Good day Helder, and thank for giving us the opportunity to have this interview with you today.
Thank you, it’s a pleasure. Next Gen Hard Surface is a community I respect a lot and visit on a daily basis so the honor is all mine.
So first off, could you tell us a little about yourself? What is your full name, where are you from, and what is your current profession?
My name is Helder Pinto (aka HP), I'm Portuguese, just turned 26 and I have a burning passion for Game Art and Games in general. I am currently working at Crytek in Frankfurt, Germany as a Level Artist. I've been working in the games industry for 4 years now and I have around 10 years of modding experience, time flies when you're having fun!
Could you tell us a little more about that profession? What is your responsibility at Crytek exactly, what does a normal day at the office look like to you?
As a Level Artist, my specialty lay in having responsibility for the entire look and feel of levels. It's also sort of an art hub position where everything comes together in the levels. Of course, this means I keep contact with a lot of people and departments, I work closely with Art Director, Lighting artists, Texture Artists, Concept Artists and ultimately Level Designers.
I try to be involved in the creation of the levels since the very beginning, so both design and art departments are happy throughout production. After Designers work on the initial block-mesh, (which I try to make part of as much as possible) I am responsible for the levels aesthetics, dressing the scene, modeling assets and texturing them, tweaking materials and shaders as needed to help bring the scene together and basically use all the strengths of the engine to make beautifully themed and fun levels.
It's a very enjoyable and challenging job as it requires both technical and art knowledge since I deal with art, lighting, particles, gameplay, performance, etc.
Crysis 2 – Madison Square level; Art passed by me.
Now when you are talking about level aesthetics, do you mean you also have a hand in the flow of the gameplay of a level? or do you only come into the pipeline on the artistic side?
The role of “Level Artist” here at Crytek is a very specific one; it’s not like the standard “Environment Artist” where you make modular assets from start to finish and go through a list of assets to make. A Level Artist in here deals with the visual side of the level, he is in charge of how the environments look, but he also needs to keep a keen on eye design and the flow of the level as well; for this position you need to have a good eye for not only art, but also for composition and leading. Like, you’re not going to put rubble or tons of scrap right in the middle of gameplay critical path, or a combat area, you need to be very smart and subtle about it.
And if possible, you should try and tell a story with how you build your environments, I like to call it “Environment Storytelling” and I’m a fan of this concept. Having a virtual white canvas to paint a story on is amazing, and involving gameplay and leading in all this is even better. If you’re interested in reading a little bit more into Level Art and Environment Storytelling in games, I recommend checking this presentations from GDC 2010.
Environment Storytelling – What happened here and Environmental Narrative, this presentations summarize at least a part of my job pretty well.
Environment Storytelling – What happened here and Environmental Narrative, this presentations summarize at least a part of my job pretty well.
[b]Could you tell us how you ended up at Crytek?[/url]
Well, I was already working in the games industry when Crytek contact me, I was in a small Portuguese company called Seed Studios, we were working on a Playstation3 title, but I think the main reason I got their attention was my modding experience and a single player level I did for a competition over at Crymod.com, it was a level called ‘Operation Codename: Vulcano’, I got first place on that competition after working on this level for 6 months, that got the attention of the folks here at Crytek and I got contacted for a onsite interview.
Screenshot from the beginning of Operation Codename: Vulcano, a single player campaing I made with CryEngine 2, it won first place on a Intel Crysis Mapping Competition at crymod.com
What made you take up game art in the first place? Where did your passion for the art get sparked? Was it a childhood dream, or did you kind of “stumble “ across it and found that’s what you really liked to do?
Good question, I don't know, I didn't choose this passion, I think it choose me.
It all happened very naturally, when I was still a small kid I loved to scribble around on a small sketchbook I had and play on my father's consoles and computer, eventually I merged the two passions and started painting and recreating computer games levels and characters on that sketchbook I had.
I remember I used to sit on the floor right in front of the TV with an Atari or NES game paused, and drawing what was on the screen, then I would boot up my father’s Intel 486 and I would do the same on MS Paint. (I was probably around 7 or 8 years old)
When I turned 16 I started to mess around with 3DsMax and Level Editors, that's when I understood the joy to be had creating virtual environments, telling stories with them, bringing them to life and interact with the player, the possibilities were endless, a virtual 3D white canvas for me to paint on it and detail it up, I have found my meaning in life, and since then I never let go of it.
