Getting a Grip as an Artist in the Games Industry: Interview with Clinton Crumpler

Finding your calling is no easy task. For environment artist Clinton Crumpler, it was no different. From graphic design, animation, and, finally, environment art, Clinton found the perfect mix that balances creating unique artwork and team collaboration. In this interview, learn Clinton’s take on game engines, being an artist in the game industry and how to get your foot through the door to a successful career.
Q Thank you for talking with us! Could you start off by telling us a little bit about yourself and some of the work you are currently involved with?
Sure. I’m a 3D environment artist at KIXEYE game studio in San Francisco. I’m currently working on a super amazing game project with an amazing team, but sadly I can't give details about it just yet. I’m also working on some new UDK tutorials for Digital-Tutors, including the recently released tutorial on decay and aging. Prior to that, the most recently released project I worked on was America’s Army: Proving Grounds while working at the Army Game Studio.

Q Why did you choose games over other entertainment mediums that you could create for?

I really think it’s hard for anyone to just decide what medium as an artist he or she wants to be a specialist in when they first start. As you begin to invest time, you find out which parts of the process you really enjoy and what makes the overall finished result the most rewarding to you. This can take different artist varying amounts of time to discover. Many may find that their tastes or passions change over the course of their careers in multiple directions.

I think the biggest proponent that helped me decide to go into games as a medium was the ability to create artwork as an individual but work on a team for a bigger overall project. When you’re developing specific parts of the game, it’s rewarding to see your final piece to completion. It’s even more rewarding for me, as an artist, to see it with multiple other talented artist’s work in a grander scheme, which is the final game and composited environment scenes!

Q Your primary focus has been on environment art. What drew you to that?

I began in 3D animation, which is a primarily character driven medium.  As I developed more as an artist, I was introduced to environment art and 3D scene layout. Later when working on my masters in game design, I loved the fast pace of level design, layouts, environment creation, and iterations while working with a team of other environment artists. There was a more rewarding feeling for me in environment art because of the quicker turnaround of assets and scene creation.

I was also able to share thoughts and ideas with fellow artists to collaboratively establish an overall goal. This is a bit different than being a character artist with a longer process of character building, and it’s a bit more one-on-one time with you and the character. Both are great fields of artistic development for 3D and game development, but it depends on how you like to receive your rewards from your artistic creations.

Q Can you tell us more about your experience as an Environment Artist while working on the PC title, America’s Army: Proving Grounds?

America’s Army: Proving Grounds was an awesome opportunity to really get a grip as an environment artist within the gaming industry. First, I was able to get first-hand experiences with other artists who had worked on multiple other titles and had excellent experiences and knowledge to share with me. I also used the Unreal engine, which had always been my proprietary gaming engine for development. This allowed me to further explore parts of production and artistic resources within the engine that I only had limited experiences with before.

It also led to working on other projects at the Army Game Studio, using the Unity engine, and strengthening my experience in other game engines. The knowledge and experiences gained there were really priceless in establishing how I shaped my understanding of being an environment artist within the game industry.

Q How do you continue to grow your passion and skills as an artist?

All artists go through a period or two where they suffer from droughts of creativity or work drive. It’s really about finding resources to keep those creative juices flowing and new ideas constantly saturating and invigorating your creative thoughts. Frequent any and all-creative outlets that you enjoy and get hands on!

Websites, forums, magazines, Facebook groups, and blogs are some of my usual spots for inspiration. I typically use sites like Polycount.com or other similar forum sites to look at other developing artists’ work to inspire my own, as well as get feedback to keep myself in a constant stage of growth and development. Starting side projects is a huge help to keep me interested in my medium as well.

Another outlet is smaller side projects directly opposite of work I am creating at KIXEYE. This helps break up the type of work and development you’re doing to balance your artistic creation processes between things you must do for certain parts of production and the parts of production you really sink your teeth into and love doing!

