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Eric Chadwick talked a little about his career and gave some advice on ways you can keep doing art in games for decades.
Hi, my name is Eric Chadwick. I have about 26 years experience as a digital artist working on 3D computer games. I’ve mostly focused on environment art, but I’ve been a generalist as well. The last few years I’ve moved out of game development to work in visualization, but game art is still near and dear to me, and I keep a foot in the door by staying involved on the Polycount website.
I grew up in California, and after high school, I had no clue what I wanted to do for a living. I had always enjoyed drawing and painting, but couldn’t see how to turn that into a paying job haha! My parents didn’t want me lazing around at home, so they pushed me to find work. I begged my way into a job at a small screen-printing shop and worked there for a year.
I strongly recommend high school graduates work for a year. That first job is so informative! Seeing how boring and soul-crushing it was for the senior artist there, it convinced me to get my grades up and apply to college. I went to a local community college for a couple years and applied to a few art schools. I ended up at the Rhode Island School of Design, where I earned a BFA in Illustration.
Personal work, © Eric Chadwick 1991, graphite pencil on paper.
After graduation, again I had no clue. Illustration was simply the major that offered the most variety, and seemed to be mostly about drawing & painting, lucky me! I thought it would be awesome to do those flashy 3D chrome logos you see on TV before sports events. So I spent a few months making some portfolio pieces in Photoshop and Illustrator, trying to flesh out my collection of half-baked school paintings with some seemingly-professional illustration work.
Personal work, © Eric Chadwick 1991, made in Adobe Illustrator.
I focused on San Francisco which was the closest big city, applied to tons of places, every digital shop I could find. I got lots of rejection letters or just plain no response. I landed my first job at a place called Mondo Media where I badgered them so much the husband & wife owners took pity, and sat me down in front of some 2D animation software called Autodesk Animator Pro, and asked me to animate something. I ended up working with them for 9 years, transitioning from 2D to 3D to game art.
Being in games since 1993, how did you see the games’ visuals develop and change over time?
At Mondo Media, I started out with 2D computer animation & illustration. We did advertising art for trade-show displays, hotel TV systems, digital encyclopedias, the early internet providers CompuServe and Prodigy. There was a lot of optimization work we had to do to make things load quickly, transmit efficiently, animate decently on slow PCs. Color palettes, vector simplification, crazy compressions.
Vector car, © Prodigy 1992, made in GCU vector editor.
I always liked figuring those things out, an endless series of challenging digital format puzzles, always something new to dig my teeth into. That kind of exploration is still at the heart of great game art today. You have to explore to find new techniques, improve the craft.
In the mid-90’s CD-ROM drives made graphics-heavy games much more viable, so we built a couple narrative-based puzzle games that used live actors shot on blue-screen sets, and we put them in 3D animated backgrounds. That was really cool, so much freedom with a 3D camera. And it was all rendered out as still frames, so we could go back in and add effects frame-by-frame… sparks, motion blur, etc.
The Daedalus Encounter, © Virgin Interactive 1995, made in 3D Studio 4 (DOS).
Those games were a relative success, mostly from the quality and care we put into the art. The gameplay wasn’t great, but the art was flashy. We got noticed. Other game studios asked us to do art for their games, so we transitioned into an outsource studio. That’s how I got hooked into real-time 3D art. It was very low-res with no lighting but it was exciting, it was interactive! We weren’t wrangling render farms, waiting for renders, we were wrangling polygons.
As PC hardware manufacturers found consumers more willing to purchase graphics upgrades, we kept increasing the art quality. It was (and is) a constant race to improve the state of the art, make the best-looking games with the most visual kick. As an outsourcing studio, we kept making the best art we could, which in turn led more publishers to rely on us for their top-notch visuals. It was (and is) a great time to be an artist!
Zork Nemesis: The Forbidden Lands, © Activision 1996, made in 3D Studio 4 (DOS).
In the middle of doing outsource work on Blade Runner, we transitioned the studio from 3D Studio DOS to the first version of 3ds Max running in Windows. We went from temperamental software running on DOS to temperamental software running on Windows. But we finally had a real-time shaded display while modeling. No more looking at wireframes all day, guessing, running renders to see the model. That was probably the biggest change I’ve seen. Getting more live real-time feedback in model apps.
Blade Runner, © Virgin Interactive 1997, made in 3D Studio MAX 1.0.
Can you tell us a little about the universal ideas that sort of define good game asset?
Through outsourcing, I got to work with many of the most prominent game studios & publishers. But we realized most of these guys didn’t know how to make real-time models either! So I learned to document their requirements bit by bit, figuring out what kinds of questions to ask, so we could deliver models that would not only satisfy their needs but actually work at run-time.
There were no off-the-shelf game engines, everyone rolled their own. I spent a good amount of time over email and on the phone with graphics programmers, learning what they wanted from their artists. I started a glossary of 3D terms to keep track of it all. Each term was connected to three or four more terms. It was a great way to solidify all that learning. You don’t know how little you know until you have to teach it to someone else!
Hockey ‘99, © Spectacular Games 1998, made in 3D Studio MAX R2.