What are your tools of trade? (software)
I use 3DsMax to model, unwrap, bake, etc. I also use a few scripts and plug-ins to make my life easier. I totally recommend everyone to bind repetitive tasks to hotkeys close to your hand, scripts to automate heavy labor processes and plug-ins to simply fix certain things where Max still lacks a bit, like the UVW editor.
ZBrush if I need to do High Polys more organic or quickly make some wear to concrete or metal.
Photoshop to paint and composite my textures, like everybody else I guess.
And finally, CryEngine3 or Marmoset toolbox (at home) - to visualize my work.
I recommend everyone to spend a little bit of time on the material editor before, during and after you completed your texture, in some cases a good shader can make magic.
There are a few other tools that I use now and then, like CrazyBump to create cavity maps or overlay normal maps, xNormal to bake, MeshLab to crunch the poly count of high density meshes and MudBox texture painter is also very useful to fix texture seams on textures.
Speaking of CryEngine3, from experience I know it can be a little heavy on the computer you're working on, depending on what you're working on of course. What kind of setup do you use?
CryEngine is not heavier than any other engine out there, I know Crytek games have a history of needing very demanding machines to be able to run successfully, this isn’t due to the engine, it’s rather due to how our games are built. Crytek games are all about free-roam and big vistas with obviously a lot of view distance ratios and a lot of stuff to render.
With Crysis 2, we had to be smart about it and build our level in a way that wouldn’t be as demanding as previous games were, without damaging gameplay and still keeping true to our roots.
Our designers came up with really smart ideas to stream areas of the level in and out without the player never noticing and still keeping the flow of the game intact.
Crysis 2 – Madison Square level, brief driving section; Art passed by me.
Which projects did you work on in your career before and at Crytek?
Like a lot of people, I started with modding, in my case I started Max Payne engine, I loved that game so much that I started to frequent it's communities and modding the game, from something small like changing the color of blood all the way up to create full blown mods and campaigns with levels.
Eventually I had tried other engines like Quake, Half Life, and Unreal but I never really finished anything important on them, but the experience I gained with trying other game engines was very valuable. But I did finish some interesting personal projects like a mod for Max Payne 2 called Mission: Impossible – New Dawn, I worked on it for 3 years with a very small and passionate team and the previously mentioned Crysis level ‘Operation Codename: Vulcano’.
Professionally, before joining Crytek I worked on a Playstation3 game called Under Siege, it's a tactical RTS game.
Under Siege – Mountain theme; Art passed by me.
Screenshot from the beginning of Operation Codename: Vulcano, a single player campaing I made with CryEngine
Inspired by the movie Aliens, I made this scene as a collaboration with 2 friends from the modding community, Lee Amarakoon, and Wojtek Starak.
Could you elaborate on a particular piece of work you did on crysis 2?
It’s not easy to pinpoint exact stuff I did on Crysis 2, since I got to work on pretty much all the levels for the game, art passing areas one after another.
I did obviously concentrate more time on certain levels than others, for instance the beginning of the game, the Battery Park level, the E3 demo level Terminal of Central Station, and the Alien hive level, Times Square level, amoung a couple others, It’s always good to have something that you may call of “my baby”, something you’re proud of achieving.
NGHS staff was at Gamescom Europe last year, and we had the pleasure to check out your demo, the central station level was the level being displayed and demonstrated the power of the engine. Specifically they focused on a special way of level design and art placement, involving technical terms like Action Bubbles, transition zones and whatnot. Were these techniques of big influence to your workflow?
The Central Station level was the level we showcased not only at GamesCom but also at E3, this level was separated into two, the exterior and the interior. (The Terminal.) It was loads of fun, and I am particularly proud of how this level turned out.
