Most multimedia artists and animators use their computer skills as well as their artistic abilities to produce computer games that may entertain, test, and even teach players. Artists and animators work as part of a team that develops a concept for a game, its rules, various levels of play, and its story from beginning to end. Depending on the size of the company they work for and the project they are working on, artists and animators may be responsible for working on one specific game aspect, such as texture (that is, creating the textured look for each object in the game), or be responsible for working on several game aspects, such as character building, environment, and motion. Since its early days, when Pong was all the rage, the gaming industry has grown into a multibillion dollar field and it can offer a fun, continuously changing, and rewarding environment in which to work. Other multimedia artists and animators work in the motion picture and television industries, advertising, and computer design services.
Multimedia Artist and Animator Career History
The computer video gaming industry is a relatively new field that can trace its roots back to the second half of the 20th century. At that time, computers were still very large machines that were expensive to run and available only in such places as universities and government research laboratories. While a number of people created forerunners to computer video games, the first such game was not developed until several students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology began working on the idea. In 1962 their efforts resulted in Spacewar, the first fully interactive game specifically made to be played on a computer. Steve Russell was the main programmer of Spacewar and is considered one of the founders of this field. In 1966, Ralph Baer, an engineer and inventor, created his own video game and game console based on a television set. He continued to work on his invention, which became commercially available as The Odyssey in 1972. In addition to Russell and Baer, inventor Nolan Bushnell was instrumental in creating the computer video game industry. While Baer was working on game equipment to be used in the home, Bushnell focused his efforts on arcades, where he thought video games could become commercially successful. His game Computer Space was the first video game designed to be played in an arcade. However, the game proved too complicated to operate and it did not become popular. Nevertheless, Bushnell continued his game work, and in 1972 he and programmer Al Alcorn created Pong. Pong was a simple video game of tennis that became wildly popular and revolutionized the industry.
Once people had caught on to the easy yet addictingly fun game of Pong, they were willing to try out other video games and wanted more variety. As game creators worked on developing new games, they improved existing technologies and invented new ones to enhance their work. The development and popularization of equipment, such as home game consoles, personal computers, the Internet, and mobile phones, also meant games could be played in a wide variety places and at just about any time. And as computer technologies grew ever more sophisticated, the artistic quality of games also improved. Colors, textures, smooth movement, sounds, and multiple levels of play are just some of the game features that have improved over the years and will continue to do so. As games have become more complex and the industry grown, workers have begun to specialize in areas that interest them, such as programming, testing, and artistic quality. Today’s game artists and animators are skilled professionals responsible for the look of everything a game player sees on the screen.
Multimedia Artist and Animator Job Description
Multimedia artists and animators work on the creation of games, which can fall into several categories, including sports, action/adventure, simulation, and education. Today, games are also played in a variety of environments, such as on personal computers, in arcades, over the Internet, and on consoles at home. Additionally, games are typically created to appeal to a certain audience, for example, boys, girls, teens, men in their 20s, or everyone. As they do their work, artists and animators must always keep these factors in mind to ensure that the look they produce will meet the game’s requirements.
Artists and animators may work at small, start-up companies that are trying to produce their first big-hit game, or they may work at established companies, producing new games for an already successful series. Because of factors such as company size, personal skills and experience, type of game worked on, and developing technologies, not all game artists and animators have the same responsibilities—or even the same job titles— throughout the industry. Some may specialize on a particular aspect of the game, such as creating the game’s environments (for example, a forest, a city, the surface of another planet), while others may work on multiple aspects of a game, such as building a character, animating it, and creating other objects in the game. No matter what their job title or the type of game they work on, however, artists and animators must be able to work as part of a team because several groups, or teams, of people usually work together to produce a game. In addition to the artists and animators, these include people who come up with the game idea and its rules, computer programmers who create the software for the game, and game testers who make sure the game works properly.
Game designers begin the process of developing a video game by considering the intended audience, the type of equipment on which the game will be played, and the number of players to be involved. They collaborate to come up with a workable game idea, game rules, and levels of play. Conceptual artists sometimes create story-boards, which sketch out elements of the game, such as characters and action, and set a visual tone that the final product should have. This sketch work does not typically become part of the finished product’s “in-game” art. It does, though, give the other artists a visual direction on which to base their work.
