Working Culture and the Recruitment Process at Sierra Division

Sierra Division's Jacob Norris told us how the company determines what projects it works on, explained the organization of working processes at Sierra Division, and gave a number of useful tips for artists who wish to begin their journey at a studio. 


Hi there, we call ourselves Sierra Division, and we're a team of game and film artists creating digital art content and providing outsourcing services to companies around the world. My name is Jacob Norris, and I'm one of the co-founders of Sierra Division. Many of you may already know me by the nickname PurePolygons, where I have shared many tutorials and artworks within the 3D community.

I have worked at several top-tier game studios and research and development companies, gaining knowledge, skills, and some incredible friendships and contacts throughout my career. I have been fortunate to work at Naughty Dog, NVIDIA, Insomniac Games, and Kojima Productions, and have had multiple freelance opportunities, including the incredible honor of doing some work for the feature film The Lion King, released in 2019. All these amazing experiences and people I have met along the way have helped me gain the skills and get to where I am now.

Many people have probably played the Uncharted series, and some of you may have seen my work during my time on Uncharted 4. I still tell people to this day that my time at Naughty Dog provided me with some of the greatest learning and growing experiences in my career. The amount of talent at the studio and the passion that everyone had for the project really showed in the work that we did, and it made me feel like I was part of something special.

I feel the same way when I think about my time at NVIDIA. A couple of the most notable projects that I was a big part of during my time there would have to be the Marbles RTX Ray-Traced game that we worked on. I had the pleasure of leading that project alongside Gavriil and saw some of the highest-quality 3D artwork ever produced in my lifetime from the amazing artists there. I was also fortunate to be a big part of Sol Cinematics which demonstrated the technology behind real-time ray tracing to the world for the first time.

Without sharing every project I have ever worked on, I will simply say that I was lucky enough to be at the forefront of such powerful technology and innovation during my time there and see things that really opened my eyes as to what is possible in the very near future.

I can definitely say that I have had a pretty exciting career up to this point, and I can only imagine what awesome new things that are soon to come for us at Sierra Division. As we continue to evolve and grow, I am very happy to be able to share more about our company with everyone.

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Organization of Working Processes at Sierra Division

We generally have a few different teams working at one time. Some of the team is on outsourcing work, and the composition of that team depends on their skill set and how it relates to the type of outsourcing work we have going on. The rest of the team is generally working on Marketplace assets. Sometimes multiple people are working on one pack at a time, and other times the work is divided among modeling, texturing, and world-building.

The modeler generally blocks out all of the modular shapes and/or assets. Then, the texture artist comes in to create tiling materials for modular parts or texture the props in the scene. Finally, the world builder finishes by placing all the assets throughout the environment. This allows us to work on multiple packs at once since not everyone is working on a single pack at the time.

In some cases, a single artist creates both the model and texture, depending on the situation. Everyone communicates through our project tracker and occasionally jumps on for meetings or just hangs out in a work chat together, sharing screens, chit-chatting, and bantering while we are all working. This is a great way to build relationships on the team, and many times we see an artist doing something during a screen share and learn new techniques from each other simply by working and hanging out together.

Finding a New Project

I've been lucky enough to get to know a lot of people in the games industry throughout my career. There are a ton of great folks that I've met over the years who have all gone on to different studios and different parts of the games industry. Occasionally, artists have referred companies to me, just because we've been friends or they appreciated the quality of the work they’ve seen from us. So it's an easy suggestion for them to mention our team to their leads as a potential outsourcing studio to collaborate with.

We've also gotten referrals where people have been contacted to work on a potential project, but simply don't have the resources to take it on and so they will refer the company to us knowing that we will provide high-quality services and art in their place.

In some situations, we simply reach out to people or companies that we think have exciting projects for us to join and occasionally it is the right circumstances that they happen to be looking for an outsourcing studio to join them on their project. In those cases, it’s great because it just works out for everybody.

One of these such instances was actually a Snoop Dogg music video that we collaborated on with Astro Project. Leartes made some of the additional environments in the video as well.  It was one of our first outsourcing opportunities and we are so happy we have been a part of it. A friend was offered the job and couldn’t take on the work, so he sent Astro Project our way and we had a ton of fun from the whole experience.

As for our internal marketplace packs, we do our best to look at what's already available on the marketplace and what potential gaps we can fill. Megascans is such a great resource in the games industry for Unreal Engine users and it has so many assets/materials that people can use; so we often have to take into consideration what we can offer that isn't already available from Megascans and the Unreal Marketplace as well.

In the end, it really just comes down to whether or not you are providing a quality product to a studio or an individual. Whether that means great customer service and artwork as an outsourcing studio or an easy-to-use and beautiful art pack on the Unreal Marketplace. People can recognize quality and they will pay for it when they can guarantee that they are getting a worthwhile investment for their time and money. In summary, we simply strive to be the best at what we do and present ourselves and our skills for the world to see.

For example, take our Industrial Sci-Fi and Modular Oil Rig project. This asset pack is huge and offers a new environment that has never been done before on the Marketplace. We have already heard from multiple people that they believe 100% that it is the best Art in an Environment Pack on the entire Unreal Marketplace.

