Behind One Pixel Brush: The Business Side

A few days ago, we got some great insights from Shaddy Safadi, Art Director and Co-Founder of One Pixel Brush. If you haven't had a chance to check out that article yet, we covered Safadi's story from when he started at Naughty Dog through the founding of One Pixel Brush. You can check it out here. In this article, we'll continue our peek into one of the leaders in the highly competitive world of concept art and learn more about the business side of One Pixel Brush.

A Global Workforce

Swamp Basin from Planetside 2.

Swamp Basin from Planetside 2. Click on the image to view larger on ArtStation.
© 2015 One Pixel Brush

As anyone who has worked remotely with artists before knows, the situation contains its fair share of pros and cons.

One of the benefits, certainly, is the mitigation of paperwork. Safadi explains in his characteristic, no nonsense way:

“If I hire anyone outside the U.S. and bring them here, there’s an enormous amount of cost with paperwork and Visas. If had to do that constantly, I wouldn’t have a company. There’s no way. Out of the ten guys on staff, only two are actually in L.A., so it would be impossible.”

For many remote teams, the time zone difference can have a crippling side effect. Different time schedules means different shipping times, meeting appointments, and even individual sleep cycles. However, the team at One Pixel Brush, which consists of artists in countries like Russia, Germany, Holland, Saudi Arabia and the U.S., has managed to turn these negatives into positives by staggering shifts. Safadi explains:

“I go to bed at midnight. They wake up at midnight. Most of our team is about +9 or +8 [hours ahead of me], so I go to bed when they start working. By the time I wake up and check my [Dropbox] folder, there’s a bunch of new work in there.”

In fact, these time discrepancies can actually be beneficial for the studio.

“If a client has a job that needs to be done tomorrow,” Safadi states, “then I will actually have two days to work on it because I can put it in a folder tonight while I’m sleeping and then I have all day tomorrow after I get it. I can give it to somebody else and let him continue working on it a bit, or maybe I can touch it up. So the two time zone thing is actually great.”

Creating Something Awesome

Blob monster from The Last of Us.

Blob monster from The Last of Us. Click on the image to view larger on One Pixel Brush’s site.
© 2015 One Pixel Brush

Once the One Pixel Brush team has a project, they’re not shy about following through with the vision they have. Some studios often compromise to keep clients happy; however, as Safadi explains, this doesn’t always make the best business sense.

“We’re here to give the client something awesome. The client may have an idea of what they want, but I feel like they’re hiring us because they may not know exactly what they want and they trust us to do what’s best. We’re not going to contradict something they explicitly asked for, but we’re still going to give them things they didn’t know they wanted. We’re going to take their vision and take it one-step further without permission. I think that’s what sets us apart, the courage to own the vision and do what we as a team think would be truly great. Personally I don’t think there is any other way to be a commercial artist.”

Safadi’s point expresses a common source of tension between a studio and a client: what approach works best to achieve the desired ends. This can be a fine line to walk with a client who, as Safadi points out, is soliciting you to be the expert. Therefore, it’s normal for artists to feel their opinions should hold weight.

That creative freedom of letting each artist take ownership of a project and drive its look is one of the core philosophies of the One Pixel Brush team.

“The point of concept art is that [the client] doesn’t have a clear vision…and neither do I,” Safadi says. “The whole job is to visualize the unvisualized! The artist is in charge of the vision. There might be genius art directors out there who know everything they want to a tee, but I’m not one of them. Most of the time they hire a concept artist because they don’t know what they exactly want. So I encourage my artists to take liberties within the constraints of what it should be.”

Giving a practical example, Safadi continues, “With space marines you know what it is – it’s space and it’s marines – but whatever you can do within that, go hog wild. That always gets better results.”

No Bull, All Trust

Concept art from Planetside 2.

Concept art from Planetside 2. Click on the image to view larger on One Pixel Brush’s site.
© 2015 One Pixel Brush

A huge part of the reason why each artist at One Pixel Brush has the creative freedom they do comes from Safadi’s expectations concerning humility. Keeping a manageable ego goes a long way in building trust across the entire team. It’s expected that each artist will always do their best work. Furthermore, if the rest of the team feels they can do better work, it’s expected that they do what they need to in ensure a specific level of quality.

“A lot of times I don’t look at their sketches,” Safadi says. “For example, a guy will never send me a quick doodle that says, ‘Here’s what I think it should be’ because they’re already qualified enough to know if that’s good or not. All I want to see is something that’s already relatively figured out: I want them to tell me visually where everything is and what it looks like. I want them to figure out the lighting, storytelling and composition before showing it to me.”

Referring to each of his artists, Safadi explains, “You do all the work then show it to me and I’ll look at it and say, ‘Okay cool, this is a great solution to all those problems.’ But I don’t need to see half the problems solved and then give my input because you’d still have more work to do. And I think I do that with my team and then I treat my clients the same way.”

This point is really important, because respecting a client’s time and energy is key to gaining their trust and respect in return.

Safadi explains how his team does this, “We generally don’t show the client a lot of work in progress or ask ‘How do you think this is coming?’ or ‘Do you have feedback?’ along the way. No, you told us what you wanted. So you told us everything we need to know, right? If there’s anything else, tell us. No? That’s it? Okay, you told us everything? Then we’ll tell you what’s good because you already told us everything. So then, I trust that we are going to know what’s good. And 29 times out of 30 we do a great job and they love it, and 1 time out of 30 we’re fired. For me, that works really well.”

“Once in a while they look at our vision and they just hate it and take us off that job. But it happens so rarely, that as an overall we win big and this way we’re able to keep integrity to what we think is cool.”

