Interview with Brian Recktenwald

Brian Recktenwald studied at Savannah College of Art and Design before getting his first job in the CG industry at LucasArts, where he worked as an environment artist on titles including Indiana Jones and the Staff of Kings and the Star Wars: The Force Unleashed series before becoming environment lead on the studio's final, unreleased project, Star Wars 1313. Currently an environment artist at Naughty Dog, where he describes himself as “proudly helping to create the most beautiful environments ever seen in games”, he has recently worked on Uncharted 4: A Thief's End and Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, and has just recorded his first training video for The Gnomon Workshop: Environment Art Lookdev Using Unreal & Photogrammetry. Below, Brian discusses how photogrammetry is changing environment art, the factors that have shaped his  career and his own personal work, and his advice for young artists hoping to follow in his footsteps.

 

GW: How is photogrammetry changing your workflow as an environment artist?

BR: It crazily increases the speed at which you can recreate natural materials like dirt, rocks, gravel or sand. It also increases the fidelity of the assets you produce, particularly the subtle little details like how dirt overlaps roots or rocks. Tools like Substance Painter are fantastic, and Houdini is opening the door to natural simulation, but my philosophy is that if something is available to capture, it's better to do it that way.

GW: How long does it take to create an asset via photogrammetry?

BR: It depends on the complexity of the asset, and the context. In general, I'd say two to three days for a hero asset; under a day for something simple like a rock.

GW: You use Capturing Realities' RealityCapture for your personal work. What made you choose it?

BR: I've experimented with other photogrammetry software, but RealityCapture is currently unparalleled in terms of speed. There's no cloud networking ability just yet, but it replies on GPUs to process the data rather than CPUs. And the quality is insane: at the highest level, the models are so big that you have to decimate them before you can get them into ZBrush – 16K textures, but also up to tens of million of polygons.

GW: If you can't afford tools like RealityCapture, are libraries of 3D scans a good alternative?

BR: At Naughty Dog, we use libraries like Megascans as well as doing our own captures. I think Megascans is fantastic, but sometimes, there are things that you want to recreate that aren't part of any library. Photogrammetry isn't just for rocks and natural stuff – right now, as a personal project, I'm creating paper sculptures and scanning those. Even with stylised projects, photogrammetry gives you all of these nuances that are tricky either to sculpt or to simulate, and it gives you them for free.

GW: Let's talk about your own route into the industry. Did you always want to be a games artist?

BR: Actually, after seeing Jurassic Park in third grade, I wanted to be a VFX artist. Initially, I wanted to be a physical model-maker, but I realised even back then that the industry was going digital, so I borrowed some software and tried my best to keep up with what was going on on the few community websites that existed at the time. By the time I got to Savannah College of Art and Design in 2002, I knew that I wanted to create high-end CG content, although I didn't know whether I wanted to work on films or games.

GW: Did you use any training from The Gnomon Workshop at the time?

BR: I did. I got the DVDs at SIGGRAPH in New Orleans in 2000. Back then, I was focusing mostly on matte painting, and there were four that I watched non-stop: Yanick Dusseault, Christian Alzmann, Ryan Church and Iain McCaig. SCAD was great and I cherish my time there, and professors such as Dave Kaul, Pat Perrone and Joe Pasquale, but there weren't too many other industry people working there at the time in my field, and I was hungry to hear from people who had been in the industry. The Gnomon DVDs opened that door.

GW: How did you make the switch from matte painting to environment art?

BR: Going through SCAD, I realised that I had more fun creating environments than characters or effects. I like spaces; I like environments that make you feel something. And then LucasArts came and did interviews, and they explained what an environment artist does. At the time, it was modelling, texturing and lighting, and those were the three things that I was most excited by.

When I graduated in 2006, I got my first job at LucasArts. I worked for five months on Indiana Jones and the Staff of Kings, then for a year and half on Star Wars: The Force Unleashed. After that, I went onto the DLC, which was the first time that I got to do a lot of original concepts. I worked with the concept team directly, and a lot of the 3D concepts I created ended up turning into environments further down the line. Being able to own the whole process, rather than just taking a finished concept to completion, was incredible.

After that, I went on to The Force Unleashed 2, then the 1313 project [cancelled action-adventure title Star Wars 1313]. Over the course of the year, I had the chance to get promoted to lead environment artist, but then Disney bought us, and I had a bad feeling about it, so I took the pre-emptive measure of going to Naughty Dog. What we were working on at the time was very Naughty Dog-inspired – it was almost like Uncharted in space – so Naughty Dog was next on my passion list.

GW: Are there any career lessons you can learn from working on a cancelled project?

BR: That nothing is sacred. Be willing to embrace the fact that things change – accepting the fact that some ideas are not going to go to completion has helped me at Naughty Dog, too. I'll pour whatever I can into an idea I believe in, but I'm willing to let go of it if it doesn't fit within the scope or the design plan for a project.

GW: Panel discussions with Naughty Dog artists have been some of Gnomon's most popular events. What makes the studio so hot right now?

BR: I think it's our drive for excellence. The culture is about very open communication, and there are no producers, so there's nothing defining the deadline except for lead artists and directors, who have usually been at the studio and in the trenches for a long time. When we bring new people in, a lot of training and vetting goes on to make sure that we're all on the same page, then everything happens organically after that, embracing iteration.

