Career Advice - How to setup your own CGI studio and create AAA game projects
Want a successful career working as a CEO of a successful CGI company? Or how about a Chief Creative Officer of your own studio? The One Academy of Communication Design alumni and Co-Founders of Lemon Sky Studios, Fei and Ken, sit down with us to share their journey and advice to aspiring artists looking for an exciting and challenging career like their own.
What's your current role and what does it involve?
Fei: I currently serve as the Chief Executive Officer at Lemon Sky. My role at the studio focuses more on the business side of things - building relationships with people and companies in the game and animation industry around the world and trying to steer Lemon Sky in the right direction. I also get involved with the creative side from time to time, giving my input on the studio’s projects and in some cases acting as a director or producer for our own original IP’s.
Ken: I’m the Chief Creative Officer at Lemon Sky. There’s some overlap between the roles that Fei and I have, but he focuses more on the business side and the company direction while I’m more involved with the hands-on management at our studio, working directly with our production teams on a day-to-day basis.
Where do you work, and what type of projects are they involved with?
Fei: We founded Lemon Sky Studios, a Malaysian art studio that also happens to be the biggest CG art and animation studio in Southeast Asia. We handle art outsourcing work for AAA video game projects with renowned game developers from all over the world, such as Naughty Dog (The Last of Us Part II), Square-Enix (Final Fantasy VII Remake), Blizzard (Warcraft III: Reforged), and EA (Command & Conquer: Remastered Collection).
Ken: We also produce animation for some of the world’s leading animation studios such as Nickelodeon (Santiago of the Seas) and Disney (Big City Greens). In addition to our outsourcing work, we also produce our own original IP’s, such as our animated web series AstroLOLogy.
When did you first realise you wanted to work in this industry?
Fei: I was always a huge fan of comics and cartoons ever since I was a kid, so I really wanted to follow in the footsteps of my idols who were famous and influential artists, like Otomo Katsuhiro, Akira Toriyama, Osamu Tezuka, Ma Wing-Shing and many more.
I loved animation and video games, but never thought of becoming an animator or video game developer because I didn’t know there was such an industry in Malaysia at the time. After I graduated from The One Academy, I started working as an artist and realised the potential for the art and animation industry in Malaysia.
My transition from 2D to 3D art happened after I watched the movie “Toy Story”. It was a complete new experience for me and it inspired me to learn 3D and CG art, which led to me and Ken starting a 3D art studio.
Ken: I had an interest in movies, comics and games as a kid, but the thing that attracted me to work in the art industry was when I discovered 3D technology. I thought it was really cool and I was fascinated by all the possibilities that it held. I was also inspired by influential people in the industry like Walt Disney and Robert Iger because they were able to transform the world through their creations. So, I also wanted to create art to bring value and joy to people around the world.
How did you get your first big break?
Fei: Our big break for video game projects came when Bandai Namco America hired us to work on the Afro Samurai game for the PlayStation 3. This was one of our very first international jobs and also the first AAA game title that we ever worked on. We were competing with some well-known studios around the world for the right to work on this project and in the end we managed to win the art test by putting in a lot of extra effort to make our work stand out.
The thing that attracted me to work in the art industry was when I discovered 3D technology...I thought it was really cool and I was fascinated by all the possibilities that it held [Fei].
Working with a well-known overseas studio for the first time, we found that they really appreciated our technical skills as well as our professionalism and the effort that we put in. The experience was a big contrast to our previous projects with local companies where we didn’t receive the same level of appreciation.
In the end, the experience of working with a notable overseas studio like Bandai Namco and receiving appreciation from them was a huge boost for our confidence and motivation, which led to us taking on more big projects from overseas companies.
Ken: We have had plenty of groundbreaking projects that have come our way – our very first AAA game, our very first long-form animation, and so on. But the most significant break that I hold very close to my heart is seeing the fruition of our very own IP, AstroLOLogy. When we first initiated Lemon Sky Development, we went through more than 20 ideas before finalising AstroLOLogy. Seeing through an IP from the idea stage to its final product was a testament to our capabilities of creating quality content.
Working on a client’s product and delivering what the client requires has its own appeal and satisfaction. But seeing AstroLOLogy receiving numerous accolades internationally and engaging viewers across the globe (predominantly US and Japan), brings about an immense sense of pride like no other. Bringing our very own ideas to life is a driving force for us and this is something that we hope to develop further in the future.
