Breaking Into The Industry?

Senior environment artist Clinton Crumpler from The Coalition talked about some of his thoughts on breaking into the industry and shared some helpful production ideologies and habits. Here’s the full transcript of his talk!

What was the pathway you took to get into the industry?

When I first decided I wanted to get into art after high school, I initially started out when I went to school for graphic design in Virginia in the USA at Longwood University. I did that for the full four years and got my degree in graphic design but I just felt like there was something missing. I just felt like even though I was okay with being a commercial artist there was something that I just felt wasn’t quite there, the magic wasn’t always as strong as I’d hoped it would be creating art solely in photoshop and illustrator. So I pushed it more into looking into going back to school to try something else. I ended up wanting to try animation and I really liked the tools and creation methods at first glance. I started investigating schools around the area and on the east coast that I could kind of test that out for myself. While going through the animation curriculum at Savannah College of art and design in Savannah Georgia in the states, I took some introductory classes into animation for games. The was my first experience with the Unreal engine. At the times it was unreal 3 or UDK. After working more and more with the engine and creating art and architecture, I realized it wasn’t so much animation that I liked, but instead the modeling texturing and world building. That’s essentially what kind of brought me to environment art. So my background was founded through multiple disciplines but I can I can firmly say that each of those things that I did along the way definitely helped to form how I create all the art I make today. They were essential to establishing my style, workflows, and general approach that I take to all the scenes that I create.

Knowing those kinds of graphic design and animation skills definitely help me understand multiple parts of the production process and better my understanding of working in larger groups with artists of multiple disciplines. I find that every artist’s background establishes their initial kind of approach to how they look at art and how they interpret how they’re going to build any particular thing.

How did you land your first job?

The first job I had besides small freelance gigs was my job at the Army Game Studio. I found it by posting a bunch of work on polycount and finding the actual job opening on the polycount job board. At that point I had applied to over 100 jobs while trying to find work. I applied to everything from medical 3D visualization, architecture companies, you name it. I knew I had to get out into the 3D industry to at least start my career, I was lucky enough to find a role that was actually in the field that I wanted to be in. When starting there I was super nervous, worries that I wouldn’t be good enough to do the work required. I quickly found that everyone was super welcoming and open to not only teaching but learning as well. It was a great place to start out as a small but good team to learn the ropes and understand the production process. My time there was relatively short as I applied to a gig in San Francisco as I was always a city person at heart and I had always wanted to try the west coast. I ended up landing a gig at a smaller but up and coming mobile studio in San Francisco called Kixeye. After moving there and beginning the project the team and studio decided to move the production we were working on from mobile to a full AAA platform title. This was a great experience as it was a small team so I was able to work with multiple people and learn many disciplines in game production. After that I worked at Bethesda’s Battlecry studio in Austin for a while and then finally finding myself here in Vancouver at The Coalition. Each job I found along the way was from one of two ways: The first way was that I posted my work regularly online for feedback and exposure so someone had seen my work and wanted to bring me on board because of it. The second was from references from friends that I had go to school with or worked with. I still believe both of these are the best ways an artist can break into the industry. Connecting with fellow artists and putting yourself and your work out there.

When finishing school how long after did you land that first job?

After finishing my first degree with graphic design I worked all summer on random jobs while I decided what to do next. I felt aimless and not quite sure which road or path to take. This is when I ended up going back to school to get my degree in animation and game design. While there I start applying for full time work about a year and a half away before graduating. I wanted to make sure I had a good head start to not make the same mistake I made before. After school ended I had an offer that I ended up turning down as it was to far away in Germany working on car modeling and it wasn’t quite what I wanted to do. I applied multiple other places and waited about 4–6 months after school before finally deciding on taking the position at the Army Game Studio in Alabama for my first real gig in the industry.

What drove you into environment art?

