Isaac Olander, a Futuregames graduate, found success by founding a 3D character production studio, Tallgran, driven by his passion for computer processing and art. Explore his journey into 3D and his studio's work in this article.
Have you ever thought it would be great to start your own studio and take your journey in 3D into your own hands? Futuregames graduate, Isaac Olander, has found success by starting a studio specialising in the production of 3D Characters.
In this article, Isaac talks about his journey into 3D, his love for computer processing, and the work he does with clients at his company Tallgran.
What's your current role and what does it involve?
I’m currently the CEO and Art Director of Tallgran. My job involves facilitating the production of 3D characters, managing client relationships and anything that comes with running a company.
Where do you work, and what type of projects are they involved with?
At Tallgran we specialize in 3D characters. We offer Art direction, technical consultation and the creation of character assets for games and VFX. We have a variety of client projects involving video games, game cinematics, TV-shows, marketing campaigns, virtual influencers and digital doubles.
In terms of the creation process we cover the whole 3D character creation process, which includes concepting, modeling, grooming, texturing, rigging and skinning. For games we create real time optimized characters. For game trailers, we take existing in-game character models and upgrade them to a cinematic level. For TV shows and marketing, we often work with 3D scanned data of actors and models to create hyper realistic digital doubles, indistinguishable from reality. Recently we have used Unreal Engine to produce virtual influencers! The projects vary, but the one thing they have in common is high quality production 3D assets.
When did you first realise you wanted to work in the creative industries?
There was definitely an “Aha” moment where I knew that I was going to work in the games industry, and I think some context from my past might make that moment more clear.
Growing up I had a hard time reconciling my interest in art with my love for computers, one required me to think rationally while the other leaned more towards emotion and creativity. I was unable to consolidate these two interests into one career path, so I decided to try out both separately.
When I was 15 I began exploring the possibility of working as a freelance 2D artist. I started drawing like comic book artists did, charcoal, ink and colors. I would do commissions for friends and post my work online. Before long I had my first paid commission, I believe it was 30 dollars. I definitely enjoyed this while it lasted, but I could not see it as a sustainable career. I did not know that there was room in the games industry for people like me.
So I decided to study hard. Eventually I moved to London to pursue a Bachelor of Science in Geology, at Queen Mary University. The subject was interesting because it involved working with software and math, we would do data analysis, produce statistics etc. However, I soon realized that this career choice lacked the possibility for creative expression that I sought in life.
I changed my degree and moved back to Sweden to study Game design and Graphics. There, while doing a group study my friend asked me to try ZBrush on her drawing pad. I was immediately hooked! I realised that working with 3D I could finally merge my love for art and computers. Since that moment I was determined to work with 3D modeling. I spent the next 4 months only sculpting in Zbrush, from morning to night.
How did you get your first big break?
I was commissioned to make a 3D model of an actress for the TV-show, Fear The Walking Dead. The actress was unavailable to film a particular scene, so the client wanted a digital double to replace her for that scene.
I thought the project was super interesting because it was so challenging. It was the first serious production I was involved in as a freelancer and the first time I was single handedly responsible for the whole character pipeline. I did everything from sculpting, texturing, grooming, blend shapes and lookdev, and I had 1 month to do it. On top of that, the 3D model had to be indistinguishable from the real actress and fit seamlessly with other real actors in the scene.
When the episode finally aired no-one really paid attention to the 3D model. So I did an okay job. I shared some renders of the 3D model on social media. From that post I got a lot of buzz and clients started flooding in. That’s when I saw the huge demand for character art and decided to start my own company and dove head first in the opportunity. Clients have been reaching out to me ever since.
Describe the journey you took into your current role?
My journey into my current role is mostly me working on projects that I find interesting and making choices that let me be in charge of my own time. To be completely honest, I only studied and learned things that I personally found interesting.
My journey was simple, I put 100% focus on producing artwork for my portfolio. So whenever I wanted to learn a new technique or create a 3D character, I would always do so with the intention of featuring it in my portfolio.
In order to maximise the value of my work, I would take into consideration the cultural trends and the relevance of the softwares and techniques I used.
Sometimes my portfolio pieces were too ambitious in consideration to my skill level at the time, however the benefit of working on challenging projects is that you end up learning a lot as a byproduct of making them.
I would prioritise my portfolio work over any school assignment, because they taught me the most and at the end of the day it’s the portfolio that landed me jobs.The only thing I actively studied was the art fundamentals and how they apply to different artforms, say 2D, 3D, animation, photography, cinematography etc, there is no getting around that.
