Jon: Let’s start off by talking a little about yourself. The modeling work you do is stellar! How did you get into digital art/modeling?
Lee: I started out quite a while ago, modding games. Back when I first started there were no such things as games art courses at schools or college or whatever, and even if they did exist I quite probably wouldn’t have gone to one, I dropped out of Art at the high-school level, I never in my wildest imagination, thought that I could or would be doing anything like this as a career. Back then we all just learned by doing, it was a real community-driven effort. A lot of games had their own little modding communities, and after starting out modding Half-Life, and moving on to Jedi Knight 2 and Jedi Academy, I started becoming aware of larger general development communities like cghub (RIP), 3d total, and Polycount… It was after I joined Polycount that I really started to grow and improve, and started getting more and more work offers.
Jon: As someone who has made a career out of it, what was the journey like breaking into the industry?
Lee: It was a little rocky at first, and fairly unexpected. I’d had a completely different career and life lined up for myself and everything seemed to be going fine, but an accident forced me to reconsider things. When that all happened, I was quite depressed, it as a real struggle just to get out of bed some days. But I remembered that I’d done a little modding before, nothing super serious, and I was still a part of those communities. So I got back to it and it gave me new purpose. Depression can be a horrible thing to deal with, and I don’t know why but when I was making little mods for people, silly little things, people asking for boxing gloves on a Jedi, or for a huge anime inspired sword instead of a lightsaber… They sound silly but when you do these things for people, and you see how happy they are with it, and then you see how many people are downloading and playing with these little mods, it really made me happy. So game art quickly became something I could focus on to help me get my life back on track, and after a while, people started offering to pay me to make these mods. Nothing insane or anything, like $20 for a retexture, or $100 for a custom mesh. But after a while, I was getting enough of these offers that I started to think about making this an actual career, something I could actually DO.
But I did reach a sort of plateau, where I just wasn’t improving as much as I’d like. I definitely lacked guidance. The traditional career track for this kind of thing is to find a studio to go work at, where you’re surrounded by artists, and have a leader who can direct you and groom you, who can help you grow. I didn’t have that, all of my work had been freelance and from home. And so I reached out to some really top-level artists on Polycount, I think I messaged 11 people, basically asking for a one on one mentorship. Of all those people, only 3 even replied, and of those 3, only one even considered it. That man was Jon Troy (Hazardous) Nickel, a legend in the games industry and making big waves in statues/collectibles now. He set up a mentorship with some other people studying alongside me, all of these other guys were leagues ahead of me when we went into it and we all leveled up big time during the course. I documented as much of the process as possible, and that documentation has even made it up onto the polycount wiki for other people to learn from http://wiki.polycount.com/wiki/Roguedevelopmentdiary
It was about a week after finishing that course that I was approached by my first big client, who’s asked me to do work for them repeatedly over the years. Since then my client list has branched out and been quite varied. I feel very privileged to have worked on so much cool stuff with so many people, and had the opportunity to inspire people through my work.
Jon: Creating the things you do just seems incredible. Is there a certain process you take when approaching a new project?
Lee: Generally speaking, I just work from the concepts that I’m given when it comes to my freelance work. But for VG it’s a little different because we’re tackling so many aspects of development in tandem, the art side of things needs to be a bit more flexible, and free-flowing. Typically any idea that we come up with will involve quite a bit of research. For example with the jungle boss, I researched movie monsters, Kaiju from the Pacific Rim movies were a huge source of inspiration, but I also looked at Godzilla, King Kong, Jurassic Park, etc. Because while you might have an idea for a large creature and how you think it could look, it’s really important to try to take into account whether it could even work… Jurassic Park is a great example of huge creatures and the way they move, the sense of weight they have, how deep their muscle bellies are, all of that stuff is really important if you want your work to be believable.
Once you’ve done your research, concept things out, do little doodles or thumbnails where all you’re interested in is the silhouette – how does this thing look in a vacuum? No details, no flashy stuff, just forms. Then build up to the larger concepts. It’s great that we have really hard working concept artists on the team who can do this stuff for me because it’s honestly not my forté.
Another important thing to do is self-critique, and invite criticism from others. Most days after I’ve done a stream I’ll open zbrush, take some screenshots from different angles, and draw over them in photoshop, showing myself where I made mistakes, or what I want to change or needs changing next time I work on it. The jungle boss got a complete rework because I stopped doing this and by the time I got to the in-game model I just wasn’t happy with the outcome at all.
As long as you’re open to feedback from outside sources, and you’re capable of self-analyzing and assessing your own work, you’ll rarely make something you are unhappy with, or at least haven’t learned a lot while making.
Jon: How did you end up getting on board with Visionary Games?