When I first started out doing graphic design and animation, I really enjoyed both. I loved the creative aspects of each but as I learned more and more about what a commercial artists will do with those skills I felt like there was a bit of lost magic. It felt like I was one part or gear in an overall machine. With graphic design, there was so much direction from your client that it can be challenging to find creative freedom in your own designs, and with animation, I felt like I played a smaller role in the overall making of a film or short that I wanted to. This is not to say that these talents are any less or more important as I have a high respect for the work involved in both. I just mean it didn’t satisfy the creative cravings that I was looking for exactly.

These conclusions lead me to environment art. What I really like about environment art is that you can either be the master and commander of your own project at home and create every detail nook and cranny solo or in a workplace setting you can create larger and more challenging works with co-workers all reaching for the same artistic goals. Knowing that I had such a wide variety of creative control and I was able to show a full thought in a final piece of work really spoke to what I enjoy about the craft.

What are your thoughts on art tests?

Art tests are a tricky subject. I have done a few in my time and there are becoming increasingly difficult and more time to consume as more people are trying to get jobs within the industry. The market it tough and employers want to make sure they know you can get the job done and are really invested in your craft.

When getting an art test you want to make sure you understand fully what it is they are asking you to accomplish. Are they asking for your creative take on a sketch or design, or does it seem like they are testing you less on creative thinking and more of your ability to craft an asset using a specific software package? Really fully understanding the task at help can save you time and energy along the way. Spend your time and effort where it is needed most to make sure you are giving you 100% where they want to see it. Research the company, learn how they make assets and what software they use. Try and understand their production pipeline and workflow. Understanding and using these methods and knowledge can really show an employer you are ready to be integrated into their artist community.

When submitting your work remember presentation is king. No matter how great your texture work, your model, or your lighting, it can all look mediocre if not presented well. Look at other examples of how professional artists are presenting their work online. Use those as references to understand how to properly light, edit, and present your work to potential employers to have the best and most memorable impact.

Also, remember to protect yourself. Read and understand any contract involved in creating work for an art test. Make sure that you work is still yours and or it can’t be used in a product without your permission. The worst feeling would be to work on a project for weeks and then not get the job to only see your hard work in a game later down the road.

Lastly, balance your time and energy. If you are taking on an art test and a full-time job or more than one art test at a time make sure to pace yourself. Try and structure how you are going to break down each day to get everything you need to get done, done.

What are some things you did earlier in your career to help you land your first job?

One of the biggest things I have learned since leaving school is the importance of online presence. I first discovered this when I was in my last months of school. I had entered a contest hosted by 3Dmotive to create a game ready robot under 1000 tris. I surprisingly won the contest, and I quickly became aware of the impact it had when I talked to a few places that I was intervening only to find they knew of me through the contest. Seeing the impact that had on my ability to break into the industry I began to bolster my online presence, portfolio, and interactions on forums such as Polycount, GameArtisans, and other websites that I was using at the time.

This is honestly where I hear most of the people that ask me about breaking into the industry have the most difficulties. Many new artists say they are too afraid to post on Artstation or Polycount because they are worried about the feedback they will receive or that their work is not good enough for public view yet. It’s a hard thought process to shake but I assure you it is so very important that you do. Most of the artistic communities are more than happy to help varying level artists to develop their skills and abilities without judgment. The internet can be a scary place but I always find that sites like polycount foster wonderful communities to help the new artist grow and learn in a safe environment. Put yourself out there and most times I think you’ll find you will be more than happy with the results.

This leads me to networking. I cannot tell you how many work contracts and freelance gigs I have received through people I was friends with during college, met online in the forums, or other such methods. Keeping strong contacts and branching out to talk with artists and creators is a great way to help you get into the industry. Many times people will choose to work with someone that really like and enjoy being around compared to someone they know nothing about, regardless of the skills of both parties. Also, remember making connections with people not in your specific circle of expertise is also super helpful. Talk to programmers, technicians, and other talents and you will not only learn from each other but also widen your circle of contacts.

How do you go about overcoming your obstacles and staying motivated?

