Artist Interview: Gaming Artist Seung Kim

Welcome to the interview part of my blog.  This month’s interview is with Gaming Artist, Seung Beom Kim.  Seung currently works for Gearbox Software and has contributed to such projects as “Battleborn” and “Borderlands3”, “Pocohantas” for Genesis, and “Toy Story 3” and “Tron” for Nintendo DS.  Prior to his jump to the gaming industry, he was an assistant animator for Walt Disney Feature Animation.  His work can be seen in several animated films including “Lilo and Stitch”, “Mulan”, and “Tarzan”.  His many credits can be seen on his IMDb page: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm1635717/?ref_=fn_al_nm_2

I recently had the pleasure of asking him some of his thoughts about  what up-and-coming artists should be aware of if they were to pursue a career in the gaming industry.  His insights provide a glimpse into this amazing world. (Seung’s artwork fills this post. All images are copyright Gearbox Software.) 

A Conversation with Seung Beom Kim

You’ve worked in both the Film Industry and the Gaming Industry over the past 25 years.  How does the Gaming World process differ from the Movie making process?

Well there are a lot of similarities in coming up with story lines and ideas and the ability to suck a viewer in, but the major difference is that a film is an entertainment medium that is a passive experience for the viewer, and a video game is a proactive experience.  So, instead of just sitting through an 80 minute director’s vision of a story in a movie, doing nothing but watching, a video game requires participation.  In that sense, the viewer writes his or her own story.  And the story itself takes longer to unfold. 

Unlike a narrative story that is told linearly from point A to point B, Video Games are created as “open world’ concepts.  A good example of this is “Grand Theft Auto”.  Even though it is a game with a premise of crime, the world has a life on its own.  It allows participants to go beyond the story and play in the world and do crazy things, like jump sideways onto bridges, land on other cars, or race a train.  The game becomes a personal virtual environment to explore by yourself, or with friends.

A movie can only be watched by yourself or with people next to you, and then commented on,  but a video game can be experienced with others through interaction and participation.  It’s a more immersive entertaining experience.  In this sense the game has to be developed with more “fun” in mind.

 I remember being young and listening to someone telling me a story, and I’d interrupt them asking them “What about this? Could you go into that hole? Or whatever, and they’d say “Stop!, focus on the story”. Not that they were wrong to redirect a child’s focus, but the Gaming experience of “Exploratory Story” is so much more accessible to the curious listener. I see why people are drawn to this and the reason for its popularity.  It’s a whole different way of storytelling than what I was trained in.

It goes even farther than that.  You don’t have to play the game to be entertained, the people watching are active as well, as in a Twitch stream, where people are chatting and directing players.

There is an interesting dynamic between the streamer and developer and viewer all coming together to create an individual story.

Something I was involved in developing was a thing called Echocast.  Essentially it is a small window that pops up for the viewers showing them what weapons and abilities a player currently possesses, and when this player encounters a special treasure box, all the viewers have a chance to win something too. It is like a roulette chance for viewers with an extension to their Twitch account.  The viewer too becomes a sideline team player involved in figuring out a story.

I did all the pixel animations for this using the program Aseprite.

What is your current role in this process?

I am fortunate to have a unique position in this process. I was hired at Gearbox as a 2D Effects artist, because of my animation background, but I wear many hats.  I did these tests (below) on Flash animation. And my first job was to work with the amazing effects artist, Michel Gagné https://www.gagneint.com/Final%20site/Animation/irongiant/Iron_Giant_main.htm, on “Battleborn” where Michel and I created 32,000 frames of effects animation for that game, which is amazing.  It’s a 3D game with hand-drawn effects which creates a real unique style.    Now I do both 2D and 3D effects work. I also am a 3D modeller.  That’s part of the effects department.   

When you make your models, are you only using just one program? 

No, you need to be able to create some tricks.  When building a game, all of its components must contain the least amount of information as possible, otherwise it would slow the game down, no matter what technology is used, and to effectively do that you need a knowledge of many programs.  

So what are the programs you recommend that everyone should have a working knowledge of if they were to pursue this career?

