GDC 2015 Art Direction Bootcamp: An expert roundtable Q&A

Andrew Maximov is a senior artist at Naughty Dog.

Art direction is not just something art directors do. Art direction is in every brush stroke we lay down and in every vertex we move. It is the idea that you’re trying to communicate and the emotion you put into it. It is the dialog that you’re having with your audience, while the tools are just means for delivery. 

If you care about art, we would be privileged to see you join us in San Francisco on March 2 for an entire day of deep and thought-provoking art discussion from the absolute best in the business, during GDC’s Art Direction Bootcamp. If you’re going to Game Developers Conference — don’t miss it!

In the meantime, I’ve gathered some of the most experienced and talented senior artists in the game industry to answer a few questions from Twitter, Polycount, and from one another:

  • Andrew Maximov, Senior Artist – Naughty Dog
  • Neil Thompson, Director of Art & Animation – BioWare
  • Grant Duncan, Art Director – Hello Games
  • Keith Self-Ballard, Principal Artist – Deep Silver Volition
  • Robh Ruppel, Art Director – Naughty Dog

Let’s begin!

– Twitter user Kickpixel asked:

Is it better to develop story from concept or develop the concept art from the story? 


Robh: It’s better to work on both at the same time and let one inform the other.

Neil: We start with the main narrative beats and work from there. Writing can be utterly unconstrained in its initial form and isn’t bound by any perceived technical parameters that could be imposed by prospective visuals… that comes later! As soon as the outline is there and the concept team is working, then it becomes an iterative back-and-forth process.

– Twitter user Gabe Gedarovich asked:

Are full-­time concept artists widely used, or is that work done mostly “as­ needed”? 


Neil: BioWare has a team of full-time concept artists who have grown with the franchises and understand them intimately. We do use contractors in addition but the signature content of characters and key architectural pieces are handled by the internal team.

Robh: Personally having the team on site as staff yields better results. Better interaction, better communication, better rapport.

– Twitter user Bacioiu Ciprian asked

What’s the state of organic model procedural generation in the industry right now? Is it, to your knowledge, worth looking into?


Grant: Procedural organic modelling is still very niche, but it’s slowly starting to be used more and more. Like most new tech, it usually starts by being accessible to only a handful of very smart coders, often working in larger studios. They then create in-­house tools, and these tools and techniques slowly spread into the mainstream for the rest of us normal­ folk to play with. We aren’t quite there yet, but I fully expect to see more organic procedural tech creeping into tools like Maya, ZBrush, etc. The more developers playing with procedural technology, the better the tools will become, and the more fun we’ll all have!

Andrew: It is definitely worth looking into but probably not as your main area of expertise. Procedural generation in general is fairly limited in mainstream games, but who says you can’t be the person to turn it all around?

Right now most of “procedural” generation boils down to geometry shaders randomly placing foliage and props on terrain, and a few outstanding games like Spore, Minecraft and No Man’s Sky. But if there’s one thing we know for sure it’s that it’s only going to go up from here, and the moment someone finds a usecase that solves a problem or speeds up a process, that particular usecase will become ubiquitous and the whole thing will start getting traction way,­ way faster.

– Twitter user Ken Henderson asked:

What’s the tougher task to manage: Junior team/contractors who need to be brought up to speed while on a deadline, or a “creative” executive who has some ideas about the project? 


Neil: Great question…the second scenario is much tougher to manage! Often these situations arise because everyone has an opinion and often “executive” opinions carry added weight while being less informed of the technicalities of implementation.

Calm and reasoned discussion is the only forum to find a solution…

Andrew: I’d have to say a “creative” executive. For one,­ a junior can’t really steer a project off course.

I do want to stress that despite the horror stories, most executives are competent and well-meaning professionals. But as with any profession, sometimes things can go a bit askew.

And the only thing you can do about it is keep the dialog going. You are hired to act based on your best professional sensibilities and argumentatively disagreeing is part of the job — a very important one at that. People will routinely throw solutions at you when all they are really trying to do is solve a problem. So ask for their problems first. When everyone is on the same page about those it is way easier to find a solution.

Keith: Both situations are challenging, even if for different reasons. Rather than give you my impression of which is the “worse” scenario, which would provide little in the way of insight, I’d like to provide some guidelines on how to handle each one.

First, on dealing with junior team/contractors who need to be brought up to speed: This situation arises usually in the heat of production. The good news is that, if you have planned properly, you likely already have documented your art style and development pipeline. The bad news is that as production wears on, the likelihood of such documentation having grown antiquated increases.

In this situation, you will find yourself relying on experienced artists (perhaps even senior staff) directly reviewing and mentoring the new team members. This will be a hard fight, as producers will see this as a drain on your most talented staff. Stay the course. This is a textbook lesson in short-term pain for long term gain. No one is going to like it, and you should be prepared for the senior staff to fight it as the training wears on. Stay the course. Once some of the junior staff have proven themselves reliable (and you’ve taken the steps to weed out those who aren’t going to make it), the improvement to the team should be noteworthy.

