How long have you been modeling characters for, and how did you practice your modeling techniques when developing your skills to begin working in the industry?
Professionally, it has been 13 years, but I make sure to refresh when I have to learn a whole new set of tools, pipelines or techniques. I try to learn new tools that will significantly reduce my production time, or if there's inspiring tutorials, I watch them to learn their work flows, mindset behind them, and then apply this knowledge to my own works when necessary. For instance, taking Ryan Kingslien's ZBrush-certified course was very helpful for me to improve understanding new features of ZBrush and digital sculpting.
One other thing I always do is writing the whole process on a sticky note (physical, digital) or notepad and place them where I can see them so that I can consciously use them. I also make sure to interact with people around me (online, offline) as there's always things to learn from other artists.
As a 3D artist, I believe we need to constantly catch up with the latest tools and techniques since they evolve and change more frequently than previously. Accepting and learning new ways are always challenging, but I believe it is very important not to be in the comfort zone of modeling when there are better and faster ways.
Awesome, and how did you ultimately begin your career as a character artist?
I started my career back in 2004 with my very first internship as a 3D generalist, and I shipped a couple of other games as 3D/2D artist working on concepts, characters, props, and environments. I got my first official Senior Character Artist title at Carbine Studios/NCsoft Corp. while working on WILDSTAR, where I was asked to work on my first creature. I have focused working on characters and creatures mostly ever since.
In what ways did projects like WILDSTAR and, currently, Overwatch, help propel your career and cause you to further develop as an artist?
As a 3D Character artist, I interacted mostly (but not only) with concept artists. I felt very lucky working with numbers of talented artist such as Arnold Tsang, Ben Zhang on Overwatch, and Cory Loftis, Kory Hubbell on Wildstar. To me, delivering concept artist's intentions through 3D is one of the most important phases. Also, if there's anything I felt strongly about, we openly discussed them as well. While doing this process back and forth, I personally think that I learned a lot from interacting with other artists and try to do the same with the Overwatch team at Blizzard as well.
I also had these given opportunities by directors to explore working with different dev teams where I helped develop the WILDSTAR dye system with programmers, making our very first Cinematic work with Seth Kendall, and working on marketing materials with the marketing team. These were some of the great experiences that helped extend my ideas and helped me become a better artist.
So, if there's anything you believe you could help the team or the project with, please have your team members know and share your insights. Some may work, some might not work, but it is also good practice to share your thoughts efficiently and to right people.
How has your own workflow changed when jumping from Wildstar to Overwatch? What new techniques have you picked up since making the transition?
It didn't change much on the technical side for modeling, but my approach of stylization has definitely changed. Knowing the thickness on bevel quality and the amount of detail on surfaces has been addressed clearly by Arnold Tsang and Renaud Galand. One of first impressions I had when I saw the Overwatch Characters was that they were well-collaborated character design works between appealing eastern concept style and the appealing western 3D art style.
My texturing pipeline has changed very much since changing from Traditional (diffuse normal specular) engine to PBR engine. I had experience working on PBR engine at Amazon Game Studios with Lumberyard before I joined Blizzard but achieving the Overwatch style PBR texturing was very interesting because we emphasized a hand-crafted feel on PBR Materials. To be able to achieve these visuals successfully, we had very controlled texturing methodology with very a specific amount of detail we could put on each material.
We love seeing the progression! Switching gears a bit, your portfolio of work includes quite a range of models, from hard surface to soft surface. Do you prefer one over the other? And why?
My background of 3d modeling started with the early version of Maya without Zbrush, so up to a certain point of my career I was definitely more comfortable modeling regardless of whether the concept was mechanic or organic. Then, ZBrush came out and I remember enjoying the time reduction on making dynamic shapes.
Creatures like this were perfect for ZBrush sculpting:
For this particular creature, I started with spheres to build individual pieces like the head, wings, arms, and torso. I separated them not only because of the concept, but also so that I could maximize the polygon counts for these individual subtools, which allowed me to add extra details.
For hard surfacing, this Steampunk Overwatch bastion was perfect:
This work was pretty much done with a hard surface SubD modeling technique. I first built big, low poly pieces to see the whole silhouettes before going into detail. Once overall feeling was okay, I then subd modeled individual pieces.
And this model is a good example of me mixing two different methods:
For this model, I first used ZBrush to get the overall proportion and design elements, then I retopo the base models to be used for the base of hard surface pieces. I chose to do this so that the helmet would feel more organic, but less mechanical, and also it was easier for me to test organic shapes in ZBrush than in an actual modeling program.
I personally really enjoy both. Being able to explore and develop both organic and hard surface in sculpting and modeling methods really helps me out with exploring and understanding shapes and flows of objects. I hope to continue working on both organic and hard surface models, through professional or personal works.
Speaking of portfolios, for artists wanting to join your team over at Blizzard as a character artist, what should they include in their portfolio to be considered for hire?
I think there are couple of things you could do to make successful portfolio to join at Blizzard. First, quality over quantity. I believe this applies to not only Blizzard, but to any studio. Please make sure to include your best, most recognized pieces on top of the portfolio page. if your work doesn’t have a good first impression, you will have less chance of the reviewer going through rest of your portfolio. Second, please know your audience and which dev team you are applying for. The best case is that you have portfolio pieces that match the game art style you want to be part of. For example, within Blizzard, we have different dev teams that make different games, so you will have a better chance if your portfolio clearly represents the style of the game you want to work on. Third, please know the core principals of Blizzard’s art style. I have mentioned there are different art styles within blizzard dev teams, but our core principals remain and apply to every dev team. Recognizable silhouettes and strong colors with hand crafted texture works are the core principles of Blizzard art style that has persisted throughout our games.
Awesome! And what advice can you offer for getting noticed or trying to land that first interview with a AAA game studio like Blizzard?
As I mentioned, I think it is very important to target the company's vision and their art style. Please make sure to have your best works at the beginning of your portfolio and make sure that that each piece is matching with company's art style (even within the Blizzard, we have different teams making different style of games). It will be tough for reviewers to understand your skill set if your portfolio is full of stylized character pieces when they are looking for someone who can build realistic characters. Please know who you are applying for, and if you haven't built your portfolios yet, please pick companies where you believe your art style matches the most.
Definitely be active on CG websites like CGSociety. Also, interact with other artists on social media platforms to digest their knowledge and share yours as well.
Lastly, it is definitely not easy to land any job, and I failed many times as well. One thing that kept me going was not giving up and learning from previous failure. I do understand everyone is in different environments, situations, and circumstances, but companies won't be able to consider all of those factors, rather they will just evaluate you with your work to get an interview. And please, prepare and research for how to do a successful interview. Being true of yourself is very important but the preparation will help you answer interview questions in right way and could have much more impact.
I wish this interview was helpful and I wish the best for all of you.
We want to thank Hong for taking the time to share this valuable insight. Don't forget to give him a follow on CGSociety!