Behind One Pixel Brush: Origins
The Early Days at Naughty Dog
While everyone knows Naughty Dog for games like The Last of Us and their popular Uncharted series, Safadi was a concept artist at Naughty Dog before Nathan Drake was famous for his trademark half-tucked white t-shirt. Similar to Drake’s crazy and sometimes hapless misadventures in Uncharted, Safadi’s path has had its fair share of rocks and detours blocking the way.
“I was a really bad artist for a really long time,” Safadi recalls. “Even after I graduated art school, I worked at a restaurant in my hometown. I was like, ‘My art is my thing.’ I didn’t look at other artists. I didn’t care what other artists did, and I had a big ego, even though I was the worst I’ve ever been.”
Safadi continues, “I was into the cartoony style, which is how all students are. All kids are into cartoony style. No one wants to work on Call of Duty, everyone wants to work on some fantasy thing. I was in the same boat, so when we started doing a realistic style on Uncharted, I honestly didn’t know what my place was in art.”
This focus on a more realistic style was a pretty drastic change for Safadi, who had originally been hired on at Naughty Dog to work on Jack & Daxter for the PSP. After working on Jack & Daxter, Safadi’s role shifted.
“Sky Pirates was amazing, and I was adamant about the project,” Safadi remembers of his role after Jack & Daxter. “I was like, ‘Sky Pirates, of course. I don’t give a shit about what else Naughty Dog was working on, what do you want me to do — a guy in a t-shirt game? Yeah, fuck that game.’ I had wanted to work on Sky Pirates, and keep in mind Uncharted wasn’t a famous property at that time, it was just a piece of shit Indiana Jones rip-off.”
Just two short weeks after Safadi started on it, the Sky Pirates game was canceled.
“So I jumped on the ‘stupid’ Indiana Jones game and just phoned it in for a year and a half,” Safadi admits. “And that’s why I almost got fired. I just didn’t care. I genuinely didn’t care. I was like, ‘Why do you even need me? I’m just trying to make a job for myself. You want a painting of a jungle? Here’s a picture of a jungle. It’s supposed to look like a jungle, so what actually do you need me for?’ It was like my job was a pretend job, because I didn’t even know what to do.”
However, Safadi’s attitude eventually caught up with him, “And that’s how I was until I almost got fired from Naughty Dog. I got my ass handed to me, and then I was like, ‘Oh shit I can’t be like this anymore.'”
Then something happened that would change Safadi’s career, and ultimately, his life.
A Light Bulb Moment
“After a couple years at Naughty Dog, I had started to look at other concept artists and see what they were doing,” Safadi explains. “And I just got humbled. That humbling wasn’t enough to depress me or bum me out, but it was enough to get me pumped to want to learn new things. Then [Naughty Dog] started hiring a couple more people who were good.”
“I saw a couple of the artists like Jamie Jones or Maciej Kuciara,” Safadi recollects. “I’d seen them do a couple of illustrations that were their own version of a jungle. We had to figure out where the art even was.”
“So, for example, in a photorealistic jungle what are the choices I have to make? Well, there’s a couple,” Safadi explains. “Let’s say you think ferns are beautiful. Well, the way you arrange the ferns in the scene might make it feel more lush or less lush. So you’re fine-tuning, maybe, what you want to tell in the story based on the stuff that’s in the environment.”
Safadi continues, “Or let’s say you have a bunch of stacked rocks that are broken apart. Maybe the way they’re broken apart in the photo is really realistic. But maybe you want to simplify that a little bit. Instead of having them broken up into a hundred little bitty pieces that are really distracting and noisy, maybe you take that rock and break it up into one big piece and two or five smaller pieces. Maybe you arrange the grass around those pieces in sort of a naturalistic but organized way. Maybe the grass from the way it blends from the dirt to the side has a rhythm to it. It’s not just a stark cut-off or it’s not splotchy. Because the splotchiness is distracting.”
“So there’s all these little subtle things that we started paying attention to that now gave us a job again,” Safadi says. “We didn’t have a job before because we didn’t even know what the job was, but all that happens is every time a new technology comes out or a new way of concepting comes out, the concept artist now has the privilege of focusing more and more on the tiny details. We get to focus on the subtleties, or on the next level thing and the next level thing.”
Although much in the games industry has changed since this realization over a decade ago, it’s still applicable to the state of concept art today.