Sometimes while working on a project, tasks can definitely arise that are more challenging to you than others. You will often find that your particular skillset will also often make you a go to for task specific to that skill set.

For example, while working on Gears of War 4 I was given the task of working on the Swarm pods due to my understanding of material workflows in unreal and my ability to sculpt in ZBrush. This task was not a usual task that an environment artist would be working on as it is my similar to a character artist task due the organic nature and visuals of the swarm pods. As challenging as it seemed at first, taking it one step at a time and really planning out how each aspect of how the pod interacted with the environment, characters, and vfx, I was able to make sound decisions that allowed me to complete the task. Throughout the process there were multiple times where I felt stuck technically or visually and this is where the best part about working in large groups and art teams came into play. With each stumble or issue that arose, I was able to talk to other members of the team and not only conquer each issue but also learn new valuable skills and information about aspects of development I might not have the chance to if I had not taken on a more challenging task.

Taking hard tasks steps at a time and taking a step back from time to time to think about where you are in the process and what else needs to be completed to reach your end goals all help to make any major task doable.

What happens if I want to apply or start at a company that I don’t know the tools they are currently using?

I don’t think every company expects you to know every software package or creation system while starting there. Many times a studio will even have their own engine that will be specific to only them. When looking for candidates studios usually look for people that know general software packages that are the same or similar to ones they use and then they look to your work to know if you understand the underlying processes and procedures involved to reach good results in your art. Remember all the software out there is just a tool and in the end, every company just wants a good product for the buyer.

Also when starting anywhere new remember to use your resources and people around the studio. Many times I might struggle with a technical issue or have problems with some part of my process and I know I can simply ask for a few minutes of help from co-worker. You will find that in most healthy studios this is a common practice as it’s assumed that if they have an art question you can answer, then you would be there to help them too! I think the biggest thing is no one minds helping someone else as long as they show initiative that they are trying to solve a problem or work things out on their own first.

When you got your first job, what did your portfolio look like?

When I landed my first job I had a bit of a variety of things in my portfolio. I had two environments of a relatively smaller size, one level design walkthrough, and a handful of props and textures. I can’t say there is any exact formula to what is required in a portfolio but I can say this. All good portfolios, in my opinion, have good mixture of two part, micro and macro artwork. What I mean by this is that there should be a balance between the type of works you should. Micro work is the work most environment artists breaking into the industry typically show. It’s a prop or a texture or a single asset. Showing this asset you break down textures and how it was constructed, this show micro attention to detail, how you refine each smaller aspect of the asset and how you thought about its construction. This is good to show employers you understand the creation and workflow process of creating assets for games.

The second part or the macro work is sometimes left out or is not as well crafted. This is the creation of a small scene, diorama, or another such piece that shows a wider range of thought. This type of work shows that you can see the big picture, you can understand how individual assets, textures, and parts of an environment come together to form an overall pleasing composition or aesthetic. This also shows you are a completionist, meaning you are able to understanding pacing your workflow to make sure to get all of the environment done and not getting too caught up on the little stuff.

Keeping both of these in mind while crafting your portfolio I find helps to create a super strong presence and nice balance of presentation.

How big is a normal sized art team?

Art teams can vary in size. There are multiple art groups when it comes to The Coalition ranging from level design, vfx, animation, etc. Environment artists specifically there are anywhere from 6–9 ranging from where we are during production. This is one of the smaller teams I have worked on where some other studios may have double to triple that amount. It really depends on the project and how the work is distributed. We also work with external partners such as Splash Damage to get some parts of the multiplayer and other production done on time.

What are some of the most challenging aspects while working in the industry?

There will never be a time where an artist feels completely content with the work they are doing every day. This is the curse and blessing of being a commercial artist. Having a steady role while not always getting to make the most creative and fun content. Some days you may go into work and find that you are handed a mediocre to ‘meh’ task at best. These tasks can sometimes seem daunting and slow paced but finding ways to balance these tasks in your life with artistic tasks you enjoy I find is the way to help remedy the commercial artist blues. At the coalition when getting tasks I try to vary it up to make sure I don’t get to caught on one type of asset or production type. Sometimes switching between structural assets, to textures, to props can help to alleviate symptoms of repeditity.

