2020 Rookie Award Winners - Interview with Jay Blencowe
To continue our interview series with the 2020 Rookie Award Winner, Christina Ryan chats with Jay Blencowe who was Runner Up for his Concept Art. His entry ranged from an art nouveau inspired world with alternate nuclear-fusion based history, a decommissioned mining station in space, to a fabricated American town to train KGB agents.
Watch the Interview
Christina: Hi everyone. Welcome back and thank you so much for tuning in. My name's Christina and I’m a Texture and Look Development Artist located in Adelaide, Australia. I’m also a judge on the Rookies and the host of this interview series. So this week, I’m really excited to be meeting Jay. So thanks again, Jay for coming on. Now, Jay is also from Adelaide, that's really exciting. It's really cool to see local talent doing so well internationally. Why don't you just start things off by just telling us a little bit about yourself?
Jay: Hi, my name is Jay Blencowe, I’m a concept artist and I also work as a 3D environment artist in Adelaide, and I work both freelance as well as in an animation studio - CDW Animation, which is kind of in relation to the school that I studied at but it's also kind of a separate entity in itself, yes.
Jay: I probably skipped over a few things so, I did study for four years at CDW Studios in association with Flinders University. I only recently graduated at the end of last year, and yes I guess I specialise in environments though I’ve done a bit of character and other sorts of stuff along the way as well.
Christina: Cool, so Jay at what point did you decide this was something you wanted to do?
Jay: I’ve been in and out of Uni a couple of times and originally it was like I wanted to be an architect because I like design. I started to realise in high school and architects seemed like design that you could get a job in. And I don't really know that much about the architecture industry now, probably still quite easy to get a job for all I know but yes, turned out I didn't actually really want to be an architect, I don't think. Anyway so then I spent a bunch of time fluffing about and working part-time jobs and eventually found - a friend gave me a drawing tablet, a Wacom tablet and I was like, because he knew I used to draw in high school and he's like 'Hey man, would you sort of want this?' And I was like, yes, I guess this will be fine and I started looking at tutorials and stuff online and then I started finding concept art ones. This whole new world exploded to me and I think it was one point that somebody said that you couldn't really do it as a backup plan.
And I remember that was the point I realised that it was like I had to kind of go all in on it. And I don't know if that is the case, I’m sure some people have lots of varied ways that go about stuff but I think it kind of worked being extremely focused on it for a while.
Christina: I relate to that a lot actually. It's definitely one of those industries where you do have to give it your all especially in the early stages whilst you're developing your rule, and yes, like you I didn't think or know there was jobs in the industry. So I’m glad that you sort of took the leap and went into it because it's obviously doing very well for you?
Jay: Yes, so far so good. I think as well now, there's more and more knowledge around from when I started which I’m sure other people will be looking at me and being like 'Hey, you had so much knowledge when I started like way back in the mid 2000's or something.'
Christina: Oh yes, like it's getting bigger and bigger isn't it, especially in Adelaide.
Jay: Yes, yes. I mean having the education of the schools as well as now jobs have kind of, I don't know if they've necessarily followed the schools but there's like multiple VFX houses that are quite big. Obviously, Rising Sun and Mr X and such. So yes, it's gone well I think.
Christina: So, on that train of thought why don't you just tell us a little bit about the school that you studied at, so my understanding was that you were at CDW?
Jay: Yes, correct. Yes, so CDW Studios was started by Simon Scales and he originally studied at CDA and I think that's how the kind of naming scheme has got convoluted as it has. Basically it started out as private school but now is associated with Flinders University. So it has a full accredited program goes through their Bachelor of Visual Effects and Entertainment Design.
With school, I started to find after four years was that, you do get out of it what you put in.
I studied three years as a bachelor and one year as honours there and basically learned fundamentals of drawing, painting, 3D modelling; this is all from a digital perspective. Though when I say like drawing and painting it's - I mean you still have a sketchbook and pen and paper and stuff but like we didn't really do like oil painting, we just did digital painting but we still did live stuff. So setting up vases and fruit and that sort of thing. Which is really good study, as well as life drawing of which I didn't go to probably that many sessions of to be honest.
Christina: I always say I’m going to do it, I never do it.
Jay: Yes, it's so hard. It's like people think life drawing is hard because it's a naked person standing up there or something but really it's just hard because people are really hard to draw. I remember my first session, it was like I had some felt-tip pen and it was the hardest thing to draw with and I didn't know how to draw people and there's just this naked old man in front of me standing alone. But it's good, it's good, it's like amazing practice for figures. My teachers there were fantastic - Ned Rogers and Alex Owen, Simon Scales and Alex Colvin, and Tim McBurney.