Safadi explains, “There’s a lot of concept artists who are still, let’s say, drawing with pencils. Well, if someone told you to concept a Navy Seal and you know it’s going to be a Navy Seal then if your first instinct is to start drawing with a pencil then you’re starting how we would’ve started 15 years ago.”
“Instead start with a picture of a Navy Seal,” Safadi continues. “That way, instead of worrying about the drawing of the guy, you already have the Navy Seal, now let’s just work on the subtleties. How are you going to change this Navy Seal? Is he a space marine, Navy Seal-style guy? Alright, cool. Maybe you want to give him some different kind of goggles.”
“So now instead of spending an hour trying to get his foot drawn right, you spend an hour looking at photos of goggles trying to pick the right one and the design gets taken to another level. It’s something more nuanced, more subtle and more thought-out. Now you’re spending that same amount of time but on a finer granularity of subtle design. And that’s what’s happening in concept art today.”
Why You Need to Keep Up With Technology
It seems like there’s always headlines about new hardware or software that can help artists hone their craft. Staying on top of these changes is important not only because they allow you to do new things, but they also let you completely replace old workflows with new ones.
Safadi explains, “Every time a new technology gets rid of an old art form, we spend the same amount of time but now we’re just doing it on more specific parts: more detailed, more nuanced, more beautiful, more subtle. And a lot of kids who are in school have a really hard time with that because they did not sign up for that. They signed up to draw, they signed up to paint. That’s what they love to do.”
“There’s a process of realization. It’s like you want to be a successful pop star but you only play concert violin when the job demands a producer and a DJ. They say, ‘I don’t want to be a DJ, I want to be a concert violinist. I learned the violin.’ And you’re like, ‘Well, alright. Good luck making the #1 pop song with a violin. You’re welcome to try, but you’re not ever going to do it.’ They either just give up or they acquiesce. That doesn’t mean being a concert violinist isn’t a great thing to be, but most young people are trying to work on the big sexy ‘pop’ games with outdated classical skills.”
“Now those classical skills are certainly essential and valuable,” Safadi adds. “But not in and of themselves, and only when leveraged with a greater desire to produce great music.”
“Of course, I’m talking about concept art at the AAA level,” Safadi admits. “Like film and AAA games. There’s definitely a whole in-between zone. There are a lot of different styles and genres of games that have different requirements.”
Safadi continues, “I actually looked at a concept studio’s website the other day and in their description of what they’re looking for in a concept artist, they specifically said they didn’t want someone who uses 3D or photo reference too much. That’s the exact opposite of what we want. And they do great work; we don’t get that work. That’s not my taste of work, that’s not my style, but they have good clients, I’m sure, too.”
“So for students, for people who are learning, I think that’s really the hardest pill to swallow. You have to have no ego, and you have to be willing to do anything in terms of technique. And you have to be willing to stop and spend a week learning new software even if you’re a person who loves to draw even if that’s the last thing you would want to do,” Safadi concludes.
What You Need to Get Hired
I know I’m preaching to the choir when I say there’s something special about art. Generally speaking, most leaders in the creative industries simply don’t care about your degree if you can’t prove you can create great artwork through something like a reel or portfolio. From a business perspective, what’s unique about art is how you can tell instantly whether something is done well.
“One piece for two seconds is usually enough,” Safadi explains. “In that one piece, for example, you might see they have good compositional storytelling sense and their textures are pretty well-realized. That they understand what real-life lighting looks like as opposed to made-up concept art lighting. There’s so many check boxes and it’s so easy to vet because it’s a visual medium. It’s so hard finding talent in this industry, but it’s so easy to vet artists because it takes one second. Literally one second.”
Continuing, Safadi says, “I just went to GDC and we did a portfolio review at the Wacom booth. Out of 200 portfolios, I hired a guy. One new guy. I asked anyone to show us some artwork. And one of my current employees said, ‘Hey you’ve got to see this guy’s portfolio.’ The guy showed me his work, we talked about it and looked over it at the Wacom booth, like in a workshop setting.”
“We hired him, and here’s the reason why: He had two pieces, only two. They had really classy compositions, really beautifully stylized taste, really good understanding of where to put texture and where to push it back. All these really subtle things came together, and they weren’t perfect but he had stolen his artistic sensibility from Eytan Zana, who’s a Naughty Dog concept artist that does Gumroad tutorials that really clearly explain how to approach it. And this kid had looked at that video and just straight up copied that aesthetic.”