Describe the journey you took into your current role?
Fei: After graduating from The One Academy, I worked at different studios. The 3D art and animation scene in Malaysia was still fairly young at the time. Most studios were focused on the technical side but lacking when it came to the creative elements of art production. I wanted to create a studio where the core focus was the art/creative aspect, and we used CG technology to push the art to the next level. Ken was my work partner at the time, and together we started to take some freelance jobs which were mostly from advertising agencies. As the business continued to grow, we could no longer handle the projects with just two of us, so we decided to hire some artists to join our team.
We decided to expand our work to Games and Animation. From there, our studio has continued to grow as we’ve slowly built relationships with industry players around the world thanks to our work on various projects.
Ken: When we first started out as artists, we enjoyed being involved in the entire process of art production and working as generalists - coming up with the story, creating the 3D models, animating, lighting and rendering it, all the way to the finished product. Nowadays, we handle much bigger projects that are on an international scale, so we can’t be involved with every stage the same way that we did early on in our career.
When we started the studio, we had to take on additional responsibilities for the sake of growing the business. We learned how to manage a team, how to communicate, and how to delegate tasks so that we can tackle bigger scale projects. Our motivation for stepping into the leadership role was in order to take on bigger and better productions - there's a limit to what you can do on your own, so we challenged ourselves to lead a team to take on bigger projects. It wasn’t really my goal to be a studio founder or entrepreneur, but I naturally reached that point by pursuing my passion for art and wanting to always create bigger and better things.
Day in the life
Describe a typical day for you and your team?
Fei: We have a vast array of roles amongst the 300+ team members at our studio, so typically each of them will be doing their part to ensure that we can keep making great art each day.
We have had plenty of groundbreaking projects that have come our way – our very first AAA game, our very first long-form animation, and so on. But the most significant break that I hold very close to my heart is seeing the fruition of our very own IP, AstroLOLogy.
My typical day is usually spent having meetings with clients, partners and our studio leaders, and each meeting has a different goal. For clients and partners, it's usually to secure a business deal for our studio, such as winning the contract for a new project from a client, or establishing a partnership with another studio to work on a particular project. When meeting with our studio leaders, it’s to discuss the direction our studio is taking and strategising how best to take on new projects and proceed with existing ones.
Ken: Generally speaking, my daily task is to oversee the creative work that is done at our studio. Our art team consists of artists from different disciplines, like 2D concept artists, modellers and animators. Each day, all of our artists have a particular set of tasks as assigned to them by the project manager and the lead artist. The project manager’s job is to keep track of all the work that the artists have done and determine the schedule for the production, while also keeping the client updated with the status of the project and communicating feedback from the client to our team.
The lead artist has the added responsibility of guiding the artists on their team and sharing knowledge and techniques to ensure that everyone is able to complete the required tasks. By the end of the day, the project manager gathers all the work that has been done by the artists and has them prepared for submission to the client.
Throughout the day, I work with the producers, project managers and leads to make sure that we’re able to tackle all the projects that we’re working on and live up to the creative standards that we are known for. As the co-founder of Lemon Sky, I regularly join Fei on business meetings with clients and partners as well.
What third-party and proprietary tools do you use on a daily basis?
Fei: Our studio often uses 3D art software such as Zbrush and Maya. Our artists come equipped with the skills to use these software from their training at the school, which makes it easier for them to settle in and start contributing to the team right away.
We also utilize Adobe products and real-time development platforms such as Unity and Unreal Engine for certain projects.
Ken: There’s a wide variety of tools we use depending on the project and scope of work required.
We just try our best to match the best tool with what the client needs. For example, there are certain projects where we’ll also need to work with a client’s proprietary engine or development platform, such as our recent Marvel’s Avengers project with Crystal Dynamics where we used their “Horizon” platform.
It wasn’t really my goal to be a studio founder or entrepreneur, but I naturally reached that point by pursuing my passion for art and wanting to always create bigger and better things [Ken].
Which departments and key people do you work closely with?
Fei: The company has now expanded to more than 300 people. We feel it is important to work closely with all divisions to ensure the company is being run smoothly. From the production team, to the business team, all the way to the corporate division of the company, each one plays a vital role.
