Interview with Ash Thundercliffe - 3D Environment Artist

Interview with Ash Thundercliffe - 3D Environment Artist

Ash Thundercliffe is a 3D Environment Artist working in the video game industry. He graduated from the University of Derby with a Bachelors of Arts in Computer Games Modelling and Animation. After completing his degree he moved on to work at Rockstar Games in Leeds to help create the various buildings and structures seen throughout Red Dead Redemption 2. Two years later, he moved to California to work at Ready at Dawn where he helped ship Lone Echo for the Oculus Rift and is now working on the sequel.

Ash has also written multiple articles for that highlighted the processes of creating 3D environments. He has also produced tutorials for 3dmotive that focus on creating assets for video games.

The Journey

What's your current role and what does it involve?

My Current role at ‘Ready At Dawn’ is an ‘Environment Model and Layout Artist’. This may seem like a lengthy title for what sounds like an ‘Environment Artist’ but at ‘Ready At Dawn’ we divide the environment role into two positions; 'modeling’ and ‘texturing’. If I was to summarize my day to day tasks it would mainly boil down to creating all the structural and environmental assets that make up the world we are creating.

Where do you work, and what type of projects are they involved with?

As mentioned, I currently work at ‘Ready At Dawn’ and they have been around since the PSP age working on titles such as ‘Daxter’ and ‘God of War’ but also worked on ‘The Order 1886’ for the PS4. Right now we are working heavily on VR which is at the point I joined the company to help ship ‘Lone Echo’, and we are currently working on the sequel ‘Lone Echo 2’.

When did you first realise you wanted to work in this industry?

My original plan was to become a dentist, it was a respectable profession with good money and really that was about it. It wasn't until I started playing ‘Little Big Planet’ back in 2008 until I realised I had a love for world building. I would spend so long at home creating so many levels and recreating my favourite scenes from movies and video games. I started to research more into the idea of getting a profession in games and realised it wasn't an impossible task.

How did you get your first big break?

After finishing from University I honestly didn't think my portfolio would be good enough, I applied to lots of companies for an internship opportunity in my second year but heard nothing back. After graduating I only applied to one role at a mobile game company and even though I got the interview, they ultimately turned me down.

Fortunately I had been introduced to an ex ‘Rockstar Games’ employee during my time at University. After graduating, he pushed me to apply for the ‘Environment Artist’ position Rockstar Games had available. After applying, Rockstar reached out to me and offered me a full time position as an ‘Art Development Assistant’ which is basically a fancy term for ‘Junior Artist’, and that's where my career started.

Describe the journey you took into your current role?

I hadn't really heard of online courses for teaching art for video games so I stuck to a traditional route. After searching around different Universities I finally decided on ‘The University of Derby’ and studied ‘Computer Games Modelling and Animation’. I was at the University for 3 years and graduated top of my class with a First Class BA Honours Degree.

After graduating I applied to ‘Rockstar Games’ and they offered me a job. I joined as an ‘Art Development Assistant’ working on ‘Red Dead Redemption 2’. After working there for a year, I was promoted to ‘Technical Content Artist’. I then continued to work at Rockstar for almost 2 years until I came to the conclusion that my current role and position in the company did not align with my future goals. It was a very hard decision to make but I eventually left my role at Rockstar for a new offer at ‘Ready At Dawn’ as an ‘Environment Artist’.

The main problem with the job offer at ‘Ready At Dawn’ was the requirement of a work visa to move from the UK to the USA. This turned out to be a year long process full of uncertainty but eventually the gamble paid off and I was finally granted a visa to live and work in the USA.

I've now been at Ready At Dawn almost 3 years and shipped ‘Lone Echo’ for the Oculus Rift and now working on the sequel ‘Lone Echo II’.

Day in the life

Describe a typical day for you and your team?

