Ezri Sullivan told us about the Booking It project, discussed the challenges behind it, and shared the working process at Ringling College of Art and Design.
My name is Ezri Sullivan and I am currently a senior at Ringling College of Art and Design majoring in Game Art and minoring in Creative Writing. I will also be graduating from Austin Community College with an AAS in Programming at the same time.
While I enjoy most areas of game development, I specialize in technical art. Over the past year, I’ve focused on expanding my skills in tools and pipelines, shaders, optimization, and some dabbling in rigging for the production of my senior thesis, Booking It.
It seems unbelievable to me now that, prior to coming to Ringling, I hadn’t even heard of most of the programs I use today. In fact, my entrance to the art world happened entirely by chance – a mere scheduling conflict that landed me in art class. I have to thank my teacher, Jon Hanna, for encouraging and inspiring me to keep up with it. Through my years studying traditional art, my lifetime of playing games, and my tendency towards technical areas, I thought that game art would be a perfect choice. I attended Ringling’s Pre-College program to confirm my interest, and quickly fell head over heels for it. Almost all of the skills I have now were trained and refined over my time here.
Ringling College of Art and Design
I chose Ringling first and foremost because of how advanced and focused the curriculum was compared to other schools, as well as the high-quality student work it produced. The Pre-College program was a great demonstration of this to confirm my choice. Unlike other schools with game programs that emphasize animation or programming, Ringling's program focuses on environmental art while still prioritizing game design, scripting, character design, VFX, SFX, and visual development. As someone primarily interested in the 3D art side of game development but also interested in exploring the technical aspects, Ringling's program was the perfect fit for me.
Game Art at Ringling is a highly structured and rigorous major, with each semester having about three major-related courses that all work together to produce an end project, which sometimes stretches over several semesters. Every class interconnects and complements one another, resulting in a stronger final project than otherwise disconnected classes could achieve.
For example, in the junior fall semester, we focus on the creation of a biome and workshop project, with one class covering pre-production, another game design, and the other 3D art. This structure allows us to experience every aspect of development, from inception to completion, while also training us to manage overlapping deadlines and schedules. It also means we get to apply our skills in the context of an actual game and see how that might affect our designs.
My Blue Ridge Mountains Biome from concept art to finished product
The trade-off of this structure means there’s less flexibility in terms of when and how many classes you can take. However, as a full-time student eager to learn as much as possible, I find it well worth it.
I also appreciate that the curriculum strikes a balance between allowing for exploration and specialization. While the major tends to focus less on technical art overall, I’ve still been able to tailor my projects towards that area of interest with the support of faculty and mentors who support my success in that endeavor.
Our mentors at Ringling have been an invaluable resource for me. Not only are the faculty very experienced in their respective fields, with many still active in the industry, but we also have recruiters from major companies like Forza, Rockstar, and Xbox frequently visiting to advise and critique student work, and we have two mentorship programs. One is student-based and pairs upper and underclassmen, and the other uses our alumni network to pair alumni working in the industry with seniors.
I was fortunate to be paired with Matt Oztalay, a Senior Developer Relations Technical Artist at Epic Games, who has been instrumental in my education this last year. No matter what question I’ve had, he always has a fountain of knowledge behind it. He’s not only given me crucial industry knowledge and advice but also personal feedback on my projects. He has also introduced me to new technical art topics I wouldn’t have been exposed to otherwise.
I can’t express how crucial it is to have people around you give trustworthy and constructive feedback, especially in the art world. Nothing is ever truly finished, and there is always room for improvement. Having a second set of eyes to review your work or playtest your game provides a perspective that is impossible to get when working alone, allowing you to improve at a much more rapid rate. Not only that, but it teaches you how to accept critique and work together with a team. I believe that’s actually one of Ringling’s greatest strengths – its community.
I often say half of what I’ve learned is a result of the students here at the school. You’re constantly surrounded by other stellar artists who share their knowledge. It’s not only inspiring but very collaborative as well.
