Career Advice: Working as a Character Artist in Games and Visual Effects

Career Advice: Working as a Character Artist in Games and Visual Effects

After completing his studies at the University of South Wales, Daniel Cabello emerged as a 3D Character Artist in the gaming industry. Now part of the UK-based company Airship Interactive, he shares his journey and advice for aspiring artists seeking a dynamic career.

After his studies at the University of South Wales, Daniel Cabello broke into the industry as a 3D Character Artist currently working in the game industry. The Spanish-born artist is now employed by a UK-based company called Airship Interactive. He sits down with us to share his journey and advice for aspiring artists looking for an exciting and challenging career like his own.

What is your current role and what does it involve?

I am responsible for various tasks as a Deputy Senior Character Artist at Airship. As the name says, this role is meant to be a preparation for the role of a Senior or more like training to achieve the role which will mean higher responsibilities.

For now, my tasks closely align with those of a Senior. I have the opportunity to collaborate with AAA Studios worldwide, creating character assets. I assume the roles of Project Lead or Supervisor, striving to deliver the best final quality while maintaining a balance between assets. This entails working under tight deadlines, organising tasks efficiently, and ensuring timely submissions. Additionally, I am responsible for creating realistic bids and estimates for upcoming tasks and assets. Communication is key, and I engage directly with clients, typically Art Directors and Producers, to fully understand their goals and timelines. I also maintain contact with juniors and graduates, taking on line management responsibilities. Ultimately, my goal is to consistently deliver high-quality assets that meet or exceed client expectations.

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

What motivated me to start this career was watching movies and playing games when I was a child and trying to figure out how the hell everything I was watching was being created. It was such a mystery for me. That was the initiative.

It was when I started studying and immersing myself in this world that I started to understand every part of the process. Sculpting characters in particular caught my eye. With this understanding, I continued immersing myself in games, marveling at the quality, realism, and intricate details achieved by various companies. The compelling stories behind their games and assets motivated me to embrace the challenge. I aspired to create content of similar caliber, using the industry's top-quality work as both a benchmark and inspiration.

Describe the journey you took into your current role.

It was after studying that I started working on small commissions and even working for free sometimes to build myself and my portfolio.

I landed a great first job at Pure Imagination Studios, where the excitement peaked as I worked on crafting gore creatures for a VR Game Experience inspired by a Netflix movie.

However, I reached a point where I desired a more personal connection with my colleagues. This led me to seek opportunities closer to home, prompting a move to the UK. Remembering Tomos Hywel Evans (Principal Groom Artist at Airship), who had given a masterclass at my alma mater, the University of South Wales in Cardiff, I reached out to him. Fortunately, Airship had a position available, and I seized the chance, kickstarting my career as a Character Artist at Airship.

I want to underscore the invaluable support I received from my mentor, Pierre Benjamin, during my time at the University of South Wales in Cardiff. Especially during the pandemic, he provided guidance, tips, and a wealth of knowledge that proved instrumental in completing my work and navigating the transition from university to a professional career.

Which departments and key people do you work closely with? How do you manage to maintain a cohesive art direction and quality across projects while working with various artists in different locations and time zones?

Since Airship is an outsourcing company, I collaborate with big companies worldwide, mostly AAA studios. The way I contribute to projects is similar to that of a mid-level character artist. I receive tasks and complete them. Additionally, as a Deputy Senior, I assume the role of Lead Project when needed. This means I am responsible for organising the project, including creating documentation, preparing template files, instructing and providing feedback to other artists to ensure we all follow the same art direction.

I am in daily contact with the producer to understand our bids, deadlines, and progress. I communicate with the client to address any questions during the process. I suggest new ways to improve our workflow, assign bid times and tasks to artists, and always take responsibility for the most challenging assets in the project.

To maintain balance between assets, I ensure consistent color balance, especially when multiple artists are working on the costume for the same character. After each artist finishes their garments, I assemble and give it a final polish, balancing brightness, color, wear, dirt, tear, etc., to make it look cohesive.

As mentioned earlier, I regularly review work-in-progress (WIPs) at good stopping points, providing necessary feedback to ensure adherence to the same art direction. I also provide completed, approved assets. This allows others to open them and understand our expectations in terms of quality, details, textures, low poly budget, lighting, and overall direction.

How does the team collaborate and communicate?