Christina: That's alright. I know a few of them myself. They're all awesome people.
Jay: They are all awesome people and it's a good atmosphere as well, and I think one of the things though with school I started to find after four years was that, you do get out of it what you put in and that's something that I think is a really important message. And I think those teachers also react to that really well, so that will sort of, they'll really push you if you're trying to - you want to be pushed so.
Christina: It's fantastic and so I guess I’d love to know a little bit about what you're doing with yourself now that you finished.
Jay: Yes, so I did actually have some communication with studios overseas at the start of the year but things obviously didn't really work out so well for that.
Christina: It didn't go too well?
Jay: No, and even remote work at that time was still, I think just everything was sort of a little bit crazy. Now, I’m getting more communication with studios about remote jobs and that sort of thing but one of the advantages I did have though, is with the person who basically started CDW Studios, the school, he's started up an animation studio and they're creating an animation for a series. It recently got funded by Epic Games with a big grant.
It's good to have money coming in, it means more jobs and more jobs mean actually making things. And I guess, potentially shipping a product which is something that I think basically everybody wants to do in this industry - is you want to produce something that actually gets enjoyed by people. So it's an exciting time and basically I’m working at this animation studio also called CDW Animation rather than CDW the school and I’m working as like a hybrid job because it's a small studio so I do involve myself in design but it's also a lot of making stuff for use in Unreal Engine. So it's kind of a very 3D heavy job as well but yes, it's super fun.
Christina: Wicked and out of curiosity, what are you using Unreal Engine for?
Jay: It's actually becoming more and more useful as a render engine really. So it's like a game engine but because I guess game engine stuff is incorporating more ray tracing effects and path tracing effects, it's kind of getting to this point where for particular styles of animation you can iterate really quickly because it's like what you see is what you get. Whereas, I guess in a traditional VFX pipeline, it requires a lot of, it’s kind of a different sort of organisation I think. I mean, I can't speak to really know how it is in like a VFX house but I think being able to work in an engine where you see the result as you're building it, it is very much useful to be able to, I guess create in real time and Unreal definitely is useful for that kind of workflow which I think works really well with small teams.
Christina: Yes, honestly Jay, even I was just having this discussion myself last week with the guys. Unreal Engine really seems like the way forward with even VFX as well. Just the speed and the iterations and it seems to be getting more and more, like the gap between what you might see in Arnold and on a real engine is just seems to be getting smaller and smaller, so it's fantastic that you're sort of staying ahead of the curve and learning all of that technology. It sounds like CDW is really preparing you.
Jay: That's a conversation that happens around the office as well a lot is about that kind of progression specifically and, but for me personally I’ve always been interested in video games from a technical standpoint. I watch a lot of game developer conference videos on things I half the time don't even really understand but I get little bits from it and I think that, I don't want to say like tricks, but the things that game developers have to go through to get to an end result that's as quick as it is, is kind of really fascinating and...
Christina: Quite challenging, isn't it?
Jay: Quite challenging, yes. There's a lot of I guess, optimisation is required and then that kind of in the past always interests me as well as being able to create things in a real-time setting is really, I don't know, playful in a way. Being able to move trees around and they look like trees being moved around rather than grey-meshy sort of blobs.
Christina: So, I guess you were talking, you know when COVID hit just out of curiosity did that affect your studies at all?
Jay: No, not for study. For me I kind of dodged a bullet on that one but I am, one of my housemates is currently doing honours. I don't know if it's affecting him that much either. It's kind of like maybe in that period of time where it was very hands-off and they were transitioning into remote learning but because all of the classes were set up to be recorded anyway, it was kind of like, fairly easy.
I think some students have struggled a lot so I’m not saying that 'Oh yes, COVID is all easy breezy and like study isn't hard during it!', I think it totally is and I’ve talked to teachers and stuff and yes, I think it is hard for some students definitely.
Christina: Yes, I think we dodged the bullet a little bit in Adelaide. I was teaching a few courses and for me like nothing I mean, obviously we had to space everyone out. Obviously like for Adelaide we did have that period of time where we shut down but for the most part we've been able to deliver in person so it's been really quite good, really quite fortunate. So, Jay, I guess I’d like to talk a little bit about your Rookies entry. What made you decide to enter the Rookies this year?
Entering The Rookie Awards
Jay: My lecturer Katie Cavanagh, who I had in university, she was the one, with Alwyn, who were the ones that started to I guess make the students aware of the Rookies and then it just snowballed from there. It became the sort of thing that - pretty much everyone entered the Rookies. Just because once people start doing something then everyone kind of wants to do it. Yes, and I mean in a good competitive way and I think it's very interesting though, and I guess why a lot of people do it and myself included is doing anything internationally.
