Massive Talent

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    Five years ago, a small ragtag group of young artists banded together as a virtual company. They had met in school, online, and while working at various jobs in the film and games industry. They had $6,000, a passion for art, talent, experience and a lofty goal: Deliver the top quality artwork to the top quality companies in the entertainment world.

    Today, Massive Black’s 55 artists provide concept design, storyboards, graphic design, illustration, 2D concept art, 3D modeling, texture painting,
    3D animation, and marketing materials to more than 80 entertainment clients worldwide. Currently, about 80 percent of the studio’s work centers on the videogame industry, with the rest spread among film, advertising and marketing, television, and toy manufacturing. With branches in Shanghai and Bangkok, the San Francisco-based company has positioned itself to be competitive in cost as well as quality. Now, the company’s success has fostered a second goal: create and license its own original content. 

    But, despite the commercial accomplishments – the company has been profitable since its founding – and the business acumen that implies,
    Massive Black still looks and feels more like a collective artists’ atelier than a corporation. “We keep the corporate side invisible,” says Jason Manley, co-founder and president. “It has to be absolutely invisible for artistic culture to thrive.” 

    Adds Justin (Coro) Kaufman, co-founder and art director, “There’s not too much corporate culture around here.”
     
      
     
    Community Planning
    The coming together of the founders reads like a six degree of separation story. Manley and Kaufman met when Manley interviewed for a job at Shaba Games, now part of Activision. “We got along really well,” says Manley. “We were on the same path; we were straight with each other from the beginning.” 

    Together they and Andrew Jones, a third co-founder and now creative director and head of R&D, started the internet-based artists’ community conceptart.org. Manley had met Jones in school and introduced him to Kaufman. 

    “There was no place where artists could get to know each other,” says Manley. “Someone once said to me, ‘Successful artists are like Kung Fu masters.
    They wander the world and sometimes they come across people who say they are masters or want to be, but they aren’t really dedicated to it. And sometimes they find another Kung Fu master and teach each other a few secret moves. 
    They go on in life, and never forget the great ones they came across during their journey.’ Our group came from having a strong attraction to people with high talent and that led to building conceptart.org and that solidified our relationships.” 

    Kaufman had met Chris Hatala, another founder and now director of animation, at school. Hatala started his career at Tippett Studio in the animation department where Petey Konig, Massive Black founder and 3D director, also worked. Hatala showed Kaufman’s portfolio to Konig. 

    “He hung onto it for a few years,” says Kaufman, “and then, out of the blue, he dropped me an email and asked if I wanted to trade artwork with him.”
    When they met, Kaufman told Konig about an idea that he, Manley, and Jones had for starting a company. Konig hopped onboard. Noxizmad, Massive Black’s senior concept artist and producer Melissa Lee joined not long after.  

    While each of these artists continued working for other companies, they solidified their relationship through conceptart.org and by coming together to teach workshops. Now that they’re running a company of their own, that hasn’t changed. The non-profit group continues to run workshops, with Massive Black’s sponsorship: The company provides most of the instructors, the work force, and the client relationships. And, conceptart.org has grown: The website, which gets around 700,000 unique visitors per month, has doubled its traffic each year. 

    “It’s our way to give back to the world,” Manley says. “We’re training our competitors every day, but we believe in art education and furthering the art.
    We guide it and protect it from corporate goons.” 

    Conceptart.org also serves Massive Black – as it always has. “The workshops are a great way for our guys to see the world and promote what we do,” says Kaufman. “And it’s useful for finding talent. We found our entire concept art department through conceptart.org.” 
    We asked three of the Massive Black founders when they first starting thinking about art as a career choice. 

    Jason Manley
    I was 20 before I centered in on art. I decided then that someday I would own and be part of an animation studio that made amazing works. Back then, I wanted to be an animator. I studied traditional animation for about two and a half years before figuring out that my passion was really in representational art and illustration. The latter led to my concept design career. And, that career led to Massive Black, conceptart.org, and the workshops, which cemented it all together. 

    Coro Kaufman
    I think I began to take art seriously back in 1991 when I began writing graffiti in my late teens. It became apparent to me that I wanted to paint stuff for a living. As a child of the Star Wars generation, I was always interested in science fiction, giant robots and monsters, so when I made the decision to become an artist, I decided I wanted to deal in that genre. My original goal was to become a maquette sculptor or get into special effects. Somehow, I ended up where I am today. 

    Andrew Jones
    Drawing was the only thing I ever did well. Reading gives me a headache and I’m mathematically challenged. I can’t spell to save my life, never picked up a musical instrument, and I’m still healing emotional scars from little league baseball. Art basically won by default. I painted a caterpillar in pre-school and the art teacher singled me out and told my parents I had a special talent. Somehow that made my teacher happy and made my parents happy and that made me feel good. It was a simple equation for a five-year-old to understand. My parents were always encouraging. I think they knew I would be an artist before I knew what an artist was. As soon as I realized that the system of reality we have in place requires you to do something in exchange for money, I decided I would rather draw pictures with my time than wash dishes. Some people choose to do a certain thing either because they have deep passion for it or they can’t do much else. I guess I am a mixture of the two. 

      
     
  • Big Moves
    In 2003, Manley left a job at Vivendi, moved from Boston to less-expensive Austin, Texas, and began working as a contractor. That move gave him the freedom to start the new company. “We were all working our day jobs and kind of trying to scheme on how to start this company in the evenings,” says Kaufman. “Jason [Manley] was the first to say, ‘the hell with it.’” 

    Manley solicited the work and fed assignments to Kaufman, Jones, Konig and Noxizmad, who was based in Paris. 
    They incorporated as Massive Black in 2003. “The idea was that we would grab the some of the best artists from around the world and pull them into one remotely-based team,” says Manley.
    “That wasn’t the way teams were typically built in the videogame industry. They often use junior staff which surrounds a small core of veteran talent.” 