That’s a great question.  These days you can’t really go anywhere if you only know how to just do one thing.  It’s not enough to be able to draw and paint great pictures, you must know the technology.  These are the programs I recommend.  Photoshop is a must, of course, Maya, definitely, 3D Studio Max, ZBrush, Blender, maybe, and SubstancePainter for applying texture mapping.  Also, in the Gaming industry, they want to see if you have experience with a gaming engine like Unity or Unreal.  If you are going into the gaming industry, a working knowledge of Unreal4 is a high priority, which they teach at the college level.

What makes Unreal4 so amazing? 

Oh, with Unreal4 you can create a game for PC, Playstation 5 or 4, IPhone or Android, which makes it a popular gaming engine.  It’s not just one thing, it has multiple disciplines. It has an effects engine built in, a level-map built in, you could build additional characters in it.  Like Maya that could do many things like render fur, hair, and all kinds of stuff, Unreal4 does a similar thing but in real time. So you don’t have to wait to see how things get rendered. Again, it’s a program one has to learn if they are serious about being a part of the gaming industry.  And the best part about it is, It’s FREE!  You can download it free from epicgames.com.

3D Car Model

With your knowledge of all those tools, could you describe one of your methods for creating a working prop to be used in a game? 

Let’s say in a game I have to build a polygon skull.  The polygons have to be really small, the smaller the better, but it still needs to look like a high quality polygon rendered object as would be created with a program like ZBrush.  I would start by modelling a very rudimentary sculpture in Maya, a boxy looking thing.  Then I would import that into ZBrush to create a highly detailed model. After that I use Zbrush to “Decimate” the High polygon model to a lowest polygon as possible model without losing its base form. Then I export both the High Poly model and the low poly model to Substance.  From there I would use SubstancePainter to reduce “Bake” high poly model information to a low poly model and start adding textures on them. This way we could have all the finite details into a cost effective fully textured low poly model to use it in the game. From there I put it onto Unreal, where I could further the style.  A cool style in the Borderlands games is that we added an ink line to the 3D characters to further a 2D effect.  This can be done through the Unreal engine. Here are the models using the process I explained

https://sketchfab.com/songmaster

Toby from Gearbox Battleborn

What are you using to create 2D animation into a 3D video game? 

I use Photoshop. (Everybody knows Photoshop)  and Adobe Animate, which is the old Flash.  But I don’t use Adobe Animate anymore(not for animation).  Nowadays I use ToonBoom Harmony which is the industry standard for traditional animation.  Then I can import each frame back into Photoshop to prepare my drawings for others to use.  I can’t just use one program.   I feel like my whole process of jumping programs is like being on a long train.  I start at one car then move to another until my piece is ready to pass off to someone else who works on their steps as if they’re part of a long train too.

Oh, another great program that I use is called Aseprite.  It’s not free, but it’s a great program to do animation on.  I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to learn animation or create games. https://www.aseprite.org/

Many of my students dream of becoming concept artists, animators, and directors, but they don’t fully understand how much study is required for those positions.  I try to encourage them to work hard not only at one thing, but to be a modern “Renaissance person” as far as the world of art goes.  What advice would you give?

That’s the point.  A concept artist has to be able to demonstrate every discipline of art, not just one thing.  I think of texture mappers, and model riggers too, as very hard jobs.  You actually have to study hard to get these positions.  Not just with the science of color and light and knowledge about anatomy and movement, but with technology and programming.  The more knowledge you gain, the better chance you would have at creating a game by yourself.  And some people do.  (A great example of this is the game “Risk of Rain 2”.  Two guys built this game themselves and were published by Gearbox, and is very successful)  

The more disciplines you know, the more valuable you become.  Again the engines I mentioned before, Unreal4 and Unity, which is used mostly for creating phone games, make learning the process much easier.  This is what the kids are learning in College and some High Schools.  The engines are making it more accessible for designers.  You must know how the engines work.

I would also encourage students to work on a group project rather than always working solo.  You learn more when you get to work with others, like in a studio. When your job is on the line, you learn how to do things quickly and efficiently.  But that comes after college prepares you.  In college, learn as much as you can.  If you just pigeon hole yourself into learning only one thing, and that’s the only thing you have, how are you going to get a position if other people on the internet can do more than you?

Where can students see what their competition is doing?  

Artstation!  Artstation.com is for artists to put work on.  If a company is hiring this is where they look.  As a student, you need to see what others are doing.  Artstation is a perfect place for this.

Does Gearbox hire from a specific college or location?

