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An interview with concept artist Mark Behm

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To say Mark Behm has had a successful career is an understatement. In fact, you might say he's had multiple careers throughout his two decades as a professional. Breaking into the industry about two decades ago, Behm's early years saw him rising through the ranks as an animator at such studios as Big Idea, Blue Sky, DNA and PDI|DreamWorks. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's move right into the interview and let Mark explain his varied career and some of his advice for your own.
Q

Thanks for taking the time to talk with us, Mark. Can you take a moment to give us a quick background of your career?

I started out of school as a freelance illustrator and found myself doing art for multimedia. While working in that field, I saw Toy Story and got into 3D and animation, which I had done a lot of as a kid.

I was fascinated with stop-motion and special effects ever since I saw Star Wars. I worked my way, as an animator, into the commercial scene in NYC and then the direct to video and then feature scene.

This whole time I was freelancing as a concept artist and illustrator. After a few films, I decided it was time to go full time as a concept artist in games. I spent five years at Valve and now I’m at Epic Games.

Q

What’s a typical day look like for you?

I typically work on art all day (awesome) with very few meetings outside of interfacing with my lead, other concept guys, modelers and character artists. I get to jump between designing characters, weapons, other mechanical stuff, environments, key art, and illustration – which for me and my ADD, is just about perfect.

Right now, I get to sit with two other concept artists in a small room, working on the same project. Score!

An illustration done for Paul Richard’s Substrata project book. View a larger version on Behm’s site.

Q

Even though you’ve done illustrations and concept art for your whole career, you’ve also done quite a bit of animation. What prompted your shift of focus from concept art to animation and now back to concept art?

As I mentioned, the “switch” to concept art was more of a change from freelance to full-time. While I did enjoy my time in animation, there was a definite creative itch that animation – or the process of feature animation – just didn’t scratch for me.

I love both the conceptual ideation and the raw act of drawing and painting. It’s where I come from and more who I am.

Q

Are there any ways your experience as an animator in the past helps your work now as a concept artist?

While it’s not needed, it has been informative. I can remember many times being given a character and direction that just couldn’t match up: I know the character has to adjust his glasses, but his arms won’t reach his face. That sort of thing.

You can’t predict everything the character will need to do, but these things are in your mind all the time. These giant hands look great in my painting, but what happens when they are up gesturing in front of the face the whole time? What will a walk cycle look like with really long feet?!

An illustration for Wizards of the Coast. View a larger version on Behm’s site.

Q

Do you have any advice for other artists who might be thinking about making a similar shift of roles?

It’s really no different than starting fresh. You need to develop your skills to a certain level and go for it.

Western art has a long tradition of diversification and skills and mindset, for example, there’s plenty of sculptor-painters and engineer-watercolorists.

Q

Changing roles in the pipeline isn’t the only thing you’ve done. You’ve also moved between movies and games. Did you find there to be any challenges you had to overcome to get used to a games pipeline after working on features for so long?

I’ve hadn’t really spent any time animating in-game characters, only cinematics. The in-game animation really is a whole different skill set on top of actual animation. Not just isolated actions with a fixed camera.

You must plan out how this action on the upper-body must combine with an entirely different set of cycles on the lower body – and all with the head being controlled directly by the player. It’s a puzzle with a few more technical requirements and a MUCH lower tolerance for cheating than we do on features.

View a larger version on Behm’s site.

Q

Can you walk us through your favorite process for tackling a piece of concept art?

I’ll nearly always start in 2D, in Photoshop, to work out significant design decisions. For hard surface work, I’ll sometimes jump quickly into 3D to explore further or to make sure I have a foundation that is right from all the angles we need.

There are lots of questions that are easier to work out roughly in 3D. That’s part of my job, to explore many options and ideas quickly before the next person in line has to spend time and money carefully constructing it.

Often we need to know how something might unfold, or hinge or fit into some other space. Sometimes rough models will go right into the game to see if the shape will work as a prototype. Often that 3D gets painted over to a point that it no longer resembles what it came from. Either from my changes or someone else’s. It’s still nice to have that solid foundation to change from.

Q

What’s the one thing you think is least known about working as a concept artist for games?

Collaboration is probably a big one that students don’t consider fully. New people sometimes come in thinking the ideas originate solely from them, and somehow belong to them.

They’ll attempt to hold on to and police those same ideas as they move through the pipeline from modeler to texture artist to the animator.

You must understand that the next artist’s job shouldn’t be to execute simply on your ideas but to understand them completely. Hopefully, they’ll then use their artistry and expertise to “plus” it and make it even better.

Q

What’s something you know now that you wish you could’ve told yourself when you first broke into the industry?

Three energy drinks in one day is too much. Even at crunch time.

View a larger version on Behm’s site.

Q

What game(s) are you playing these days?

Mostly I spend my gaming time playtesting the games I’m actively working on at Epic. At home, my time is spent on personal art or family stuff.

Q

Other than games, where do you go for inspiration?

I listen to a lot of audiobooks when I’m not working. I think books are good ways to push your brain into places it hasn’t already been.

Travel is another way. Nature. Animals. Architecture.

Observing, really seeing, the world around you is probably the best way to stay inspired.

Q

Thanks again for taking time out of your schedule to answer these questions. Do you have any parting advice for aspiring artists out there?

I typically give the same advice to all students: This industry is competitive. It’s going to be hard to break into. Each person has to answer this one question as honestly as possible:

How badly do I want this?

Bad enough to give things up you enjoy to work on your stuff?

Bad enough to give up sleep? Pride? Gaming? TV? Facebook?

Bad enough to keep trying several years after you’re done school?

You have to want it badly enough. You must be tenacious. The skills and artistic maturity will come, but they take time. More time than you want. You still need a life, but it probably won’t be a balanced one for a little while. Not forever. Just a little while.

Come to terms with that.

Now get to work.