Our days are usually spent looking into things that need troubleshooting, hiring new talent, discussing new project opportunities with the business team and attending meetings with clients and partners. Our minds are also constantly trying to come up with ways to make Lemon Sky Studios a better place for both our staff and our clients.
Ken: When it comes to overseeing the creative work that goes into each project, we keep a constant and open communication path with our Project Managers, Lead Artists, Modellers, and Animators via weekly meetings. We feel that it is incredibly necessary that we engage our artists constantly in order to inspire good art.
Are there any industry trends that are changing the nature of your role?
Fei: Games and 3D animation deal heavily with technology, so we always have to have our finger on the pulse of the industry and be aware of any technological advancements and trends. It’s all about being responsive and being ready to explore new technologies and techniques, so as leaders we need to make sure that our studio is always prepared to take on these challenges.
Ken: Our focus is and always will be to create art regardless of the medium. While we have been immersed in mostly games and animation, technology keeps developing, so the possibilities seem almost limitless. As an outsourcing company, we need to innovate and adapt to create art for new mediums such as VR/AR which are making an impact on the way viewers consume and create content. Our recent work on Unity’s Art Packs is an excellent example of this very change.
One thing you’d never change about your job?
Fei: For us, this job is all about following our passion as artists and making good art. That’s something we’ll never change. I love the satisfaction that comes from seeing the outcome of our projects that our team worked so hard on.
Ken: Our mission will always be to make art valuable, and we will always be seeking improvement as a company and as artists.
But one thing you wouldn’t mind seeing changed is?
Ken: A change I would like to see happen would be the perception of Malaysians towards the local digital art industry. It would be great if we were to get the same kind of reception and appreciation that we do internationally, back home. It is rather sad that when we are eager to work with our local counterparts that we are often asked for discounts but when there are big budgets to be utilised they would much rather spend that with an overseas company.
It would mean a lot to us, to not just be seen as a cost effective solution but rather an optimal choice with regards to our capabilities of producing good art. Our portfolio speaks for itself and this is what we hope our clients come to us for.
Ultimately, we would like Lemon Sky Studios to be recognised for the excellent art that we have contributed to the industry.
Fei: I really hope more young Malaysians take up digital art, pursue their passion and join the industry. It isn’t like when I was young anymore. The arts industry is thriving and we need more young Malaysian artists to fuel the continuous growth of the industry.
While we have been immersed in mostly games and animation, technology keeps developing, so the possibilities seem almost limitless [Ken].
Another thing that would be great to see is more collaborative efforts happen within the industry. We are a relatively small and young industry that is slowly but surely making an impact as far as the national economy is concerned. With the nature of the industry as such, it would be a great stride to have spaces in which collaborative efforts, exchanging of ideas, as well as sharing sessions where we can learn from one another and grow together. Such collaborative efforts could bring about fresh new content, encourage creative thinking and form unique business models that structure the basis of how our industry operates.
Is formal education essential for someone aspiring to do your job?
Fei: Depending on the kind of role, you wouldn’t necessarily need formal qualification in order to work in the art industry. Most of our artist hires are art school graduates but sometimes we find that fresh graduates from art academies lack the experience and skills required to take on tasks for our projects. So the willingness to learn new skills and adapt to the requirements of each project is more important than a formal qualification.
Ken: Initially there isn’t much of a difference as we are basing it solely on their skills. However, as their careers progress, we find that there is a sense of leadership that comes from the competitive nature of being amongst peers in an academic environment that we often find lacking in someone who wasn’t given that advantage.
Of course this is a generalisation and there are some exceptions of those who excel in both skills and career advancement or leadership skills.
What tasks would you typically ask a junior artist to handle?
Fei: It depends on the ability of the artist. Sometimes we would just assign them with basic tasks to start with, but if that artist shows that they are willing and able to take on more work then we would ask them to do so.
Ken: One thing we want our junior artists to realise is that they should have the mindset of finding ways to provide value to the team rather than just thinking that they are there to learn or only do basic things since they are just starting out.
What distinguishes a junior artist from a senior one is experience, but the junior artist also has the advantage of having more time to make use of since they have fewer responsibilities. So we want our junior artists to spend that time well, using it to improve and accomplish as much as possible while they can.
