Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Painting with Light

What would you see if you turned out all the lights in your favorite game? Or ripped out the sky? I'll tell you, not much!

Light gives us the ability to see our real and digital worlds. It can tell us the time of day, or turn a cheerful place into a moody and hair raising environment. Lighting is directly influenced by the sky, that enormous and ubiquitous ceiling overhead. I sat down with Jason Connell, Lighting and Sky Artist for Sucker Punch Productions to learn about the nuances of his profession.

Soon to be officially titled "Solar and Atmospherics", thanks to the fun loving environment at Sucker Punch, Jason practices both the arts and sciences. His love of art, both traditional and game-based, helped inspire him to create masterful skies for the recently released Infamous 2. Those skies influenced the overall lighting schemes found throughout the games environments.

Though he is currently focusing on lighting and skies professionally, he prefers the title of Artist which more accurately reflects his love and interest in all aspects of artistic expression.

Why is the Lighting and Sky artist integral to the success of a game?

The best way I've ever heard somebody explain lighting is this: Somebody can model and texture a crate, the most basic prop you find in every game. The best modeler and texture artist can make amazing materials and shaders for it. But if you don't light that crate well, then it could look like crap. Bad lighting has made the most masterfully produced crate in the world look ugly.

On the flip side, if you take a mediocre crate with just OK textures and shaders and light it really well, it still has the potential to look good. Without lighting, games look flat and lack definition. Lighting touches everything in the game. In Infamous you're probably looking somewhere at the horizon while you jump from rooftop to rooftop. Your vision is dominated by the sky, which also dictates how the overall lighting appears on the level.

Something I remember my first Art Director, Phillip Bossant telling us, "A painter has to use big, medium, and small brushes in order for something to look right." Meaning get the big stuff right first and move to finer and finer detail. When you do lighting, most of the time you're using the big brushes. From time to time we get to put in little accents here and there.

I'm not modeling the trash on the ground, the car on the street, or the character shooting at you with the gun. While those things are awesome, we get the opportunity to make them look even more awesome with the efforts of myself and my co-workers on the lighting team. We really like that challenge.

We have to make every team happy. The environment and character teams, they want their work to look awesome. We need to make sure the gameplay and level designers are happy because if certain areas are too dark, then the characters (friendly and hostile!) can't be seen.

With the advancement of technology over the years allowing for more realistic lighting in game, the complexity of utilizing those tools has also gone up. Are you happy because these advancements allow you to better achieve a target look, or are you frustrated with just how much more complicated the tools and technologies have had to become in order to produce those end results?

I would say that it's definitely both. I'm not going to lie, it's hard to keep up with the technology as it changes and make the right decisions like "what is going to make the game look beautiful"? With all the technologies on the market it can be hard sometimes to not only learn them so you can make an informed decision but then going through and actually implementing those features. It can be stressful to make that decision and commit. You don't want to be changing your mind halfway through a project.

To answer the question directly, I think it is hard, but that's also what makes it fun. The challenge is awesome. I spent all day working on a shader! My brain hurts right now but I love it. If the challenge wasn't there I'd be bored.

It sounds like new challenges at work every day are the norm. Are there any you've encountered you would call your greatest challenge? Or maybe from a personal project? How did you overcome that challenge?

Oh man, that's easy. It's something I always wanted to do ever since I started working in games. A little over a year ago before I came to Sucker Punch I decided I was going to learn how to digitally paint. I had never done any concepts before. I had a fear of it. I was so wrapped up in the tech art stuff that I never took the time to learn. I got a portable Cintiq. At first I started out painting every day then it settled down to a solid 2 or 3 days a week.

Then I started painting skies at Sucker Punch. Instead of just using photo reference I wanted to try my hand at painting some skies from scratch. I started with simple value, just throwing it down. I'd sometimes use photos for reference. I tried to do a little bit of matte painting work using different elements. The first one took me a long time and everybody really liked it at work. My lead told me to keep doing that!

I did the next one, then another mission came up that needed a stormy sky, then another required a sunset, then the sky at the end of the game. They’re almost all hand painted.  There are a few details where I used some photos because sometimes they give you exactly what you want.

That led me to taking this awesome matte painting course through CG Society with a guy named David Luong at Blizzard. He's fantastic. I'm only in week two but I'm learning a lot.