We’re so humbled to receive such nice compliments after finally starting to share our work with the world. Many people are also surprised at how versatile the pack is. Not only can it be an Oil Rig, but also has the ability to quickly transform into a full-on Industrial Sci-Fi scene after a couple of updates on the lighting and materials.

It’s as easy as changing a few colors and rearranging things in the scene to instantly morph the set into a whole new genre of artwork. The Oil Rig is a great representation of the idea we strive for in always presenting our best to the world. We want to maintain our passion across all of our projects and keep consistent quality moving forward in everything we do.

We also recently shared our Modular Interiors and Explorers Pack which shows off some of the best props we’ve ever made. Having 4K texture sets and very detailed models allows them the versatility of being used as first-person hero props for your main character in a game, or simply as elements in an environment that look pretty. In the cinematic videos that we have been sharing for each of our packs, we're doing our best to present them in new and interesting ways for people. Telling stories as well as offering potential ideas for gameplay, and helping to inspire all kinds of ideas for how any can use these assets for their projects. 

We believe this new style of Pack Cinematic really helps to leave a longer-lasting impression on the people of the Sierra Division team and the exciting work we are creating. I don't personally know many other studios or potentially any other studios that are sharing their artwork in the same way that we are. We've already received so many compliments from people on the quality of our work and how much they enjoy seeing new art from Sierra Division. The whole team is very proud to be a part of what we're doing and it helps to make everyone feel like they're really at the forefront of something special.

Hiring a New Specialist

I think it is less often actually that we are looking for many specialists. Especially on smaller teams, as we are still a younger studio, it's very important to have multiple skill sets. This allows every member of our team to be very flexible and switch gears or projects to apply more artists wherever they are necessary.

As a soft skill, this also comes into play where the organization can be very important for team members. Helping to keep our assets, folders, projects, and different deadlines in their mind or on a tracker that they can follow helps to be sure that everything gets done on time and in the right way.

This also relates a lot to communication, because even if you're organized, it’s still very important to be able to communicate the work you have done or will be doing on a project to someone new joining you on the team.

Of course, being a great artist is our number 1 criterion for hiring people to begin with, because we want to continue to offer the same quality that people expect from us, but in general, the people that tend to remain on the team and eventually are hired on a full-time basis, are the ones who communicate well and have strong organizational skills. It also helps if you're good with memes because it can make the job a lot more fun to smile and laugh a bit with your co-workers haha.

Working with Beginners

We always encourage new team members and more junior artists to ask questions at the studio. Helping to provide them with a friendly environment, a nice welcome after joining, and a friendly introduction to the team is a great way to help get them started with us.

As I mentioned in response to one of the questions above as well, it can be very beneficial to hop into a work chat and hang out with some of the new artists. Even if the new team members are shy or don’t immediately interact with others in the voice chat, just being around the other team members who are sharing their screens, chatting about projects, or things in life, helps everyone to feel like they are more a part of everything.

All of these small interactions and overcoming challenges together on the different projects help each of the members to build those relationships at Sierra Division. Eventually, over time, people start to become more and more comfortable with the other artists and hopefully begin sharing cool art tips and tricks, maybe some memes, and just feeling more comfortable as a part of the team over time. It helps that we have random Jack Box Parties or online gaming sessions as well when we can.

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Managing Burnout

I find it's very important to continue to encourage the team members on a project. Especially if it's common to provide a lot of feedback on the artwork, it's always good to also point out the things that everyone is doing well on their work. Letting them know what you like about the art that was submitted or just saying something nice that is also honest and related to what they have done for the team. It can help make the work feel less like it's a constant grind with changes and updates on the artwork over and over.

There's a reason we hired these artists in the first place and it's good to remind them and mention on the occasion that you appreciate their efforts and contributions to the team. Even if we have a tight deadline, if we have some flexibility on the artwork we still encourage team members to make it their own, to let them add in some fun easter eggs, or find ways to make the work more playful while still getting it done. Giving them the opportunity to design parts of the assets. Some pretty imaginative things have come out of it.

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When things are slower at the studio, it is also important to give everyone the freedom to share new workflows or techniques with us that they would like to try. I’m happy if they share something that they've been interested in, and then we allow them to take some time to expand their knowledge on that subject. It has to be something that is beneficial to their mental health, the team, or understanding a new workflow that they can share with the other members, but it's great to give people this time to try new things. Otherwise, when you're continually working non-stop just to hit deadlines, you never get the chance to try new things, because you're always just making sure the work is done.

I love to see artists grow and if Sierra Division can offer some time for our artists to continue to grow, it not only benefits the artists, but it also benefits our team and our company in the long run. We want to create an environment for our team that makes people want to stay with us and continue being a part of the team for a long time. It would be no good to us to just burn out all of our artists and move on to the next ones because then we'd have to train them, integrate them into the team, and help them learn how we work at Sierra Division.

