Nate Stephens and Sukru Gilman talk about the tasks of the environment artist and give advice on getting a job in Sony Santa Monica Studio.
Santa Monica Studio is probably one of the biggest and best well-known game companies in California. This company helped to build some of the most iconic games of the generation, including the amazing God of War series, the remake of Twisted Metal and The Order: 1886.
For the longest time it has always been my personal opinion that the God of War series has had the best, or at least my favorite Environment Art and Design in all video games. I could talk for days about how GoW changed the environment art game from the pure beauty of the models individually, to the larger scale concept of what a game environment could be, to how seamless levels loop back on to themselves.
Obviously the company’s input in the development of video game environment art is immense. No doubt about it. And right now you can actually become a part of this team. In a matter of weeks Santa Monica Studio is going to announce its next big game and the recruiters are hunting for new artists, who’d like to work on a big budget project.
To help young hearts to figure out if they are fit for the task, senior staff artists at Santa Monica Studio Nate Stephens and Sukru Gilman talked about their jobs and discussed what does it take to be an environment artist. This article was originally published on the company’s official website.
What does it take to be an Environment Artist?
Nate: What we value first and foremost is talent. We have a world renowned family, people from all experience levels who have blossomed into rockstars, or super seniors who have been with our studio since God of War III or before. The one common thread is pure talent. Your resume does not need to be super long to prove this to us. Even if your portfolio has two pieces, but they are at the quality bar we’re after, show us.
Sukru: It’s all about your portfolio, your passion, and your attention to detail… that’s the type of person we want on our team floor with us. Like Nate said, show us your work! You’ve seen ours.
Nate: While a great portfolio is the primary foundation, our studio culture thrives with people who are ambitious, and often have a generalist skill about them that wants to constantly learn and apply themselves. We want you to have a desire to break through the ceiling. If you want to take on a whole level and have the talent to do so, that type of hungry attitude fits our studio really well.
Sukru: We’re looking for someone with the artistic talent that hits as close to next-gen PlayStation 4 visuals as possible, someone whose art looks cutting edge.
What technical skills are key to highlight?
Nate: We’re a ZBrush heavy studio, certainly a deep understanding of that tool is key. When we design our worlds, our levels, we usually don’t base everything on real-world photographs. It’s a very top down design approach. The creative vision for our environments starts with a high quality asset (ideally a strong piece of concept art), which our team then interprets into a game ready level.
Sukru: You should have an understanding of normal maps, ZBrush, solid modeling skills and texturing. That should also amount to having a burning desire to try and match the quality of the best looking PlayStation 4 visuals that have been done. A solid background in design and traditional art skills definitely helps that.
The studio is also willing to bring in passionate artists who have potential and the desire to further their abilities. We have tricks and techniques, from simple ways we break up the edge on a model, to environment textures, to complex environments in our game that we can teach. Over the years, Senior artists here have mentored the newer, or more junior, artists on the team. A couple years ago we had a young artist on our team, whose talent was undeniable, but he had a lot of room to grow. He’s now a Senior Artist managing his own level, with a team of people working with him to bring it to life. It’s been extremely satisfying to watch the growth of this individual and to see the significant contribution he makes to our games today. When it comes to the Environment Artists we’re looking for…if the talent is there, we’ll do everything in our power to evolve them.
What does Senior Artist do?
Nate: Sukru is a level lead. He owns a big chunk of the game in that regard and has a team of Environment Artists working together to build that level out to every last detail. We have other level leads on team who could also benefit right now from having more Environment Artists to develop the world. People familiar with prop building and laying out full scenes. We could really use some extra muscle.
Sukru: Where this role fits in the beauty of our pipeline itself is important to know, but understanding how our pipeline helps us nail the creative vision of our games is a luxury of our development culture here at Santa Monica Studio. The Programmers and Artists have an extremely tight collaboration pipeline together. As an Environment Artist, within our pipeline, the Programmers have developed custom proprietary tools that allow us to run around in Maya and see how things are working in the game. I can then block out my level to start matching the creative vision of the concept art with ease. Additionally, our Tech Artists are creating custom tools from lighting, scripts and plugins that take full advantage of the PS4, which enables me to see the look of the world I’m creating much, much faster.
What’s amazing about our pipeline (and the tools we have) are the super smart Programmers and Tech Artists who keep pace with our engine and ideas. They are always trying to help us and understand what we need, what we want to do, and how we maximize our art. I’ll pitch an ambitious environment idea to our Tech Director – he’ll sit down and listen and then go back to the drawing board with his team to put a custom tool together for us to experiment with…then they will refine it to allow us to create something amazing. That type of tech and art collaborative pipeline allows us to be one of the most creative studios I’ve ever worked at.
How do the concept and environment art teams collaborate?
Sukru: There is a lot of back and forth! Our concept art team not only delivers some of the finest art in the industry, but we get a lot of it. It’s a very strong starting place for us to understand the initial creative vision of an environment. If you look at our worlds in God of War, for example, from concept to level, you’ll see a strong correlation. That’s because it’s almost like a movie studio here. As an Environment Artist, I’ll create my initial block-in from the first pieces of concept art. I will then receive tons of additional pieces to solidify the vision. If I need a better representation of something, the concept team delivers. They help us figure it out until the game is final.
Show your work
Nate: I need to reiterate, if you’re talented, show us your stuff. The job descriptions can sometimes be scary in terms of experience, but if you feel you’re talented with your portfolio at the quality bar we’re looking for, then you’re qualified to connect with us. Don’t be shy. We have a lead who took a couple of years to develop his portfolio to submit to us, when his initial work was at the quality bar we look for. I told him him he shouldn’t have waited two years, just apply! Don’t be psyched out if any part of your portfolio feels like it hits what we’re after.
Sukru: If you want work at a place that is really going to help develop your talent to a level where you can contribute to a AAA game, or even if you have deep prior experience to help us push to the cutting edge on PlayStation 4, this is the studio to be at. We are always trying to create something to impress our fans and to bring this studio to the next level. In my 8 years here, I’m constantly learning from the people around me. We don’t just settle, we really do push to make our game the best it can be.
You can check out more about positions in Santa Monica Studio here.