Interview With Joe Mirabello
I've been in games now for about five years, and have shipped four titles; Titan Quest, Titan Quest: Immortal Throne, Depths of Peril, and Kivi's Underworld. I'm currently a Senior Environment artist for 38 Studios where I get to do a little of everything. I'm an active moderator on GameArtisans.org, and frequently help out with the organization of Dominance War, Unearthly Challenge, and other such community contests. In the past I've contributed work to indie games, mass market novels, and Smithsonian documentaries, I've given lectures at colleges, spoken on industry panels, and written online tutorials. I also am a recovering Team Fortress 2 addict. Though, I was never that good.
I grew up in a military family with parents who would never let me own an NES. I grew so jealous of my friends and their fancy games that when I went home I drew out my own games on paper. They were terrible games since you can't really make video games with only crayons, but it was a short jump into making my own board games, my own comics, my own choose-your-own-adventure-books. So long as I was making something..anything.. I was happy. I was a very productive ten year old.
Eventually I started gaming on the PC, and discovered the wonderful world of modding. I made my own levels in Dark Forces using Dfuse and my own maps in Warcraft 2. Later I mapped up levels in Half Life and Quake. These got me into computer art in general, which is what I studied at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Professionally I started out in graphic design, working throughout college for various government contractors in the DC area. There were no real 'schools' for game art and I had to teach myself game art in my spare time, mostly by entering contests on the now defunct CgChat and RealtimeCg sites. They used to run a contest every month or so, and I tried to enter as often as I could. It took several contests before I felt like I knew what I was doing, but within about 8 months I was getting my first art tests (and first rejections too).
My first industry gig was at Ironlore Entertainment, which was about the best first studio you could imagine. It was a tight knit, talented group of people from all walks of life, and it gave me my first taste of how diverse the game industry is and what it took to really get a game to shelf.
I've got several machines, but believe it or not I have no idea what the specs are on them. I tend to buy just below the cutting-edge bar, to get the most mileage out of my dollars and then never look again, except if something goes wrong or I need to update drivers for a game to run or something.
The only consistent application between jobs has been Photoshop. I couldn't live without it. As for 3d, I've used both Maya and Max on projects, and find them both to have weak and strong points, but you can get results from both. I have about a half dozen other smaller aps that I use from time to time for various concepting, modeling, sculpting, or normal-map related tasks. I've also familiarized myself with the Unreal engine fairly well.
Actually, I've steered away from in-engine stuff in my spare time. I still tinker occasionally with what's out there, but I find myself drawn to less tech and more raw art stuff when it comes to spare time work, particularly speed painting.
Both the green alien piece and the yellow-green landscape piece were 3-hour speed paintings. I don't seem to have the attention span for longer pieces these days!
Over the years my work flow has changed dramatically due to technical changes, software changes and changes in my own skill level. Normal maps were just coming into common usage when I was starting, so adapting to those was a task, but so was shifting from one 3d application to another. Likewise, simply gaining experience and being tasked with more elaborate projects forces a change of work flow. It's one thing to model and texture a prop a certain way. It's another to model and texture an entire scene to maximize texture and mesh reuse. It's still another to be responsible for the final presentation of an area in game.
To go into a little more detail, at my first job all I knew how to do was model and texture something with photo-based images, using poor attempts at dodge and burn to shade. I made a lot of weak art, and practice and experience improved my skills, but NOTHING improved my skills as much as improving my raw painting ability.
I had always been a decent at drawing, but I was petrified of color. I still am, really, but the work I've done with 38 has forced me to really get serious about improving my concept painting skills, which in turn has greatly improved the quality of my 3d work, my sense of lighting, my sense of composition and design---everything. There's always a lot to improve on, sure, but it's amazing how a little traditional experience can improve everything about your work
One thing I've always prided myself on is the speed at which I can pick up new technology. Because of that, I actually don't stay current at all. I tend to get timestamped on whatever software my job uses, and simply learn new things as required. Not being afraid to learn something new keeps me from being intimidated by new technologies.
There really is no typical day any more for me. Every day I'm doing something different, which is one of my favorite aspects of working at 38. One day I'll be doing concept art all day, the next I'll be working on in-game asset, the next I'll be troubleshooting some technical hurdle and the next I'll be in critiques and reviews. I'm in an interesting position where I'm flexible enough to do a variety of things. It certainly makes the weeks go by quick!