What skills do you look for when hiring an artist?
Fei: We hope to see passion and proactiveness - that they are ready to jump into the industry and contribute. Sometimes young artists seem quite scared or anxious to just get started which would make us reluctant to bring them on board.
Ken: Aside from having the technical skills as an artist, we also want our artists to have a professional attitude towards work whilst displaying and channelling their passion for art. It’s also important for them to be able to effectively implement the feedback they receive from clients and teammates to improve their work.
What skills seem to be missing all too often?
Fei: Nowadays artists tend to be much more focused/specialised on one particular area of art e.g. texturing, game animation. That mastery of a single skill proves very valuable. Back when we were young artists, the companies were small so all of us had to be generalists and take on a lot of different production areas.
On the downside, this also means that a lot of artists nowadays are not as flexible as we were back then. We find that when people are approached with a new challenge or something out of their comfort zone, they are reluctant to take it on rather than being eager to learn something new. Often, they don’t continue to practise their art skills in the areas that they do not specialise in.
Ken: The important thing is for them to have an understanding of what makes for good work ethics and have the willingness to improve in this area.
We feel that maybe a little more industrial training could help our young artists with the art of dealing with people and more so clients. It is definitely something that comes with practice as well so it isn’t something that we expect them to get a hang of immediately. However, some basic “Do’s & Don’ts” might help them be better prepared for the industry.
Describe a project brief that you’d recommend artists create for their portfolio?
Fei: Quality over quantity. Selecting a few of your best works is enough to show a potential client what you are capable of.
One thing we want our junior artists to realise is that they should have the mindset of finding ways to provide value to the team rather than just thinking that they are there to learn or only do basic things since they are just starting out [Fei].
Think about the skills that you want to portray and select those highlights where your skills shine. If you worked on a team project, show us the portions in which you had a hand in contributing your skills to the team. This kind of showcase would help us to not only determine your skills but also your ability to work well in a team.
Ken: Always try and put yourself in the hirer’s or client’s shoes. It is important that you see the point of view of the person that sits across from you at the interview. Is this something that would impress them or could it be something that they have seen time and time again from various other candidates? At the end of your presentation you want to feel like you have impressed them and to do that, it is crucial to understand their perspective.
What mistakes do you see artists making when applying for jobs?
Fei: Being an introvert myself, I know this isn’t something that comes easily to a lot of artists. But more than an outstanding portfolio, that extra trait of being open and communicative is a key factor in getting hired. If you can show us that you are passionate, able to work in a team and you are able to get your ideas across, that would give us more reason to have you in our team. We hope to see some great energy from the aspiring artists out there.
Ken: A common mistake we see is artists sharing a portfolio that is similar to everyone else's. If you were involved in a big project previously, it’s important to show a version of what was your approach on this project, rather than showing the finished product that everyone else can also include. You can also filter out your portfolio to show your best work.
Also, try and sell yourself in terms of the value you can contribute to a team or a project. For us, it’s the same mindset whenever we try to win a job from a client - showing the best work that’s relevant to the client’s project. Attitude wise it's similar to how a junior artist should be promoting themselves when applying for a job.
If you could give one piece of advice to artists starting out, what would it be?
Fei: Step out from your comfort zone and work on your communication skills. It’s more difficult than it sounds, but it’s something that you have to do in order to live up to the name of a professional artist. Professionalism means doing what it takes in order to get the job done rather than letting your apprehensions stop you.
Ken: Whenever things get tough and you question your choice in pursuing the arts, always go back to what it is that got you into the arts in the first place. Go back to that root of “why” and ask yourself if you still feel passionate about the choices you have made. The key to a continuous drive in achieving your dream is to keep that very spark and passion alive.
In order to have a sustainable career in the arts, you constantly need to check on what it is that drives your passion, what is it that lights your fire. That fire and passion are what will take you places in the arts, bringing you great success.
If you could go back in time to when you first started out, what advice would you give yourself?
Fei: I would tell myself to work harder. In all aspects, improving myself so that I can be better at what I do. Also I tended to lack people skills then, so I would advise myself to improve on that.
Ken: Perhaps to take on more hands-on tasks and create! We very rarely are given the opportunity to get our hands dirty with actually creating the artwork after stepping into leadership roles and that is something that I miss.