A typical day for an ‘Environment Artist‘ can be pretty varied overall. Our position requires us to work with so many other departments to achieve our current goal. At the start of an environment I will work closely with the ‘level design’ and ‘narrative’ teams to create a blockout of a desired space which stays closely to the level design layout and has the desired mood and setting given by the narrative team.

After completing the initial blockout stage, I will work more closely with the ‘texture’ and ‘lighting’ artists to move the artwork towards a more refined and then final pass. However even at both of these stages I will still find myself working alongside ‘animators’ ‘riggers’, ‘programmers’, ‘directors’ and many more’. Honestly, I think this is why I enjoy this position so much because the role is so pivotal to the creation of the game. It also means I get to work alongside so many talented people and solve problems together.

What third-party and proprietary tools do you use on a daily basis?

My go to software on a daily are: Maya, Substance Designer, Substance Painter, PureRef, Unreal Engine, Photoshop.

For more specialised work I use: Marvelous Designer, World Machine, Houdini ZBrush.

Which departments and key people do you work closely with?

The obvious ones are my ‘Leads’ and ‘Directors’. They provide me with all of the essential information I need to create the game worlds we are aiming for.

As for the other departments, I basically work alongside everyone in the company because so many departments rely on the environment team. The main people I work with daily though are Level Designers, Texture Artists, Lighting Artists, Narrative Team.

Currently photogrammetry is becoming the new big thing in the industry. To simply put, photogrammetry is the process of taking several photos of an object at various angles to reproduce it as a 3D asset using software that compiles those images.

This workflow has become the foundation of the Quixel team to help them stand out from Alegorithmic. Essentially Quixel goes out into the wild and creates a library of assets such as rocks, trees, grass, plants and even food. All of these are then generated on a computer, cleaned up by and artist and made available to anyone on their marketplace. It now means anyone anywhere can create something like a realistic Icelandic landscape without ever having to travel there, or even create a single asset.

The double edge sword for this is that anyone who enjoys the process of creating these types of assets will find themselves being less required in companies and will instead need to make themselves valuable to the company in other ways. For me, however I don't like making foliage so having a library of assets at my disposal is incredible.

One thing you’d never change about your job?

That's a tough question, I love my craft and everything about it but just like anything, there can always be improvements. If suddenly Autodesk stopped updating software, I could still do my job. However  if you look at all of the updates over the years, there have been a lot of ‘peace of mind’ improvements as well as tools that completely alter workflows for the better.

To say I don't want to change anything about my job would be like saying I don't want the games and movie industry to improve. Technology is always changing and that's the nature of the job.

But one thing you wouldn’t mind seeing changed is?

Now as for this question, I could have a list for, however I would say my one daily struggle is UV mapping. It doesn't matter how much auto UV software comes out, or what new tools software companies add to the UV workflow. UV mapping will always be the most boring and painful part of my job. If one software could eliminate at least 70% of the process, I would be a very happy man.

Career Advice

Is formal education essential for someone aspiring to do your job?

The simple answer to this is, no. the longer answer would depend on the person wanting to get into the industry. I know a lot of people who went into a formal education and then after the first or second year, realised they could go and do it alone. There's so many resources out there now for people to learn that the only thing holding you back is self drive and an ability to seek out answers.

This however brings me to the second group of people. for some, they still need routine in their life just like going to school. A formal education will grant you that. It also means that they have a tutor on hand to provide them with the industry advice and answers first hand. This however can have a negative affect. This is because after school, you are no longer able to just ask the tutor a question. If you haven't been taught correctly then you will not have gained the ability to seek out your own answers and self teach.

What tasks would you typically ask a junior artist to handle?

This would entirely depend on the size of the studio. For a larger studio you will most likely be given the art assistant type tasks such as LODing, mesh collision and lightmaps. These are not the most fun of tasks but it will give you a greater insight into the processes that go into making game art within a production environment. Its key that junior artists know that being an artist isn't just making cool art all day, the project still needs to run in framerate. Also if you are at a good studio you will also be given the occasional prop or structure to work on so you can continue to develop your skills and grow in the company.

