Laura Gallagher, the founder of Outgang, discusses the challenges of character design in the game industry and what it means to be a Character Artist in game dev today.
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My name is Laura Gallagher and I have been a Character Artist for 14 years. I have recently worked as a Lead Character Artist over at Guerrilla Games taking part in the development of the Horizon franchise and before that, I was a Lead Character Artist at Eidos Montreal on Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. I also worked on Tomb Raider, an unannounced Marvel game, I produced a few sculptures for Prime 1 Studios and I have been teaching character art for over nine years at NAD Center, where I have also studied, and online for CGMA. Last year, I founded my own company, Outgang, with the goal of sharing all the secrets I have learned over my career through affordable character art education.
How It All Started
I have always been a gamer and I always felt like working in games and art was my calling but it was not clear that character art was my passion until my brother sent me an obscure Youtube video called ‘’The Annoying Thing”. That video is what introduced the world to the character known now as Crazy Frog but that was before the character was even called that and became a viral mascot. “The Annoying Thing” was impressive back then but had been made by just one person and that spoke to me. I went ahead and learned to model my first 3D character after Crazy Frog that I called Pigmy Fish. I wouldn’t normally share images of this publicly but there will not be a lot of people reading this, right?
From a Student to a Professional Character Artist
Getting admitted to NAD as a student and breaking in the games industry were major milestones of course, but even more interesting, I think, are my personal development milestones as it relates to the craft. Like a lot of character artists, I learned the technical aspect of the craft first and the artistic aspect second. Before I joined the team at Eidos Montreal I more or less always approached character creation as a series of technical problems to solve and I would rate how good a character art piece was almost solely based on the quality of its technical execution. I was not a character artist yet; I was a character modeler. I credit the Art Director of Eidos Montreal at the time, Jonathan Jâques-Belletête, and the incredibly talented Deus Ex art team for teaching me little by little how artistic achievement, iconicity, and design are what makes a character truly timeless. At one point a concept artist was asking how to learn ZBrush, I remember only half-joking that if we taught the concept art team how to use ZBrush that I would be out of a job. I realized then how much I needed to level up my artistic game. I now see technical prowess as being subordinate to artistic expression because of my time on that team.
Becoming a Character Artist in 2021
There is this misconception, especially among students, that there are not a lot of jobs in character art and that therefore it is impossible to break into the industry. This is odd because I hear from a lot of colleagues at different studios that they are starving for good talent for their character art teams and that they can spend months looking for the right recruit. The disconnect there is quite striking. I think your RFP initiative is a great way to address that by the way, but its clear to me that part of why students often fail at getting the jobs they apply for is a matter of lack of access to comprehensive and affordable character art training to really help them develop the skills that will make a difference in the hiring process.
Most online schools are simply too expensive and students have misconceptions as to what truly matters either in their portfolio, in their skillsets, or what the job even is once they break into the industry. Outgang’s mission is to address that by bringing affordable and industry-veteran-driven character art lectures so that students have a better shot at the job they so desperately desire. I also give workshops and lectures to teams working on AAA projects at video game studios on improving their character creation techniques through Outgang. Marvelous Designer training seems to be in particularly high demand these days.
Technical and Artistic Sides
We could talk at length about the pitfalls of over-smoothing models in ZBrush and how that is a huge hurdle for students to overcome! Because most of us enter character art from a technical perspective first, we tend to undervalue the importance of studying the artistic and design fundamentals of the craft. Students love to talk about the latest tool. MetaHuman Creator is on everyone’s mind right now it seems, and fundamental knowledge like simply knowing how to sculpt expressive shapes in ZBrush gets tossed to the wayside. A lot of students, who fail to get jobs, do so because they show technical proficiency but no artistic expression in their portfolio. That is often the first challenge to overcome. The second one is that people often fail to develop deep knowledge of subject matters. It is not enough, let us say, to know how to use Marvelous Designer, one has to strive to go beyond that by doing a deep study of how clothes are made in real life in order to transpose that knowledge to the virtual world. One has to become a digital tailor of sorts.
How to Get Hired as a Character Artist
As someone who has interviewed a lot of Character Artists, I can attest that a lot of applicants, even seniors, fail to give compelling answers to even basic questions like “What makes good character art?” or “Can you break down for me an artistic piece, of any kind and any artist, that you like?”. Being passionate and literate about art is a surefire way to impress an interviewer and significantly boost your chances of getting a job. The best applicants are those who will not stop talking about who inspires them, what they observed about the characters of any given game, or how they tell apart well-executed characters from those who need improvements. There is no need during an interview to prove your own technical skills since that has already been validated by your portfolio. Interviews can be incredibly easy: you simply have to show that you are a cool person to be around and that you are passionate about great character art.
Embrace the Imperfections
One of the things I always teach my students is that the work that goes in a portfolio is supposed to be the tip of the iceberg. Behind the façade of the portfolio is a wilderness of abandoned projects. Most of the art I have done will never be publicly seen and I am fine with that because all the pieces I started and abandoned have taught me valuable lessons about how to make better art, how to manage my time better, how to be better with the tools, etc. Those lessons indirectly make their way into the pieces that I do finish as highly-concentrated masses of experience. An abandoned project cannot be called a failure if it taught you something valuable. Cherish them, reflect upon them, for you will experience many on the road to success.