Well, making games in general is just a fun thing to do, but to be specific about 38, there's quite a few things that makes the studio stand out. The team is pretty incredible. There's an interesting blurring-of-the-lines between disciplines at 38 that has allowed me to work a lot with programmers, artists and designers, and I've learned a lot from them. As such, the culture has really grown into something cool at 38. I look forward to going to work each morning.
Also, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention 38's 'Free-your-mind' day. Basically, artists are allotted 8 hours a month to work on anything they want, so long as it's related to the game. Have a cool idea for a crazy zone? Use your free-your-mind day for it and show it to designers! Thought up some cool new armor design? Spend your free-your-mind time on it and show it to the character guys. Not every idea gets used of course, but it gets us excited and thinking outside the box. It's ended up working out so well that we extended the practice to the design and programming teams, which has already turned out some awesome results.
Mondays. But that's really only because I stay up too late on Friday and Saturday night, and then can't get any sleep on Sunday night. You'd think I'd have learned better by now, but no.
While I feel I do a good job with most of the tasks I face, there are still occasionally tasks that are so big and unprecedented that they just petrify me. Those are the moments where I find myself questioning my own abilities and the worth of my contributions to the team. They're the roughest times, and I have to step back, rethink my approach, reassure myself, get a candy bar, take a break, or do whatever it takes to rethink the problem into something manageable--into something I can handle. I think every artist goes through periods of self doubt, and the most challenging part of any artistic job is to still perform even when you're low on gusto.
I think the biggest thing I've developed as a senior environment artist is my personal investment in a project. On prior projects I would feel involved, but not particularly tied to the project. I would be proud of a particular piece of art before, but now as a senior artist I'm developing pride for the game, and for the team, on a whole. I feel less like my contributions are about assets and more like they are about helping the Lead Artists and the Art Director maintain forward momentum toward a unified vision for the game.
I don't know...but lately I've been seeing a common theme in all the artists I admire, and that theme is that there's a distinct evidence of the artist having studied nature and real life. Whether that's an observation of materials, light, anatomy, ..or whatever, there's a certain level of sophistication in a lot of my favorite art. I don't mean these guys just literally pull from references, I mean the artist seems to have an acute awareness of how certain muscles are supposed to work or how the color of light would change the local color of an object, or what a certain material looks like when its painted a mile in the background. I'm only now beginning to try and really be conscious of these things in my work, and when I look at some of my favorite artists, it reminds me of how far I have to go.
Everyone I call by their first name.
This changes a lot depending on when you ask. Past favourites include everyone from Craig Mullins to Sargent. But here's this month's picks:
Jason Chan: His placement of the camera, mixed with his sense of 'fun' really make for great pieces. And he used to keep an archive of all his old stuff on his site, from when he was doing nothing but fanart and wasn't as good. It's inspiring to see that, at one point, he went through the same learning process I'm going through.
Michael Komarch: Komarch came out of nowhere for me. He just seemed to pop up one day and I remember thinking; how the heck have I never heard of this guy! I'm a big fan of his crazy angles, lighting, and seamless integration with the background.
Nate Simpson: This guy's stuff went around the office last week. He's a game artist taking a year off to work on his own comic. The idea of having pet projects like that is inspiring, and his work on it so far is fantastic. I'm really looking forward to seeing more from him.
What are the 3 most common mistakes that you see in aspiring artists work?
1: Having images in a portfolio just to show you 'know how to do something' is not a good reason. I wish someone had told me that back when I was breaking in. If it's not good work then don't show it. Just because you did some grunge metal band's CD cover back in college doesn't mean you should show it. When people look at your portfolio, they're judging your sense of taste as well as the individual items and if you throw in a bad design job, or bad life-model drawings, or bad animations, well, that speaks wonders as to what your sense of 'good' and 'bad' are.
2: Not enough material. This is a hard one to get over. Having one single solid piece of art may turn heads, but really won't get you a job.