I think that's like a big thing, particularly for Australia, that is physically very far away from the rest of the world - it's kind of cool to like I don't know have that side of things. So, I know that's probably a big thing that I’ve got out of it is just to be able to see other people's work and feel like you're connected with other students who are in France or in America or South America or wherever. Like it's just, I don't think you get on the same level anywhere else, it's like a student thing.
I mean sure there's other sort of image sites and stuff that like have people from all over the world but it's like they're not really there for the same - well, they are there for the same reason but it's not yes, it's not so much like a student-focused thing, which I think is a big deal.
Creating a Portfolio Piece
Christina: Brilliant. So, why don't you just tell us as well just a little bit about your Rookies entry itself?
It became the sort of thing that - pretty much everyone entered the Rookies. Just because once people start doing something, then everyone kind of wants to do it. In a good competitive way...
Jay: Yes, let's see if I can bring it up for myself as well remember what I put in there.
Christina: So you have quite a few pieces and I went through them.
Jay: Yes, so like it's kind of mainly an honours project, I think for the most part they're the majority of the thing if not yes, about over half of it is all from the one world. And that was basically an amalgamation of things I’m interested in and I guess I’ll talk about that briefly.
It was fairly flexible in university actually, you kind of like do whatever you wanted and the teachers they would guide you into giving yourself deliverables and it was as much like project planning as it was the actual project itself.
In terms of my set of interests - environment art particularly my brain is always leading more towards video games but I think my content ends up being like you could use it for animation or video games or whatever. I like turn of the century stuff in terms of the like early 1900s. I think in that time period the whole world had, well you had like the outcome of like the industrial revolution and things, like that which I guess escalated a lot of parts of the world and escalated in particular architecture. And that's something that I have a strong interest in, is this architecture and I guess particularly like civic architecture and public spaces. There is a lot of freedom for creating space that is usable but also iconic and just bold.
My project was basically set in a, it's not really steampunk, but like a neo or like a retro feature I guess. So, it's basically like if things in the past moved in a different direction and maybe history like an alternate history, I guess yes.
My idea for that was to be set in France. I like a lot of art nouveau and things that came out of France in that sort of time and I really wanted to have something where it was like that ornamentation just stuck and it didn't really kind of go into industrialisation which became rigid in the style, where things were made purely from a practicality standpoint.
I liked the idea of ornamentation taking over an earlier stage. So just like crazy curvy metal buildings and an influx of like, I guess electricity which created different technologies and such and like electric trains and nuclear power was something that I wanted. I think nuclear power just because it's provocative like it gives people this idea of like yes, it's something that can kill you and it's something that is bad for storing waste and having to mine and all those sorts of things.
From a narrative standpoint, like having something that has a nuclear power basis is something that kind of gives people like there's this soul source of this energy and particularly if you start having that energy be maybe used wielded by people of like a sinister, kind of bad people - I suppose. Then you have this thing, this is the source of their power, the soul sort of thing and I guess that's why I picked nuclear power. Not to get too much into the controversial topics.
Christina: Wow, so you came up with all, like did you design that story yourself or was that in a group?
Jay: No, that was just my thing. I don't know if it's like all that much of a story, it was basically the story I did have going in the back my head which I didn't really lean into all that much. It was the rise of ultimate automation taking away, I guess making a divide between the rich and the poor. So it's basically just the standard story of industrialisation, creating you know, the rich to be richer and the poor to be poorer.
Christina: So I’m just looking through your artwork, there's just so many little details it's incredible. I would love to know a little bit about your creative process. When you start a project from start to finish, what are the different steps that you take to achieve that final look? You mentioned to me before that you used Blender and a bit of 3D programs as well?
Jay: Yes. Yes, I’m pretty heavy on the 3D but I still basically start every single thing with drawing. However, my drawings are so loose, to put it politely for myself. Once I look at them the process of drawing them is the thing that I understand in my head of what I’m doing. As in sometimes my drawing doesn't even read like the thing that it's supposed to be but in the process of drawing it I see things in the drawing where I’m just like yes, I understand what's going on here. I know because I tend to do facades like as in like the fronts of buildings and or like an elevation like the side view if it's more prominent. It's basically like whatever is the more prominent side of the building and then I’ll kind of just sketch that out and pick and choose from there and, sometimes, I mush parts of the drawings together and then I go into 3D pretty quickly after them.
