big part of life for many a game artist)
  • Deep Paint 3D (cross platform, 3d texturing tool)

And any character animator these days could use at least a passing knowledge of Character Studio. I prefer to hand-animate everything, but many companies these days are using this for mo-cap and other things.

How do you MAKE a show reel? What hardware/software do you use to make a really professional looking video of your work?

My most recent reel was put together on my AMD system mentioned above. I used a combination of Photoshop 5.5(titles) and Premiere 5.1 RT (all other editing). You can certainly get by with other, cheaper editing solutions (Ulead has several packages available for a far lower price). Certainly, the Miro DC10 video capture board I use is only $100 and is more than capable of facilitating a good demo reel with just the software it comes with. My entire demo reel was edited and output to tape at 320x240x30fps through the DC10 and looked great. This worked especially well for capturing, editing, playing back my work from old Playstation and Saturn games where the low resolution of the output would have otherwise caused extra headaches on higher end capture hardware. If you have the extra cash you could go for the DC30 (about $700). This includes Premiere5.1 RT, so that’s a pretty sweet deal.

If you’re looking for a more all-in-one solution (gfx card and vidcap/playback card combo), the ATI All-in-Wonder Radeon or Matrox G450 may be the way to go and you might save some $$.

Hardware aside: demo reels are generally composed of AVI’s or Zoomed-and-Panned stills, strung together, with music, in Premiere. Simple as that.

What specific talent/ability/mindset do you feel a good artist needs in the games industry? Does programming knowledge help?

Aside from art skills? Communication skills are very, very important. You have to work with large teams these days. If your social and communication skills are bad you will have a hard time.

Programming skills are not necessary for artists, but it would be a BIG plus. It would give you a definite advantage over most other artists. Programmers will breath a sigh of relief to talk to an artist that can speak the same language so-to-speak. For artists that lack the time or patience for C++ I highly recommend DarkBasic (www.darkbasic.com). It’s a wonderful version of BASIC built around DirextX. Its great for easily making 3D stuff.

With games like Monkey Island and Earthworm Jim that used a lot of 2D animation becoming rarer these days, is there still see a need for 2D animators? It seems to be all 3D this and 3D that these days. Are the 2D gurus a dying breed? I see some games trying to make 3D characters look like 2D cartoons, is there a future in that?

The fundamentals of good animation are exactly the same for 2d & 3d animation. Timing, spacing, anticipation, squash & stretch, etc – all are fundamental to the art of animation no matter how many dimensions you’re using. Our Lead Animator on Sacrifice – Manjit Jhita – is a very skilled 2D animator and because of his extensive 2D background he had the ability to focus on personality AND technology for our characters. Not many 3D game animators have enough experience to bring that special touch to game characters.

I am really good at page layouts, stylish typography, even Graffiti (cool fonts etc…) Is there a hope of using that skill for making games or should I try to get a job at a video game magazine instead?

Hmmm, a games magazine or website may be a better fit.

I’m currently doing an arts related degree/course but don’t know a mouse from a monitor. I want to produce artwork for computer games, do I HAVE to learn any computer software?

I’m sorry to say, yes. Even concept/production artists must have good Photoshop skills. My impression is that this goes for most art positions, game industry or not, these days.

However, take heart: My wife is one of the worlds last remaining Luddites. She hates technology and could certainly not program our VCR, but even she has learned to use a paint program and happily struggle with it.

What is the easiest way for me to just keep working with my hands/pencils/paint instead of clicking a mouse. (I heard about a monitor tablet?)

Get a Wacom tablet and learn to use the basic Photoshop/Painter functions. Its really no big deal. As I said, even my wife can do it (believe me that’s saying a LOT – no offense Gina 🙂 ).

If you have the $$$ you might look into those new Sony tablet computers or one of the many handheld tablet computers listed in Pen Computing magazine. I would prefer a Pen Computer to the Sony machine because the ergonomics of having the thing sitting in your lap are much nicer (less arm strain) and nowadays you can get them with ample memory and CPU speed.

I am a freelance Hollywood matte painter, is there a job in the video game business that would use my skills? What about character sculptors?

Matte painters may be able to find work on concept/production art for environments and such. At Luxoflux (my new gig) we have just such a person. He has extensive experience working with Disney and other companies on films and rides.

Do you HAVE to be an excellent paper artist to make it in the 3D world? (It seems like some great 3D artists, are actually not that great on paper?)

Absolutely not. I’ve known quite a few 3D artists who couldn’t even do decent Tippy the Turtle. However, good drafting skills definitely wouldn’t hurt. Further, study of traditional art masters is certainly a BIG help even if you can’t replicate their work outside of a 3D application. Study the masters!

How much cash could I possibly expect to earn as a junior artist, right up to a senior artist or art director? Do artists earn Royalties? If I got a job, should I be annoyed if I just get a low salary, no royalties, no company stock etc.

Starting positions are from 20-40k depending on your porfolio, office location (cost of living has an impact on the salary range), academic credentials, etc.