Now, for managing a “creative” executive who has some ideas: First of all, I want to reject the notion that executives are not “creative.” Naturally, their creativity is different, but they also can bring a unique perspective to the development process. However, the tone of the question suggests that the executive in question is not helping the creative process. The only effective management technique in these scenarios is to help the executive to understand the “cost” of their creative decisions. Cost comes in many forms (manpower, money, sacrificed features, sacrificed quality). Rather than get into a debate over the merits of the idea (because the executive likely has the authority to push their decisions through), it is a far more worthy pursuit to help the understand the trade­offs that such a decision will incur. In addition, it is highly advisable to get other creative stakeholders involved in such decisions. Finding yourself as the mouthpiece of executive oversight is an unenviable position and can result in erosion of the confidence of your project’s leadership group.

– Twitter user SickAmongTheStupid asked:

What are your tips for artists hoping to work in the industry?


Keith: It’s hard to give a greater tip than “develop tenacity.” It’s hard to land that first gig. The bad news for aspiring game artists is that they’re competing with veterans. The good news is that as soon as you finish school (or self­-schooling) you HAVE A JOB. Your job is this: replace everything in your portfolio. That may sound harsh, but I’m dead serious. The artist’s portfolio is an ever­-evolving creation. At no point is it “done.” For the new artist, your goal is to replace your oldest pieces with new work that demonstrates where your skills are right now.

The other tip I have is to develop a specific goal. I still see too many “generalist” portfolios. Pick one thing and become very good at that. Diversify later. Also, pick the company you want to work for (or at least pick a couple of companies whose work is in the same general aesthetic camp). Develop your portfolio to target those studios’ projects. Most students are unaware of this, but studios develop core competencies in the same way that artists do. Figure out what the core competency is of your prospective employer and make your portfolio demonstrate your understanding of this and how you can add to it.

Grant: The best advice I can give to aspiring game artists is to get involved! Join online forums, post your work, work on mods, anything! The sooner you start showing your work the better, take all the criticism you can get, develop a thick skin. You’ll learn so much and it’ll make your portfolio far more interesting to studios. Surround yourself with artists you admire and respect. I think it’s fine to approach industry artists over Twitter, just remember not to pester!

Showing your work is so important. Create a simple, easy to navigate portfolio showing your very best work. Finish more! I see a lot of portfolios now and nothing beats a good finished, polished, piece of art. It shows you are capable of sticking with something, and that you have a good eye for detail.

Neil: Work tirelessly on your portfolio. Make sure it is available, attractive and easy to navigate online. If you are a student or yet to work professionally, compare and critique your work to professional examples and be honest in your assessment.

If you have a specific studio or team in mind, do a custom piece for your reel or portfolio that is connected to the work that they do. It shows that you have a deeper understanding of their art and are willing to put in the effort to get the role that you want.

– Twitter user Mert Hussein asked:

How early in the development cycle is the artistic style selected for a new IP? 


Grant: It depends on the studio really, at Hello Games we tend to have a fairly organic process, which is only really possible because we’re such a small team. We experiment with visuals a lot during the early prototyping stage. This usually gives us a pretty clear vision of the kind of artistic style we plan to aim for, but we are happy to drift in different directions as we make happy discoveries (mistakes) during development.

Andrew: In my experience the look usually shapes itself organically based on the target audience, development budget/time, story and gameplay. Even for a seemingly stylized game like Mirrors Edge, the look is very much gameplay driven and strongly supports free­running. Sometimes games settle on a look early, sometimes very late. There’s really no formula.

So no, I don’t think a style is chosen, really. I think the game tells you slowly what it wants to be as it evolves. Whatever stylized game you take there’s usually a very good reason for it being that way apart from somebody just liking it stylized.

Robh: That evolves, it’s never a matter of picking “one” like picking a shirt.

– Andrew Maximov, senior artist, Naughty Dog asked:

How much does art direction rely on talent, and do you think it can be formally taught?


Robh: Parts can be taught, drawing can be taught, but curiosity and tenacity…not as much.

Grant: The best art directors I’ve worked with have always been talented artists themselves. Usually they’ve worked in a variety of art roles and worked their way through the ranks, so they have a thorough understanding of all the different areas of game art. There are certainly aspects that can be formally taught — people management, time management, things like that. Though to me, the biggest part is having a good eye, and being able to get a team of artists to work in unison, while maintaining the freedom to be creative.

Keith: Ha. At the risk of giving away too much of a my presentation prior to GDC, I’ll say that art direction relies on experience. I don’t believe that an art director can be taught explicitly. There is no lesson plan, there are no shortcuts, but there are exercises that can help you along your way. I feel strongly that art direction does rely heavily on good mentorship, and developing a range of talents from artistic to communication skills. It is infinitely challenging to codify the art director path, but there are always steps that can be taken.

Neil: There are rules around composition and color theory that it are obviously useful for any artist and aspiring art director to understand and make use of. However, a natural talent and passion can take you a long way!

Depending on the size of the team or project, art direction in games is about leadership, and thus a test of personality and character as well as aesthetic learning.