I'm so happy I took the time to learn this skill. I'm finally starting to feel like a competent painter. I'm not going to get a job as a concept artist anytime soon and it isn't what I want to do. But it feels great to be able to make a painting of a sky, or bring some different elements to create a concept to convey something in my brain. A year ago there was no way that was going to happen.

I think you may have just answered the next question I had for you which is what work are you most proud of and why?

It would be a tie between all the skies in Infamous 2. There's such a personal history behind them stemming from my desire to learn to paint. I made eight skies for the game out of fourteen total. Out of those eight, five of them are hand painted. I think they could be a lot better looking back at them. I had to be really cautious with how many pixels I put up there and how blobby I made things. Overall, I’m pretty proud of how they came out.

One of the other things I got to do was a lot of marketing art. I looked at this game every day and felt that it was extremely beautiful. It's an open world game and it's very, very pretty. I got to make portraits for two of the new characters for a Game Informer exclusive. Then I was given the opportunity to create the box cover for Japan. Knowing that a piece of art that I worked on is sitting on store shelves in another country is pretty outrageous. It's still kind of hard for me to take in.

So other than the paycheck, what makes you want to come into work every day?

I think it's the challenge. I really like this stuff. I love the people I work with. It reminds me a lot of the culture we had at America's Army in Emeryville. A really close knit group. It's a good company run by good people. If I wasn't here, I'd wish I were.

Recently Sucker Punch presented at PAX a "Making of" for the 2D cut scenes from Infamous 2. A lot of co-workers went to the panel and came away wowed. They had no idea how we made those things. It's cool when another team working on the same game as you is doing something so foreign. When they show how its done you just feel enlightened. We regularly have cross-department presentations to share stuff like that.

Overall it's a good mix of mastery and challenge. When I wake up in the morning I have a good bit of stuff to do and when I go to bed at night I feel like I really accomplished something. It's a lot of fun to go to work every day.

From your last production, or just your experience in general, are there any methodologies or best practices you have learned or developed that have served you well you would be willing to share?

I think the most important thing is that you have to want to keep learning. If you're just looking for an easy answer that you can repeat for five years, it's not going to work. The best artists I've ever met and worked with are constantly trying to improve themselves. There's never a point where they feel like they're better than everyone else. There may be a moment of pride where they are proud of their work, but then they always want to make something better and new.

When Infamous 2 came out I was very proud of the skies. But the day it was released I instantly started looking at Halo, Gears and other games to see how they did their skies. You have to be super inspired to keep improving, no matter what it is you're passionate about. Don't ever think you know everything because you don't. There's always someone out there who may be better than you.

I also think it's nice to give back. Our industry is relatively young so there are a lot of people trying to get into it. I feel like young artists coming out of school right now don't have a lot of avenues to get good advice from people who've recently made it in and worked for a few years. They need more access to peers who are one or more steps ahead of them. Once you find work and you're starting to make games, find a local school that has a game development program and offer some free advice or a lecture. If things fall into place I may be teaching a class at a local college soon.

Tell me a little bit about your background.

I have a lot of people in my family who are artists. My aunt Micki is an excellent painter. I think she was probably my youngest memory of any kind of inspiration to do art. When I was probably 8 or 9 I was definitely more interested in playing GI Joes and Nintendo than I was thinking about what I wanted to do with my life.  When I'd get bored I would doodle because I thought it would be cool to impress my aunt.

I lived with my grandmother for awhile and my aunt lived down the road, so she would give me graphing paper and I would try to draw little castles and robots on it. It's funny because my first drawings I have are not on regular blank paper. My style was connecting the different squares. It's funny looking back on things like a jet made out of blocks.

Ahh, you see, even before minecraft children were creating things from their imagination with squares and blocks!

Haha, ya I know! As I got older my parents pushed me towards computer science and computer engineering. When I got out of high school I was really lucky and got this pretty sweet job doing 3D modeling for a government contractor. It's actually a crazy story.

In high school I was working at a restaurant that had an arcade. All the cabinets were leased to the restaurant by this guy named Jeff Sanders. One day I helped him move one. He just pointed at me and said "You, come here and help me!", and I just did.

Afterwards he said something to me like, "I like you, you just did what needed to get done and you didn't give me any lip about it. You know anything about computers?" I said I was about to go to college for computer science in the fall and he gave me his card and said "Call me this summer and I'll give you a job."

