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In Conversation with Blizzard Entertainment’s Seth Thompson

"Whether you are working freelance or for a company try to be as humble as possible. I have seen many extremely talented people miss out on great opportunities because they were not able to put ego aside."

We speak with Blizzard Entertainment’s Art Department Supervisor, Creative Development Seth Thompson ahead of his guest talk and master class at GC Futures, 2 – 4 March, 2018, and find out more about his role with Blizzard and the growing importance of digital artistry.

What does an Art Department Supervisor, Creative Development do in the computer graphics / games industry?

This is a role that probably has a variety of different definitions throughout the industry. On my team at Blizzard Entertainment I work with a group of extremely talented artists and production staff who create a huge variety of concept and production art for our games, cinematic movies, consumer products such as toys, collectibles, clothing and much more. The thing that is so unique and amazing about this team is we literally get to help drive the creative vision for every IP (intellectual property) at Blizzard Entertainment. For any concept artist who wants to work on a wide variety of art genres, styles and products, this department offers some of the most diverse opportunities I have seen in the industry.

You’ve previously worked as a set and prop modeller for films, including ‘Final Fantasy: Advent Children’ – how did you make the career progression to Art Department Supervisor for Blizzard?

That is a long story that I am excited to share in depth during my master class at CG Futures. The short answer is that throughout my career I have seen the amazing positive impact a great leader can have on a team, bringing people and products to world-class levels and this became something I was very attracted to. After 10 years as a production artist I had the opportunity to create and lead Blizzard Animation’s Cinematic Environment Modelling Team. I continued to supervise the team for nearly eight years and was later given a great opportunity to also manage our Digimatte Team (Matte Painting).

This was an exciting challenge as it was the first team I managed where I was not a master of the discipline and had to rely on my management skills to succeed and I think I did a good job. That experience gave me the confidence that I could lead other teams outside of my core discipline.

Then in the fall of 2017 the Art Department Supervisor position became available. I saw this opportunity as not only a great professional challenge but a position where I could have a larger positive impact on more people and make a greater contribution to the company. In November I was fortunate enough to be awarded the position and have loving every moment of it.

What do you find most rewarding, working on games or films?

The interesting things is I have only worked on film teams within video game companies. I started my career with Blizzard Entertainment in the summer of 2000 when I joined the Blizzard Cinematic team where I worked on cinematic films for the game Warcraft 3 – Reign Of Chaos. In 2003 I went to Tokyo, Japan to work on the ‘Visual Works’ team at Square-Enix where I worked on the film Final Fantasy: Advent Children as well as cinematics for ‘Final Fantasy 12’. I then returned to the Blizzard Cinematic team in 2006, which is now named Blizzard Animation, where I have remained ever since.

Both of these teams at Blizzard and Square-Enix are like small feature film studios that are part of video game companies. The great thing about this setup is having exposure to all the games as they are being created and being able to create cinematic films that help promote and tell stories within them. That being said, working on a feature length film such as Advent Children or a video game can be a multi-year process which requires patience and love for what you are doing. In my case completing a film is always a great feeling especially when we get to see all the great interaction and appeal from our fans. Also, for me, helping a team come together to complete a project or film and seeing how good they feel is a great motivator in my supervision role.

What will you be covering in your master class at CG Futures?

In my 90-minute master class I will discuss my life-long journey and experiences dating back to my childhood roots as a fine artist to my current job as an Art Department Supervisor at Blizzard Entertainment.  Throughout the talk I will discuss how my goals, skills and focus evolved during my career.  I will also discuss strategies for adapting in quickly growing and evolving companies and how to maintain motivation, longevity and professionalism in the digital entertainment industry and much more.

I am also excited to be giving a three-hour live digital art demonstration. In this demo I will showcase several key workflows and techniques I developed through the process of creating my most recent personal fan artwork, which was a realistic interpretation of the High Lord of Wolnir skull goblet from the video game Darksouls 3.

In this demonstration I will create an entirely new piece of art from scratch using ZBrush 4r8, Adobe Photoshop and Keyshot 7. The demonstration is going to be loaded with tonnes of tips and tricks that I am confident any new or veteran ZBrush, Photoshop and Keyshot artist will be sure to enjoy. The image below showcases what I will be creating during my demo, an aged metallic amulet with an embedded onyx stone.

Seth will recreate this amulet step-by-step during his demo at CG Futures on Saturday 3 March 2018, 2.30 – 5.45pm.

Who do you see as the ideal audience member for CG Futures?

Whether attending as an industry veteran with years of experience, or somebody completely new to CG (computer graphics), I think that the CG Futures event will have something interesting to offer. The presenters this year have a massive wealth of knowledge and very interesting backgrounds and personalities. I am delighted to be a presenter but also keen to enjoy it as a fan.

How important are education and networking opportunities like CG Futures, in the in the industry?

Education, whether at a school, online, or at events like CG Futures, is very important in the ever evolving field of computer graphics. This is an industry where you need to always be on top of the latest technology, tools and workflows. Events like this allow a unique opportunity for attendees to network and learn new skills and techniques from some of the best artists in the industry.