Lee: When Epic announced that Paragon was shutting down, Keepek, one of the guys in my little crowd of Paragon buddies told me about a project to try and remake Paragon. Initially, I thought it was an awful idea, and that nobody would be successful with it… Most people who play games have very little understanding of how they’re actually made, how much work it takes, how LONG it takes. I’m honestly not sure what made me apply to VG, but I do know that I’ve spent a long time making artwork for other people, and I think I saw this as an opportunity to put my own stamp onto something, and really make a game that I can say is, in no small way, mine.
Jon: How has working with the VG team been? They seem to have a nice workflow, putting out two state of the game videos so quickly.
Lee: Haha, well I think the first thing to point out here is that we generally don’t target the SOTG as any kind of deadline! Sure it’s really nice if we can show off something new that we’re proud of, but honestly, we’re just trying to keep a steady pace and keep moving forward. the SOTG announcements are quite literally just a vertical slice of “this is where we are right now”.
With that in mind, I think it’s important for people to understand that some SOTG announcements will contain more content than others. Our team is made entirely of volunteers, everyone has jobs outside of this, family commitments, and just generally things that can come up and put a halter on whatever they’re working on for VG. We’re very conscious to not put pressure on ourselves, or on each other to work too hard when things might already be tough, even if it means we have less to show the public. We’d rather everyone on the team be happy and working at their own pace, making great stuff, than getting burned out. Burnout is the enemy of creativity.
I think working with VG has been incredibly positive. Just about everyone I’ve spoken to is super cool, and we’re starting to see a lot of people coming out of their little bubbles. For a while, a lot of people would just stick to their own team and only speak within that team, but lately, general chat has been getting more vibrant, and people are starting to really come together. It’s awesome to see! Of course, there are moments of friction, disagreements happen, especially in large teams of people and even more so in a team of people who are quite literally from all over the world, all different cultures, and backgrounds. But I can honestly say that each of those moments has led to personal growth and has allowed the group to become closer and more streamlined.
Jon: Watching you do your thing on stream is amazing. How do you like streaming your work live?
Lee: Honestly, it’s really stressful! I know I probably come off as calm and happy or whatever but it feels like I have someone looking over my shoulder 100% of the time. I’m getting used to it though, and I’m definitely becoming more relaxed with it. I’m really enjoying the questions people ask, it’s really cool to see people taking an interest in the stuff that goes into making games. There are some really fun moments to come from the streams too! There’s this one guy who comes in and says like: “Hi is this Unreal Engine Support?” and then asks some question about how to approach a problem. It’s really quirky and I’ve always tried to answer the best I can, but I really love that stuff.
Jon: Is working with VG something that you hope could turn into a full-time job?
Lee: Well, I’m really happy with my current job. This is my first time working full-time as a technical artist and it’s challenging, fun, and the company I work for (Quixel) are fantastic! I would say that I’m hoping that VG can grow into an entity that can provide full-time jobs for other people on the team. I will always want to help out and keep making things for them, but if VG turns into a fully funded venture that provides work for some of the other people and allows them to explore something they’re clearly very passionate about, then that will be an amazing thing and I can’t wait to see if I can help make it happen!
Jon: Any tips for aspiring 3D artists and how they can get to where you are?
Lee: Honestly just keep pushing at your craft. Join art communities and ask for feedback, don’t be upset by anything anyone tells you… I know it sounds difficult, i’m basically saying “grow a thicker skin”, but it really is important. One of the more important skills to learn is how to dissect feedback into components that are useful, or should be thrown away. If someone says something that might be insulting, see if there are any nuggets of wisdom in there at all, and use those, ignore everything else because it won’t help you grow, and being upset will only stop you from working which is the opposite of what you’re aiming for. But definitely surround yourself with as many other artists as possible, and keep looking at what they’re doing, think about HOW they’re doing it, try to replicate the techniques… You are the average skill level, of all the artists on your contact list.
And of course, you can feel free to come to ping me on the VG discord server if you want feedback from me or any of our other artists for that matter!
Jon: Thanks for taking the time to answer our silly questions! Can you give us a teaser or sneak peek into anything you are working on that we haven’t seen yet?
Lee: Well, I can’t show any character work that hasn’t already been seen… Everyone knows I’m working on the jungle boss and Theo right now. But I can show you something I’ve been doing as part of the technical side of the job. I’ve been thinking about how we can make people look like they’re phasing in/out of a location, and worked on the material to make that happen. This would need a matching animation (maybe something like… they punch the floor as the fade out happens, and then jump up through the floor as the fade in happens), but this is a kind of proof of concept. It might not even make it into the game, it’s just something I thought I’d explore!