We hire from a number of schools including, Full Sail University which is a good school for gaming, FIEA in Central Florida, and SMU as well (https://www.smu.edu/guildhall).

I’ve noticed that you have been posting many gesture drawings on Facebook.  Is that something you still enjoy doing?

I like to start my day with a  fifteen minutes gesture drawing warm up.  It starts the day off right. I love it.  It’s something an artist needs to do to stay fresh and loose. Plus you learn something each time. You must always keep learning.  I am still learning every single day.

One last question.  How has the gaming industry changed during Covid? Is the studio ever going to come back?

Well, our studio no longer works in the same building.  Everyone works from home, and the studio hooked us up with the equipment we need at home.  Still, we have figured out how to bring everyone together through video meetings. We use a “team” and Miro Board.  This allows everyone to see and discuss story ideas and other information together.  So the collaboration of ideas has not died, it’s just different. It’s funny too, pets roll into the scene, and there’s a lot of comical stuff that goes on, but we get the work done. 

Here’s the thing, since this online process works, the studio is actually saving money. They don’t have to pay rent or electricity. People are spending less on gas. There are less car accidents.  It’s helping the planet.  There’s a lot of up sides to this.  And now a studio can hire anyone from around the world, they don’t have to live in the same city.  

Also, the gaming industry has boomed during quarantine. People are home playing games more than ever.   There are going to be more jobs for artists. Gearbox is hiring many people these days. Best Luck to Everyone.

Many thanks to Seung for taking the time to do this interview.  

You can check out more of his amazing work here https://www.artstation.com/artwork/VdVQOb and some 3D models here https://sketchfab.com/songmaster 

Send some good vibes his way!

Let me know what you thought of this interview with your comments and likes. Also, follow this blog and share with those you know.  Thank you.

Draw Masterfully,

Mr. Vinny

Artist Interview: Animator Brian Ferguson

Learning from Experience

I mentioned that every month I plan to conduct an interview with a professional artist.  This month’s interview is with Animator Brian Ferguson, a former Disney animator, and now, college professor.  Brian Ferguson continues to be a major influence in the animated film business. His fingerprints are on several films, and his many credits can be seen on his IMDb page here https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0272387/

Leaf Elf

I recently had the pleasure of asking him some of his thoughts about what up-and-coming artists should be aware of if they were to pursue a career in animation. (His artwork fills this post.)

A Conversation with Animator Brian Ferguson

You’ve been working as an animator for almost 35 years, and worked on many different films and characters.  Are there a few that stand out as your favorites?

To pick a favorite is like picking a favorite son or movie, that’s hard.  There are those that stand out, though.   Timon, for instance, was a huge amount of fun (Lion King).  And Panic, too, was right up my alley (Hercules).  He was my first supervised character.  For Mulan, I supervised the Matchmaker.  I had a cool experience in that movie.  I was given every scene for that character in one stack, rather than piece-meal as in other productions, so I was able to work on that character in chronological order.  It was extraordinary.  I would also say I enjoyed working on Rhino (Bolt).  That movie production was different in that they gave you an entire segment of the film to work on where you would animate everything in it, rather than just being cast on a particular character in a scene.  Sadly, though it was a little bit difficult to work in that environment, because there were too many people not working as a team.  

Panic from Hercules

Teamwork is such an important part of film making.  I think back on the films I worked on and see the differences of success with those which allowed for team collaboration as opposed to those that didn’t. Which stands out to you?

I really enjoyed those movies where the studio was working as a team. For that reason, Lion King was one of my favorites.  I knew coming into it that it was going to be huge just from the early concept sketches.  They generated excitement for all the artists.  I remember wanting to work on every character.  Even though that film had a lot of pain to it (the studio was going through a lot of changes at that time), it was an exciting film, so much fun, with so many opportunities. 

What was your big opportunity that came on Lion King?

I worked under Andreas Deja who had some trepidation about an early scene he didn’t want to animate.  He said, “Hey, Brian took zoology, let’s get him to animate the mouse.” (in Scar’s opening scene)  That was a huge opportunity for me.

The Lion King

You’re now teaching at DePaul University in Chicago.  What are the classes you teach?

I’m teaching different classes on animation.  This quarter it’s Hand-Drawn Character Animation, Animation Mechanics, and Animation Figure Study (gesture drawing), with a live model for online classes.  