Additionally, Alex Alvarez, the founder and director of the Gnomon Workshop and the Gnomon School of Visual Effects and his staff are some of the most professional I have had the pleasure to work with. Anyone who attends will be in for a real treat not only for a great series of presentations and events but also to learn more about how they can start or progress their career in CG with the expert advice of Gnomon and the attendees present.

You started out as a visual artist – do you encourage visual artists to look at careers in the digital entertainment industry? Can someone with a small amount of computer knowledge adapt to that type of work readily?

I would absolutely encourage any visual artist to look at careers in the digital entertainment industry. Even with little to no experience with computers, much of the software that is available these days is very artist friendly and easy to pick up and learn, especially with the amount of education that is easily accessible online and with specialized schools like Gnomon.

The way I look at things is that any tool an artist chooses to use is something they can create art with. Whether you are using a pencil, pen, paint-brush or computer, it is the time invested to learn how to use these tools that will allow you to master them and express yourself creatively. And fortunately for digital artists the entertainment industry is continuously growing and looking to employ talent and there are a bounty of job opportunities.

How broad is the scope of work available to digital artists? 

These days the scope of work available for digital artists is very broad and keeps growing into new and unexpected territories each year. When I started working professionally in 2000, the jobs I was most excited in for digital artists were in video games, graphic design, television and film. Today those industries still exist and are thriving, but also more arts have started embracing digital tools, such as the sculpting, collectibles and toy industries.

And although I have worked mostly in entertainment there is a massive amount of work available for digital artists within architecture, engineering, industrial design and so much more. As I am writing this from my home I can look around my room and so much of what I see such as televisions, cameras, speakers, keyboards, chairs, picture frames, books, appliances and more were probably designed by digital artists.

Also, with the rise of social media and the internet becoming available to more people throughout the world, digital artists have been able to start earning livings working independently. Freelance artists can work from virtually anywhere in the world, providing concept and production art for companies or developing their own artistic brands for themselves and working completely for themselves.

What’s the most challenging aspect for aspiring CG artists trying to break into the industry?

Time investment, competition and resources.

The CG industry, although large is also very competitive. The amount of time investment it can take to get your skills up to where you can be noticed and hired can be challenging. Also, because of how easily accessible the internet is world-wide, the competition is fiercer than ever with so many talented artists sharing thousands of new pieces of art every day. In my master class I will talk in depth about the time investment artists should expect to commit in order to help get their break in the industry or become masters of their craft.

If you would like to attend a school, it can be a big financial investment. If you decide to buy your own computer and software, this can also be a big investment. Fortunately, there are some amazing schools like Gnomon that consistently have placement rates of more than 93 per cent or higher, so for those who do invest there are great chances for success with the right choice of education and dedication.

And for people already working in the industry – what do you see as the primary challenges they face to progressing their careers?

There are a lot of different answers to this question depending on what your goals are, your specialization, and if you work for a company or independently. In all scenarios one of the biggest challenges is staying up to date with major technological advances and trends in the industry as it is evolving daily. Not only does this require a lot of time to learn, but also requires a lot of motivation. It is easy to feel like you can take your foot off the gas once you have been working for many years and have been established in the industry, but you really must make time, on or off the clock, to learn the latest software and continue to polish your craft.

In regards to progressing by means of promotion, in many cases there simply are not enough high level positions available at companies. And at great companies where people rarely leave those opportunities are even more slim. My advice to anyone is that if they are seeking to progress upwards is that they always go beyond what is expected of their roles. This way when the position you want suddenly becomes free or a new position is created, your extra effort will not go unnoticed by leadership and will help set you apart from the competition. Promotions are earned, not given.

What’s the key piece of advice you’d give to those wanting to build a career in computer graphics and visual effects?

Be humble, professional and be willing to work hard.

Whether you are working freelance or for a company try to be as humble as possible. I have seen many extremely talented people miss out on great opportunities because they were not able to put ego aside.

The hours in this industry can be very long, where sometimes you may have to work 70+ hours a week for several months out of a year. If you ask the artists whom are considered the best in the industry, it is very common that they always work more than 70 hours a week.

I have been in the industry for nearly 19 years and rarely invest less than 60 hours a week and usually more on or off the job. But I consider myself fortunate that I love what I do for a living and wish I could find even more hours in the week to commit.

What might people be playing or watching in the near future that you helped create?

Unfortunately everything that our team in Creative Development is working on is top secret. No really, it is! What I can say is that almost any cinematic movie, game or consumer product that comes out in the future our team will have helped drive the artistic decisions that elevate them to the epic level of quality that Blizzard is known for.

To wrap this up I want to say that I am really looking forward to being part of this year’s CG Futures event and bringing a bit of what makes Blizzard and the digital entertainment industry so special with me to share with everyone in Melbourne!

And finally, I want to give a big thanks to the staff in Australia that make events like this possible. Cheers!