Interview with Leo Gonzalez

Technical Artist and Generalist

Can you introduce yourself and talk to us about your career so far?
My name is Leo Gonzalez, I was born in Colombia and raised in Miami. Officially I guess you could say I’m an environment artist or FX artist, but I don’t really see myself as either; I consider myself more of a technical artist or generalist. I’ve worked on character animation, rigging, photo real lighting and rendering, and a bunch of other stuff over the years. This was before I worked in the games industry. Being a CG artist in South Florida, most of my work revolved around visualizations for advertising, defense contractors, and commercial clients. There really isn’t much of a games industry in Miami; at least when I lived there. Hopefully that’s something that changes in the future, we’ll have to wait and see. I first got into 3D art when I started modding games back around 2003, but at the time I only did this for fun; it was just a hobby- the thought never even crossed my mind to do this as a career. For those who might not be familiar with modding, that’s when you take a commercial PC game and modify it by creating your own content, like maps, weapons, characters, etc. Around that time I was actually going to community college, majoring in criminal justice- yeah, that’s right, you heard correctly (chuckle).

About a year later I was making weapon mods for FarCry (CryEngine). I was part of a very talented mod community, mainly on the Crymod forums. By talented, I mean everyone else was talented, as far as I was concerned, my work wasn’t great or anything. That was one of the best modding communities anywhere, I know for a fact a lot of the guys on there went on to work in the games industry, some were even hired by Crytek themselves. One day out of the blue, someone contacted me on the Crymod forums asking if I could create a mod for them; I was just a happy-go-lucky modder, so I gladly accepted to help them. They wanted me to get a weapon (a sword) into the game. This involved rigging, animation, scripting, and a bunch of other stuff to get it to work. I think I sent the working mod back to him the very next day. The next thing I know, this guy is telling me he is from some startup game studio in Canada, and wanted to know if I was interested in moving out to Montreal for work on a new game using CryEngine. Looking back now, I realize I basically took an “art test” without ever even knowing it! I didn’t pursue the opportunity and didn’t take it seriously, as far as I was concerned, I was just a modder doing this for fun in my free time from Miami, there was no way I was suddenly going to drop everything and move to another country to work in a field I had no professional experience in, at least that was my thinking at the time. However, this did have a positive effect on me; it opened my eyes to the fact that I could get paid to do my hobby, which just blew my mind. The next thing you know, I started freelancing and the rest is history.

How did your passion for games start?
Very early in life, like most kids (laughs). I grew up in the ’80’s, and one of my first experiences with games was the Nintendo Entertainment System. My parents hated games and weren’t shy to let you know how they felt about them. I had to beg like crazy to get them to let me have a NES, but I guess I annoyed them so much they finally gave in. I would play games for hours, one of my favorites was Contra, so I guess that’s where my interest in action shooters started! After that I got into Sega Genesis, which was by far one of my favorite consoles of all time. As time went on, I continued gaming on almost every major console that came out, but I think my truly favorite one was the Sony Playstation. The first time I played Resident Evil; I was blown away. I had no idea that you could put amazing story telling, atmosphere, and emotion into a game like that- it literally changed how I saw games from that point on. Games just got bigger and better from that point forward, and my passion for them continued to grow as well. It was that passion for games that motivated me to learn how to mod games, which led to my career today.

Leo’s Tutorials on GCCircuit:

Unreal 4 FBX Pipeline

Unreal 4 FBX Pipeline

 

What is your typical day at work? 
One of the weird things that the public doesn’t know about the games industry, is how secretive it is. You’re basically sworn to secrecy and most studios keep their physical locations secret too- they don’t tend to publish their addresses, they usually don’t have big signs outside with the company’s logo, and unusual things like that. I used to work for private contractors doing projects for the US Department of Defense- and not even they were as uptight about secrecy as the games industry is; so I have to make sure I don’t accidentally reveal anything confidential during an interview like this. That said, I’ll usually start the day by annoying my leads and coworkers with a lame joke or something, then I sit down and get to work. Depending on what I’m working on that day, I may be jumping between Maya, ZBrush, Photoshop, Softimage, 3dsMax, and a multitude of plugins and extra software. In my current studio, we work on multiple projects, so we have to learn different game engines fast. I love it because I have a natural tendency to want to learn new software and tools all the time, that’s just me; I’m obsessed with wanting to know how things work. I have known people that are the opposite, which hate and dread having to learn a new tool or program; those people would hate my job. Each studio is different, so a typical day will vary, but I’m pretty fortunate to be in my current studio. I’ll usually go home and workout during my lunch break. On Friday’s the company treats us to “Friday treats”, which can involve tasty pizza, cake, or a bunch of other local foods from the Austin area. We tend to wash it all down with beers from local breweries too. I guess that’s a typical day for me.