The term Action Bubble is a term we use a lot here in the office to describe an open area where the player can tackle it the way he wants, the player is basically dropped in a “bubble” where he can roam around and kill the enemies the way he pleases, or just sneak through them altogether, action bubbles are typically connected by Transition Zones, or what we call “Streaming Tunnels”, it’s a linear small area of the level we force the player to go to so we can ‘unstream’ what’s behind the player and load what’s next, typically, the next action bubble, this is achieved with layer streaming technology developed especially for Crysis 2.
The art placement is obviously a big aspect that touches upon many different fields: design, gameplay, art direction, performance, particle system budget, etc, that’s why we need to be smart where we place detail on, and if possible help leading the player; like a light conveniently pointing at the way we want the player to go, this light will typically either be strong or a different tone of color. (Typical cold to warm colors case, perfect to make the player look at certain areas we want them to look)
Crysis 2 – Terminal level, Art passed by me.
Do you have any tips you can give future game artists/artists in training? How could one, for example, be more likely to get a job in the game industry?
I usually tell people that if they want to be good at something, the first thing they should do is surround themselves by people that are also interested in that specific field. I obviously mean Internet communities (forums like Polycount and NGHS for artists and MapCore for mappers / level designers.)
You’ll get to know people with the same interests as you, you’ll make friends and you’ll always have someone to point you in the right director in times of despair.
Also, don’t aim for success, just do what you love and it will come naturally, as long as you work hard, because the artist is nothing without the gift and the gift is nothing without the work. Spend your 10000 hours on what you want to achieve; practice and practice a lot, and you'll get there for sure. The information is out there, all you need to do is reach out and get it, just be resilient.
Another thing I want to mention, try and finish your stuff, from start to end, and I can't stress this enough, avoid having unfinished stuff around, finish what you started and move on when you're done. It will prove employers you have what it takes to tackle tasks on it’s entirely.
An example I see a lot is, a portfolio with many high poly pieces on it, with no low poly, no unwraps and no in-game / in-engine shots, that won’t tell me how good of an artist you are or if you would do well on a production environment.
When you work on an asset or an environment, put equal amount of effort on all stages, post good and detailed High Poly, a smart Low Poly with good edge loops and poly usage, a intelligent UV sheet with good UV re-usage and a pretty texture with diffuse, spec, normal, height-map, gloss, detail normal map, and last but not least put this in a game engine and prove you nailed all the stages needed to be a good 3D artist. If you really want to impress, you could (and should) spend some time in the material editor to try and get the most out of the shader, even make some LOD’s for your assets, and finally work on your presentation to make your work stand out.
Also, remenber that whereas showing finished props on your portfolio is good enough, it’s even better if you finish entire scenes, it will show you know the proper workflow on how to build an environment.
Do you have any idols when it comes to CG? People you look up to, look for advice to… ?
Of course, I personally love Ilya Nedyal work and his portfolio is a mine of inspiration. Robert Briscoe personal and professional portfolio is also stunning, Bram Eulaeres (aka Peris) work is great from all aspects technical and art, and there’s also a few artists here at Crytek that I definitely look up to and learn a lot with among others.
Do you play games?
Of course, all the time. Its funny some people when they finally break into the games industry, they sort of quit playing games somehow, personally I love them now more than ever, plus now I can say I’m playing them for “research”!
Could you name some of your favorites?
I am a fan of single player experiences with strong focus on storytelling.
DeusEx, System Shock 2, Half Life 2, No One Lives Forever, Uncharted 2, Metal Gear Solid, etc. But I also love me some “fragging” games like Quake 3.
Are there any links you wish to share with us?
I can share a few websites that you as a environment artist should probably keep an eye on pretty frequently, like www.eat3d.com has amazing tutorials from baking to modeling to baking, etc, there’s some free stuff on there too that you should definitely check out.
http://www.3dmotive.com/ also has some pretty good environment art tutorials that you shouldnt miss out on.
Also forums like www.mapcore.net, www. http://www.nextgenhardsurface.com/, and www.polycount.com are a must to keep up to date.
Lastly, if you’d like to check out my work, I just put up my new portfolio recently, you can check it out at http://www.helderpinto.com/
Ok, then I would like to thank you very much for this interview, and on behalf of the NGHS crew I wish you well and good luck in your further career.