3: Don't spend too long on a piece. Finish something as strongly as you can, but don't dwell on it. When you first dive into game art there's such a daunting tech ramp that you will improve ten times as fast if you make ten pieces, rather than one piece that you spend ten times as long on. You can fumble your way half by accident through the creation pipeline for a single piece, but if you do ten, well, after that tenth piece any technical hurdles will be invisible and you'll be focusing on making what you want to make, not just what you know how to make.
If you want to really get into games, then stop making character art. Unless your awesome at it. Then ignore this. The industry is always hurting for solid environment artists. Which is bizarre. The time it takes to fill out a portfolio of props is shorter. And while the engine-side and reuse requirements of environment art can be more brutal, there's a lot less free-form, organic modeling required. And you don't need to learn anatomy, which is no small task. There's nothing keeping you out of the industry if you can't make a decent character to save your life.
Stop making so many sci-fi bits. It's great to have an example of detail-filled shiny, normal-map-a-licious metal. But don't fill a portfolio with it. Give examples of wood. Cloth. Marble. Rock. Dirt. Anything else to show an employer that you know how to make more than just glorified chrome corridors.
Get experience without being in the industry. Pick up Unreal Tournament and open the editor. Mess with the Half Life/Source SDKs. Build stuff for Oblivion. Import your portfolio into an engine to light it. Build a level. Join a mod team. It doesn't really matter which you do—tinkering with an engine directly is fantastic experience, and while the differences between engines are huge, there are a lot of common themes/processes/workflows from one to the next.
Draw. As much as you can. And paint. But don't include any of it in your portfolio until you feel proud of it. Employers will look at your worse piece and judge you by that. Then they'll be skeptical of your best pieces, thinking you just had a good day and can't repeat the work. It's a cruel truth about first impressions.
Spend time on lighting your work. A lot of people starting out will spend hours on a piece, and then render out a terrible, flat, or gaudy final image. Dress the asset up a little. Put it in a scene. Show employers you know how to light, and you know how to compose an environment. Having wire-frames or flat-shaded supplemental images are essential, but show an employer that you know how to USE that asset you've created in game, that you know how to make game art look good.
As I said above, tinker with an engine. There are so many games that ship with their engines and tools that there really is no excuse for not doing this.
My mug. All I really drink is water, but I like to not waste the paper cups.
StreamingSoundtracks.com. I've been addicted to this web radio station for years!
My cintiq. To quote a friend, “The cintiqs are as far a leap past a normal wacom tablet as a normal wacom tablet is from a mouse.”
I'm going to make the gross, uneducated, blanket statement that digital distribution has been the biggest breakthrough in recent years. I don't know how I feel about it, but I don't think anyone can deny that it's changing the gaming landscape quickly. In five years will there be no more buying and selling used games? Will collector edition boxes go the way of the dodo? On Christmas morning will kids open up presents containing nothing but an activation code for the newest Madden or COD? Will the future of gaming exist entirely on Xbox Live, PSN, Facebook, Steam, and similar services? Spooky!
A few years ago no one used anything other than Photoshop, an engine, and one of the big four 3d suites. Recently there have been a lot of smaller tools popping up all over the place—tools for unwrapping, for modeling, for lighting, for generating normal maps. These tools are so focused that they're able to do their jobs much better than the big guns. However, I think the big guns are starting to wise up and incorporate all the awesome advances these tools have made. A lot of these smaller tools and companies may not survive afterwards, which is a shame. Either way though, I think there's going to be a lot of attention going into the basic tools in the big applications.
The 'make-pretty' button. Global Illumination came close, but now everyone knows that trick. Man, I'd kill for that 'make pretty' button.
I've always been a fan of the immersion of first person shooters, but never of the twitch game play and tired tropes so common in the genre. My favorite games were ones that brought something new to the FPS table. Deus Ex. Thief 1 and 2. No One Live Forever. The FPS “golden age” was between 1997 and 2002, in my opinion.
As for other games, I've been a gamer all my life, even when I never had any consoles. Contra was one of those games that got me really excited about game art and always holds a place close to my heart. But I was also a fan of the Zelda franchise, Final Fantasy (3/6 in particular), Tetris, Mariokart, Iron Tank, and a lot of the pixel era classics.
I'm really really trying to focus on my painting abilities. It really feels like a highway towards becoming a better artist all around. :)
Joe Mirabello is a Senior Environment Artist for 38 Studios