Simon has been working on video game environments since 2004. He focuses on high quality asset creation, from the whitebox to the final stage. In his career he has shipped eight titles, ranging from smaller kids oriented games to large AAA productions like Crysis 2.
Simon is currently working as a Senior Environment Artist at Crytek where he worked on “Crysis 2”, “Crysis Warhead / Crysis Wars” and the upcoming “Warface”.
When was the first time you got initially interested in creating cg art and what made your decision to become an environment artist?
Ever since I got my first console I was interested in video games and how they were made. What really sparked my interest were my first experiences with level editors like Valves “Hammer” Editor” or Quakes “Radiant” Editor. I started out doing level design but quickly felt limited by the options those editors gave me when it came to designing and creating objects so I moved on to 3D Studio Max and started learning how to create my own props.
Having released a couple of custom assets for “Half-Life” and having worked on several mods I decided to try doing this full time and applied at a few companies in Germany which is how I got my first job.
Who are your artistic influences, your idols you look up to?
I´m really impressed with some of the artwork in “Gears of War”, “Uncharted” and most recently “Rage”. All the artists that worked on these projects did a fantastic job creating environments and characters that are on the cutting edge of what´s possible on current generation consoles today.
Kevin Johnstone, Hanno Hagedorn, Vitaliy Naymushin, Joey Struve and many others come to mind when I think about artist that create artwork that influences and inspires me.
What kind of training and stages (jobs) did you had to go through that has led you obtain your current position at Crytek?
I am mostly self taught and learned from co-workers, friends that work in the industry and people on forums like polycount.
I started out as an Intern 3D Artist at Nuclearvision in Braunschweig and after my internship then took a job as Apprentice 3D Artist at 4Head Studios in Hannover. The company went bankrupt during my apprenticeship and got bought by DTP, a German publisher that renamed the company to Cranberry Production. I eventually became a Regular 3D Artist there but moved on to work for Crytek where I became a Senior Environment Artist.
What kind of projects have you worked on besides the one at Crytek?
I´ve worked on various different projects in my career before I started working for Crytek. I´ve started as an Intern and worked on an FPS called “Psychotoxic” where I did a bit of bug fixing and made my first steps in the industry as a professional.
After that, I´ve finished several smaller kids games released for PC and Nintendo DS where I was responsible for most of the Environment Art and the Level design.
I´ve also worked on a medieval life simulation called “The Guild 2” and its add-on “The Guild2: Pirates of the European Seas” where I created about half of all the in game buildings. The last games that I´ve worked on before joining Crytek were two classic Point-and-Click adventures called “Mata Hari” and “Black Mirror 2” where I created pre rendered background images.
What software do you regularly apply in your projects and to what effect?
Most of our modeling at Crytek is done in 3D Studio Max. The animations are done in Max or Maya, sculpting is done in Zbrush or Mudbox and Photoshop is being used to texture everything. In the end, all of our work comes together in CryENGINE 3.
In addition to these main packages we are using many smaller tools like crazybump to generate or modify normal maps or xNormal to bake textures.
What would be a general work flow of an environment art piece from start to finish?
I start with the white box to define proportions, scale and game space whenever I create an asset.
After that, I´ll export it to the engine, place it in an empty level and interact with it a bit to find errors and look for areas that could cause problems later on. I specifically check for issues regarding gameplay metrics, i.e. are my doors the correct size, can the player get to the areas he needs to get to and check if the AI is able to navigate on the object.
I iterate between 3D Studio Max and CryEngine and get rid of all the issues until I am happy with the result. After that, it is a fairly straightforward process.
Usually I cut up my whitebox into modules to be as efficient as possible. I then UV these modules and build the highpoly pieces based on my lowpoly in 3d Studio max. After that, I´ll add some weathering to my highpolies in Zbrush and bake everything using Xnormal. I then do the texturing in Photoshop, create all of the maps, set up the shaders and export the final mesh to the engine.
What kind of challenges are unique to environment art compared to character art?
Environment art is more modular then character art. Characters usually use one large texture sheet (in case the character is not customizable), so everything can be textured uniquely.
Due to the size of environment assets this is hardly ever possible in FPS games. Environment artists need to work with several tiling textures and cleverly mask the tiling using decals, shaders like a blendshader and other techniques like breaking up the repetitiveness by placing vegetation or unique details on top of the mesh.
Environment artists often have to worry about features like breakability as well which requires the mesh to be pre-broken into several chunks of geometry each requiring their own level-of-detail meshes and physics geometry.
In addition, the mesh is usually less dense for environment art assets and the tessellation a lot less uniform since most environment art assets do not require to be animated.
What is the difference between an environment artist and the Level Artist?
At Crytek, the Environment artist will build the meshes that are used to populate the levels. These can be the main buildings, smaller props like newspaper machines or background objects. He takes care of creating these assets from start to finish, sets up the shaders and places them in the level.
The Level artist takes these meshes and then adds details like decals, vegetation or smaller props to populate the scenes. He takes care of the composition of objects to create visually compelling scenes that guide the player to his objective. Usually he is responsible for the first iteration of the lighting as well and adjust shaders or colors to ensure the objects – often built by various different Environment Artists – harmonize with each other.
