Ethereality News & Weblog

January 12, 2008

Art directing as a job

Filed under: Art & CG,Audio & Music,My Life/Musings,Video Games — Rob Chang @ 4:16 pm

(EDIT: Gamasutra/Game Career Guide has now published an updated version of this blog entry as an article. Although the original version here is more subjective and candid, the published version is more objective and complete. Both versions contain sections that the other does not have. You can read the published version here.)

I rarely talk about my day job in the blog, and it’s mostly because I feel it’s not such a good idea to discuss your job in a personal blog. It’s in my nature to tell it like it is–I don’t bullshit or beat around the bush–otherwise what’s the point of having a personal blog? Understandably, honesty isn’t exactly the best policy when discussing the ins and outs of your job publicly. But maybe I can shed some light on what I do at my day job–I’m sure some of you are interested, especially those who are in the game industry or are a fan of video games.

As the studio art director, I have to oversee the art quality of all the games we develop or publish, including advertising and publishing material. Most of my time is spent on 1st party games as that’s our main bread and butter, while 2nd and 3rd party games don’t get as much love, since they are usually developed externally and I just review them during milestones–either signing off on them or make a list of comments with references, mock-ups, paintovers…etc for the external art team/contractors.

When a game is in its infancy, it’s usually just an idea, and it has to evolve into a fully completed game design document (detailing everything about how the game is to be played–from control layout, game rules, user interface navigation, game mechanics, story, content, level design…etc to everything else that can be written down or shown in diagrams). Since I’m a senior manager, I’m invited to all review meetings, and my involvement in a game starts at roughly the point where the initial idea is pitched to the senior managers (usually consists of the CEO, studio director, VP of production, VP of technology, VP of creative, studio art director, and senior producers). We either like the idea and decide to go forward, or kill the idea right then and there. If we go forward, then the game designer will work on the design document, and we review it when it’s completed. The game design meeting usually last very long because everyone will have an opinion about what is fun and what isn’t, and what our target audience will or won’t like. There’s also the very important decision of setting the scope of the game–whether it’s a design we feel deserves AAA treatment (largest budget, longest production time), or maybe just an A, or even B. There may be design elements we chop off right then and there if we decide the idea may not warrant a AAA status, and the scope of the game will have to be pulled back to accommodate an A or B status production. At the end of the meeting, we decide which producer is to own the project.

Once a producer is assigned, I’ll work closely with the designer and the producer on determining the visual style of the game. Often the designer already has an idea when he put the design document together. If his idea is a good one, I’ll use it as a starting point and then refine it, add to it, evolve it…etc. If I don’t feel the designer’s idea for the visual style works, then I’ll come up with something and try to sell it to the producer and the designer–usually with references, mock-ups, sketches…etc. They either like what I come up with, or we pow wow back and forth until we find a common ground. Either way, anything visual is my responsibility, so I’m the driving force behind the visual development, but as part of a team, I also respect the input/opinion of co-workers, no matter what their position is.

After deciding on the visual style, I’ll sit down with the producer and help him budget/schedule the art production by going through the entire art assets list. I have to weigh the pros and cons of using expensive art resources that are very good, or cheap ones that are not as reliable. Our internal art team is quite small, so the bulk of our art production is done externally. I have to pick which arthouse or freelance artists to use, and that usually means I have to give them art tests to make sure they can nail the style we have decided on. Sometimes I would have already done some preproduction work (concepts art, mock-ups) and will use them as the benchmark to judge the art tests. Who we decide to use is always a mix of different factors–how good is the result, how long it took, how much it costs, where they are located, and how well they communicate. Once a decision is made, contracts are drawn up, and we move onto the next phase.

Once we’ve locked down the resources, we officially kick start preproduction, which usually consists of concept art (character design, background design, architecture interior/exterior design…etc), storyboards, logo design, GUI (Graphical User Interface) mock-ups, model/texture/animation tests, render tests…etc. This is also when we sometimes do our on-the-fly R&D work, to makes sure a particular production pipeline is doable for the project. Often some of the preproduction work is already done by us internally, but sometimes we leave it all for the external guys to tackle. I’m the kind of art director that likes the team to take on a sense of ownership, so I try to get them pumped up and feeling challenged. Nothing annoys me more than artists who are just going through the motions with no sense of ownership, no pride, and no creativity–just showing up for a paycheck. Guys like that eventually get fired because game development is all about passion–if you don’t have it, it shows in your work. There was a time back when I was just a grunt artist that didn’t feel passionate about the games I was working on, and believe me, it showed. I could tell the love wasn’t there, and other people could tell too. But somewhere along the way I learned that you have to put in everything you’ve got, no matter what it is you’re working on. That is how you can be the best artist you can be–by trying your hardest always.

At this point the programmers will have a basic prototype engine for us to throw placeholder art into, so we can see how things would work in the game. A game at this stage is quite fun to look at, because it’s a mess of placeholder art, programmer art, designer scribbles..etc.