A true example of "being in the right place at the right time"!

Totally! And just doing your job, being helpful. I could have easily said, "well that's not really my job." He then asked if I had any experience with 3D. I'd played around with the Quake editor and maybe Hammer from Half-life 1. It was more tinkering than anything.

The job I got from Jeff was really cool, I worked there for about 4 years. The first year I was a part-time intern, and the second year they hired me on full-time. I was learning Lightwave, 3D Studio Max, Photoshop, Maya, and basic MEL scripting. In a lot of ways Jeff was a mentor to me, especially his work ethic. That guy works harder than anyone I've ever met in my life. I owe him a lot!

The job helped pay for school. Life was pushing me to do some sort of programming because "You're not going to make money as an artist"! I had a really hard time with things like calculus and differential equations. I’m definitely a visual learner. I eventually got through these classes but ultimately I decided to do a double major in Art and Computer Science. I switched to a nearby school that offered both degrees so I could continue to work. It was around this time I started really becoming intrigued by the game and film industry.

As I was finishing my computer science degree I was becoming more disenfranchised with it and became more interested in doing art. The stuff I was doing at work wasn't really art or computer science, it was just 3D modeling. What I really wanted to do was art.

I was trying to bridge that gap in my brain and I felt like if I went to art school I could solve that. I ended up getting an Acrylic Painting degree, and a minor in Computer Science. Soon after, I received a job offer from America's Army.

I accepted the job and moved out to California. From there I worked at Ubisoft, and now I've been at Sucker Punch for a little over a year. I've transferred from doing a lot of environment art like modeling and texturing to having that computer science past creep back up on me. Now my job is a good mix right in the middle between art and tech.

Do you find yourself interfacing a lot between the technical and artistic departments in order to achieve a desired look?

I don't know if it's the right word, but I sometimes feel like the liaison between the environment team and the engineering/graphics team. Even though that's not often something you see as part of a job description, it's just a natural thing that ended up happening.

You have a bunch of artists making some beautiful things like environments, props, and characters and they're really good at doing that. When they run into a snag, they say things like "This is too bright, it's not working correctly, I really want it to work like this". As artists we are very visual, and often times we do not want to be bothered with technical junk. I enjoy trying to wrap my head around the problem and then attempt to covey the problem to an engineer so we can come up with a good solution.

For me, it's like putting a 3D puzzle together. Remember when those came out? You had to re-train your brain to go from the flat 2D puzzle that lies on the table to something that is now rising OUT of it. It's kind of like that, figuring out how to get multiple groups of people to fit together. I really enjoy that part of it. The technical side of it has allowed me to become a better artist.

With my specialty being in lighting it really benefits me a lot to understand what the renderer is doing behind the scenes. Not at the level our graphics engineers comprehend it mind you, but at a very basic level. If I understand it enough I can intellectually suggest things that could potentially be better and I can tell them what I think is not working in a way that they understand. That has helped me to create the exact images that I want.

That's great. Any time you can understand the different parts of the pipeline it makes you so much more valuable to the production. Knowing how your work interacts with and potentially impacts the efforts of other artists and engineers allows you to make conscientious decisions because you know how everything will work together to make the final images on the screen.

You had mentioned your aunt as one of your earliest inspirations to produce art, what inspirations do your draw upon now?

I definitely need to add to the list of earlier inspirations. My older sister got into art pretty heavily and wanted to do it for a living. Another very important source is definitely from my dad. He was an awesome artist. He would draw things for us all the time. He'd draw a lot of ninja turtles, warriors on horses, lots of fantasy things. As kids the ninja turtles were our favorite.

I feel like I've matured a lot as an artist over the years. Four or five years ago I was so consumed with getting a job in the game industry that I only cared about how art applied to video games directly and that was it. I definitely have my favorite game artists now. For example Artem Volchik who works at Blizzard. He's a very good modern day, badass artist. He's really inspiring.

What's more important to me now personally as an artist are people like Alphonse Mucha who pioneered Art Nouveau. I love that stuff! I'm also really into N. C. and Andrew Wyeth. I've had a recent miniature love affair with Frank Lloyd Wrights work. It's stuff that I feel I overlooked when I was younger. I think Andrew Wyeth is my favorite painter, followed extremely closely by Mucha. They've created some amazing pieces.