In terms of communication, we hold daily meetings with producers and weekly meetings with the client. However, this doesn’t mean we can’t reach out to each other at any time if we need assistance or have questions.

To maintain effective organization between tasks and meet deadlines simultaneously, I prefer to start with a warm-up before the project. I build an extensive Pure Ref document containing various references, tutorials, tips, videos, and other techniques. This allows artists to refer to it and enrich their understanding. Consequently, we begin to share common techniques, and our workflow becomes more unified throughout the project.

I also create a Miro Board for asset tracking, where we can post work-in-progress (WIPs), final submissions, internal feedback, and client feedback. This provides an open and transparent view of internal bids and deadlines. If adjustments are needed because someone is facing challenges, they can openly communicate with me. I'm here to offer assistance, extend deadlines, and ensure we achieve our goals without rushing, eliminating stress and maintaining a high-quality outcome.

How do you approach and overcome challenges in your projects, especially when faced with complex or unfamiliar tasks?

In almost every new project, challenges arise. There are times when I don’t have a clue about how to overcome them, and other times I do have ideas. I believe that even if you don’t know how to do something, just start by tackling any aspect of the asset that you feel comfortable with.

I've found that as soon as I start working on something that initially seems complex, I keep progressing without noticing, and suddenly, that challenging asset starts to become simpler. Sometimes it’s just a matter of working on it and observing what happens. Trust your intuition and logic; intuition can be more powerful than intellect in some cases.

Remember, I'm part of a team; I'm not alone. If I need help because I'm totally lost, I can turn to our Art Director, Peter Minister, or other artists who may have answers—even juniors can provide valuable insights. So, don’t hesitate to ask for help if you're on a team. Support each other, share helpful videos, go on calls to show or learn how to do something.

And, don’t forget about YouTube and Google! It's not cheating to search the internet for solutions. It's like going to the library to learn how photosynthesis works. You don’t instantly know something unless someone shows you how to do it.

When facing challenges, it's important not to stress out. Although this can be difficult (it still happens to me), if you don’t freak out, you’re fine. Train your brain to stay calm, get things done, and if needed, ask for help.

Where do you get your inspiration from and how do you implement it into your work?

Lately, the industry has been insanely competitive; artists are so talented that sometimes it’s hard not to try and compare yourself to them. But then, I see their experience, and I think, 'Never mind, he has 20 years of experience; I’m fine.' So, it’s important to know who you are comparing yourself to, and even then, I would try not to compare yourself to anyone.

Overall, I use all that high-quality work as inspiration and set goals for my daily work. Recently, I watched the movie Wonka, and I thought, 'I want to make an Oompa-Loompa game-ready character.' So yeah, I would say, keep wandering on ArtStation, keep playing games, keep watching movies, and keep observing real-life creatures. I think that’s a key task to keep in mind to never lose it.

Can you share your aspirations and long-term goals within the field of Character Art? Where do you see yourself in the future?

As for myself, in the future, I would love to continue learning as much as possible and become 100% confident in handling any challenges I encounter in the field of Character Art. Hopefully, one day, I will be able to assume the role of a Principal Character Artist or Lead Character Artist. Perhaps, as I gain more experience, I could also find happiness in taking on an Art Director role.

As a mini goal, I would like to attend the ZBrush Summit yearly events, learning from the experts and exploring different cool techniques. Maybe one day, I could have the knowledge and confidence to be one of the speakers as well.

If you could give one piece of advice to artist’s trying to get a job, what would it be?

And finally, before I conclude, I would like to share a few words with all the graduates out there currently studying. Please, continue working on your craft after university. Identify what motivates you and focus on that aspect of your studies. Merely completing assignments is not enough. Engage in personal projects, seek feedback from experienced artists, and connect with professionals on platforms like LinkedIn and Artstation. Build meaningful connections. Don't hesitate to apply for jobs, even if it means working for free initially. Experience is invaluable. Pursue internships and explore graduate/junior opportunities. Connect with HR and talent professionals, sharing your portfolio and expressing your motivation, as passion is a key factor in this industry.

I recall my History teacher in school, Alfred Flores, once told me: 'Find your motivation and apply it to the real world when you start working. Your choice now may shape the next 50 years of your life, so choose carefully, ensuring it brings you happiness and motivation.'

You can find find more of Daniel's work and contact him via his Rookies profile here.