Now comes production, which is when all the art assets used in the game are generated. This is the long haul, and is the bulk of a game’s development time. I have to track art assets as they are generated, review them, critique them, do mock-ups, show more references, paintover stuff that isn’t working…etc–basically to get the art team to deliver what I deem as high quality work suitable for the style of the game. On the managing side, I have to keep track of the outstanding tasks, make sure stuff gets turned in on time, watch out for kinks in the production pipeline and resolve any problems that come up during art production. I also have to assess the strengths and weaknesses of artists on the team and assign the right task to each person. If someone isn’t working out on a task, I try assigning him a different task. Usually I try to assign tasks that the artists are interested in, and I always give them to benefit of the doubt that they can pull it off, until they prove otherwise.

To be a good art director, you have to have the eye for spotting potential. I’ve more than a few times put artists on tasks they’ve never done before and knew nothing about, because I recognized the potential and I knew with proper direction, they will not only pull it off, but do a beautiful job too. So far I’ve been right every time, and the artists always appreciate me believing in them and challenging them to grow, to learn, to improve, and to mature as artists. Some art directors are just there to make sure things look good, while other art directors act more like mentors–I belong to the latter group. I have a knack for teaching, and I know I’m a damn good teacher as the past students I’ve taught told me so after I stopped teaching. So naturally, my style of art directing is more like mentoring, and this doesn’t work with every artist–the younger artists tend to respond to that style of art directing more than older artists, because the younger artists are typically less experienced and thirsty for knowledge. When need to, I can switch gears and be a more co-worker type of art director and drop the nurturing mentor aspect, as I know the veteran artists prefer that. It also just happens naturally too because the veteran guys know what they’re doing, and all they really need is for you to point them the right direction and they’ll forge ahead. Some of them probably have more technical knowledge than the art director does, as veteran guys are the ones in the trenches everyday, dealing with every little problem in the art production first hand.

During the production, there are usully a few important milestones–first playable (when it actually starts to resemble a game, no matter how ugly or primitive it is), alpha (when all the game mechanics actually work, but still have unfinished art, music…etc), beta (everything should be completed, except there are bugs, and maybe some minor art updates that wouldn’t affect testing), and gold master candidate (the fully completed and tested game that can go into duplication for shipping/releasing). Sometimes during production, you might find out during one particular meeting that the higher ups are not feeling the visual direction of the game–that’s when you need to think fast on your feet and come up with a solution right away. This usually involves doing some mock-ups and getting the higher ups to sign off on them, and then implement the new direction down the chain of production.

Towards the end of the production is when things are the most hairy, because that’s when you start to run out of budget, and if there were any situations that forced you to paint yourself into a corner during production, this is when you really start to feel the full blunt force of it. This is also when everyone is on the edge because it’s crunch time (for you non-industry people, it means working longer hours and weekends to get things done), so it can be a real challenge to keep everyone on the team feeling positive while we keep forging ahead. The most difficult part is probably the technical hurdles–when graphics and programming are not working well together and the artists must work closely with the programmers to find solutions, or else the game will crash at certain spots, or graphical bugs will remain open.

Then comes that special day when we go gold (once the quality assurance department declares all bugs–at least the priority ones, are all fixed)–that’s when the beers come out and people celebrate. There are usually some support tasks after we go gold, but they are usually pretty easy stuff.

So, what is the difference between an art director and a regular artist–especially a good art director?

Based on my experience, art directors that can’t walk the walk and only talk the talk are the kind of art directors that artists hate to work under–unless they really know what the hell they’re talking about (maybe they studied art but just isn’t very talented at it, but knows a lot about it). The basic mentality is that if the art director doesn’t have any expertise or experience as an artist, what right does he have to tell a bunch of talented, trained, and experienced artists what to do? I’ve worked under an art director like that it was like a bad joke, but on the other hand, I’ve worked with producers who surprisingly do have very good eyes for art, and can art direct competently to a certain extent (but they do have limits). These guys are usually well-versed in different art styles and are fans of animation, comic books, fine artists, illustrators…etc–basically the kind of guys who are not artists, but probably own quite a bit of art-related books and pay more attention to art than most people do.

The worst kind are the ones who are not artists and don’t even know the correct terminologies used in basic art foundation theories, and they spew a bunch of nonsense that makes no sense to anyone, and use ridiculously vague adjectives and verbs to describe things that actually do have proper art terminologies–thus confusing the hell out of artists they’re trying to direct. They also know nothing about well-known artists, filmmakers, various styles/mediums, notable animations/films/comics/art history, and cannot reference or make analogies that artists can actually relate to. Guys like that do far more damage than good, and should never be allowed to art direct unless there’s no one else qualified, but believe it or not, some do manage to bullshit their way into the industry and actually work as art directors. BUT, things are never that simple in real life, since what an art director is varies from company to company. There are generally the following types of art directors:

1) Someone who is really a manager (tracking art assets, scheduling/budgeting, drafting contracts…etc), but not an artist. (The above described worst kind falls in this category, but for some reason they act as art directors and not managers as they should. If they simply just managed, I would have nothing negative to say about them at all.)
2) Someone who has a great eye for visuals, knows a lot about art, have leadership skills, but may not be a great artist.
3) Someone who is a very good artist and can also lead other artists.
4) Someone who is a combination of all three (with varying degrees of emphasis on each).