When you started working in the industry, what were the aspect of working in a AAA game studio that surprised you the most?
I came from working in visualization, where everyone is very “professional” and uptight. Bosses in that field usually are very serious and seem upset all the time, for unknown reasons. Maybe it was just my experience, but usually project managers had little to no experience in CG, so you end up with someone telling you that “Coca Cola” needs a photo-real animation done by this Friday, when it’s a project you know may take a month to complete.  When I jumped to games, I was shocked at how laid back everyone was, compared to what I was used to. Most developers dress like they’re going grocery shopping or something. People run around with nerf guns, playing practical jokes (some of my shenanigans were real bad), in one of my previous studios, some of the artists would “practice” martial arts in the mocap area when they thought no one was around. If someone made a reality show, where developers didn’t know they were being filmed, it would be like the show The Office; you would have the wackiest things happening all the time. Suffice it to say, I prefer working in games than visualization. The other thing that stood out to me was the level of talent in the AAA games industry compared to what I was used to. I was, and still am, amazed at the level of talent I come across everyday at work. Some of these guys and gals are so good at what they do, it will make your head spin. For me, it’s a real treat to walk around the studio and look over my coworker’s shoulders just to see what awesomeness they’re creating today- it may sound like something a visiting fan would do, but I actually do this pretty often (laughs).

Leo’s Personal webpage:

LeoG_VFX_Reel_2013

What is about building environments that you like doing so much and why?
When I used to play games like Resident Evil, which had incredibly detailed pre-rendered environments, I used to stop and just stare at the environments, the skyboxes, the background- everything. I used to wonder “hey I wonder what’s over there, passed the tree line or behind those buildings?” I’ve always been intrigued by how you could influence what the player is thinking and feels, just by designing an interesting and engrossing environment. Imagine walking into a dark, abandoned house, the door shuts behind you, looking down a hall you see a closed door, but there is a little bit of light shimmering underneath the crack of the door- who or what could be waiting inside? This is what I love about environments, it’s putting them together, setting the mood, and making the player think and feel these kinds of emotions. My favorite part of environment work is not making props or individual assets; it’s composing the whole thing together and polishing the lighting and FX to hit your visual and emotional target.

You are also a VFX artist, is it common for an environment artist to work as a VFX artist? Tell us how you started doing VFX.
No, this isn’t typical at all. Believe it or not, the majority of developers will focus on one skill set for most of their careers. For example, most environment artists will never delve into FX, rigging, animation, programming, or anything else really. I’m not talking about maybe playing around with some simple animation at home in your spare time, I mean like being able to jump into a completely different part of the pipeline at work and floating between positions in a studio- most developers never do this. For me, it comes natural. I didn’t go to an art school where I was taught just environment art or prop modeling. My “school” was modding games.

I used to stay up until 4am most nights learning to model, texture, rig, animate, script, light, render, create materials, how to move assets across game engines; a lot of technical stuff across multiple disciplines. At the time, I was ignorant and thought it was normal to jam your brain with all this knowledge and info, I thought everyone did this- I never knew that you had people in studios specializing in their specific roles, and in the end they put their work together to complete projects. I honestly thought it was the norm for one person to do everything, but not because I was some kind of overachiever. I was just a modder who wanted to create my own games, and in order to accomplish that, you have to complete many tasks, i.e. modeling, texturing, rigging, animation, scripting, etc. You don’t have a team, it’s just you, so you kind of have no choice but to either do it all yourself or don’t do it at all. When I used to work in visualization, I would be in charge of creating entire CG shots and animations, from scratch. This is where I learned to make FX, like simulations, fluids, particle systems, and all kinds of stuff. When Softimage released XSI 7 with the new ICE system, I became hooked on their visual scripting system. I got even more interested than ever in creating effects, particularly in photo-real VFX. When I worked at my first game studio, I was hired as an environment artist. When my art lead realized I could contribute more to the game, he had me floating between FX and environment work. We were using Unreal Engine 3, and I helped with optimizing particle systems, creating custom lens flares, and I created a ton of work with After Effects that I then put into the game for use with holograms, in-game computer screens, loading screens, and a bunch of other things, using my own custom workflow.