Video games are made to look two-dimensional (2D), three-dimensional (3D), or combine both 2D and 3D features. Artists who create in-game art with a 2D look do this by drawing on paper then scanning the work into a computer. Artists who create in-game art that has a 3D look use special computer software to make the artwork inside a computer. Some artists may also build models or sculptures of objects then use a 3D scanner to scan the model into the computer. The artist may then use software to touch-up the image until it has the desired look.
Character artists, also called character builders, are responsible for creating the characters in a game. They may draw a variety of sketches to plan out the character whether it is 2D or 3D. Then, to create a 3D character, character artists work on a computer and begin building the character from the inside out. To do this, they use software that generates basic shapes, which they manipulate to create a “skeleton” for the character. The artists then add skin, fur, scales or other type of covering to the skeleton as well as colors and details, such as the eyes.
Background artists, sometimes known as environmental modelers or modelers, create the game’s settings. For example, they may need to create realistic city scenes with various buildings, parking ramps, and streets for different levels of play in the game. They may also need to build backgrounds for imaginary places, such as a planet in another galaxy. Background artists are responsible for providing the right setting for the game, and they must make sure their artwork is in correct proportion to other game elements. To do this for 3D environments, they sketch out their designs on paper, consult with other artists, and use the computer to build the backgrounds. In some cases, the background artist will create objects that are part of the scene, such as the furniture in a room, or items a character might use, like a sword or magic stone. In other cases, another artist—a 3D object specialist or object builder—will create such items. Once again, this artist must make sure his or her work is in proportion to the other artwork and matches the game’s visual style.
Texture artists add detail to all the game’s artwork so that the surface of each element appears as it should. Texture artists, for example, make a brick wall in a background look rough and brick-like, make a character in the rain look wet, or make a treasure of jewels sparkle and shine. They work fairly closely with the background artists to ensure that the textures they create match what those artists had envisioned. To build textures, texture artists may draw, paint, or photograph surfaces then scan the images into the computer. They use software to manipulate the texture image and “wrap” it around the object on which they are working.
Animators are responsible for giving movement to the game’s characters. They must have an understanding of human anatomy and often model game characters’ movements on actual human or animal movement. After all, even if the character is a green, three-eyed alien with wings, it still needs to move smoothly and believably through a scene. In one method of animation, the artist builds a model or sculpture of a character, scans it into the computer, and then uses software to animate the character in the computer. In another method, which is typically used with sports games to create the realistic movements of athletes, actual people are used as models. In this method, called “motion capture,” a person wearing body sensors goes through whatever motions the game character will be doing—jumping, throwing a football, running, dribbling a basketball, and so on. The motion sensors send information to a computer and the computer creates a “skeleton” of person in motion. The animator then builds on this skeleton, adding skin, clothing, and other details.
Animators are also responsible for getting characters’ personalities to show through. They must use their artistic skills to convey feelings, such as anger, fear, and happiness, through a character’s facial expressions and body language. Animators may work closely with the character artists and the game designers to get an understanding of each character’s personality and goals. That way animators can determine, for example, if a character’s smile should be wide and friendly, small and meek, or more like a sneer than a real smile.
All artists and animators must keep practical information in mind as they do their work. The type of equipment a game is designed for, for example, will impose limitations on such elements as the speed of play and the details that will be visible. Artists and animators must also be able to work on schedule, meeting the deadlines set for their stage in the game development process. If an artist comes up with great work but is always missing deadlines, he or she will be delaying the production of the game and perhaps putting the project in jeopardy. Few team members will want to work with someone like that. Additionally, artists and animators need to know how to use available technologies and techniques. Because this work is part of the dynamic computer industry, new equipment and processes are always being developed and refined. Artists and animators must want to keep learning throughout their careers so that their skills are up to date.
Multimedia Artist and Animator Career Requirements
If you are interested in working in the video game field as an artist or animator, you should take art and computer classes in high school. Math classes, such as algebra and geometry, will also be helpful. If your school offers graphic design classes, be sure to take those. Biology classes can offer the opportunity to learn about anatomy and physics can teach you about motion. Most artists and animators today have college degrees, so take classes that will help you prepare for a college education, including history, government, and English.
