Art Director Mission: Setting a Box of Rules

Art Director Mission: Setting a Box of Rules

We’ve talked with Jamie McNulty about his profession and the way art director works in game studios.

We’ve talked with Jamie McNulty about his profession and the way art director works in game studios.


My name is Jamie McNulty and I come from Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada. It’s a small city on the east coast and not many people know it exists outside of eastern Canada. I am an Associate Art Director at the Coalition in which our most recent title was Gears of War 4.   

For school, I went to a technical school and learned Photoshop, some 3D modeling, and classical animation. Really there weren’t any jobs anywhere near where I lived for that line of work. I was super passionate about it though, so I was going to go for it until I got it.  My wife and I decided to try moving out west and we ended up moving to Edmonton Alberta in hopes I could find a foothold in Bioware at the time to which I had no luck.

I ended up getting a small online contract to do some props for a canceled MMO project that gave me enough of a boost in my portfolio where I was hired by Ubisoft as an Illustrator and Modeler.   

I worked on another canceled game at Ubisoft and then ultimately worked on a cartoon franchise title called Open Season due to my classical animation schooling.  Everyone that has unreal experience was working frantically being pulled on to one of the Splinter Cell games. I was the only artist available on my current project, so I ended up having to learn Unreal and making level art.  Turned out I wasn’t bad at it and I stayed doing that while doing the odd illustration for idea pitch documents etc.

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The word got out that I was looking, and I was contacted by an old colleague from Ubisoft who was now working for Irrational games on the Bioshock series and asked if I was interested in working there. Once I saw what the team was working on Bioshock I knew I just had to work on that game. I loved the mood, the architecture, the style of game and the team was so talented. I was somehow lucky enough to get the job there as a level artist and it was amazing! I learned so much from Ken Levine, Scott Sinclair, Shawn Robertson and Steven Alexander at that place.

I had to return to Canada for a brief time and became Lead Lighter and Lead Environment artist working for a Disney studio in Vancouver but as soon as I was able to return I went back to Irrational games as a senior level artist to work on Bioshock Infinite.  

Scott Sinclair retook the mantle of Art Directo partway through production. He then promoted me to Lead Level Artist. This is how I also met Rod Fergusson. He came in at the last of the game to help us ship.

After Infinite I moved to Washington with 343 Industries to work on Halo 5 briefly until we decided we wanted to move back to Canada. Rod Fergusson (who just took the Studio Head position at the Coalition (a division of Microsoft) heard and asked me if I would be interested in a transfer to be the lead level artist on Gears of war 4. I loved working with Rod previously and he pretty much had me at “hello” so to speak.

After we shipped Gears 4 I was then promoted to Associate Art Director where I am working alongside the awesome Aryan Hanbeck our Art Director on our next project.

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I took some schooling as I mentioned, but what it taught me was more of how to use the tools.  Basic 3DS Max, Lightwave, Photoshop etc. At the time in 1998, they didn’t really have any sort of understanding of what really went on in games.  On the job, I had to toss out most of what school taught and learn the proper way.

Everything else I really learned through the job or by experimenting on my own.  A lot of what I know is self-taught. Painting for example. I have no painting training knowledge and I fumble my way through it most of the time.

What is the biggest difference between the art director and just an artist?

Art direction, for me, is about setting a box of rules for your artists to work in.  It’s about those boundaries of the box and how much they can bend them without breaking the box.  These are the happy accidents that come from the original intention.

Being an artist is about interpreting a vision over a small section. A Director course corrects each section over a broad picture to keep a cohesive vision of the project.  Bringing the music of one into a symphony of many so to speak.

The “why” is super important.  It is why people like the environment storytelling of games like Bioshock.  There is always a pile of why and what all over the place. Trying to bring this into your world will just make it all the richer for the player to enjoy.

What defines a good look?

Whenever I am making a level I try to have as much fun as possible. A lot of fun comes from creating the visual for sure, but I find joy in creating things where a player can explore.   Making something that gets the player to ask questions like “How the heck to I get up there?” Or “What happened to this place?”

These are the kinds of things I think about when I make anything really.

That said, nothing makes an artist happier than when someone says “Wow, this is awesome looking.”

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Usually, it starts with brainstorming and reference gathering. From this, I put together a bit of a mood board or style brief to use as a guide.  This can be done on a broad scope or as granular as needed as long as it communicates the idea.  The mood board can change and alter but it really helps to get people on the same page and working toward an initial goal.  Especially for the first concepts or early level designs.

Sometimes I just doodle, and things come out. Other times I open unreal to graybox some ideas in 3D space and walk around.  I like to plop things into 3D as I find I can work out some of the kinks before I spend too much time noodling on a sketch. If a place feels interesting to just walk around in graybox, it will be awesome when it has some art in it.

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I tend to start with a small 3 color palette first.  I find a simple pallet helps to keep the amount of visual noise to a minimum.  A lot of the time I am just trying to use a couple colors that work well to really service the composition.  I tend to try to balance hot and cold colors more than anything. I use hot colors generally to call attention to something.  Then I use cold colors for what I want to recede into the background. Or, alternatively, I will set something cold in front of a hot backdrop to pop it out.  A hot backdrop will help punch out a cold silhouette really well.

Whenever we put something from concept to game (like a building set or hero prop etc.) we usually make a material callout sheet.  This helps us balance color, material response, and tonality before we make a final asset.

While I would love to tell you that it all goes in without a hitch I can’t.  Sometimes engine rendering, material responses, and light color really change how things look when translated to 3D.  So, there is always some adjustment, but we generally try to stick as close to the original palette as we can.

How often do you communicate with other departments?

All the time. Usually, we get some narrative, backstory, etc. and we are trying to implement this into the concept design.  If we don’t have this, everything just falls flat. A box of rules for art to flourish in as mentioned earlier.

We have stakeholders from each department in the reviews just in case they see any serious issues that we might have missed.  

For example, characters have special considerations to make sure they will animate correctly.  For environments, if the colors are too similar to the enemy palette, the enemies will just blend in and be hard to find.  

For things like weapons, there is always a brief about the intent and function of the weapon. Sometimes though, you just land on this cool, badass concept, and the design can change to fit the imagery.  However, almost always it’s the other way around.

What are you looking for when hiring a new person?

I find artists that flourish the most are people that know some art fundamentals as well as the tools to implement them.   Someone who understands composition and some basic color theory. These things hit every department you might want to work in and are super important.

Showing a superbly crafted art piece made from someone else’s concept art is a good thing to do.  It shows you can follow direction.

Don’t be afraid to expand your portfolio a bit beyond the norm.   For example, an aspiring environment artist might make a few really great looking individual assets.  What will make that person rise out of the crowd is making a cohesive scene with great assets? Nothing says professional like a consistent scene where everything has a role and the composition is the star vs every asset competing for attention.

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Character, weapon and vehicle artists should show high res models/sculpts, the game res models, textures, and your UV’s.  You could take it to the extra mile and drop it into a game engine. If it still holds up, it shows you have what it takes.  Tossing them into a simple well-lit scene doesn’t hurt either.

Lastly, the most important thing I tell students is that they need to be as good as a professional artist to get the job.  There are only so many jobs in the industry in which aspiring arts and pros all compete. The pros will not take it easy on you when competing for the same job.  You really need to take an honest look at your portfolio and compare it to a pros’ work. Use this to see what you can work on to get better.

Jamie McNulty, Art Director at The Coalition

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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    Art Director Mission: Setting a Box of Rules