Later on at that same studio, we got hold of Unreal Engine 4, this was more than a year before Epic would release it to the public. We were working on a next gen game in UE4 and I was pulled onto that by my lead. I created all the in-game VFX for that project and it was a lot of fun. I just enjoy creating simulated FX and then figuring out how to make it look good in a real time game, without killing performance. It’s kind of like a puzzle, or a game in itself, to figure all this out- and I love doing that, solving those kinds of problems and coming back with the end result of something that others said couldn’t be done in a game. Looking back now, I’m glad I learned so much when I started modding games. It taught me to be self sufficient, confident, and unafraid to learn new things. It’s true what they say, the brain is a muscle, and the more you use it, the stronger it gets. Nowadays, I can pick up new tools and software, and usually be up and running in just a few days. This allows me to focus my energy not on the tools, but instead on the art. By not spending a lot of time learning how to use a new program, I can focus my time on making environments or effects look their best.

You went from Florida to California and now to Austin, in Texas. Do you have any advices for people who live far away from where the industry is and they are thinking to move away and join the action? 
It’s not out of the norm for you to move around in this industry. My advice for anyone even thinking about working in games or film; is to enjoy moving to new places. Working in this industry means moving to different cities pretty often. It has it’s pros and cons. To answer the question, if you are serious about working in this industry, you have to go where the work is- it’s that simple, it really is. If you live in Montana, there is no game industry there, so you will have to obviously move to California, Texas, or Washington state. There are a few studios peppered around the country as well, like Chicago, a few in New York, Wisconsin, North Carolina, etc. If you’re feeling very adventurous, assuming you’re in the U.S., you can always go overseas and work in another country.

I almost did that late last year when I was offered a position with a great studio in Berlin, but in the end it was easier and made more sense to go to Austin. Mentally, I’ve already accepted the fact that at some point in my career, I will probably go to work in Europe or maybe even Singapore- who knows. If you’re in another country, and there is no game industry there, you will need to move to a country that does have a games industry. The awesome thing about today’s global economy, is that really good game studios have opened up in countries where just a decade ago, no one would have ever guessed so. All over Eastern Europe you are starting to see super talented artists and studios springing up; Hungary, Russia, Czech Republic, Poland, and the list goes on. There’s also a ton of stuff that’s been going on in Southeast Asia for years, especially in Singapore. Ubisoft, ILM, and tons of big studios have setup shop there. South America has recently been stepping up too- with Brazil leading the way, I mean there are some really amazing artists and studios in Brazil.

You made a lot of content on CGCircuit, so you clearly enjoy teaching. What is the aspect about teaching that you enjoy the most?
This may sound weird, but when I teach, I am teaching myself. Ok, so I realize that makes no sense, so let me explain. The first 3D program or anything I ever opened up, was 3ds Max 3.0 or 4.0, I don’t remember. What I do remember, is being so overwhelmed when I looked at the UI, that I actually quit. Yep, I thought it was so hard to learn this weird program that I just quit. A year later I decided to give it another try, but again, it was so difficult and advanced for my poor little brain, that I got frustrated and quit again. I think it was on the third try, maybe six months afterwards, that I decided to patiently attempt again. Again, I got frustrated and decided to quit once and for all, but this time I noticed a small button at the top that said “Help”. I know it sounds crazy, but I never noticed that the program had a help menu with documentation! Once I found the help docs, I started going through it all, I was so obsessed with learning it, that I read all the documentation- all of it! Back then there was no YouTube, and definitely not all the incredible tutorial sites there are now. You had to figure things out yourself! People nowadays have it so easy (laughs). Every now and then I would find an obscure site online, where someone posted a very simple “tutorial” on doing something. These were not videos, but instead just like a blog post or something, more often than not there were steps missing and you would get stuck; and of course frustration would set in. I would always get frustrated and think “man, I wish I could have a professional next to me right now so I can ask them how to do this!”. Now when I teach, I imagine a young me, frustrated and just eager as all hell to learn how to do this stuff. I now get to be that professional that sits down with you and teaches you, in an easy to understand way. So if I’m teaching you something, I see my past self in you, and I remember the questions I had when I was trying to learn by myself, and my teaching style caters to that type of person. This is what I enjoy about teaching, but my ultimate goal with teaching is when the student’s eyes light up, in that moment when they finally “get it” and they get all excited that they do, and you can feel that and it reminds me of myself years ago, “getting it”.

