When did you get started in Modeling, and what software did you start on? How has your personal pipeline changed over the years?
I started modeling around 2001 with, I believe, 3DStudio Max 4.
Back then, I was taught how to model using splines and Nurbs. Which, for the beginner that I was, made every single task a bigger challenge than it really was.
A few months later I discovered a stack modifier that would change my (modeling) life forever: Edit Mesh (which, later, was followed with the addition of its big brother: Edit Poly). The idea of being able to edit your surface on a vertex, edge, or polygon level was simply mind blowing to me and I never looked back. I finally had found a tool I could fully wrap my head around and one that was intuitive enough to easily follow a concept or just improvise directly in the viewport. “Poly modeling,” like we used to call it back then, became king for a few years.
Although, the software and modeling philosophy that really made me level up both as an artist and in my career was definitely Zbrush and the concept of digital sculpting (respectively). Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine how anything could be done without it, but I was fortunate enough to witness the industry transition and made sure to jump on that train as fast as I could.
The way I would describe how my personal pipeline has changed over the years is that it went from having to deal with technical limitations driving what I could achieved artistically—which forced me to be creative in some other ways—to an era where pretty much anything is possible as long as you have an idea.
What have you had to learn while on the job in order to continue to be a competitive candidate working in AAA games?
On the technical and artistic sides—and in a never ending changing industry like ours—adapting to new techniques should be part of your daily routine, regardless of your job title or responsibilities. If you chose that path, it hopefully means that you share at least two of the main qualities that will help you get where you want: passion and curiosity. Researching, practicing, and learning should feel like a natural extension of your work.
But that’s only hinting at one aspect of what makes a good modeler successful in a AAA environment.
The biggest lesson I had to learn on the job is how to effectively work as a team! Like we say it here, “it takes a whole Blizzard to make a Blizzard game,” and this couldn’t have been more true on a project like Overwatch. Being able to get out of your chair and go talk to a designer, an animator, a rigger, or a concept artist to solve any problem that might arise; sharing knowledge and mistakes with other teams to learn from each other; or simply showing a new technique that you just learned to your peers—these are some of the things that really helped me build the relationship I have today with our team, the project, and Blizzard. They also made me a better game developer and collaborator.
What I learned is that being good at your craft is only half of what will make you successful in this industry.
For the modelers in our audience who are hoping to work on AAA games one day, is there a specific software they should use that offers an advantage beyond the fundamental skills? What should someone who is just starting off start out using?
My answer will sound very classic, but tools are just tools. One thing I wish I could tell my younger self, based on the experience I have today, is that the time you have before beginning your career should really be spent learning and practicing the foundations on which you’ll build the rest of your skillset. Anatomy, color theory, composition, architecture, and other fundamentals will make your life so much easier later on.
Of course, you’ll always improve and perfect that knowledge, but trust me when I tell you that learning these things on the fly—while having a day job, maybe a family or other external responsibilities—can quickly become more challenging than you think.
In term of tools, a good starter pack should probably include a modeling package such as Maya. The reason I would lean towards that specific software is because of its pipeline flexibility and the fact that it’s also being used in multiple industries (film, video games, commercial, etc.).
As for sculpting, a good introduction could be Sculptris (owned by Pixologic) to get a feel for the basics of digital sculpting. And, of course, Zbrush, which offers pretty much everything you’ll need to be flexible and versatile with most of the production needs. Mudbox also deserves to be mentioned for its incredibly intuitive sculpting toolset.
When it comes to texturing, while Photoshop should obviously be part of your toolkit, I would highly recommend getting familiar with physical based texturing softwares such as Substance Painter/Designer as well as the Quixel suite. Our industry has already made its move and PBR (physical based rendering) is the go-to for more and more AAA titles.
Can you tell us a little bit about your process for hiring talent for your team? What are some of the "must haves" for a portfolio, as well as some of the warning signs?
Hiring the right people for Overwatch has always been a very important task for our team. Besides looking for a strong portfolio featuring models that align with our style and/or possess a compelling aesthetic, the other big(gest) aspect we look for is a great culture fit.
Blizzard is a company with a very strong culture filled with people living, breathing, and shaping it daily. Each team within Blizzard draws inspiration from our core values to develop its own sub-culture—meaning that the Word of Warcraft team operates slightly differently than the Diablo team or the Overwatch team, etc. This diversity helps creates an amazing mix of management styles, knowledge, and design philosophies that get shared across the whole company.
So, the idea of having a new person “fit the team” is one of the keystone of our hiring process.
As for portfolio material, some great advice I was given a long time ago by one of my peers in the industry (and that still holds true to this day) is that if you want to work at a specific company on a specific game, you should probably have a couple of pieces inspired by that style and IP. It will show passion for the project and increase your chances of being noticed as a potential artistic fit!
As an example, having only ultra-realistic characters and environments in your portfolio will probably not help you land a job on the Overwatch game team. But who knows? It might create some interest in the cinematic department!
What are some of your leadership methods, and where did you develop this skill set? How can an artist practice being a leader without stepping on toes in the workplace? Where do you seek out help or advice when you come across an obstacle on a project?
Leadership has been an ongoing and fascinating learning experience for me. You usually learn as much about yourself in the process as you do on how to manage other people.