As someone who thrives on helping others and tackling complex problems, I have somewhat become known as the class problem solver. Whenever someone has a tricky issue, I spontaneously appear. Whenever I find a promising new technique that could be useful to someone, I am quick to share the process and its potential applications. This year I’ve been fortunate to be able to extend that role as a Technical Assistant, a new job within the major. I love helping my classmates and, in turn, learning from their experiences too. Ringling does an exceptional job at cultivating that collaborative environment. The wealth of knowledge that is shared among students is one of the things I appreciate most. It’s one of the things I love about technical art too – helping other artists create their best work.
Each semester has a different project at its focus, often with other supplementary smaller projects. The curriculum has changed slightly since I started, but for me, sophomore fall was my first introduction to the 3D world and mainly focused on a team-based first-person exploration game. Everyone would pitch a setting for a game and each class would vote on it. Then, everyone works together to create all the assets and materials to be used in each person's individual game. In the spring, we then focused on an isometric adventure game, which challenged both our art and programming skills. That was when I knew for sure I was interested in technical art, often going beyond the curriculum requirements to implement unique functionality. Junior year then ramps up with the Biome and Workshop assignment, followed by pre-production for our thesis, which is finally developed throughout our senior year.
A thesis is by far our longest project, spanning about a year. The pre-production process begins with several pitches to the entire faculty, and about 8 weeks of devoted time towards our chosen idea for visual development and proof of concept. Then, throughout the fall and early spring of the senior year, we build it, primarily using Maya and ZBrush for modeling, Substance 3D Designer and Painter for texturing, and Unreal Engine 4 for implementing the game itself.
My game, Booking It, takes place in a massive magical library where you play as a notoriously late, flying book that must return before it’s overdue. From the beginning stages of production, I knew that I would be responsible for all aspects of the game’s creation, from visual development to its implementation in-engine, so I designed it to challenge my abilities as a technical artist.
Screenshots of my thesis, Booking It
In order to learn more about pipeline tools and procedural workflows, I used the massive scale of the library to my advantage by creating a procedural shelf maker. It’s a construction script-based tool used to procedurally generate the shelves and books that also has customizable options for the meshes, book colors, and disorder level.
I encountered several challenges while developing it, primarily related to optimization, a subject that I now have a growing interest in. I knew going into it that the sheer number of meshes I’d be placing was going to be a major performance concern. To address this, I implemented hierarchical instancing and set appropriate LODs and cull distancing values near the beginning of the project. However, I also encountered extreme startup times and editor load times. With the help of my mentor, Matt Oztalay, I was able to use Unreal Engine’s optimization tools including Unreal Insights to diagnose the problem. I removed unnecessary physics and collision elements causing long PIE start times and converted the construction script into a call-in-editor script to greatly reduce editor and compiling load times. This provided the additional benefit of allowing me to save particular iterations of the actor and set dress around it accordingly, which was a huge advantage from an art perspective.
I also needed a way for the books to have a variety of unique textures despite being hierarchically instanced, which requires the use of a single material to work. I explored several options, but in the end, I used per instance custom data values set inside the shelf blueprint upon the generation of each book. The material I created then used these values to choose from a variety of texture sample sets, three CID masks, and multiple color options.
The foundational procedural concepts of this tool have wide-reaching applications to other environments, from something as simple as fences to entire buildings. I even used elements of it in several other tools I made for my level, like my spline-based book stacker and piler. My use of custom data also popped up again and again throughout my project, to do anything from varying the floating of my candles to offsetting UVs for texture variation. Suffice to say, it was an amazing learning opportunity with endless uses.
Throughout the rest of the project, I got to learn more about nearly every stage of environment art, was introduced to the world of VFX, and practiced rigging a unique character – my book. It was fantastic being able to put all the skills I’ve learned over the years at Ringling to the test and further focus on the specific areas I’m passionate about.
I would advise joining the school, absolutely. I only had experience with traditional art, and mostly only graphite work at that, prior to coming to Ringling. I simply had a passion for art and games. Ringling’s curriculum, faculty, and community taught me everything else. It’s been a lot of hard work (and a lot of fun too), but I’d unreservedly say it was worth it. If you have a passion for games and a willingness to learn and work hard, it’s the perfect place to be.