Do you see any new trends in the game industry? Any new tools that you think are the next big thing?
I think there are a couple of big things happening. On the AAA front, I think we’re seeing big publishers scrambling to understand the consumer in a rapidly changing landscape, resulting in way too many layoffs and developers loosing their jobs because big companies are freaking out, not so much because they don’t make enough money to keep people employed, because they do. There’s all these articles and game news sites online, talking about how consoles are dying and the industry is in danger- it’s all nonsense. Consoles aren’t dying, not at all. The industry is changing, but for the better. There are more gamers in the picture now, than compared to say the early ’90’s- that’s a fact. More gamers, means more sales, which is great for everyone involved, both gamers and developers. Something that is really exciting to me, is the fact that game development is now open to everyone. Games aren’t just made by large AAA studios anymore, anyone with a computer and the self motivation needed, can create a game from their home office. You see all these game engines coming out now that you can download for either free, or extremely cheap, allowing you to create games for lots of devices. It’s now extremely viable and enticing for a group of developers to start their own thing, and go into business for themselves. With self publishing on platforms like PSN, XBLA, Steam, Google Play, and the App Store, anyone can theoretically make a game independently and publish it yourself. Tools wise, something that everyone should be looking out for, is Unreal Engine 4. I’ve worked with lots of engines, some of which the public will never see, and in my experience, UE4 is the best engine I have ever used. It makes game development so easy, sometimes I just can’t believe it.

Today, game development is the easiest it’s ever been, and UE4 is at the forefront of that. Normally, game development is really, really difficult, this is why not everyone can make a game- it’s so much work, and technically it’s one of the hardest endeavors you could ever undertake. UE4 knocks a lot of those barriers down and makes development very approachable and closer to reality for more people. Of course, making games is still hard and only the most committed people can make a working game. UE4 isn’t perfect, but it gets updated so fast and is maturing so well, I can’t imagine how much better it can get as time passes. It’s my opinion that UE4 is a game changer, and will influence how games are made in the industry going forward (for both AAA and indies), it’s just a matter of time before many others realize what I already know. I like to prototype and work on personal projects at home, and I have colleagues in the industry that do the same. Recently I invited a friend of mine who is a developer at another AAA studio here in Austin to come over to my place and check out something I have been working on in UE4. He likes to work in Unity at the moment, but when I showed him what you could program in UE4 in a fraction of the time using tools like Blueprint, he was really surprised and couldn’t believe how easy it was to bring in characters, program them to do cool stuff, and how fast you could put it all together. Now he’s seriously looking into switching to UE4, and I don’t blame him (haha).

 

What is your toolset of choice?
Depends on what the job is. For modeling and sculpting, my preferred workflow is Softimage and ZBrush. ZBrush is one of those programs that’s just fun to use. For texturing, I use a lot of Photoshop of course, but when I can, I’ll use ZBrush. It’s just great for texturing lots of things, but sometimes you need a certain level of precision that is easier to do in Photoshop. Lately I’ve been using Substance Designer and Quixel’s dDo toolset. These tools really let you texture fast and create high quality work in a fraction of the time. For game development specifically, I think it goes without saying that I am a sucker for Unreal Engine 4. I love working with that engine, and it just makes game development fun, plain and simple. For VFX work I use a combination of software, including Softimage ICE, Maya, and After Effects, among others.

What is your favorite game from an artistic point of view? 
That’s a tough question, just because there are so many games with amazing art out there. I think I’m going to say that one of my favorites has to be Mass Effect. I really like sci-fi, when it’s done right, and the Mass Effect games do it the best. I remember in Mass Effect 2; arriving in Illium and just stopping to stare out at the background- all the detail in the distance from buildings, flying ships, the skybox; it all just looks so awesome and really makes you feel like you’re there.

When you work in this industry, your interpretation is key even when you are given a task. Then your work is presented to a supervisor or the entire team to be critiqued. For some people it is hard to be critiqued, but it’s an essential part of the job. Can you give some advice to those people who find it hard to receive critiques on their work?
As a professional, you just have to be able to take feedback, it’s literally part of the job. For anyone that doesn’t like getting feedback I would say that you should focus on the positive part of getting critiqued. The great thing about feedback is that it improves your work by leaps and bounds. Personally, I love getting feedback from my coworkers whenever I can. This is true for me whether I’m doing something in the studio for an actual game or even when working on something personal from home. When working on CG projects that take hours, and sometimes days to complete, you get fatigued; you’re basically staring at the same thing for so long that you get “tunnel vision” and this prevents you from being able to see the work objectively, the way your audience would view it. Having a fresh set of eyes look over your work will reveal issues, things you would have never noticed otherwise. You just can’t take it personally; critique isn’t an attack on you or your work, it’s meant to help you improve. Art is never perfect, your work can and will always improve, critique is part of that improvement process. Everyone should embrace it, accept it, and welcome feedback as often as possible.

 

Interviewer: Carlo Sansonetti