Also while at home I tend to like to work on things that are very opposite of what I am working on at work. Mixing it up throughout your daily life can help keep you feeling satisfied and creatively operative.

What kind of programs should one learn and use?

As time goes by software and workflows will always change. It’s the nature of a technical industry. Knowing this it’s important to stay up to date with what are the current trends. I constantly am on the watch for emerging trends in software packages or ways to think about creating art.

Some of the bigs ones to watch right now are substance painter and quixel suite. Both are powerful packages and prove to be invaluable in saving time to create textures for your assets. Its funny with these as when I first started there were tons of small tricks I learned in photoshop to get certain results in my texturing workflows. Many of these techniques are not used as much because they are integrated into how you create textures in quixel or Substance, but knowing some of these techniques and workflows can help me understand what these software packages are actually doing under the hood and how they are able to manipulating masking with different blending techniques as such.

Also visual node networks such as substance designer and unreal material editor are both really great things for an environment artist to know and understand as they help visual learners understand some of the math processes that happen in game engines. Knowing a bit of technical creation can put your skillset slightly above another applicant for a job, especially in smaller studios where a wider range of knowledge can make you a more versatile member of the team.

Last knowing a game engine is important as well. Two of the biggest right now Unreal engine and Unity are great to know because they can help you get your foot in the door with most companies ranging from mobile to triple A development groups using these engines.

Do you have any artists that inspire you?

Yes tons! Some of my favorite traditional artists are Ian Mcque. He makes those awesome colors flying boat ships you see sometimes. Using really interesting brush strokes and marks to really bring life into his composition.

I am also a big fan of Alphonse Mucha. I love Art Nouveau work and all his ad prints and posters. I think his handiwork is really beautiful even being more commercial art over being art for arts sake.

I also love some of banksy’s work. More the ideas and thought processes attached to the work. It makes you question modern art similar to how Dadaism and other such movements did.

and then when it comes to other digital artists, I also have tons. I really admire and respect the artists that are active in the community. I learned so much from places like polycount when coming into the industry. That information came from people willing to share their knowledge for free with up and coming artist. People such as Hourences and Josh Lynch are awesome to have in the art community. They are always bettering the overall quality of that digital artist online community.

When it comes to personal projects, how you go about time management and planning?

I talk a lot about this topic to the students I teach as it can be one of the most challenging topics as a new commercial artist. All artists want to make sure everything looks perfect, this can quickly lead to time sinks and longer production times for time spent on certain aspects and tweaking the visuals of a scene. The biggest useful tool when it comes to this that I use is Trello. It is sort of a visual task management system. I use it to self manage and scope any project I am working on my own on. It allows me to organize my thoughts early in product and keep eyes on what’s most important in the project to get done. I prefer trello to say something like jira for tasks at home because it’s simply and is visual based compared to word heavy information.

I’m sure everyone has had an evening to sit down and work on a personal project that they have said, oh i’ll just tweak this thing here, then this thing I can fix up, and so on and so forth until you night is over and you can quite say what’s changed for the better in your scene. Applications like Trello help to keep this from happening as you can keep track of what you worked on last, how long you should work on it and what coming up next. Also keeping track of how long took you and marking it down in the trello board is helpful for you later when you are working on similar aspects of another project. You can now look back and see how long a task took you before to better estimate how long it will take you to do it again and how much faster you have become!

How much time do you spend lighting your scenes?