More importantly, I would say that the peers and friends that I’ve met in this industry have helped me develop as a professional. Without their support and enthusiasm I don’t think I would’ve enjoyed my journey at all.
Game design and 3D modeling can be quite isolating, because developing your skill mostly involves sitting alone in front of a computer for days on end. It’s important for me to work on group projects, and to be in a space, digital or physical, where you can inspire and be inspired by other people.
At the end of the day we are in this industry to share ideas and to create cool stuff together with other passionate individuals. With that said, I am forever grateful to all the people I’ve met over the years, who have inspired and continue to push me on my journey today.
Why did you choose to study where you have?
I decided to study Game Design and Graphics at Uppsala University as it is a world renowned University, and it was located in my native country Sweden. At the time it was one of the few game education programs in Sweden. My most valuable lessons from this education were about teamwork. I also got greater insight into the business side of the Games industry, as my team got the opportunity and invites to attend various conferences and investors to present our games. We were lucky enough to present our student game at ALT_CTRL section of the Global Games Conference in San Francisco, and our University supported us with the resources to attend investor pitches etc. Although the education was good, it was very hard to break into the games industry from Uppsala because the program was technically an academic program, as opposed to the more practical vocational schools out there.
This is why I decided to study at Futuregames after graduating from Uppsala University. Futuregames was a more practical education with a program that specialized in 3D graphics.
The program at Futuregames was very competitive, with an application process that involved portfolio reviews and interviews. The education also included a six month long internship. Nearly all graduating students ended up with a job in the games industry at that time. So it was a great chance to get my foot in the industry.
How does your education complement your work?
As technology develops we see that the differences between Games and VFX workflow grows smaller. There is less need to be concerned with computing power in games, so now a lot of the skills are transferable between both industries. Currently I’m able to capitalise on the overlap between these two previously separate industries through my business.
Day in the life
Describe a typical day for you and your team?
I will start my day with a big cup of coffee, I never eat breakfast. A typical day involves adding and organizing tasks for client projects in the company. I will spend time in feedback rounds from clients and addressing those with my team of artists. My clients are often in completely different time zones than me, so I will have meetings in the evening quite often. I am also personally responsible for some of the art tasks, so I take care of those later in the day.
A successful day depends on whether tasks have been planned and executed in such a manner that we meet project deadlines and quality targets. My main responsibility is to make sure that all of our clients receive their products on time. It seems straightforward, but there are always unforeseen complications. I need to account for those unexpected errors in my planning, and address them when they arise. I’m always on the lookout for anything that can go wrong and always on the clock. All in all, everyday ends up being quite different from the last.
What third-party and proprietary tools do you use on a daily basis? What does your workflow look like?
Typical workflow for us starts with ZBrush for sculpting and concepting. These models are then ingested in Maya or Blender for fixing topology, UV Mapping, rigging, skinning etc. Substance 3D Painter is used for texturing. We occasionally use Mari when the client requires an insane level of detail. When we get to the point of rendering or delivery, the program we use depends entirely on the client preferences. For instance we often make our assets compatible with programs such as Cinema 4D, Houdini, V-Ray or Arnold Render, Unreal Engine etc.
Which departments and key people do you work closely with?
I’m the bridge between the Art Team, Clients, Collaborating studios, and of course our accountant.
Are there any industry trends that are changing the nature of your role?
I don’t think there is a particular trend that is changing my role as CEO, because the inherent nature of the role is to have a vision for the company and steer it in that direction. Other than that it’s mainly to maintain client relationships, keep up to date with trends, and pivot accordingly. That part will remain the same regardless of what the next industry trend is.
However my role as Art Director is impacted by the emergence of remote work. It has enabled me to recruit and manage artists internationally. It has given my company a level of flexibility that was not previously possible. I have access to a larger network of clients, as well as hirees. Most artists that I work with are international.
AI is the obvious industry trend that is making headways. So far it has not impacted the nature of my role. Programs like ChatGPT have been useful for writing, summarizing texts and even for trouble shooting 3D programs with. But apart from that I have not seen any immediate change.
One thing you’d never change about your job?
Being my own boss and picking my own working hours. I don’t mind working overtime as long as it’s my decision to do so.
But one thing you wouldn’t mind seeing changed is?
Remote work. Although remote work has given my company a lot of benefits, I personally enjoy seeing the people I work with in person.
Is formal education essential for someone aspiring to do your job?
No, but it helps immensely. Formal education teaches you to think critically. It also encourages you to teach yourself new things. In terms of art, it will help you understand the art fundamentals, which are imperative if you want to reach a higher level of art regardless of the medium you use. Formal education also gives you the time and space to experiment and fail. However the best part of formal education is that you have the opportunity to build a large network of like minded people. It’s an environment that promotes self development and if you’re lucky you will find peers who can help you reach your goals.
