Interview with David Chang: A Look at Game Art Design

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The world of video games comes in a variety of styles and overall themes. From the stunning and colorful locations of The Outer Worlds and Horizons Zero Dawn to the refined illustrations and delicate linework of Final Fantasy 12 Zodiac Age, the art direction of video games is often what defines each title. For many artists, the opportunity to work as a video game artist is a dream job, but one that comes with expansive hurdles and uncertainty. Thankfully, there are a number of positions these artists can look into, and studios like Virtuos Montreal have made video game art a specialty.

Virtuos Montreal is a development studio that specializes in concept art for major AAA titles. These have included work on The Outer Worlds, Bioshock, Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, and many other popular titles that have come to the forefront of gaming in recent years. Unlike the early decades of gaming that were hampered by polygonal 3D models and awkward textures, modern video games can take the concept art imagined by talented artists and breathe them into hyper-realistic or stylized immersive experiences. Because of this, working in video game art is more rewarding than ever, and a much-needed and valued portion of game development.

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While creating imaginative designs seen in popular titles like Horizons Zero Dawn may seem like an impossible challenge, there are a number of resources soon-to-be game artists can try out to help build their portfolios, find their niches, and hone their skills. To help elaborate on these areas, David Cheung, Studio Manager of Virtuos Montreal, sat down with Screen Rant for an inside scoop.

Artists often have numerous ways of creating a portfolio collection. What types of portfolio items do you look for when interviewing artists? Do you like full sketchbooks or digital portfolios?

David: I’ll start with an unfortunate truth: there really isn’t a standard or secret recipe that applies to all portfolios in order to make them appealing to directors, leads, or recruiters. Art appreciation and critique are highly subjective, and this applies to anyone reviewing portfolios for a particular project or studio need. Everyone has their preferences, but I think it’s safe to say that there are popular platforms that have emerged and common standards in terms of digital portfolio layout and presentation.

The popularity of ArtStation cannot be understated as it has quickly become industry lingo, often replacing the term “portfolio” in conversation. Thanks to platforms like ArtStation, it is very easy for artists to consume a wide range of artwork and compare themselves to others with varying skills and achievements. Hopefully for new artists, they will see others’ work as encouragement and motivation to improve their own, rather than being discouraged by the endless front-page art that sets a very high bar.

It was refreshing to see some artists at this year’s Game Developers Conference (GDC) armed with their sketchbooks as they proudly showed that their fundamental drawing skills haven’t been lost in a predominantly digital world. The feeling is perhaps related to the pandemic having forced everyone to rely on digital means for almost all interactions, but the importance of building strong art fundamentals and the practice of continually drawing to hone one’s skills should be at the forefront of any artist’s daily reflection.

I know personally that I have sketchbooks filled with nothing but ink or pencil. Do you prefer full art pieces, sketches, or a mixture of both?

David: For the needs of Virtuos Montreal, I would say definitely a mixture of both. However, once artists demonstrate that they are capable of creating beautifully rendered artwork, there’s only so much of that that you need to see. What reinforces their portfolio tremendously is a good sample of exploration sketches and design work that illustrates their process clearly – I’ve seen so many artist portfolios that omit this and the end results are unconvincing. That sort of portfolio might be fine for an illustrator looking to get hired for splash art, but even then, I’m sure many would appreciate being able to better understand the artist’s process in getting to the final result.

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Many people are deeply intimidated by the complexity of 3D art. Do 2D artists have a place in the widely 3D-dominated industry? 

David: 2D artists can absolutely be successful as concept artists in our industry. In fact, there are several artists at Virtuos Montreal who have studied and worked in other fields such as graphic design, film design, comic books, and even architectural design. In most cases, their experience in these other art-related fields gives them transferable knowledge and skills that become useful in their roles as concept artists and concept designers.

What advice do you have for 2D character designers and illustrators wanting to get into the industry?

David: For 2D character designers and illustrators, the first step would be to research common character concept art processes and why they are typically done a certain way. The biggest difference is relative to the technical constraints that are linked to the creation of interactive models within a game engine. As a result, tech can limit the extent of design. In the early stages, however, the same creativity that you would draw upon in fields such as animation is often just as useful in character conception for games. Being creative and having the ability to explore a range of different styles and ideas for a character are aspects of a great character designer, no matter the industry in which those skills are applied.

Everyone has a project that stands out in their mind as career shaping. What was your first experience as a game artist? What was the most important thing you learned?

David: My first professional experience as a game artist was as a lighting artist at Ubisoft Montreal on Rainbow Six Vegas. What I learned very quickly on that first project was to have an open mind and be humble in the midst of other developers with vast amounts of experience. No matter how good you might already be, if you’re open to learning, you’ll set yourself on the right path to becoming even better while working alongside others who share the same values, even if they’re not executing the same job as you.

It is especially important to identify learning and interaction opportunities during our new age of working-from-home and hybrid work arrangements. If the company you work for is fully remote, consider that you may be entirely dependent on virtual calls to share and interact with others. I imagine that my career path would have been quite different if I didn’t have all of the in-person experiences that have undoubtedly shaped my life.

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Art is a career that is fueled by passion and practice. What tips do you have for artists looking to improve portfolios or professional work to apply for game artist roles?

DavidTry and cater your work to what you’re applying for. Understand that when reviewing portfolios, studio leads often have a specific project or projects in mind, therefore, they’re typically looking for art that speaks to the style of games that they’re developing. For example, if you’re applying to a company that is known for creating the most realistic military FPS games, a portfolio full of stylized and painterly fantasy creatures would probably put you at a disadvantage versus an artist with a portfolio emphasizing photobashed realistic character concepts.