– Andrew Maximov asked:

Is there anything you see in the potential future of our industry that scares you? Or at least gets you worried?


Keith: Experience has taught me to worry heavily about those things that are beyond my sphere of influence. I do grow concerned about skyrocketing costs of development, due in part to growing complexity and scope of games. As these costs increase, the willingness to take creative risks start to diminish. Failed projects represent a much more significant hit to a com
pany than they were 10­ or 15 years ago. As such, I expect that publishers and studios will take fewer risks each year, which in turn will mean that our industry advances creatively at a slower pace than it would otherwise. This is my pragmatic perspective.

Robh: Since everyone already walks around with their face stuck in a screen, I think games will continue in some form for awhile.

Neil: Not really… I’ve been through enough hardware transitions now to understand the nature of the problems that we will face, if not the specifics.

– Andrew Maximov asked:

How much do you expect emerging technologies like Hololens and Oculus to change the way art gets directed for games?


Grant: In some ways, it perhaps won’t change much. Visuals will still be visuals after all. But the good thing about new technology is that we’ll get new gameplay experiences, and these will bring with them a whole host of new artistic challenges. It’s an exciting time to be working on art in games, and I can’t wait to see what people create.

Keith:  I have yet to work with these technologies directly, so I can’t comment.

Neil: It’s certainly interesting…but the central tenants of art direction: composition, color and form remain true no matter what the visual medium.

– Keith Self-Ballard, Principal Artist, Deep Silver Volition asked:

How do you develop and communicate style choices with limited resources? What if you don’t have enough time? What if you don’t have enough concept artists? 


Andrew: Conveying underlying motivations instead of solutions allows your team to make more predictable decisions with less upfront investment. You sort of have to create a ruleset that would give similar answers to similar problems that individual artists will face, thus allowing them to arrive at the closest thing to your art direction themselves every time. Now this will inevitably differ in details from what you had in mind, but you can only go so detailed with your direction when you have very little resources.

Letting go of smaller things, trusting your team and making sure that everyone on the team is constantly seeing and talking about what other people do allows a more unified language to emerge organically when there is no time for preproduction.

Robh: Yikes! You’re screwed and have to copy something already existing…so why bother?

– Keith Self-Ballard asked:

How do you develop a strong collaborative relationship with programmers? With designers? With producers?


Grant: There’s no great secret, just a healthy dose of respect and understanding. Making games is a collaboration of so many skills and disciplines, taking time to learn how “the other side” work is super useful. It means when you hit snags and problems, you have a much better chance of understanding why. Games studios where there is no mingling between the different disciplines always struggle. I guess the short answer is — make friends with them!

Andrew: Communication and respect is paramount. This means learning about what other departments do. Don’t hide in your little bubble. Show some interest, be considerate. It will make you a better game developer in the end.

Every department sometimes gets preoccupied with their tasks at hand, so it’s always helpful to keep the scope of the entire game in mind — which could mean realizing that your particular problem is not really that important right now and that it could wait!

Now, a bit more of a radical step would be to actually be able to do what they do to some extent. And with flexible engines like, say, Unreal, it’s not unrealistic for an art department to do some scripting, shader work or even programming. It might sound surprising, but when instead of always giving people extra work and asking when it’s going to be done you can actually help out, it is always really appreciated.

 Polycount user “dustinbrown” asked:

What do you feel is a solid path to becoming an art director these days, and how does it differ from your own career path? Barrier to entry in the industry has gone way up, and the roles that people play in development have also changed over the years, so the paths that current art directors took perhaps wouldn’t work in today’s gaming industry. People now tend to be much more specialized, by necessity. That doesn’t really lend itself to grooming future art directors. 


Neil: Excellent question! The Art Directors from my generation tend to have come from a time when the CG generalist was much more the status quo. This gave you the experience of seeing a broad spectrum of game development on any given project (generally because the team sizes were much smaller), and it becomes a question of scale.

It’s been my experience that artists who come from an environment art background tend to exhibit the technical knowledge and holistic development skills that suit the art director role. It’s obviously not exclusive, but the nature of environment work means that artists in this field rarely work in isolation or are responsible for single assets.

Most of all, I would encourage any artist in any discipline to show an interest in the development process in general and in particular how the disparate art and animation disciplines function and contribute to the game as a whole.

Beyond this, an interest in art in general from a wide variety of sources is crucial in order to develop a broad inspirational palette that will inform your creative decision making.

Robh: Be a great artist, be a great communicator, stay positive and find solutions. There’s no one way and no best way. Have a vision, be able to articulate it! Don’t tell me you hear music in your head and you can’t write it down! That’s not being a musician.

Grant: I’m not convinced there is or ever was a solid path to becoming an art director really. I cheated and founded a studio! I think it’s definitely good for aspiring art directors to try and avoid specializing too much (or at least for too long). I was lucky that I was able to work as lead character artist and lead environment artist at two different studios before­hand. Smaller studios are great for allowing artists to really push themselves. Having to concept, model and animate, and generally being forced out of your comfort zone is a fantastic way to improve as an artist ­also it’s really fun!

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