When I felt like I could start incorporating that aspect of game development into my role, I was lucky enough to be surrounded by incredible leaders and managers who helped me as I transitioned into my current leadership position. Our team puts a big emphasis on empowering people by providing them with the tools they will need to achieve their goal(s). From advice on how to communicate more effectively with other departments, to how to become a better advocate for proactive and positive problem solving, to constantly checking on your team member’s level of happiness—these are just some of the tools that we, as leads, use every day to make sure we’re supporting the people we work with the best we can. Our goal, at the end of the day, is to be the facilitators who help make decisions (easy or tough!) faster and smoother.
As an example, on the Overwatch team we have this great process where, for each of our seasonal events, we choose a different artist on the team to act as an “art point person” for that project. The goal is to give our artists the opportunity to take on more ownership, more responsibilities, and grow as leaders. On top of being involved with asset creation, that person will—with the help of their lead—be responsible for making sure that the overall artistic vision of the event is followed by all the other artists involved. They will also be exposed to decision-making meetings, be part of scheduling discussions with production, and manage a variety of different aspects that will make their “strike team” successful. It generates a lot of positive engagement and excitement, and always ends up improving their “soft skills” and manager toolset!
As leads, we also never shy away from any opportunity we get (meetings, one-on-ones, etc.) to better ourselves and share our experiences—good and bad!—with our counterparts in other departments. These “leadership moments” are a great tool for us to reflect not only on what we could be doing better for the team, but also to celebrate our successes and pass on good lessons and leadership tools that the rest of the group may want to try with their peers.
Is it safe to say that you've grown as an artist since beginning work at Blizzard? What do you do outside of the studio to make sure you continue this growth?
Blizzard is probably the best place I’ve ever worked at when it comes to artistic growth. This place is filled with amazing and approachable artists who are always willing to share their knowledge via impromptu chats or by using our internal academy system. We are extremely fortunate to have access to a whole learning structure which organizes classes and demos on pretty much anything you could think of related to video game development: Art, design, sounds, programing, management, and the list goes on! Add to that drawing and sculpting classes on a weekly basis and you can get a sense of how invested Blizzard is in growing its employees.
As an artist, you also need to understand and accept that you’ll never see the end of the tunnel when it comes to your art. Once you acknowledged that, you can start planning your personal “growth time” like a slow marathon. So, when I find the time and energy to do something outside of work, it is often gravitating around quick 3D anatomy studies and other very small projects that will focus on very specific areas that I need to get better at.
Now that the industry has become more accessible, we have seen significant growth in educational programs tailored towards 2D and 3D entertainment art. What are your thoughts on the various methods for learning? For instance, should budding artists seek out brick and mortar classrooms in a larger university, or focus on online training options? What are some drawbacks/benefits to both?
There are obviously benefits and drawbacks to both learning paths but, at the end of the day, what really matters is how you want to do it.
I’m personally coming from a very classic educational background. I earned a degree in computer graphics from one of the very few schools in Belgium that provided those kind of courses (HEAJ). In retrospect, I believe it was the right move for me for a few reasons. Early on in life, I was greatly lacking in skills like organization and prioritization. A school or university can often offer the kind of structure that helps you focus on what’s important for any given time. It also exposed me very early on to what team work meant in a collaborative environment, which allowed me to adapt very quickly to similar patterns when I started my journey in the industry. Last by not least, my degree really helped me with the visa process that eventually led me to Blizzard Entertainment. It is totally possible to get different types of visas depending on your level of education and experience, but the H1B working visa is—if you match all the requirements—the easiest to get and renew!
That being said, what a school doesn’t always provide you with is the best material to study from. For example, some classes may be outdated and out of touch with the industry. And it will be on you to fill these gaps or simply decide that, with all the content available online on platforms like gumroad.com, cubebrush.co, gnomon, and other online training websites, you’ll be better of investing your money there instead of spending that money in classes you’re not sure are still relevant.
People learn in different ways and we are now living in a world where you are in charge of how you want to approach it.
As artists, we also have that special card called our “portfolio” that will initially speak for itself before having to show our degree or who we are as individuals.
It all comes down to what you think will benefit you most.
Where do forums and online communities play a role when it comes to finding or maintaining a career as an artist, or further evolving a skill set?
From my experience, websites like CG Society, Artstation or Polycount, and social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram are all incredible ways to generate exposure and/or get in contact with interesting, like-minded people (including potential future employers, if you’re looking for a job).
Just to give you an example, Polycount got me my job at Blizzard. It’s via that forum that I started talking with one of their recruiters and with hard work, time, and a bit of luck I finally got the opportunity to work there a few months after.
The only advice I’d give to young artists looking for a job and using these channels is to be as mindful, respectful, and courteous online as you would be in person. A simple private message to a potential future employer can easily go from being professional to inappropriate, pushy or even rude, and may permanently burn a bridge with a company you were really passionate about. Try to keep in mind which channels are best for personal use and which ones would benefit from a more professional approach.
And finally, what piece of advice can you offer those in our audience who dream of working at Blizzard one day?
When it comes to applying to companies like Blizzard, here’s a piece of advice I learned by doing: Don’t be afraid to fail! It is OK if you don’t reach the goal you set for yourself right away. In fact, I’d argue that it is sometimes even better.
Being able to experience different things, including a variety of successes and failures, before getting the job you always wanted, at the company you always wanted to work for, will probably make you appreciate the experience even more.
Trial and error will provide perspective and help you give your best when this new exciting opportunity finally arrives. It will also teach you how to constantly set new goals for yourself with the confidence that whatever mistakes you will make or failure you might face along the way; you will eventually reach them. Because, guess what? You already did it once and it worked. :)
CGSociety thanks Renaud for his thought-provoking responses! We hope this inspired you to create.