One great bit of advice I got when I was going through school was that you could only be as good as the best person in the room. This isn’t meant to be taken literally but more in the sense of learning based on collective thought. If there are 100 people stuck in a room and no one has seen the sky and knows its blue than that information can never be shared or learned except through a personal experience of going outside and seeing it firsthand.

But if one person knows that information, now everyone in the room can grow their own knowledge by learning from that person’s experiences. This is really important in the art world in order to continue growing years into your career. Make sure to keep your horizons wide and learn from as many resources as possible. Be a knowledge sponge!

Q Your game engine of choice seems to be UDK. Why did you decide to focus on it, as opposed to other game engines like Unity or CryEngine?

UDK was the proprietary teaching engine for all new students in 3D game development where I went to school. From there, I experimented with other engines such as Unity and CryEngine. All the engines I’ve tried have pros and cons. You should decide which tool works best for your workflow, depending on the game type and how you work as an artist.

The tools within UDK really felt natural in the artistic development. I felt I was able to quickly and efficiently create game environments, not only artistically, but also delve into processes such as shader development and cinematography for games because of it visual centric node systems and extremely maneuverable UI setup.

It’s good for any artist to find an engine or development software that works for them to get the best result, but also never be afraid to branch out into another piece of software to accommodate for whatever your project requires.

Q What advice would you give someone who wants to be in your shoes as a game artist?

Make the change happen for yourself. Every step I’ve taken to get into game development has been through setting my mind to a goal and really zeroing in on how to make that goal achievable. Make steps for yourself and take it one step at a time. Be realistic with yourself but keep in mind that you’re the only person that can make your career aspirations a reality.

I know many artists that struggle to find work because they feel someone’s out there looking for them or their work. Sadly, this isn’t the case with so many amazing artists out there looking for work. You have to make you and your work more desirable than the next person.

Make sure to keep the scale of all your personal portfolio projects to a realistic size and development cycle. Many artists suffer from thinking too far into how grandiose an idea can be, and end up falling flat or never finishing a process because they don’t have the time, resources or determination to make the grand ideas into a reality.

Looking at a portfolio from a hiring standpoint, an artist wants to be seen as a person who can take a task, make the task his or her own, achieve the task in a timely manner, create an awesome piece of work, but most importantly, finishing the task and being a completionist.

Lastly making connections has been a huge help in getting work in the industry. Be collaborative and offer to work and learn from your colleagues and fellow artists whenever possible. Also, you may not get along with everyone at every step of your creative career. It’s only human, and artists tend to be emotionally-driven people from time to time. Never burn your bridges because it is often times the person you least expect who will help you in the end.

Q Is there anything on the horizon, an upcoming trend or technology, you’re excited about how it will change the way you create?

I think the Oculus Rift has some interesting potential, but I’m not sure it’s quite there yet. I’ve tried it a few times and haven’t been able to get my bearings down perfectly yet. There’s still a bit of a woozy feeling after using it, but the potential could really open up some doors with that kind of tech.

Also, with the introduction of physically-based rendering and asset development, I think huge changes are bound to occur within the next couple years to accommodate for that within many next-gen game titles. Lastly Quixel, Zbrush and a few other companies are making some really interesting steps forward with some of the tech they have developed on texture creation. I’ll be interested to see how this advances within the next couple years as well.

Q Thank you for your time and for sharing your experiences with us! Is there anything you’d like to share that we haven’t covered?

Thanks for letting me discuss some of my experiences! Recalling growth can be a rewarding reflection and renewal of goals for artistic development as well. The last thing I’d like to say is never stop learning. It‘s easy to become complacent when you find your artistic groove or niche and get to working on a long project, but always push your boundaries.

In a fast moving industry, you also have to push yourself to be a better artist than yesterday, and to learn exponentially more than you knew the previous day. Keeping ahead of the curve will keep you ready for your next big project or artistic commitment and make you that much more desirable as an artist!

See more from Clinton now by visiting his Tutor Profile and checking out his tutorials. You can also find him on his website, LinkedIn and Behance.