These particular ones I was also starting out with a texture set that I had kind of made from just painting in Photoshop and then adding a metallic-ness in Blender and also creating normal maps from bitmap to material, substance bitmap to material, yes. Which just gave me like a, I guess it creates a mood and a colour palette through the materiality of the structures and also means that you can UV and create your models at the same time. So it's pretty efficient once you get going and you're almost designing with the textures. So you're like, oh I wonder, what if the roof panels went in the opposite direction or something like that, you can just move the texture around in the UV space and you can see the result instantly and you can be like okay that looks better or this works or this doesn't and yes. So texturing was - sometimes you go too far when you start getting too into like, oh this is going to be a slightly different brick and it's like, does it really matter? Probably not. But yes, for some of the things like metal paneling it was yes totally useful to kind of do texturing and modelling at the same time. And it allowed me to have really simple sketches and quickly iterate in 3D after that.
Christina: Okay, so just out of curiosity we've got someone in the audience who's just asked the question. So, how much percentage would you say your final piece would be 3D as opposed to the final paint over?
Jay: 99% 3D. Basically all of my scenes are like a 3D render. There is yes, I’m just like looking back through them. Yes pretty much there's like a few little things like foam on some of the water and something like the train station has a fair bit of paint overs. Sorry I’m not seeing what ones you're scrolling through, if you are but yes for the majority of them it's like just a render, I think some are composited in a sky but other than that it's 98% 3D or something.
Christina: Sounds like it varies a little bit depending on what project you're doing and what you need. Okay so it's good that you're keeping your skills open and you know all of those skills are quite easily transferable, so well done.
Jay: Yes, I do a lot of like, although these are all kind of 3D in terms of when I’m designing them out. One thing I do as well that I highly recommend for people who want to do more in 3D is, if you're ever at a stage where you don't know where to go or you've done a sketch and then you've modelled something in 3D and then you're like okay cool, I’m so confused, I like this but I don't know what to do next, is to do heaps of just hard round brush paint overs. Get full opacity brush pick colours from whatever the 3D screenshot or render you have and just go over the top and scribble out what you think might help the image and then you can quickly see it's like 'Oh no hey, that doesn't work. Hey this whole layout is kind of a bit wonky, let's just change this whole big area.' So I do a lot of paint overs but in terms of the actual final image that's kind of like I’ll do the paint over and then I’ll go back into the 3D and I’m pretty quick to be able to build it out, yes.
Christina: Oh wicked, that's really cool to hear. So I guess, Jay, what advice would you give to someone entering the Rookies next year?
Jay: It depends on what level they're at. I mean, for beginners it's kind of just put yourself out there. My thing for beginners though as well would be like just make sure you have something that feels like it is a representation of what you currently want to do and where you're sort of at with stuff because you can put in stuff that is maybe like homework or something that isn't really your thing but I would at least try and if you can focus on something where you're like, 'Hey this is the current thing that I want to, where I want to go with my art'. But in terms of more advanced students I would say, I think it's good to focus on project-based stuff, like mine is pretty much all like I said it's like 60 - 70% like one project but I have a couple of other projects at the tail end of it.
I would say yes, do two or maybe three projects. That just again tends to be the advice that I hear from like more experienced artists on portfolios as well is to have a couple of projects that have multiple works of art or multiple designs that are from the same world. I think as particularly for like in the beginning stages you might not be able to do that quite so much and I almost would advise not focusing too much on that at early years but later years, yes. Definitely, yes.
Christina: I think that's very easily transferable into like a show reel advice too. Hey, just don't spread yourself too thin, have a few really strong pieces.
[In your portfolio], make sure you have something that feels like it is a representation of what you currently want to do...and where [you] want to go with [your] art.
Jay: Yes, I think in terms of 3D artists, I don't really have as much knowledge or experience with that but I think having little dioramas seems to be the thing I see propel people for modellers, or 3D environment artists for games and stuff, is like small but polished but also not just for those sorts of jobs it's not just individual props. Some people I think go individual props and it's like you're kind of pigeonholing yourself into having that as your job whereas some other studios particularly game studios I think, they like to see how you get a variety of props and have them in the same set and that yes, for 3D artists I reckon that's something that I see tends to get people jobs so yes.
Christina: Jay, that's honestly some really, really solid advice so thank you so much for sharing that.
Jay: Of course.
Christina: All right. Well, it's already nine o'clock, we run out of time guys but yes, thank you so much, Jay, for joining me this week. Really awesome to chat with you and to meet with you and maybe I’ll see you around sometime.
Jay: Yes, bump into each other on the street!
Christina: Thanks for watching and please tune in next week. We like to keep this pretty interactive so if you have any questions please jump on and shoot us a little message in the chat and we'll try and answer them. So awesome, see you next time guys, thank you.