Senior game artists can make from 50-80k, sometimes more, but that’s pretty rare and often has more to do with location than talent.

Art Directors can make from 70-110k. The top end of that range is very rare and accounts to the contrary are suspect. The consensus is that east-coast companies pay more because the cost of living can be much higher (NY city for instance). Some places in the San Francisco bay area can be just as costly.

Yes, many if not most companies do offer royalties to artists, programmers, designers and producers. The means by which your share would be determined vary GREATLY from one company to another.

If you’re just starting in the industry (interns especially) don’t be surprised if your deal doesn’t include royalties, stock or sometimes, even a fixed salary (hourly pay in not unheard of for such positions).

Further, many companies do offer stocks, bonuses and 401k plans for most employees (although stock is a touch issue and is more often reserved for key people).

Do you know of any really good books, magazines or websites on games art and design that I could look into? What websites do you visit every day? What search engine do you use?

Art Sites:

Magazines:

  • Juxtapose – GREAT low-brow & alternative art.
  • 3D Artist – good tutorials and coverage of apps.
  • Computer Graphics World – excellent coverage of non-platform specific developments.

Books:

  • Salvador Dali, 50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship – inspirational reading for the artist.
  • Any of the “Inside 3D Studio” Series of books – the BEST resource for how-to info on the most widely used 3D app in games.
  • Game Developer Magazine – Hey artists, keep that analytical mind working by reading the programming stuff too. 🙂

With development costs rising, marketing campaigns and voice actors do you see the games industry becoming more like the film industry? Especially with the forthcoming release of Final Fantasy the movie being produced by a games developer. Is this a good thing, can we help take Hollywood in new directions?

More and more game companies will find themselves having to contract out large portions of the workload, especially the art. I would not be terribly surprised in 10 years time to find game developer unions to help set standards of fairness in such an environment. Team sizes of 100 or more people can not be supported in the static-team fashion of the past. Most times, if you’ve just shipped a game you go back to the drawing board and try to design something new, even if it’s a sequel. In the meantime, maybe 5-10 people are needed to work on this for the 1st 6 months. Meanwhile, you’ve got 90+ with nothing to do. Obviously, there’s an imbalance. I’m not looking forward to the time when all games must be made that way. Perhaps it isn’t unavoidable.

The relationships with Hollywood are going to get increasingly strange. I don’t know when or if the 2 industries will reach a happy medium. There are fundamental differences in the technology. The fundamentals of good film-making are more secure. Games are essentially an attempt to create new rules each time, not just tell new stories with the same rules. And of course, the technology of games is changing constantly and will not settle down until we’ve can no longer make faster computers. Scientists are not decided on when that may be. Between GAAs, Xray circuit etching, Optical, Quantum & Biological computing, who the hell know’s?

Can games take filmmaking in new directions? Sure, but only to the extent that cross-disciplinary influences have always done. Painting, Music, Films, Sculpture, Writing, Politics, all have influenced each other over the millennia.

If you could aesthetically design your own games console, regardless of what’s ‘normal’, what would it look like? How would it function?

Whatever it would be it would NOT look like the Xbox. For all the praise I give the Xbox for what’s inside, what’s outside is bulky, ugly, heavy and hard to imagine placing under the TV. For all the derisive comments, I actually like the looks of the PS2. Its simple, functional and you can still stack other stuff on top of it. That’s pretty darn cool for folks who want to display their favorite Hello Kitty item.

I also like Dell’s idea of colored plate add-ons so that users can somewhat customize their equipment’s aesthetics without irrevocably vandalizing them. They manage to do this without adding bulk to their laptops.

Aside from aesthetics: Ideally, once I placed a game in the slot, the playable contents would be available on an internal HD. A voice command would call up the game immediately. “Play Crash Bash” is all I’d have to say to see the game come up. I’m so sick of having to look through all my game discs. I’m terribly unorganized when it comes to this as are most kids I suspect.

What is the DREAM machine right now for a video games artist to work on?

To be dead honest, I would to say the Xbox. However, the PS2 can certainly paint some VERY pretty pictures. My hands on experience with the PS2 has left me far more impressed than the on-paper specs would have one believe. Particularly with respect to texturing and specifically, multi-pass texturing.

My life is a bit of a mess, I am VERY disorganized. As long as I have passion/talent, is that all that matters?

I know some VERY, VERY disorganized folks in this industry. They seem to get by. I’m not saying they are the happiest folks, but they keep their jobs (most of them seem to be terminally broke though). J Passion and talent are far more important.

2 responses to Joby Otero, Artist

  1. 

    Hi,
    I found this interview to be very useful. I remember reading this a few years back and getting some very helpful emails back from Joby when I emailed him. He helped lead me in the right direction and inspired me.
    I have one question, do u think it is becoming increasingly more important to have a degree or diploma in art to get into the industry?
    I want to become an art director, that is my aim. Do u think college education is vital to achieve this?

    Like

  2. 
    Rebecca Stephens January 24, 2006 at 3:23 am

    Thank you for a very informing interview Joby.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s