It's sort of like climbing a mountain and you never stop to look at the scenery. It's only after you get to the top and take a breath do you look around and realize you're surrounded by all these beautiful things. You can finally stop and appreciate them.

Totally true! It's kind of sad. In some respects sometimes you have to be that way to get to where you want to especially if you're behind the curve.

I think over the last year I've really been inspired by more traditional styles of art and how it applies to video games. For example concept art and skies. The Halo guys always do awesome skies in their games. The vistas in the Uncharted series are unbeatable. Killzone and Resistance 3 had some really cool sky stuff. It's all this fusion of really great painted work, composition, and technical artistry.

I also really love Sucker Punches 2D art team. They made 2D cut scenes for the game that just look awesome. The work being done by ArenaNet for Guild Wars 2, especially their 2D cut scenes are really phenomenal. That 2D and concept team is out of control.

There's a recent impressions article on RPS that talked about how impressed they were to see so much of the style from the concept art appearing in the game. Everything from the creatures and environments down to the UI just exudes the style portrayed in the concepts.

So based off your experiences and inspirations you have now, what advice would you have given yourself when you were just starting out?

Wow, that's a great question. The fact that I don't have an immediate answer probably means I should stop to think more about things. <laughs>

I think that I would have probably pursued a stronger study in art. I went to the college that was closest to my job so I could continue to pay for school and not take a risk. The bonus out of that is I don't have any student loans. The downside is that I didn't learn the tools I needed early enough to be a successful artist. Things like human anatomy. Color theory and lighting is insanely important for my job and I didn't do too much of that in school.

I would have told myself to take more traditional art classes when I was younger. I would have pushed myself into the technical realm earlier to learn about lighting and rendering sooner in my career. I feel like I've been able to make much better choices and art since learning those things. Also photography, I wish I would have taken that up much earlier. I never cared for it before, but now I love it.

With all these different avenues you have pursued, both artistic and technical, what motivated you to work in the game industry as opposed to perhaps visual effects or feature animation?

It was quite the opposite actually, I really wanted to work in film! I actually thought my first job would be my first step towards that goal. I'd work one more place and then I'd go work in film. It didn't really pan out that way! But if I had to say there was any one moment that made me think that games is where I want to stay, it was after I played the original Bioshock.

That may sounds crazy, but we were working in the unreal engine at the time. Playing a game that was made in the same engine was so inspiring to me. It had a really great story, lighting, color, and an art deco style I just loved. I enjoyed the storytelling experience I took away from the game more than how it could have been expressed in film.

The amount of stuff you get to work on at a game studio is crazy. If you want to step up and do a lot of great work and be a key player, most places will let you do that. I'd never had that feeling before.

I really like the collaborative process. Getting to talk to the game director or story lead about ideas and have a real influence on the final product is awesome.

As a less serious question to wrap things up, what are your favorite games, and why? 

It's definitely Uncharted 2. One hundred percent. There are multiple reasons which I'll try to touch on without going into too much detail. For one, the story is something I really enjoy. Stories can sometimes be "meh" in video games. Good ones are hard to do.

I liked the characters of Drake and the female leads. Everyone had really human characteristics to them. They felt like real people. Drake wasn't a jerk but he was definitely arrogant at times. His relationships with Chloe and Elena were so compelling. He was obviously in love with one but was clearly tempted by another beautiful girl. That is human. They threw that in there and it totally works. I could go down a list of characteristics that make me feel like I have a little bit of a connection to Nathan Drake as a gamer.

The music is so powerful. Whenever I listen to it I can replay parts of the game in my head. They nailed it. Everything from the music to the story, action sequences, character development, even the gameplay was lots of fun. Naughty Dog's mastery is just ridiculous.

Now this is where I really get into it, the lighting was beautiful! They did a great job! It was released among a sea of games that were desaturated and brown or weren't gamma correct. Those other games didn't have Filmic Tonemapping. Naughty dog committed to rendering things correctly, or as close as possible due to the real time nature of games. The game just looked awesome. I could go on for days. I still play it, I beat it twice.

I go straight from there to Castle Crashers. Dan Paladin is amazing and really inspiring. From there I go to Bastion. They're both beautiful and have great 2D art. Good pixel pushin'! Those guys are incredible people and game developers.

Thank you Jason for taking the time to share your thoughts and insights!

If you'd like to see some more of Jason's work check out the links below.

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