Discussing tech with programmers was a great way to learn. I put my glossary online so I could hyperlink it, connect all the terms to the related ones, it was a great way to learn the “hows” and “whys”. I kept reaching out to any game programmers I could find, asking more questions. That caught the attention of Polycount, a forum for game artists doing textures & mods for games. They asked to host the glossary, and I’ve been collaborating with Polycount for about 15 years now. The glossary evolved into the current Polycount wiki, a compendium of game art knowledge.
Star Trek: Starfleet Command II: Empires at War, © Interplay 2000, made in Discreet 3dsmax 4.
What’s universal to good game art? Making content that not only looks great, but contributes to the whole in a consistent thoughtful way, and performs well at runtime. Art Direction has a lot to say here, but each artist can do their part learning and applying timeless art principles like composition, color theory, anatomy, detail/rest, focus, etc. to make their content the best it can be. Study the classics!
For runtime performance study model topology, how to distribute details across the model. Good topology not only renders faster, it also allows models to deform naturally when animated, allows cleaner surfaces for texturing, and creates better silhouettes. Study models in the top games you play, find ways to extract the wireframes or use cheats to see the model topology. Topology is a key part of what makes good models into great models.
Robot Rising, © Stomp Games 2013, made in Autodesk 3ds Max 2012 & Unity.
Can you tell us a little about the way you’re working with outsourcers?
Being an outsourcer refined my ability to communicate clearly, otherwise, I couldn’t deliver assets that worked for my clients. If you have any questions about how you should be making assets for someone, ask questions! Don’t stop asking until you understand what they need. Don’t be shy.
If you’re on the other end, hiring outsourcers, then make sure to define clearly what you need. They can’t read your mind. The more substance you provide up front, the better results you’ll get.
GMTS, © Whatif Productions 2008, made in Autodesk 3ds Max 2008 & custom engine.
Make sure to use short, clear sentences. Outsourcing is a worldwide phenomenon; often outsourcers will speak a different language than yours. Your main contact may speak English, but the actual creators may not. Your emails and docs will likely get copy-pasted into an online translator. If you use idioms or long run-on sentences, these will get garbled beyond all belief when translated, and you’ll more than likely end up with assets that don’t work in your game.
A great trick to learn how this works is to paste one of your tech emails into an auto-translator, English to Chinese for example. Then take the result and reverse-translate it back into English! Straightforward sentence structure and clear punctuation help a ton. It also helps to isolate technical terms inside quotes, so they’re either not translated, or they’re translated in isolation.
Unannounced Title, © Tencent 2010, made in Autodesk 3ds Max 2010 & custom engine.
Another tip is to visit the outsource studio in person. There is truly no substitute for face-to-face communication. So many things can be communicated this way that can’t be done online. Building trust is a key component to building a solid business relationship, and there is no better way than meeting people directly and spending time together. Besides, travel is a blast!
With the current tools available for 3d production, which ones you find most interesting and time-saving?
The evolution of 3D sculpting like ZBrush has made a huge difference in the quality of assets produced for games. It’s such a natural artistic workflow; you’re channeling an existing art process that’s worked for thousands of years. Sure there are some tech constraints, but those will get ironed out over time. the more directly you can channel the hand into the art, the more creative power your artists will be able to funnel into their work.
Wartide, © Outact 2017, made in Autodesk 3ds Max 2015 & Unity.
Substance Designer and Painter are another huge wins, alongside physically based rendering (PBR). You can get consistently good results, and faster when the tools are developed with artists in mind. Procedurals initially can be tough to wrangle to create believable realistic results, but it’s worth that initial investment.
And as the tools get better and better, the classic art techniques become ever more valuable. As a hiring manager, I can instantly tell from a portfolio whether the artist has studied classical art techniques or not. There’s a refinement of the eye and technique that flows naturally from developing your artistic muscles using time-honed classical art techniques.
What advice would you give to the beginner artists, who are getting into games?
Artists starting out today have a wealth of information available on the internet. It’s hard to filter the firehose of information, so, become a part of an online community of artists, find people who are producing good art and ask them how they did it. Of course, I’m going to recommend Polycount, but the internet is a wide world of communities. Facebook is great too, as are Discourse, Slack, etc. Lots of options! People love to talk about their work if you ask nicely. If you contribute your time and effort, you’ll be there to sponge up the information they’ll offer you in return.
Don’t just leave it there though. Make art and share your progress regularly, incorporating their feedback into your work. It takes hard work, clear and simple. There’s no magic bullet to become a good artist, other than concentrated study for years. It may seem daunting at first, you’re going to suck for a long time. But if you learn how to incorporate critique into your workflow, you’ll be miles ahead of the pack.
Architectural visualization, © 2016 Architectural VR, made in Autodesk 3ds Max 2015 & Unity.
If you consistently post your work and incorporate feedback as you go, you’ll get more attention from seasoned artists. You’ll demonstrate you’re worth their time, and in turn, you’ll get better feedback. It’s a great cycle. But you have to rise to it. Get past your fear and your procrastination. Get off your ass! Those that rise to the occasion is those that win, consistently.
I used to think there’s this zen plateau I would reach where I could say “Hey, I’ve made it! I’m finally awesome!” But that’s not true, that’s not where the awesome is. Learn to love the process of getting better, learn to love the struggle. That’s the zen. That’s where the joy is, seriously. And the great thing is, it never ends, I’m never quite good enough, there’s always more to do.