It’s also just bad practice to be a studio that doesn’t treat its employees well. Eventually, word gets around and no one would want to work with us. Ultimately, it’s the best thing for everyone to offer people a truly great place to work that they enjoy and actually like the people they work with as well.

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Creative Freedom

The topic of freedom relates a lot to the previous answer as well, so I will try to expand a bit more on the subject of freedom on the team. When we are working on a project, in the beginning, I tend to give a lot of instruction and direction to new members of the team. Over time though, I slowly start to loosen the constraints and see at what point each team member feels comfortable working independently and with their own freedom.

If you put too many constraints on an artist, then you will never truly see what they are capable of. If you can slowly start to give them more and more freedom and they're still doing great work for the team, it gives them a lot more confidence and the artwork continues to get better as well. Hopefully, it may even allow them to expand and suggest entirely new workflows, but that can never happen without freedom.

The more independent a worker can become, the amount of management needed to provide to them also reduces and helps to free up more time for leadership. This is great because then we can focus more on new ideas for the company, contacting more companies for outsourcing, reaching out to additional artists for the team, or providing more attention to the junior artists that still need it. I think it's great for everyone to be able to have that freedom to potentially fail, but also to shine and do an incredible job if it works out. We’re always there to provide a helping hand when necessary. So no one ever can truly fail here.

In the end. We have an open door policy and anyone on the team that wants to suggest new things to us. Will definitely take it all into consideration. We of course will have certain constraints sometimes on what we do, so we can’t change everything, but even if it provides some relief to pain points in our daily lives or helps a few other artists, it’s a big win for me. In the end, we always have to do what's best for the company as a whole and generally, this also means what's best for each of the artists too.

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Sierra Division's Approach to Education

We actually have what’s called R&D day on the team. It's a time when I encourage everyone to try something completely different and out of their comfort zone. Whether it's a new program, a new workflow, the creation of a video game concept, or the references and concepts for the next Unreal Marketplace pack we might work on.

I'm always happy to hear the stories of R&D day accomplishments and struggles, and it's a great feeling when a team member has when they push themselves to do something that challenges them. In most cases, they end up learning something one way or another and even if the experiments don’t go well, there’s another R&D Day just around the corner where they are welcome to try again if they want to.

Tips for Artists

Generally, when you're on a smaller team, it's always good to have a wide variety of skills. I mentioned before that it is great to have some generalists on the team who know the basics and are great artists at the core. Being extremely good at a single thing can be beneficial, but if you can't do anything else besides that one thing, it makes it very hard for us to have you help on another project if there is no other work for you at the time.

When an artist is capable of working on environments, props, textures, and even lighting, then it opens the door to have them help on any of the projects that we are a part of. The more workflows and skill sets that someone has an understanding of, it makes it much easier for us to accept a wider variety of outsource work. A multi-talented team is ready to take on the world and with remote work so widely accepted now, that’s almost what we’re doing haha.

Another huge asset I mentioned is actually organization. It's great if you're able to be more independent and find your own references, come up with your own schedules, and have strong communication skills to share with us what you're working on and how you plan to approach it. It helps us immensely as a team and as leaders.

I mentioned communication as a strong focus as well, because if you're struggling and you say nothing to us, then we're forced to ask a lot of questions and take a lot of time to try to understand the problem. This can cause a lot more stress and difficulties for everyone in the end.

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I know that when newer artists are just starting out they often don't want to appear as though they have no idea what they're doing. They are trying to be independent and show us their knowledge without requiring any help but then when we see the work and it’s far from what we were expecting, it raises many more concerns for us.

I've been there for sure, and I was also worried that if I asked too many questions I would be bothering or annoying my leads. I find that it's best to try for a moment, not too long though, to resolve your own issues and perhaps learn something from this. After some time though, if it still isn’t working and you are already short on time, it's so much more important to simply speak up.

I would much rather spend 10 minutes on a call with an artist helping to resolve an issue, instead of them spending two days on a problem all by themselves, still struggling to figure it out, or trying all of the wrong things to fix it. This may be a good way to learn in your free time, but not when you have a team and a company relying on your to help them finish a project. In the end, doing this might instead create the opposite appearance of independence.

When something is delivered at a lower quality after a long time, it makes us guess if something else is actually going on. Maybe we think the artist is simply very slow or assume that they are distracted throughout the day and not working at all. If they are still not communicating their struggles to us, then we almost have to chase them down and approach them to try to understand why there have been no updates or why the work has been suffering. It takes a lot of time out of our day and slows the production down of everything else.

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So please, 100% if you tried to do something a few times and it simply isn’t working, ask questions and the team is here to help. We even have an art-support channel where everyone can post questions and the whole team is available to answer if we know what the issue is. 99% of the time, one of us will always know what to do.

And of course, focusing on your skills as an artist. Learning composition, colors, lighting, and silhouettes and simply studying the world are all very beneficial. Working on some great portfolio pieces that you are super passionate about, something that will help attract us to your artwork in the first place. That’s what will draw us in and then everything else we talked about is what will help make you an asset to any team.

Jacob Norris, President and Creative Director at Sierra Division

Interview conducted by Theodore McKenzie

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