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In Conversation with Brian Recktenwald, Environment Artist with Naughty Dog

The world’s leading visual effects artists return to the Convent next week for Gnomon Live: The Art of Entertainment; a two-day event highlighting the best and brightest in the games industry, curated by Hollywood’s Gnomon School of Visual Effects, Games & Animation. Featuring live demos, masterclasses, panel discussions and networking opportunities, Gnomon Live provides insights into the cutting-edge work of leading digital effects artists. We chat with presenter Brian Recktenwald, Environment Artist with Naughty Dog, about the industry, the importance of fostering new talent, and how to break into the business.

What does an Environment Artist do in the visual effects industry? As well as being artistically skilled, is there also a reliance on problem solving and coding to do what you do?

I can only speak for environment artists for the games industry, but there are definitely overlaps in skillsets and responsibilities. Overall, we create the geometry and textures of the world the player gets to experience. For me at Naughty Dog, I’m responsible for modelling and scene assembly of the section of the level that is assigned. As far as skillsets go, problem solving is a must. It’s absolutely necessary to tackle and resolve design problems that arise, and to work with game designers to ensure the game direction and pacing is preserved. Personally, I don’t do any coding aside from very basic scripting that enhances my workflows.

What do you find most rewarding, creating effects for games or films? Does one allow more creative freedom than the other?

Well, I haven’t worked on any films other than my own during college, so I can’t elaborate professionally on that direct comparison. However, personally I love creating environments for games because the spaces created can be explored in 360 degrees. The ability for players to experience a full environment at their own pace is very rewarding and allows for more immersion I feel. Both films and game have their unique challenges, but because there is an openness and player control of the worlds in games, I feel that allows a bit more room for artists to have more creative freedom in.

You recently worked on the highly acclaimed video game ‘Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End’. What’s it like to work in an artistic field that has so many players and moving parts? Is it highly collaborative?

It’s exhilarating! I love being surrounded by so many talented, passionate artists, designers, and engineers that push the limits of what is possible. It’s highly collaborative and nothing is precious when we are in production. We need to be able to change anything at any time to ensure the game is as fun as possible and aligning to the creative direction the best we can.

Your expertise in different softwares sounds extensive – Z-Brush, Maya, 3DS Max, Unreal Engine, World Machine – is its common practice to be skilled with so many different tools as an effect’s artist?

No, it’s not common practice to be pursuing proficiency in so many various tools as an environment artist. In fact, honeing in and becoming an expert in certain skillsets and tools is incredibly valuable. For me, I’m curious and hungry to learn new techniques, tools, and software that enable me to push what is possible and increase my creation speed.

For people finding their feet in the industry or wanting to explore it further, what software do you most recommend people play with?

I currently recommend studying the foundations of art first, such as drawing, painting, sculpting and photography. From there, learning a 3D modelling program such as Maya, 3D Studio Max, or Modo is essential. For texturing, learning Substance Designer and Painter are also now essential along with being familiar with photogrammetry techniques.

There are a number of speakers at Gnomon Live, including you. What will you be covering in your demonstration?

In my demo, I’m going to be covering the basics of world building using Unreal 4 and other software. I’ll be breaking down my thought process on asset creation techniques, using photogrammetry, sculpting and other tools to bring a game environment together.

Who do you see as the ideal audience member for the event?

Anyone hungry for knowledge and ready to learn where the current trends are going not only for game development, but for all creative fields.

There is a number of Melbourne visual effects artists and industry leaders attending Gnomon Live. What are you hoping to learn from them and the local industry?

I’m always hungry for different perspectives, feedback and solutions to our common creative problems. I look forward to learning what the local industry is excited about, where they want to go, and what new projects they are currently working on.

How important are adequate education opportunities in the visual effects industry?

Education is paramount in this industry, for both game and visual effects. Thanks to schools like Gnomon, that offer online video classes along with classroom and degree programs, the ability to attain the knowledge necessary is more available than it’s ever been. Plus, the CG and game development online community is so incredibly generous in sharing information with anyone that wants to pursue this career. All the opportunities to learn are just a mouse click away.

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

If someone has the desire and passion to pursue entertainment arts, visual effects and games are a natural path. I feel it takes a desire to solve problems and work with a team to adapt to the work required in this field, so computer knowledge is great but not absolutely necessary.

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

Regarding games, the most challenging aspect is creating a demo reel or gallery that really sets your work apart from others and shows you are capable of pushing the current standards. Without working on published games or films, this can be very difficult but not impossible. For example, taking a personal project as far as you can and asking for feedback within the community or others in the industry is a great way to hone your work to break into the industry.

How broad is the scope of work available to digital artists? From designing otherworldly creatures to whole environments, it seems the opportunity to create visual effects are everywhere.

I feel being able to jump into multiple roles within the field is a great advantage to any artist. For environment artists, being able to create an entire environment, including modelling, textures, and lighting is incredibly valuable even if you only do one particular part of the process for your job. Having an understanding on how various departments work allows you to communicate ideas and offer solutions to production problems that always arise.

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

Currently I’m working on Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, which I can’t talk about right now, but it’s sure to be awesome!