Creative Spotlight: An interview with Environment Artist, Brenda Santos

Creative Spotlight: An interview with Environment Artist, Brenda Santos

Brenda Santos is an Environment Artist who recently completed an outstanding God of War-inspired demo reel. Discover how learning hybrid opened up doors for her in a new country with like minded artists and industry mentors.

In this interview, Think Tank Training Centre graduate, Brenda Santos, breaks down learning in a Hybrid setting, what inspired her Portfolio Project, and why it was important to leave her home in Mexico to pursue her dreams.

Stretching from Guadalajara to Vancouver to the Viking realm of Midgard, Brenda Santos’ journey in CG art has taken across North America (and beyond!). In 2022, Brenda was learning remotely at Think Tank Training Centre from her home in Mexico. As she entered the final stages of her portfolio, she flew to Think Tank’s campus in North Vancouver, Canada, for hands-on Portfolio Production term alongside her personal mentor.

This unique brand of in-person and virtual learning allowed Brenda to specialise in Environments for Games in a hands-on setting while also building and expanding the connections she made while studying remotely in a new and exciting “real world” environment.

I met Brenda near the Portfolio Production Labs at the Think Tank Campus on a rare sunny Vancouver day in early May. We discussed her path from a traditional art education to the career-oriented work she recently completed, what her dream job might look like, and how a hybrid lifestyle has opened up doors in a new country with like minded artists and mentors.

Creating an industry-ready portfolio

Hi Brenda, welcome to the Spotlight! We’re really looking forward to this conversation!

I'm looking forward to it. I'm happy to be here!

You've just completed your final portfolio, Valkyrie Room. Congratulations! Can you talk a bit about this environment?

First of all, it’s inspired from concept art made by MOOD Visuals for the 2018 God of War game. This is a game I really love, and playing it made a big impact on me as an artist. Initially, I always wanted to be an animator for film, but once I played this game I was like “No, I have to work in video games!”. So, when I started my mentorship at Think Tank, I really wanted to do something to honour God of War because of how important it was to my artistic journey.

Brenda Santos’ demo reel, Valkyrie Room

You used Unreal Engine 5 to create this piece. What did you think of using that software and how did it help you?

Honestly, getting used to Lumen was a little weird at first, so it took me a bit of time to get the lighting right. But after some troubleshooting I was able to efficiently change the lighting which allowed me to really impact the mood and direction of the entire piece. It took a bit to learn, but once I got there, I could control the lighting in real time instead of painstakingly remaking this or that. And if I wanted a bit more light in one area, but not another, I could just use an emissive. It gave me a lot of options, and I felt like I could just do whatever I wanted.

Closeup shots of lighting and details

It's cool to see that once you figure out the software a bunch of possibilities open up.

Exactly! It’s just a bit difficult in the beginning, but then it becomes something that we as artists can exploit.

In your write up about Valkyrie Room, you mentioned how your texturing and sculpting skills also evolved.

Yeah, when I started the project I wasn’t too familiar with ZBrush, but early on my mentor told me that because there is a lot of personality in each little rock, and every single asset, she suggested that I sculpt everything. And I agreed with her. I really wanted a certain look and feel, so I sculpted everything. And then it was too much–I was damaging the piece. So I had to then dial it back. But after sculpting rocks for basically a month, I felt very comfortable with ZBrush. I do think that practice makes perfect. I lived it.

Valkyrie Room in progress

How long did your demo reel take you?

Oof. Like six or seven months. And most of that was sculpting.

I do think practice makes perfect. I lived it.
The Viking shield of Valkyrie Room

Learning CG in a hybrid setting

You completed this project after working remotely for most of your program…what was it like coming to campus for your mentorship-focused term?

I was really happy. I knew some of my classmates online, but being able to be with them, talk to them, and work beside them was amazing. It felt right to be surrounded by so many people who have similar interests and goals as you.

There were times when I wanted to throw in the towel, but my colleagues- my friends- were the ones that kept me going even when I didn’t want to look at my project. On top of my amazing classmates, I was getting feedback from people that already work in a top studio.  And when they say “This is looking really good”, you know it actually is!

Do you think being mentored in person was just much, or perhaps more effective, than if you did a full remote program?

If it's remote, you can always do a video call. And these can be very effective in not getting off task! But working side-by-side meant that I could really brainstorm and even sketch with my mentor. Tangents are more likely to happen, yeah, but there is something special about hashing out ideas in person.

The Student Lounge and being mentored at Think Tank

What made working with the mentors at Think Tank so special?

Well they are all industry pros, and often work at nearby studios. On top of my mentor, there are Global Mentors who would host talks and workshops with students at the campus. They were great at providing a different opinion, or outlook, from my personal mentor who was helping me finish my demo reel.

Once I got to Think Tank, I was able to focus on the technical aspects of CG and specialise within game environments specifically.

So, you did a bit of education in Mexico before attending Think Tank. Were there any major differences from learning CG and animation in either place?

At my school in Mexico, Instituto Tecnologico de Monterrey Campus Guadalajara, taught me a little bit of everything. I did 2D Animation, 3D Animation, Rigging, and a bit of Game Design. Because it was technically an Animation degree, the video game stuff was limited. So I kind of knew the basics of everything before I got to Think Tank.

The Portfolio Production Labs at the Think Tank Campus 

But once I got there I was able to focus on the technical aspects of CG and specialise within game environments. My work at Think Tank was also more geared to the industry itself–we met with studio professionals and learned exactly what to expect when looking for a job.

Hybrid Learning Course: CG + 3D Asset Creation for Film or Games

Our signature hybrid program is ideal for those looking to launch their career in the industry. Students master both the fundamentals and advanced techniques of CG remotely before heading to the Think Tank Campus for an immersive, portfolio-focused term.

Learn More

The inspiration behind the work

I was just looking at your Intermediate Term project based on Studio Ghibli’s Kiki’s Delivery Service. Miyazaki is a very environmental artist; does his style continue to inspire you?

Yeah, I'm a big fan of Miyazaki–he's definitely one of my heroes. The first movie I saw of him was Princess Mononoke. There’s a scene really early in the film where the character is running through all this grass and trees–and the environment feels more like a character than the actual character.

There can be so much emotion in a setting.

Totally. I always felt like seeing a very nice environment made me feel more than seeing someone crying. For example, my favorite cinematographer, Roger Deakins, once said about his work that he’s “not afraid of the dark”. So he's not afraid to have his characters and environments in a dark space, and embrace how simple adjustments to lighting can do more for the entire mood of a scene than perhaps anything else.

Brenda’s project based on Miyazaki’s Kiki’s Delivery Service

What do you think the goal of your art is?

I think there is just so much an environment can say about the characters, the person, or the meaning behind a film or game. Like, you can have a very messy room, so maybe you're a messy person. What I want to do is externalise how a character might feel, but in the environment.

There is just so much an environment can say about the characters, the person, or the meaning behind a film or game.

Last question! What’s next for Brenda Santos, the Environment Artist?

Well, right now I'm looking for a job! But I am also working on a personal project that is inspired by Ghost of Tsushima. I’m a big fan of Japanese games and cinema, so I really want to do something that reflects that world, and perhaps a bit more cyberpunk too!

Brenda Santos is an aspiring Environment Artist and Think Tank Graduate 

Connect with Brenda and her artwork through the following links:
Linkedin | Artstation