What skills do you look for when hiring an artist?

Honestly it's just looking at a portfolio and seeing that they know how to take an environment from start to finish and it looks like it would be in a video game you would play.  

What skills seem to be missing all too often?

I say this every time I get this question, but the most important thing for getting into the industry is being able to look at your work and saying “would a game look like this”. The simple meaning to this is that if your art doesn't look good enough to be in a video game, then it's very unlikely that you will be hired to work on video games. The thing you start to understand is what professionals put on their portfolios and what they work on are generally 2 different things.

With a piece of work for a game, you are heavily restricted by so many factors because the game needs to not only run your environment in frame rate, but also all the NPCs, AI, FX, collision and lighting etc. with a personal piece you have none of these restrictions, you can push your work as far as you want to because all you need is a screenshot that shows you can do the work.

The best way to resolve this and get your portfolio up to standard is to first realise your work is not good enough. After you have accepted this, you should play a few games that fit the style of work you are trying to achieve. You will be shocked at how many corners they cut, just to create an environment. Try not to play the game as a gamer, but instead look at it as an artist. start to breakdown how the environments where made and ask yourself:

  • How many tiling textures did they use?
  • How often do you see a baked asset?
  • Are there repetitious props to fill out the scene and how high quality do they look?
  • How often are assets just ‘poly jammed’ into a surface

Once you start to understand these things, you can start trying to apply this knowledge to your own environment. With a portfolio piece everything can be pushed as far as you can take it.

With a work piece, you can only push the environment as far as the console restrictions allow. But also with that, you should also understand that the only assets you should be pushing to perfection are the assets that are in focus to the screenshot or video you create. Don't spent weeks polishing a mop and bucket in the back corner of the room, instead focus that time on the beautiful chandelier taking center stage of your scene that will grab the viewer's attention.

The key takeaway here is. Not everything has to be perfect, but it has to be good enough to be in a video game.

Describe a project brief that you’d recommend artists create for their portfolio?

Too often I see students take on grand landscape or huge scenes. As a student this is a recipe for disaster. Yes it's true that some students pull this off and you can see this in a few of the students who submitted to ‘The Rookies’. The reality though, is that a lot of students start these large environments and never push them to the level required to get a job because they either burn out on the scene, or get stuck on so many sections that they give up and move on.

I remember one student showing me a piece of work he had created and the environment consisted of; a fully generated terrain, a complete town and several of the buildings had interiors with unique props for those spaces. On paper that sounds incredible but the final result was very underdeveloped. The student clearly had the right ambition and talent but he took on too much to fully realise a scene.

I feel an ideal space for students to create to show off their talents would be a simple interior with a story told through environmental storytelling. This would be a single room or two which are created to a very high standard that allow the props, structure and set dressing to tell a story. I have done this several times for my personal work because it allows you to work in a very concentrated space and forces you to push the quality bar of your work.

When creating the space the questions you want to ask yourself are: Does anyone live here and if not why? What is the room used for? How old is the room? Where is the room located? What is the time period?  

All these questions and more can be so easily answered with props, set dressing and textures.

What mistakes do you see artists making when applying for jobs?

I once knew of someone who applied for a job with a handwritten letter saying they wanted to be a ‘general artist’ at the company. Don't be this guy!

Honestly though, it's not difficult. Do some research on the company, specify the job you want and make sure your work is good enough. Ultimately the work you create will speak for you.

If you could give one piece of advice to artists starting out, what would it be?

This job isn't easy, it requires a lot of hard work, dedication and self discipline. If you want to succeed and stand out from the crowd, you really have to apply yourself.

If you could go back in time to when you first started out, what advice would you give yourself?

I honestly wouldn't change anything at all. Everything I did got me to exactly where I wanted to be. I worked very hard during my period at University but always found the time to exercise and hang out with friends and family. The key thing is to always have structure so you never fall behind, but also never burn out.