What tasks would you be typically asked to do as a junior artist?
The work of a junior artist often involves tasks that are straightforward, such as ingesting purchased 3D assets and making them compatible with various programs. UV Mapping, texturing and lookdev the model in the render scene. As a junior artist, you will gradually take on more responsibilities to fuel your development. Sometimes these tasks can seem very challenging, but the challenge is an integral part of the learning process.
As a junior artist you are expected to and sometimes encouraged to mess up. Avoiding mistakes is important, but It’s even more important to be able to take responsibility and rectify your mistakes when they inevitably happen.
All in all, a junior artist will be asked to do their best and to learn how to work at a professional level, with plenty of leeway for mistakes to learn from.
What skills do you look for when hiring an artist?
I look for two things. First of all I look for competence. The proof is in the pudding so to speak. The best portfolio piece usually reflects an artist's current skill level and software proficiency. Then I look for time management skills, self management. Basically I look for all the things that indicate that an artist can deliver what they say they can deliver, within the timeframe that they’ve specified.
Secondly I look for passion. I really love working with art, so I look for people who share my passion. I look for people who see creating as something entertaining and fun, rather than work. Like me, these kinds of people watch 3D tutorials on Friday nights because it’s fun!
What skills seem to be missing all too often?
Time estimation. How much art can you produce over a set period of time? If you can answer this question accurately, then you will more consistently perform at an optimal level. You should be the person who has the best understanding of your ability, not your manager. If you can self manage, and consistently deliver on deadlines that you set out for yourself, then you will be much more valuable to a game project where every hour counts. To be clear, it’s not about your ability to deliver on time, it’s about your ability to communicate factually. If you’re aware that you will miss a deadline, then you must communicate that. This skill will make you attractive to potential employers.
Describe your attitude towards your job?
I love my job and I look forward to Mondays. I take a lot of pride in my work so I make a lot of effort to deliver the best products possible. As long as I do my best, I’m happy.
Where do you get your inspiration from and how do you implement it into your work?
I find inspiration in mundane everyday life. I think my friends are inspiring, my family, animals, phones, bugs, clouds, anything is inspirational if you are open to receive the inspiration. If I feel uninspired I will take a break and take a walk in the woods and that usually works.
I think that inspiration can help you explore something familiar with a sense of novelty. In that way inspiration can help me perceive repetitive tasks as exciting.
Describe a project brief that you’d recommend artists create for their portfolio?
Pick something that actually interests you. Nothing too complicated, just something that you actually would enjoy making. Then consider the portfolio piece to have 3 stages that you need to complete.
Complete the project to the point where you feel it’s good enough to be presented in your portfolio.
Consider the results from Step 1 a different project altogether, let it serve as a reminder of where you used to be skillswise. Step 1 is now the starting point for your new project! Look at the portfolio of your favorite professional artist, look at how they have approached similar projects to your own. How close are you to their level of quality? This is where Step 2 begins. Push your project to the point where it is at the same level as your favorite artist. Even if this means remaking most of your project. No pain no gain!
Once your project is on the level of your idol, consider all the previous renders and presentation of the project as iteration 1. Now redo all the renders, rethink how you can get the most out of the presentation of this project. Try new camera angles, new lighting, animation, edit in post. Do everything you can to make the presentation as meaningful and breathtaking as possible.
In regards to step 2. You can rinse and repeat this process indefinitely. In my best projects I’ve gone through step 2 at least 3 times. Meaning that all of my best artworks actually have 3 iterations that I don’t show anyone.
What mistakes do you see artists making when applying for jobs?
Not enough effort on the portfolio. The portfolio is what gets you the job. It’s easy to compare your portfolio to your peers, but really you should be comparing it to the people who are already working at the company where you’re seeking a job. If you can outperform them, you are almost guaranteed to get hired.
Social skills are also important. The game industry involves a lot of teamwork with extremely stressful situations and tight deadlines. Definitely join local or Online game jams. I can’t recommend those enough! You get to work in teams to produce games in very tight deadlines, ranging from hours to days. It’s a lot of fun and you get first hand experience developing games.
I also recommend going to conferences and industry events, obviously to network, but also to participate in our industry at a more personal level.
If you could give one piece of advice to artists starting out, what would it be?
This industry has space for every niche, including yours. Do what you think is fun and give it your all.
If you could go back in time to when you first started out, what advice would you give yourself?