The best art directors I’ve seen are almost always the ones who have extensive experience as artists, understand the art production pipeline, are talented and passionate, can multi-task very well, are easy to get along with, know how to task you according to your strength and interests, and know how to weigh the pros and cons of every situation carefully and make the right decision. These guys can take something you’ve done and quickly paintover on top and show you exactly why yours didn’t work, and how you can make it better–guys that can walk the walk and talk the talk.

Recently there was a thread on about art directors, and I made a post there, stating the qualities a good art director should have. They are qualities I strive to meet, even though I may not be on target all the time. It does take the right personality to art direct, and if you don’t have those characteristics, you will not be able to art direct efficiently (this is why many production artists or lead artists might be excellent artists, but they never get promoted to being the art director because they just don’t have the right personality for it). But here’s another industry complexity–at some studios, the lead artist is more like the third type of art director, and they have someone else they call an art director, but is really an art manager (the first type). Pretty confusing, huh?

Anyway, the list of qualities I listed were:

An AD is not just a production veteran that knows the pipeline very well, and can use the essential softwares at an expert level.

An AD is not someone who just knows how to draw/paint/design at an advanced level.

An AD is not someone who is simply knowledgeable about a wide range of styles, genres, mediums.

An AD is not just someone who can schedule, budget, and enforce milestones.

An AD is not just someone who is on top of what new tools are available for improving the pipeline.

An AD is not just someone who understands the big picture and can work with producers, CEO’s, director of technology, creative director, marketing, publishing…etc at the highest level to establish the visual look of every single product coming in and out of a studio.

An AD is not just someone who can carry himself in a manner so when meeting with clients, publishers, investors…etc he could be pursuasive when discussing the visual aspects all projects at the highest level.

An AD is not just someone who knows how to utilize the right external resources (arthouses, freelance contractors), but also know how to manage them.

An AD is not just someone who can nurture and inspire a team of artists.

An AD is not just someone who can pass on his own knowledge and skills so younger/less experiencd artists can benefit from his expertise.

An AD is not just someone who other artists on the team respects because he walks the walk, not just talk the talk.

An AD is not just someone that knows how to use each artist on the team to their strengths, or how to take care of them so they are happy when working on projects.

An AD is not just someone who has the ability to spot potential, and task artists with something they’ve never done before, simply because he knows they can do it if given the right amount of encouragement and direction.

An AD is not just someone all the senior managers and top level personnels respect and rely on, and would feel lost without.

An AD is not just someone who instinctively knows what works visually and what doesn’t, or what is appropriate/effective and what isn’t for any given project.

An AD is not just someone who knows how every aspect of the visuals should look–from user interface, retail box advertising, in-game graphics, concept art, animation, logo design, to font choices.

An AD (a good one) is all of those things combined. That is why it’s so damn hard to find a good AD. Most candidates applying for AD positions only have a few of those qualities, but not all. Many are not good artists at all, but can manage. Others are great artists but can’t manage or lead. Also, a good AD for one project may not be the right person for a different project, though some are very versatile, but they are rare. If an AD can go from something like a hardcore action/realistic title, to a wacky cartoony title, to a charming/cutesy casual title, to a stylized anime-influenced title, then he’s a damn good AD (assuming he has all the other traits mentioned).

What makes that list confusing is that in some studios, they break all these responsibilities up into two or more different positions (like the lead artist/art manager combo). I guess I have the short end of the stick at my job because I do all of those things, and not for just one game, but multiple games at once (anything that comes through our company). Sometimes I find myself juggling five or six games at once, so it can be pretty insane. They know I’m over-taxed and I need help, but whether they can afford to get me help is a different issue altogether.

Sometimes I do miss the days of simply being an artist.

Want to know how much of a glutton for punishment I am? Because I love music so much and our company does not have an audio director, I volunteer to direct the audio on the games I work on. As a composer, it’s far more effective for me to communicate to the composers we work with, since I speak the language of music and can give them direction on composition, arrangement, and even mixing/mastering. Often I’ll just go ahead and describe the orchestration and they’ll try to match it. Composers really appreciate it because instead of getting comments from a producer telling them to “make it more scary sounding,” they’ll get something from me that’s more like “take out the vibraphones as that’s killing the mood of the cue. Add some contrabassoon low note drones. Have the strings play some high pitched harmonics and tremolos. Change the harmonic progression so there’s no resolution–just one dissonant harmony after another.” It makes a world of difference because vague and non-musical terms can be easily misinterpreted, and with me giving precise musical feedback, there’s no room for misinterpretation.

So, there you go–that’s what I do everyday at work.

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