Every morning waking up and going back to the studio, what keeps you driving? What are the best aspects of being an environment artist and what challenges do occur during your casual working day?
I love building visually stunning game worlds and I am always trying to push my work to the next level. It is especially motivating when you know that you are working on a project that is going to be played by millions of people in the best case scenario.
In addition, I love working with people from all over the world, it´s always fun and you usually learn something from each new person that you meet.
Best aspects of being an environment artist for me are taking ownership of an entire level or a section of the game and then being able to work on it non-stop for a longer period of time in cooperation with Art Direction and concept art. This really allows you to create scenes that look great, play well and are hopefully a lot of fun for the player in the end.
The normal challenges that you run into more or less regularly are mainly adapting to changes or request from various departments. This ranges from having to change the layout of your mesh so that it makes better use of certain features from the AI, optimizing your assets due to performance limitations in the level or even adjusting to a change of scope in a project.
Do you find time to be creative outside of your job and does this influence your professional work?
I try to, but it´s always depending on how demanding the project I´m working on at the time is. I try to stay away from the computer if possible since I do spend quite a lot of time in front of the monitor at work.
I´m a big music fan and try to go to as many different concerts as possible. Sometimes that helps me coming up with a theme or a mood for a scene, at the very least it helps me to get my mind of things and I find it very relaxing. I also love traveling and visiting different countries, I usually get inspired by foreign architecture which helps me to come up with new designs.
Do you work currently on a personal project? If yes where would we be able to follow your work and what inspired you to do this project?
Not at the moment. If I do work on a personal project I usually post it on forums like polycount.
What is your favorite video game and movie of all time? Do you draw any inspiration out of them in your work and to what degree?
My favorite video game of all times is probably “X-Com: UFO-Defense”, I still go back to playing it every year or two. For me it´s one of those all-time classics that you can play over and over again, it never gets boring. I wish someone would create a remake with a better UI and updated graphics though.
I don´t really have a favorite movie. The most recent one that stood out for me was “Driver”, the cinematography, music and pacing is great in this film. I also like watching the HBO series “The Sopranos”.
In general, I´m a big fan of all things sci-fi and aviation related and these are areas I draw quite a bit of inspiration from. Movies like “Ghost in the Shell” or “Akira” contain great hard surface designs and environments and I regularly fall back on them for inspiration when it comes to detailing my objects or coming up with interesting shapes.
What game or movie would you love to work on the most? What would be your dream project and why?
Either an X-Com: UFO Defense remake or a new Wing Commander game with the production values of StarCraft II. I always thought that the Hyperion interiors were awesome and would tie in perfectly with a Wing Commander game.
Sadly both of these genres died out, they don´t have a mainstream appeal anymore and are difficult to transfer to consoles, thus they are not interesting to publishers anymore.
Taking your dream job to reality and being realistic about today’s competitive market, what should an aspiring artist take to heart to make his dream career come true?
You need to have a genuine passion for making games and be willing to invest a lot of time into this career. Don´t be a generalist but focus on one area and get good at it. There´s a big need for talented environment artists in the industry at the moment and with projects increasing in size, quality and the new console generation on the horizon I don´t think this will change for quite some time.
I recommend learning as much as possible on your own and finding things that motivate you. All the information that you need is out there. Surround yourself with people that have similar goals, be active in online communities, join a mod team and participate in competitions like the “Dominance War” or the “Unearthly Challenge”.
Adam Bromell recently did a talk for IGDA in Toronto that covers this topic, it’s well worth watching.
Putting an outstanding portfolio together and being able to stand out is a hard task. If you would be an hiring art director, what would you like to see in a portfolio these days?
I’ve been asked this quite a lot recently and I always give the same set of answers:
The best portfolios I have seen are the ones that are tailored to the position that the artist is applying for. I like to see people specializing and really focusing on one area. If you want to be an environment artist, focus on props and environment scenes. Don’t add characters or weapons to your folio.
Try to match the visual style of their games when applying for a specific company. If you want to work at Crytek, apply with a folio that matches the art style that we use in our games. The same goes for most other companies unless you want to be a freelancer.
Another important thing is to only show your best work. I´d rather see a folio that has three really good pieces instead of a folio that contains all the work you have ever created but most of it is outdated and not representative anymore. The worst piece in your portfolio is always the one you will be judged by.
If you do not have enough material then focus on finishing one scene in a game engine like CryENGINE3 or UDK. This will help you get a foot in the door and companies can see that you know how to work in a production environment. Don´t add mental ray renderings of game assets to your portfolio, but use a game engine to present your work!
Look at other peoples portfolios and compare your work with theirs. Linked-in is a great resource to find lots of portfolios from industry professionals.
Before applying, ask for critique online. Listen to feedback of people who are already employed and implement it before applying.
Any final words of wisdom for any aspiring game artist in training?
Keep on improving your skill sets and make use of the training material available online for free. If you are using CryENGINE3, register at crydev.net and post your progress.
Simon thank you very much for this interview!
For more highres images and portfolio work visit http://www.simonfuchs.net
Interview by Daniel Begic