If you have enough good sample art to categorize your work into different categories, then do that by all means, but ensure that you direct your target viewer’s attention to the work they should see first and foremost.

We hear all the time about the crunch that comes with working in games. What is the hardest thing about being an artist in the game industry?

David: Whether or not it’s the hardest thing is debatable, but a key challenge for artists in our industry is keeping up with the constant evolution of advanced techniques and software. Nothing replaces the importance of strong fundamental art skills, however, the increased utilization of 3D in concept art is an example of how artists are using advanced tools to improve the quality and efficiency of their workflow. We’ve come a long way from the old school criticism of concept art created with the help of photobashing or 3D as an inferior or illegitimate form. With the emergence of VR creation tools and more recently AI-generated algorithms, artists who struggle to learn new software are limiting themselves to a much smaller and restrictive toolset.

I know I personally love the raw sketch stage of any drawing. What is your favorite part of the creative process? What has been your favorite project to work on?

David: The most rewarding aspect of the creative process, which resultantly makes it my favorite part, is seeing and contributing to the growth and improvement of others over time. This can be achieved by overcoming creative hurdles, receiving and giving feedback, and – at the risk of sounding repetitive – always learning along the way. Several released projects fit that criteria but if I had to pick one, it would be For Honor. It was a project to be very proud of and I’m sure that this sentiment would be echoed by most who were a part of its journey.

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A good number of artists are learning art in new ways thanks to the accessibility of online classes. What kind of education should artists be looking to join the game industry pursue? 

David: I keep stressing the importance of having a solid grasp of art fundamentals, but I would also highly recommend that aspiring artists look into schools that have implemented a curriculum designed to emulate an actual production environment and workflow. To do that effectively, the best schools usually hire experienced industry artists to teach – a common practice at renowned schools in Southeast Asia, France, and of course, here in North America such as at the Academy of Art in San Francisco or Syn Studio in Montreal.

Having been on both “sides” as the director at Syn Studio and now the studio manager of Virtuos Montreal, I have a unique perspective of having seen first-hand how a curriculum that emphasizes teaching art workflows benefits junior artists by giving them a running start once they’re actually expected to work at the pace of a real production team. You seldom get the opportunity to reverse a bad first impression, so quality education and training is well worth the investment.

Is it possible for self-taught artists to find a way into the industry?

David: It is certainly possible for self-taught artists to land an industry job, as there is an abundance of quality resources online from which to study and learn. Although I’ve highly recommended schools as a great avenue to pursue, it can understandably be – for various reasons – out of reach for some. Another alternative to consider is to find a mentor, as skilled artists are increasingly offering their time to help others with 1-to-1 online mentorships.

Foregoing all types of educational help would lead to a much more challenging self-taught route, but there are many artists who have been disciplined and determined enough to try this, and with success.

While most artists have their own ways of creating art, industry projects must be very different. What does the process of creating concept art look like?

David: The concept art and design processes will vary depending on several factors related to project-specific workflows the artist’s preferred workflow, and most importantly, the expectations of the deliverable needed for the stage of production.

Using a very general but common character concept workflow as an example, an artist would typically go through a step-by-step process as follows: reference search and mood board creation, exploration sketches, refined line art and poses, color proposals, front and back detailed views, material references, and supporting detail callouts.

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What outside experience can be beneficial for artists to learn besides art itself? Should artists also have a background in game design or coding?

David: There is definitely an advantage in understanding how games are built through different stages of production. Relative to concept art, knowing the workflow and constraints of different roles including 3D modelers, animators, texture artists, level artists and designers can strengthen the work at the conceptual stage and reduce the amount of iteration. The most efficient workflows in our industry leverage the experience and knowledge of our experts, and that is the advantage for artists with production experience within multi-disciplinary teams.

Focusing on outside experiences from the perspective of art, I would encourage artists to see the real world through their craft. With information being so easily and readily available on the internet, artists can unknowingly fall into the trap of not flexing their creative muscles because they are constrained to viewing art and the world through very limited lenses. We often see art imitating art, and art imitating life. Where the most creative and influential artists in the past were forced to really observe the world and have their life experiences influence their art, new artists can mimic the process through digital media, resulting in diluted work that is too far removed from life and real creativity. Go out and experience the world, be courageous and find life experiences that remove you from your comfort zone and resultantly, fuel your creative ideas – just remember to always bring along a sketchbook and pencil!

What is the most memorable piece of feedback you have received as an artist?

David: I’ve received advice and feedback in many forms, both good and bad, during my professional career as an artist, leader and manager, but I’d go further back to my time as a student – someone I held in very high regard helped me realize that the output from the time and effort we put into things can be categorized into different types.

When prioritizing output that creates value in your own life or those of others, that translates into success and a true sense of accomplishment. I’ve carried this notion of “value” in most aspects of life, both personal and professional, and I like to think that it has contributed to the culture of the numerous teams that I’ve built.

If you could go back and tell yourself one piece of advice as a young artist, what would it be?

David: As soon as you find a specialization that you’re passionate about, focus on getting really good at it. Minimize distractions and invest the time to really live and breathe as the artist that you’re striving to become. With the right balance of passion and motivation in your work, whether it’s for your day job or your free time – ideally both – the journey should be rewarding and fun at the same time!

 

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