Tech Art

What Is A Technical Artist?

The requirements for a “Technical Artist” vary massively from studio to studio. I’ve seen these roles all classed as Tech Art:

  • A software developer who is familiar enough with Maya to write and test C++ plugins
  • An artist who is familiar with MEL and able to write simple scripts
  • An experienced end user who can write up tool specs

Bottom line though if you tick these 3 boxes, you could call yourself a Tech Artist somewhere:

  • Able to spot bottlenecks and room for improvement in a pipeline, and step back to see the big picture
  • Able to learn software and pipelines fast(ish)
  • Great communicator (in-person, email, documentation etc)

 

How Do I Get A Job As A Tech Artist?

The mindset is by far the most important thing. Being the go-to “problem solver” is something that is pivotal to the role.

In terms of detail though, because of the variation of the role this is a really hard question to answer. However, I can offer advice based on my personal experience.  There are so many variables in Tech Art that it’s impossible to outline them all here, but this scenario will at least outline what most hiring managers and recruiters look for when scanning potential candidate’s portfolios.

So let’s say you want to focus on the more “tools development” part, which from what I’ve seen seems the most common. This comes up frequently, as a lot of people come to me and say “I can program in Python/C#/C++, but how do I get into Tech Art?”. If you have 20+ hrs at your disposal, this would be a great way to snag an interview:

  • First, install a game engine (UDK/Unity etc) and learn it enough to start using it
  • Then think about a *small* project you can start that allows you to focus on an art area that interests you.
    • Want to be a rigger? The project should be a simple scene with a couple of characters, maybe focusing on something like animation re-targeting.
    • Want to write pipeline tools? The project should focus on getting an asset from the DCC (Maya/Max/Blender) into the engine with as little fuss as possible.
    • Want to be more technical and write plug-ins? The project should focus on content that requires that plugin (e.g. make a deformer node to create blend target, so objects change shape as you shoot them?).
  • Install Perforce, make sure everything goes in there, and that you know how it all works. Use things like shelves and Python/C# hooks to automate tasks.
  • Make your project. Keep it small. Avoid feature creep. The focus is on what YOU want to do. Don’t waste time making lush environments if you want to be a rigger!
  • Document the tool you wrote, with a video if possible. Make sure to include this in your resume submission, as well as the reasoning behind why you chose to create the tool.

This process captures everything needed to be a tech artist:

  • game engine knowledge
  • observation of improvement
  • tools development
  • source control experience
  • documentation of processes

 

 

Role Requirements

Below is a rough outline of fairly standard job requirements for a technical artist role.

Good Communication

Being capable to communicate effectively with artists and engineers is essential to success. This includes not only conversational, but also creating documentation and presentations of workflows. You will become an advocate of improvement, so your voice needs to be heard.

An Understanding of Game Engines

Be up-to-speed on key techniques. You don’t need to know things in-depth, but you do need to communicate with people that have in-depth knowledge, and those that potentially have none. Try to be the middle man. Example: knowing the basic difference between “deferred rendering” and”forward rendering” is useful. Knowing how to implement either is not particularly, unless you aspire to become a graphics engineer.

Knowledge of the 3D Authoring Process

Be comfortable finding your way around a 3D DCC package and be able to create 3D assets. Most studioes require you to create some assets of some kind in a TA role.
Working knowledge of texturing, compression techniques, and be able to use Photoshop/GIMP.

A Positive Attitude

You need to enjoy what the job is day-to-day.
Being a point of support, remaining positive under stress is helpful.
If you write tools, the end users will find a way to break them eventually – don’t be despondent if someone can’t tell you a bug in a constructive manner – take it on the chin.

..Most Roles Require…

Knowledge of a Scripting Language

Be able to write, or at the very least understand, tools in a language (MEL, Python, MaxScript, C#, C++)
If the role is scripting based, you’d need an understanding of 3D math (transformation matrices, 3D vectors)

Specialty (usually optional but preferable):

A lot of larger companies create their Technical Art team under the basis that everyone has a great technical knowledge, but each individual has expertise in a specific area. Smaller companies may expect TAs to be able to handle a few more areas.
For instance:

  • shader development
  • visual effects
  • rigging
  • lighting

..and for a Senior Role..

Drive the Development of Key Toolsets and Pipelines

Work with all departments to ensure the tools created benefit everyone

Lead Other Artists

Be responsible for other Tech Art team members’ careers; mentor and support others and help them grow

 

How To Succeed

I’ve seen a lot of pitfalls in my time. These are the top things to avoid:

  • Over-promising : this is especially common with recent graduates, but we all fall foul to it. There is a desire to prove that you can do something, even if you can’t right at that time. This is great when you first start out as you’re usually given a bit of leeway, but as your career progresses you have to learn to push back a bit. “Under-promise, over-deliver” yields much better respect, as you not only ALWAYS deliver at least what you set out to, but also prove that you know what your limitations are
  • Thinking that you know best : art teams are huge and usually have people with a vast ranging skill-set and years of experience. Even if you 100% certain that you are correct in a conflict, don’t make it so blunt. Saying things like you’re “happy to investigate options” will be more prosperous for your co-worker’s relationships.
  • Mismanagement of time : make sure you allocate time in your sprints for all the meetings, support and other duties that need your time. It can also prove valuable to ensure you have at least a day a month to focus on learning something new. In my experience, unless you’re in crunch, managers will usually be very open to this request!
  • Not leading by example : make sure you practice what you preach. How can you expect others to check their work on the target platform before check-in if you don’t?

Further Reading:

3D Artist to Software Engineer” – a great article about an artist entering the world technical art

Interview with Jeff Hanna” – Jeff is a face anyone who’s been to GDC will know. Industry legend!

(This is part of a larger playlist of interviews with a bunch of industry Tech Artists, worth watching if you’re new to the business)

“Interview with Matt Heiniger, Undead Labs” – Asks the question “what is a technical artist?”