    Manley secured small jobs with important clients for the veteran artists, and in their spare time, the artists perfected their skills in 3D modeling, texturing, and animation. “No one outside the top developers was doing next-gen development at the time, so we had to figure it out by ourselves,” says Manley, “and we did.”   

    Their first huge job was Hellgate: London for the then new game developer Flagship Studios (formerly Blizzard North). “They gave us our break,” says Manley. “We’re still thankful for that.”
    The artists created concept art, models, textures, animation, marketing materials, storyboards, creatures, weapons and environments. “We were their art staff for two years.” 

    With 18 artists now working with Massive Black, and Hellgate underway, it became clear that the dream of working as a remote-based company wasn’t happening.  “Working as a remote-based company is great only until you get a giant job,” says Manley. “Just try to manage a few thousand pieces of concept work and 300 models and textures and 300 or 4,000 animations using conversations on IM. It doesn’t work and it wasn’t going to.” In addition to Hellgate, the team was also working on projects for id software, Sony, Nike, Blizzard, Activision, and others. 

    “It was driving everyone crazy,” says Kaufman. “Something that you could otherwise walk up to someone’s desk and ask for by saying, ‘Hey do you have that thing?’ could take all day. It became obvious we needed a studio.”

    In December 2004, the 18 artists opened the doors to Massive Black in San Francisco and at the same time offered a North American Artist’s Workshop. Soon after, they opened a studio in Shanghai. “We faced the reality that we had to keep our rates competitive or we’d lose the company to whoever could make art at low cost,” says Manley. “And we wanted to keep our team together.” 

    Manley notes that the games industry pays only the minimum amount for 3D work right now and he understands why. “They have good reason,” he says. “Games aren’t more expensive than they were years ago even though they cost significantly more to make. The industry has grown, but the cost of making games is more than the market will bear. So everyone involved has to explore lower-cost alternatives.  Just a few years ago, a team of 18 could make a triple-A title, nowadays it can take as many as 150-200.” 

    The company’s experience developing and holding training workshops helped bring Massive Black’s China-based team up to speed quickly. Now, under the direction of Dan Staton and producer Jenny Kim, the Shanghai staff plays a particularly important role in the studio’s 3D work as does a second team in Bangkok. “They did a great job on ‘Battlefield 2142’, ‘Hellgate’ and ‘Auto Assault’ and are now working on ‘Killzone 2’ and others,” says Manley.
    “They also do beautiful art for our own creative projects.” 

    What’s With the Name?

    Jason Manley: We all made a list of hundreds of potential names and the guys just could not agree when it came down to it.  We discussed it back and forth and narrowed it down to two potential names: Pixeluffagus and Massive Force. It did not take long for us to realize these were horrendous choices. No one could decide on the right name. One of the guys cracked a joke. He said it should be Massive Black with a rooster logo and the tagline “serving all your biggest needs” --a name few would forget. We mocked up some cards in jest. Within an hour we had a surprise unanimous decision. After months of discussion about potential “Digital this,” Pixel that,””Imaginary this” and “Dynamic that,” we had the name that would stick. 

    In the end, we reasoned that Massive Black is the primordial void from which great ideas are pulled.

    The overseas studios have helped free senior artists based in
    San Francisco to work on pitch packages, which have become a centerpiece of Massive Black’s work. “We help companies get funding,” says Manley. “Companies come to us when they’re just getting started and have little to show other than a list of ideas. We take those ideas and deliver a cohesive package that makes the funder, whether a game publisher or movie studio, say, ‘yes!’ during greenlight”. Twenty-seven of 32 major pitches developed or assisted by Massive Black have sold at the publisher level, according to Manley. 

    As they developed pitches for other companies, the Massive Black artists learned what they needed to do to sell their own ideas. “We knew from the beginning that IP [intellectual property] is what makes your company valuable,” says Manley. “We know what the market needs to get our own worlds out.” 

    Andrew Jones now leads the R&D division to develop Massive Black’s own worlds and already has five properties in nearly pitch-able form. “We dumped all our profits from the last four years into our own worlds,” says Manley. “We have to make that next step.”  The company will develop these worlds through a new division, Massive Black Entertainment, and hopes to license them to publishers. First hints of this new direction will begin appearing on the Massive Black website over the next two months. 

    At the same time, the founders plan to grow the studio a bit more to handle a steady flow of outsourcing work. About half these projects are licensed worlds for which the artists follow existing designs or re-design the work. For the other half, the artists bring new worlds to life from concept design through modeling, texturing, rigging and animation. 

    “We have between 12 and 15 projects going on at any one time,” says Manley. “Everything from cute, sweet, and beautiful, to omigod, that’s the nastiest, darkest, evilest, thing I’ve ever seen. We always seem to be working on a lot of space marines, heroes, monsters and dragons…the typical genre stuff. But in general, if you take a picture of what’s happening creatively in the entertainment industry, that’s our work.” 

    They claim to have the largest independent concept design team in the world now, and they expect to grow, hoping to place about 15 new artists in its various divisions this year and ready to scale up for larger projects in the future. 

    “There is way more need for concept design right now than there used to be,” says Kaufman. “The need is for games and also for movies. So we handle a big range. Our concept artists have a real aptitude for creating cool shit and that’s why we’ve gotten much of the work on pitches and in pre-production.  It’s a dream come true from an artistic standpoint.” 

    And that is the bottom line. The ragtag group of artists who wanted to educate themselves and others and along the way create the top art for the top companies have, themselves, created a top company. “We’re artists,” says Manley, “but we’re not stupid.” 

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    Related links:
    Massive Black
    Conceptart.org


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