GW: What advice do you have for young artists hoping to follow in your footsteps?

BR: Focus on a few things you feel you are excited about. If you want to be an environment artist, don't extend too much into characters or effects, for example. Having a successful career is a balancing act between doing what you're passionate about and doing what is marketable in the industry, so getting feedback can help you to find your own path. Find out what gets the biggest response, both in class and on sites like ArtStation, and focus on that. It isn't necessarily a quantitative process – I'm not a big fan of doing things simply because they get the most likes online – but more a way of getting the conversation going.

Also focus on the art style of the studio where you want to work. I was always into photorealistic stuff, so Star Wars was a natural fit: it's a lived-in universe that feels real. The Uncharted series is a bit more stylised, but it's always motivated by photorealism, and that's why I moved to Naughty Dog.

And foundation skills are incredibly important. The need to be able to model properly – creating proper edge flow, making sure you have a clean mesh with quads, clean UVs, and so on – isn't going to go away any time soon. Drawing is also crazily important, even if it isn't what you end up doing day to day, because it teaches you the fundamentals of composition, proportion, and of form through shading and lighting.

GW: Are there any mistakes in those basic skills that you see young artists making on their reels?

BR: One of the main problems is editing; picking out what's worthwhile putting on your reel in the first place. Sometimes putting one thing after another immediately degrades the feeling that you had from the first piece. Show your professors and ask them how the reel is working. Taking feedback from people that you trust, whether in class or in the industry, helps make your reel more refined, and helps you to grow as an artist.

GW: What are the main trends in environment art at the minute?

BR: Procedural workflows. I leverage procedural and simulation-based tools every day: Marvelous Designer is my main go-to for cloth, and in my personal work, I use 3ds Max, which has a lot of procedural features via the modifier stack and plugins available. A basic but powerful plugin that I use on sci-fi 3D concepts is the free greeble plug-in, which extrudes a surface and divides it randomly. When you combine that with tools like Substance Painter or Substance Designer, you get unique results very quickly. Photogrammetry is another big thing to keep tabs on: it resurfaced after Star Wars: Battlefront came out. [EA DICE having used it heavily during the work.]

GW: In your Gnomon training, you discuss the use of an 'asset gym'. Can you explain the term?

BR: It's a phrase we use at Naughty Dog, and that I've seen used at other studios. It is a 'set' with all the assets and materials for a project in a single space so that you can check that everything has been created to the same scale, and that the materials all respond to light in the same way. It's almost like the Content Browser in Unreal Engine, but it lets you see everything in context. For me, being able to see everything together in one space in the same lighting conditions is super-helpful.

GW: Who are your inspirations as an artist?

BR: My initial visual inspiration, between the ages of five and eight, was HR Giger. There were a few weird situations bringing his books in to school, because they use a lot of phallic imagery. But at the time I didn't know that: I just thought it was beautiful design. It was very alluring and the shapes were great.

I had all of The Art of Star Wars books growing up, so Ralph McQuarrie was another huge inspiration. I also liked Moebius and Syd Mead; and, from outside the world of concept art, Roger Deakins and Caravaggio.

Currently ArtStation is just pouring out great work. Jama Jurabaev, who is currently at ILM, is doing some amazing mixed media work that combines VR and 3D sculpting. He's one of the key inspirations for me at the minute. I haven't tried to replicate any of his techniques, but his work combines a painterly, illustrative look with proper 3D and perspective: it feels like you can explore the spaces he creates.

And then there are all of the Naughty Dog concept artists: Eytan Zana, Aaron Limonick... oh my god. Not only in work are they inspiring, but what they're doing outside of work is incredible.

GW: What do you do yourself outside of work?

BR: I try to work out as much as I can to keep my mental and physical state the best it can be. I get out hiking whenever I can. And I play a lot of games. Right now, I'm trying to beat Super Mario Odyssey, and I'm going to get into Zelda next. I also still play Team Fortress until 4:00 a.m. some nights. I think it's important to know what other studios are doing, even those working in different visual styles – plus, it's fun.

Photography is another huge thing for me: most recently, drone photography. It ties back to work because of photogrammetry, but I love getting out and taking as many photos as I can; then trying to find the ones that stand out and posting them on Facebook and Instagram. Again, it comes back to trying to get feedback.

GW: You also make Ghostbusters props. What's that all about?

BR: I haven't done it much recently, because I don't have a garage at the minute, but I used to spend hours making props. It was mostly kitbashing – finding stuff in Home Depot and sticking it together – but I'd love to get into 3D printing, and to learn vacuum forming and other proper model-making techniques. Eventually I want to take those skills and combine them with photogrammetry. Quite a few projects I'm working on right now involve making something in the real world, scanning it, then integrating it into a game environment.

GW: Finally, what single piece of advice would you like to give other artists?

BR: Push through. If you feel you're in a rut, or you feel uninspired, start a personal project. You don't necessarily need to finish it, but getting the ball rolling when your motivation is running low is very important, both professionally and personally. CG work can get kind of monotonous and technical – the output never is, but the day-to-day stuff can be – so being able to inject some excitement from outside sources keeps things inspirational.

 

Check out Environment Art Lookdev Using Unreal & Photogrammetry with with Brian Recktenwald