The more time I spend working with environment art and learning about how to craft a scene to a specific look the more I find myself working with lighting. Its an always evolving part of the creative process. When initially creating a scene it is important to add in base lights to get an idea of how you be framing your shots and compositions. Using these lights as a guide can not only help you make important decisions on where to focus the attention in your scene but also help you make creative choices with color and silhouette of shapes and sizes. I usually start with a few core lights to get myself going and then I come back towards the end of the project for test baking and realignment to get the best feel and silhouette framing. I find that I spend about 20–30 of the actual time making most my scenes experimenting with post processing and lighting as it is one of the key ingredient to creating the mood I am after.

This leads my to color and post processing. When I start any new scene I try to quickly establish my color palette and value ranges. When beginning to work with texturing it’s important to know the key colors that you will be using in your scene to make sure each asset helps to compliment each other and does not overpower the main colors you are trying to push to the foreground. I find that looking to references such as film, paintings, and other games are really helpful. Blurring an image of a movie or other reference in photoshop will expose what the key colors of that the composition or shot are comprised of. Knowing these can help you establish your own particular color palette.

What software packages do you use at the moment?

Currently I use a photoshop, ZBrush, Maya, Unreal Engine, MightyBake, Quixel Suite, Substance, and Knald as my primary tools of choice.

How do you go about gathering references for your scenes?

My favorite reference gathering tool by far is Pinterest. A lot of folks that haven’t had a chance to use it are still firm believers that is only for wedding planning and diet tea but trust me, so many great artists are on there using it. It’s basically a collective hivemind of references that draws from other people you follow and images you like. I also love the ability to organize into different categories and per project. It’s also super useful for saving references together and then sharing with other members on the team or other artists as everything is available online at all times.

As for construction methods, I really look anywhere on the web I can get the information. I think one of the things that is often overlooked is how something manmade was created. Some artists creating a metal ac unit or crafting a refrigerator forget to add breaks in panel and seam lines where the different pieces of metal used to create the real world object are placed. I really find making sure you include these in your models can really sell the believability. I try to carry this through to all aspects of environment art and always keep an eye on how things were crafted or could be crafted when pieced together from metal, wood, plastic, etc.

For gathering references for mood and lighting I look to a lot of films and painters. For the more recent subway train and tunnel environments I looked at a a few select references ranging from films such as the Nolan Batman films, some paintings by Caravaggio, and some nighttime photography I found through pinterest.

Lastly look to other 3D artists. See how they are crafting and creating their scenes are art works. Remember every famous artist your have known throughout time was not without influence from another artist before them. Art takes references from its past to create the future and no artist should live inside a box protected from other artist influences.

How do you incorporate story elements into your scene to sell a visual story?

Visual storytelling and customizing a scene are by far my favorite aspect of crafting and environment. I love creating special story beats and elements that entice the viewer to study the scene more closely and really try to understand the visual connections within the space.

When creating visual story elements and background commentary it’s important to try and keep your art from knocking the player over the head as to what they should think or what they should understand about your story. It’s more about the subtle clues that rewards the viewer for paying attention and connecting the dots. While teaching I always tell my students to remember these key ingredients for crafting a scene:

Tone or Mood — This is the feeling or emotional response intended for the view while seeing or exploring the scene.

Time — The time period, hour, or season in which the scene is set during.

Place — Where in the world, or galaxy or other is this scene located

History or Passage of Time — What has happened to the scene over its lifetime. Has it been flooded, maybe more than once, is the wood rotting away, has it been freshly painted, How can you convey this message to the viewer.

Cause and Effect — This is the use of visual clues or context to show sometime happened or is still happening in the space. Blood trails leading to a body could be an example of this.

Focus and Direction — This is how you draw the view or the attention of the player to specific aspects of the scene.
Established Identity — Using iconography, markings, logos, branding, or other such methods to establish a believable identity of certain aspects or features of a scene.

All of these methods and ideologies work in tandem to help to craft visual narratives in an environment.

Clinton Crumpler, Senior Environment Artist at The Coalition on Gears of War.
More about Clinton Crumpler
Senior Environment Artist @ The Coalition on Gears of War
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Interview conducted by artist and teacher Jake Higgs with The Academy of Interactive Entertainment (AIE)

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