Let’s talk about the importance of gesture drawing.  I always say Gesture Study for an artist is like scale work for a musician.  What are your thoughts or advice?

I know you know so much about it.  For me, I treat my class as a drill.  I repeat the same things over and over, so my students start thinking automatically about those things that should be second nature, like what is the story of a pose.  If you just look at the model first, before you jump into drawing, you get a sense of all the angles and relationships of body parts and how it relates to expression and story and the intent of the pose.   You need to take all that in and decide for yourself what this pose is about, so when you make your drawing and refer to the model, you can know what the pose your drawing is about.  Now, when you come back to that drawing later, and the model is not there, you can see ‘oh, this pose was crouching to make an attack’, or something like that.  Gestures should be an exercise to make the story absolutely clear.  That’s the first main idea of my drills.  “What is the pose about?”  Then build upon that with strong Lines of Action and Readable Silhouette, etc..

As far as proportion and anatomy goes, students get that from other classes.  I’m not concerned in a gesture drawing if a student took the entire time to work on getting a correct calf or not.  Coming up with an anatomically viable representation of the model you saw is not really understanding what the pose is about.  Focusing on the parts results in a Frankenstein type drawing without a unified Line of Action, and appears to be uncommitted.  That’s not what a strong gesture drawing is. 

I know exactly what you mean.  I make my students get up and get into the same pose.  “Feel” the pose.  I bring up Kinesthetics and ask them “Where does it hurt?”.  

That’s interesting.  The closest I come to that is making my students pose on days we don’t have a model.  

I think the students learn to respect the model more when they do that, because they realize how hard it is.

Absolutely.  And I love that you are asking your students what hurts when they feel a pose.  Because those areas require bolder lines.  One of the exercises I have my students do is to focus on Lines of Force.  I tell them not to focus on what the drawing looks like (in terms of anatomy), but draw the tension and direction and forces of the body instead.

I’m getting a sense of what you look for from your students.  What are you looking for in a portfolio from an applying artist?

I think the standards are going up.  For an animation portfolio, I look for anything that shows an understanding of the arts with creativity. Gesture/ Life Drawings, for example, should demonstrate an understanding of storytelling with the poses.  Pieces with strong tonal values are good to have.  Keeping in mind that light and shade is only good if it’s built on a strong foundation (like solid gestures).  And a knowledge of Perspective.  I see a lot of people coming into the school not really understanding how to draw perspective.  They appreciate it when they see it, but don’t necessarily have the tools to create it themselves.

Ray Evangeline from Princess and the Frog

Does it matter if a student has an animation reel or not?

No.  But if they do have one, they are ahead of the curve…  If it has personality.  As you make a reel, mechanics are good to show, but a character needs personality.  I remember when I applied to Disney, I showed them a collection of life-drawings, and bits of animation.  The animation was a large volume of bits that showed my understanding of mechanics, sections from a film that I worked on, and scenes showing weight.  But I found out from a director that the one small scene that convinced them to hire me was of a blob of slime coming to life next to a pool of water, seeing his own reflection and falling in love with it.  What they liked about that scene was that it showed that the character was thinking and feeling.  So putting personality and thought into your characters is extremely crucial.  Not necessarily to get into a school, but definitely to get hired at a major studio.  You can learn this at a school.  

What’s a good tip for achieving the illusion of “thinking” in an animated character?

I would say, something that is useful is to be bold with your timing.  Allow for a character to hold in a position and think, and to not react instantly at the same time something is happening, but to give a little bit of space for something to register in its mind.  If something in a scene happens that a character reacts to…let it happen, let them have a few frames to let it register in their head, then have it register on their face, then let them come up with some sort of action (a take, solution, or whatever).  Putting that kind of timing in is what really helps show that a character is alive and thinking and feeling.

Mickey Mouse

There are a lot of animation apps available today.  Some students come to me and say they want to be a 3D animator or a stop-motion animator and they don’t have to learn how to draw.  What are thoughts about that?

(Brian laughed.)   That’s funny.  Without question, having the ability to draw is very important because you develop that understanding of what works to make a two-dimensional image exciting, dynamic, understandable, and appealing.  The people who do the best at CG are those who say “I will not let the computer tell me what I can and cannot do”. They’re going to make their image the way that they want it.  