“And that’s what I want,” Safadi states. “I’m like, yeah, [Eytan] is good. He’s way better than most people. So do what Eytan is doing. So he did what [Eytan’s] doing, and he had two awesome pieces so I hired him.”
For many artists, the process of getting a job is an elusive dream filled with a full spectrum of gray areas. Safadi’s advice is straightforward, simple and about as clear-cut as you can get.
“That’s what’s crazy,” Safadi begins, “all these kids are trying to just explore. Art for them is like an exploration. But there are people who figured it out. So just do exactly what they’re doing as closely as you can to start and, by default, you’re going to have your own style. By default you’re going to be your own person. By default you’re going to have your own creativity. You can’t not be you. You’re you, so you’re going to be you no matter what.”
“Get that huge jump from looking at somebody else’s style, especially if they explain it,” Safadi says, referencing the countless number of online tutorials out there. “And then copying that taste and design aesthetic, maybe even before you understand it. That’s how people get to work with me, because they’re willing to do anything. They’re just willing to learn anything from anywhere and their art style doesn’t define them; quality results at any cost is what they’re after.”
”Most of our team has very little ego. Secretly, of course, we all have egos about our passion but they know how to keep it in check. I can have one guy work on a painting and I can say, ‘This is not too great, I’m going to give it to this guy to finish it.’ Another guy finishes it, shows it to [the guy who started it] and instead of being jealous or annoyed or pissed, he’s like, ‘Oh, thank you! That’s amazing! That’s much better!’ Now, secretly, anyone is going to be a bit annoyed but they dust themselves off, get up and do the next one even better!”
Leave Your Ego at the Door
After a career of working with some of the best in the industry, Safadi has figured out that an artist’s ego is the number one reason why they’ll ‘make it’ or not. Every artist, Safadi included, starts off with a bit of an ego. Some artists are able to break their ego, others aren’t as successful.
“At our studio, everyone sees what everyone’s working on.” Safadi gives a practical example. “They’re constantly challenged by their colleagues. So they can’t possibly keep [an ego]. It’s impossible.”
“Even if they came in with an ego, they just saw what this other guy did that was amazing and they’re like, ‘Dammit, I have to work harder. Dammit, I have to work harder.’ And that’s how they all are,” Safadi says. “It’s just the constant process of seeing great people kick your ass that really puts you in place quick. In a good way, and in a healthy and positive way, hopefully, and in a way that keeps you excited. But that process of being the kind of human being that gets excited by the competition instead of bummed out by it.”
Safadi continues, “That’s a personality thing, where if you don’t have that you’re never going to be successful in concept art. I know people who graduated at the same time as people who’ve skyrocketed and they’re still working small crappy freelance jobs and scraping by. And they’re going to likely be there for the rest of their lives because of how their parents raised them, whatever is in their soul, whatever is in who they are – they emotionally can’t handle it. They just can’t handle constantly being broken down and reinventing themselves. Period.”
“Art means too much to them. It’s too tender. And so they’ll never do it professionally. At least not at a high level,” Safadi says.
It Started as an Experiment
Although Safadi’s career began at one of the biggest gaming studios, Naughty Dog, well before they had the massive hits they do now, he left the comfort of a day-to-day job to jump into the unknown world of entrepreneurship.
“This whole thing was an experiment,” Safadi admits. “I mean it could’ve easily not worked. I could’ve easily not found the talent. Because this whole business that we have is dependent on me finding talent that is of a certain character. I need to be able to find talent that has huge fundamental design skills, an egoless potential, and a personality that is immune to being constantly pushed to learn new things, new techniques, news processes. They have to be alright with me pushing them to do professional AAA level work and eventually turn them into the best concept artists in the world. So finding artists like that could’ve easily just not been possible. But it turns out it is.”
Currently, the core of One Pixel Brush consists of Safadi and ten artists spread around the world.
“The entire studio’s remote,” Safadi explains. “We were thinking about opening an office here in Santa Monica, but I left a studio job so that I wouldn’t have to go in to work. And right now I like the freedom we all share in being remote. That may change someday, but right now it works.”
“I personally suffered a bit from being at a studio because every two seconds someone comes by to interrupt you,” Safadi continues. “It’s just constant, constant. You can never get a head of concentration going. But now I can make a Camtasia critique video at 2:00 AM looking at a guy’s work; I don’t have to look at it right when he sends it to me. If I have five different pieces I’m looking at, I make a video for each one I throw them all in the folder in thirty minutes, then go to bed. I wake up in the morning, everybody has watched their videos, everyone knows exactly what they need to do, everyone made the changes they need to make. And there’s no confusion because I was explaining it while I was drawing on it on their screen, so that’s made it a lot easier.”
