Tell us who you are and where you’re from

I was born and raised in Johannesburg, but also lived in Cape Town for a couple of years. I’ve worked in video games for almost all of my career, and have assumed many roles, including artist, tech artist and programmer, and have worked on mobile, indie and AAA games. I’m currently in Cary, North Carolina, where I’ve been working as an FX artist at Epic Games for the past year.

 

How did you get to work in America?

I posted some of my work online, and someone from Epic contacted me asking me to apply. I loved working at Free Lives, but throughout my career I’d always worked in small teams and I wanted to know what it was like to work on a much larger project with a more ambitious scope. I’ve also always worked as a generalist, and sometimes I’ve been frustrated with my slow artistic growth. I thought that working at a large studio might force me to develop more specialist skills, while continuing to learn from other specialists. I sat on the offer for a while, but in the end I decided that if I didn’t like the work I could always return to South Africa.

What’s it like there?

My favourite things include 1Gb/1Gb fibre for the equivalent of about R1,000 per month, and the fact that you can order just about anything and be pretty confident they do deliver to you. Often with free shipping.

 

It’s not all great though: advertising is particularly aggressive here, to the point where it makes some services awful to use. I get called by bots several times more often than by real human beings. Cable television is riddled with ads, and most of them seem to try to sway political opinion, or trying to convince you to try some new drug. I think the uglier side of capitalism gets exposed a lot more here. And there are other little things that aren’t good or bad, but just take getting used to, like the converting measurements and driving on the right.

 

I think that South Africans often romanticise what creative work would be like overseas. It’s sort of an attitude of “If only I could leave South Africa — then I could do great work!” It’s largely an excuse though; international studios will only sponsor your work visa when you’re already doing great work. And if you stayed in South Africa while providing services to international clients, I think you’d have a generally higher standard of living. There are some great artists who’ve left to work overseas only to return later, because as much as we complain, South Africa’s pretty awesome.

 

 

What does it mean to be an FX Artist?

An FX artist is typically known for things like explosions, magic spells, bullet tracers and other flashy visuals, but they’re also responsible for ambient, world-building things like storm clouds, lightning, dust motes or flowing rivers. Different companies split these tasks differently, but they’re typically accomplished using some combination of modelling, textures, particle systems, building shaders or materials, and scripting.

 

A good FX artist typically has to make sure that gameplay intent is communicated (e.g. an area-of-effect attack should look like it actually does damage an area, with the correct shape and radius, and amount of damage), that the fx look great and fit the rest of the game’s art direction, and run efficiently so that the game’s performance doesn’t degrade.

What have been the biggest influences on your career?

There were two struggles early on in my art career that changed my mindset considerably. The first was a 3D lecturer who was pretty ignorant about what the game industry was actually looking for, but spoke with an attitude of authority. I was lucky to know some people working in the game industry already, and they’d send me corrections, pointers and tutorials, so that much of my learning was done on online. I think that the attitude of not waiting for other people to teach you, and not assuming that they know what they’re talking about (unless they’re actually doing the work you’re hoping to do), and being proactive about learning things yourself and comparing that with what the lecturer teaches is an important skill to learn. (I don’t mean to knock lecturers in general — many of my other lecturers were excellent.)

 

The other struggle happened in my first job. Up until then, I’d always thought that if I just worked really hard, I’d never lose my job. I hadn’t considered that studios could close. Yes, game studios close all of the time, but it wouldn’t happen to me, right? It did. And though they helped me land a similar gig, I decided that I had to look out for myself, gain skills and value, and reach a point where I’m so good at what I do that I’d always be in demand. Games might fail, or studios might close, but I had to be someone that any studio would dream to have.

 

Which artists do you look up to?

In the game industry I’ve always looked up to other people who seem to be excellent regardless of whether they’re using 2D, 3D or traditional media. Some of my favourites are Tyson Murphy, Laurel Austin, Jonathan Fletcher and Bogdan Gabelko. Otherwise, I also enjoy looking at work (usually still games) that feels innovative or different. Some names that come to mind are @PunchesBears, Nicky Case, @xra and @beeple. I also love work that just looks sublime, like those by Even Amundsen, Loish, Fatemeh Haghnejad, Max Grecke and Tan Zhihui. I think that’s too many names, but there are so many excellent artists out there to keep me humble!

 

What drink do you have most?

Water. I’m trying to be healthier, to live longer and make more art and games.

What would you say is the most important quality about yourself, that helped you get where you are now?

Honestly, luck. I know that’s not very helpful in terms of advice, but the fact that I had very supportive parents who let me live with them for most of my early career — and that I could find work close enough to where they lived that this was even possible — meant that despite the low pay of a junior artist, I still managed to save up to go to international game events like GDC, and take online courses taught by some fantastic artists. But even before that, they were deeply involved in my education, instilling discipline (“You can play, but only after all of your work is done!”) and pride in my work, so that the scholarships and bursaries and not having to get student loans seems like a natural consequence.

 

If there’s anything that I think I might have done well, I think it’d be that I’ve sought out the right people for advice and friendship. When I wanted to work in video games, I asked people who were already doing it. When I wanted a raise, I’d chat with businesspeople about what they wanted to see in someone to make them think they’re valuable. When I wasn’t happy with studio leadership, I read some books about production, and attended Lead and Director roundtables at GDC. If you have goals, and don’t know how to reach them, look for people who do, and learn from them. And when you know what to do, do it. You don’t need to wait for the stars to align. Every minute is an opportunity to learn something new, or break new ground.

 

Do you have any words of advice for artists who would like to follow in your footsteps?

I’m nervous about giving advice, because truly good advice needs to take into account a particular person’s circumstances. But I’ll mention two things that I think have worked very well for me.

 

The one is that it’d make your life a lot easier to focus on skills that the game industry struggles to find. Right now, in terms of art, some version of “technical artist” is in pretty high demand. This includes FX artists, riggers, tools programmers and UI artists, as all of these positions require some combination of artistic and programming skill. These positions tend to pay quite well.  In the future, these might change, but you can probably predict some of it by figuring out what things other people don’t like to do. If you can cultivate a passion for solving difficult problems, you’re probably golden. Many people love doing illustration, concept art or character work, and as a result these are some of the most difficult and competitive fields to break into (but even then, those who’re willing to solve difficult problems, or bring new visual solutions to old problems are well sought after).

 

Secondly, I think it’s important to be prepared. Every year, regardless of whether I’m actually looking for work, I prepare a new portfolio. In part, it’s a way for me to look back on the past year and evaluate my improvement. But more importantly, it means that if an amazing opportunity lands at your feet, you don’t then need to scramble to put together a portfolio or reel. If you only prepare when the openings come around, it may be too late. So much of life is about luck, but you can be prepared to seize these opportunities when they come around.

 

If we would like to follow you online, where can we find your work and profiles?

I haven’t been very good about my online presence. I post studies and smaller projects on Facebook quite regularly. You can find some of my more finished work on Artstation. I also stream on Twitch occasionally.

Neal

Written by Neal Strydom


Co-Owner of Pixelsmithstudios currently working fulltime in advertising at a great agency. I'm always looking for new horizons to explore and new creative challenges to have fun with.