We just recently had a student apply to DePaul with amazing work from one of these apps.  They are capable of producing some nice work.  Our school offers classes in 3D animation, stop-motion animation, effects, and independent filmmaking, and I’ve seen some outstanding work.   The teachers are high up in the industry, and each one can draw well.  They have to.

Ray’s Grandma from Princess and the Frog

Can you be taught appeal? 

Ooh, tough one.  I think it’s like any kind of drawing, it takes practice.  I’ve seen people who want to do it, but they just don’t have what a lot of their classmates have.  So they decide for themselves that this is what I’m going to do, and they practice, and they draw, making a point to draw all the time.  They have their sketchbook with them and draw at every free moment.  They get better.  I know masters who do the same thing.  They’re at the top of everyone’s game, and they are still practicing in the parks, drawing at every free moment.

Matchmaker from Mulan

With practice comes confidence.  Is there any kind of encouragement you can give young artists who feel intimidated about showing their work?

I just recently had a discussion with one of my students about this very issue.  She is a very strong artist who wasn’t turning in her work.  She had it in her mind that she was comparing her work to others, which might have been more polished.  I don’t look for polished, I look for something that’s clear, dynamic and interesting.  My classes are about exercises, not necessarily creating a finished product.  I told her these are exercises for learning basic principles and seeing gestures.  You don’t have to be precious with your drawings, they’re meant to be thrown away, they’re just practice.  My advice is to do the exercise, then move on to the next one, each time with new knowledge.  You can repeat the exercises, but don’t labor on getting things perfect, otherwise you’ll never get through them.  First, you lose a lot of time, and second, you’re only learning about this one little thing that has to be perfect.  You may be missing what’s really important.

If you go through drills, (do one thing, complete it, do another thing, complete it.) you’ll get all this experience under your belt. Each one is not going to be a masterpiece, but after having drilled yourself like that, your ability is going to get better!

It’s the same if you’re doing bigger projects.  To make a little independent film.  Don’t think “OK, I’m going to make this the best thing that’s ever been done because I’m going to put everything into it, and it’s going to win an oscar, and I’ll be recognized…”  No.  What you do is make a little thing and complete it!  Make another little thing, and complete it! Make another thing, complete it!  And the more you do these things the more experience you will have and the better you will get over time because you’re practicing. 

Chaca from Emperor’s New Groove

When it comes down to what is the best medium to pursue, 3D computer animation, Stop-Motion, or traditional hand-drawn animation, I heard you say that it’s the performance of a character that matters, not the medium.  Can you elaborate on that?

Yeah, you can have some perfectly entertaining, beautiful animation in any medium.  It doesn’t matter what the tool is, you’re going to be entertained if it’s put together right.

Chicken Little trips on a piece of sky

Let me put you on the spot with a fun question.  What great animated performance can you quickly recall that’s worth studying for a young animator or actor in training?  

Each film has a great example of something.  I recall a scene from Zootopia, where there’s a conversation between the fox and the rabbit, where she’s trying to arrest him.  The whole performance is so nicely done and it’s wrapped up with this one remark that’s so natural and her reactions are so well timed.  It finally ends with an on-point gesture.  So powerful!

Zootopia

I can also mention a scene from The Jungle Book.  A dialogue between Shere Kahn and Kaa, where Kaa is about to eat Mogli, but Shere Kahn comes and pulls on his tail, and says, “I’m looking for this man cub.”  And Kaa is like “Are you really?”  Throughout the delivery of the whole scene, there’s such a sense of menacing power in the tiger behind a mask that has kind of a condescending smile which reeks of his total control.  He could destroy the entire jungle, and yet he sits there being courteous. That performance is so powerful for me to this day and it was done over 50 years ago.  Unreal.

The Jungle Book

Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this subject.  Your words are very encouraging.  When’s your next Master Class?  I’m sure my students would like to join in on that. 

The date hasn’t been decided, but I’ll keep you posted.

Many thanks to Brian for taking the time to do this interview.

You can check more  of Brian’s artwork on his website www.brianfergusonanimation.com

Send some good vibes his way!

Let me know what you thought of this interview with your comments and likes. Also, follow this blog and share with those you know.  Thank you.

Draw Masterfully,

Mr. Vinny

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