The technology the team at One Pixel Brush use to keep their team members connected isn’t anything extraordinary. It is, simply, Google Apps (Docs, Hangouts, etc.), Dropbox and Camtasia.
“All my art direction can be done in quick videos so there’s no question,” Safadi says of Camtasia. “It’s like I’m standing over their screen, explaining what I want. Those three pieces of software made this possible. Without them we couldn’t have a company that is all remote – it’s impossible. But in this way it’s actually more efficient.”
“I can talent scout worldwide anywhere, anytime,” Safadi comments. “No Visas, no paperwork. Start tomorrow. Here’s the job. It takes about five minutes to start someone from anywhere on the face of the earth. I mean, that’s crazy! And it allows me the agility to grab, scoop and start new talent right away.”
From Artist to Businessperson
Safadi started One Pixel Brush because he didn’t want to go to work anymore. In a twist of cruel irony, starting a concept art studio means, for Safadi, no more art.
“I was born an artist. I love doing it. To start this business, I had to give up the one thing I love more than anything. And it’s been hard.”
“The only trade-off is, for me, I’m like 35 now,” Safadi says of the future. “Maybe, if everything goes great, in five years I’ll have built something so big and so successful that I can be less involved in it. Maybe replace myself. Maybe get one of my guys to replace me. Hopefully it’ll be something so financially successful that it’ll give me the freedom to come back to any project on my own terms.”
“And I think that’s something that not everyone is down for,” Safadi admits. “Not everyone wants to make that sacrifice. And I applaud them.”
“I know people who haven’t done this,” Safadi explains. “I know people like my buddy, Lucas [Pope], he made Papers, Please. He was at Naughty Dog same as me; he was a UI programmer. He hated it and he quit. He said he was going to make his own game. And we were like, ‘Good luck. I mean, who cares?’ Just like all the people at Naughty Dog told me, ‘Oh you’re going to start your own company? La-dee-da.’ And I believed them. I didn’t see myself as a company person. And Lucas didn’t see himself as having the success he’s had, I’m sure.”
“[Lucas] didn’t give a shit. He made a game about document inspection? That’s a guy who doesn’t give a fuck about what anybody wants,” Safadi laughs. “We’ve laughed about it because I told him, surely he did not plan on selling a single copy of that game. You don’t get a group of people together and be like, ‘I know what’s going to sell big. I know what’s going to make me a millionaire.’ A game about being a Russian document inspector? Are you kidding me?”
Safadi continues, “But out of pure love of it, he’s got a great design sense, he’s got a great artistic sense, he’s got a great sense of flow. He really liked it and he really wanted to play [Papers, Please]. And that’s an example of someone who I look at and I really admire, because he did it just because he did whatever the hell he wanted and he still was super successful.”
“He didn’t have to make any artistic sacrifice,” Safadi says of Pope. “He literally made the exact thing he wanted to do and struck it. His first game did okay on the Apple store and the second one hit it big on Steam.”
“The path I’m going is more of a trade-off,” Safadi returns to talking about One Pixel Brush. “My path is more like, ‘Okay you don’t get to do art anymore. You don’t get to do the thing you love. Instead, maybe someday you’ll build something great, something bigger than yourself and at the same time leverage your ability to teach and lead to create the ultimate concept art dream team.’ So that’s kind of cool.”
“The other thing is, you start to kind of develop a love for anything you do,” Safadi adds. “So as I’ve been going through this process of art direction, when I see all my guys get better than me. And do work that I can’t even do. I get proud of them. At first, I was scared but then later I was like, ‘I feel like I did it.’ I don’t take credit for [their work], but I feel like when I see their work I’m like, ‘This is me. I helped do this. All these ten guys are doing such outstanding work. And I started this.’ And there is a satisfaction to be had to leveraging your ability. Not just using it, but leveraging it to expand it on a bigger scale. Because if me as one person can get ten people to do a high level of work, there’s satisfaction to be had in that.”
“It’s abstract, it’s not the same as doing art. But I’ve started to develop a love for it,” Safadi concludes.
And on that note, we’re going to wrap up this first part in our three-part series going behind the scenes of one of today’s hottest concept art studios, One Pixel Brush. To continue the story of One Pixel Brush, check out part two where we’ll dig into some of the business side of One Pixel Brush.