“And it’s not that we care that we’re right and they’re wrong,” Safadi adds. “I don’t care. We’re just trying to make it good and give them something that’s outstanding. Something that’s above and beyond their expectation. The only way to do that is if we have some internal integrity about what we think is good. We have to go by our own compass. If our compass is totally off, for example if we’re working with some genius art director who didn’t think we even had the vision, taste or talent to do the job. Then we should be fired.”

“Or if their vision is so different from ours, [for example if] we don’t even have the same tastes; if they think ugly things look good or vice versa, then we should also be fired. We shouldn’t be on the job. We’re literally not qualified. That’s kind of how I look at it,” Safadi concludes. “Again, this artistic integrity is not about puffy-chested flag waving. It’s about artistic integrity as an internal compass to guide ones artistic choices.”

One-Man Bottleneck

Space pod concept art.

Space pod concept art. Click on the image to view larger on ArtStation.
© 2015 One Pixel Brush

There are pros and cons to just about anything, and if there’s one con to the way the team at One Pixel Brush is set up, it’s that everything flows through Safadi. In some ways, that can be both good and bad. Good for the artistic side, bad for the amount of time it takes.

“It would be great to have some help,” Safadi admits. “I’m the only one who interfaces with the client, so a client will send me a thing and I’ll look at what the client sends and I’ll decide what I want to do based on what they said.”

At some point, you’d think there would be a time when there’s too much work for one person to be hands-on.

“I don’t know,” Safadi says when asked how big of a team he thinks he can manage with the current pipeline. “Maybe fifteen? Maybe twenty? I can’t imagine more than fifteen or twenty. And then I would need to really have someone else step up and help out for helping with the art direction. Or, the team gets really self-sufficient.”

One of the keys to success for the One Pixel Brush team is in only adding people to the team who have absolutely no ego and are willing to do anything. That makes for a formidable team who can accomplish a lot more than the average team of artists.

“You see the X factor is the more artists there are, the more they communicate with each other and the more they step up to individual responsibility,” Safadi explains. “For example, my veteran guys will start making tutorial videos for some of the newer guys. So I’ll say, ‘Hey dude can you help this guy out? He’s struggling with this thing.’ And then he’ll help him and he’ll get on a Google Hangout and they’ll talk amongst themselves without me. That becomes very powerful for many reasons. First, I remove myself as the bottleneck and secondly, they’re the actual soldiers on the ground so, of course, they’ll know more than me about how to approach a problem.”

“Really the secret is finding the right person and they self-manage,” Safadi adds. “The big Achilles heel is if [my team] does work that I need to work on [also]. That’s where things start to really slow down. Because if I need to do four hours of work on a concept to fix the lighting or something, that’s taken half of a day that I can’t spend if I have twenty guys, you know?”

The Biggest Challenge of Business

Parkopalypse concept art from Phantom Dust.

Parkopalypse concept art from Phantom Dust. Click on the image to view larger on One Pixel Brush’s site.
© 2015 One Pixel Brush

For Safadi, who admits to being born an artist and not a businessperson, this venture into business wasn’t something that came easily.

“Whenever our Director of Operations would start talking to me about invoices and job costing, and marketing, my eyes would immediately start to glaze over,” Safadi says of his biggest challenge when starting the business. “But now I’ve developed a little more stamina. I just take a deep breath and I’m like, ‘It’s okay. He just wants to know what invoice this tracks with. You just have to open the folder real quick and find what invoice goes with what client.'”

“It was weirdly difficult for someone who’s an artist. And I know it’s not just me because when I have lunch with a former concept artist colleague and I start talking about this same stuff, you can watch their eyes glaze over and I don’t feel so bad. I’m not the only one. Terrible shit to deal with.”

Although Safadi was the heart and soul behind One Pixel Brush, he took his own advice of removing ego from the equation and recognized the business side was something he couldn’t do on his own.

“I hired a consulting team, which is something I didn’t really know much about,” Safadi admits. “It’s two MBAs and a lawyer. And they are a group of guys who help me with my contracts and business strategy.”

Every month, Safadi touches base with this team to help push the business forward by helping to steer the company a direction towards legitimacy in a highly competitive industry. As with any business, there was certainly some stuff that makes most artists cringe.

“Everything they say sounds like the most obvious thing in the world that I never thought of. They’ll say something like ‘Have you ever thought about tracking your hours and then seeing which clients are the most profitable versus how much feedback they give you?’ I’m like, ‘No, that’s genius!’ Why didn’t I think of that!” Safadi laughs.

“We had to manually take every invoice we’ve ever sent for two years and put them into QuickBooks so we could do job costing,” Safadi recalls. “Saying, ‘Hey we made this percentage on job A and we made that percentage less on job B because on job B we had 25 revisions and they had to fix the cost on the job so this type of client is not as fruitful.'”

“That kind of stuff was a huge nightmare,” Safadi says. “And we’ve been working on it for a year. For me, it’s gross. Even now when we talk about it, it gives me chills but it gets easier every day and it’s part of the game of running a successful company.”

While most artists would’ve probably given up long before, this is actually the exact reason why Shaddy thinks his business will be successful.

“If someone who knows the art side well, meaning they had the eye and experience for visual art, and could also easily do the business side then everyone would do it,” Safadi comments. “I know this is going to be a successful business because the work is really hard and it sucks. That’s how you know when you’re onto something. Because if it wasn’t hard, then everyone would jump in.”



That wraps up our second part in the story of One Pixel Brush. Check out the epic conclusion, where we’ll move beyond the business and look at what it takes to work for One Pixel Brush as well as some great tips and advice from Safadi on how you can elevate yourself to a successful career in professional AAA concept art.