Many people in this field have degrees in fine arts, graphic arts, or industrial design, but it is possible to enter the field with a degree in another area, such as architecture or computer science. It is important to get a broad-based background in the arts, and traditional arts should not be overlooked. Classes in drawing, sculpture, painting, and color theory will teach you many of the basics artists need to know. Some schools offer classes in animation, and even if you don’t plan on becoming an animator, these classes will be helpful to you later in your career. Naturally, computer classes are important to take, and you should try to learn about game art software, such as 3D Studio Max, as well as other software, like Photoshop. And even though artists and animators usually don’t do game programming, take computer programming classes to at least learn the basics. The more you understand about all aspects of game development, the better able you’ll be to make your artistic contributions enhance a game.
Multimedia artists and animators must be creative and able to translate their imaginative ideas into visual representations. They should have a keen sense of color, be able to visualize things in three dimensions, and work as part of a group. Like all artists, they are able to give and receive criticism in a fair and impersonal manner. Curiosity and a willingness to learn are important traits that drive artists and animators to use new technologies or try different techniques to get just the right visual effect for something like a character’s shadow. Artists and animators should also like to play games themselves. The enjoyment they get from playing, and an understanding of why they like to play games, helps them to be better game makers.
Exploring Multimedia Artist and Animator Career
If you are interested in becoming a multimedia artist or an animator, you can start quite simply by drawing characters and landscapes. You can try copying images from games that you know or create your own characters and settings. Remember, you don’t have to be high-tech right away. It’s also important to familiarize yourself with the industry, so read publications such as Game Developer (http://www.gamasutra.com/topic/game-developer) and Animation World(http://www.awn.com/animationworld). You also might want to read the online publication Breaking In: Preparing for Your Career in Games, which is available at the International Game Developers Association’s Web site, http://www.igda.org/. The publication offers an overview of visual arts careers, profiles of workers in the field, and other resources. The association also offers student membership. If you have friends who are interested in gaming, try creating your own game or add to a game that exists already. Local museums often offer summer art classes, and community colleges often have computer courses—check these out.
One thing many industry experts recommend is to attend conferences such as SIGGRAPH and the Game Developers Conference, both of which are annual events. There you will be able to meet people in the business and other enthusiasts, see new games and technologies, and even attend workshops of interest to you. This is a terrific opportunity for networking and, if you are in college, you may hear of internship or job opportunities. Of course, this event can be expensive, but if your funds are limited, you may want to work as a student volunteer and pay much less. Information on the conference and volunteer opportunities is available at http://www.gdconf.com/. Information on the SIGGRAPH conference is available at http://www.siggraph.org/.
Multimedia artists and animators can work at small companies or start-ups whose focus is the development of only one or two games. They can also work at large companies that are involved in the development of many games at once. In addition, some artists freelance, working with a company for a limited time or on a particular project then moving on to another freelance job with a different company. Multimedia artists and animators also work in the motion picture and television industries, advertising, and computer system design services.
Artists and animators, whether they are just starting out in the field or experienced professionals applying for a job with a new employer, need to have demo reels that highlight their best work. Potential employers will look at a demo reel to get an idea of the artist’s or animator’s abilities. Those who are seeking their first job can make a reel using artwork that they have done for school as well as anything they’ve made on their own. Internships also offer an excellent opportunity to gain hands-on experience, which employers like any new hire to have.
To learn of job openings, college students should network with the teachers in their school program, many of whom have contacts in the industry. Conferences, such as SIGGRAPH and the Game Developers Conference, provide major networking opportunities where students can impress those in the field as well as learn of job openings. The Internet is also a good source to use, and Web sites such as http://www.gamejobs.com/ and http://www.gamasutra.com/ offer information on jobs and employers.
Artists and animators can advance into positions such as lead artist and lead animator. Their responsibilities can include overseeing the work of a team on a project, going over the artwork of individual members, and keeping the team on their time line. Art directors and animation directors have even more management responsibilities. They may oversee the work of several teams, assign game projects to teams, plan the time line for a game’s development, keep an eye on the budget, and do other administrative tasks. Not all artists and animators want to move into such a position because directors’ responsibilities remove them from the hands-on creative process. These artists and animators may choose to advance by continuously upgrading their skills and working in areas of art that they haven’t previously tried. With their hard work and broad experience, they can gain a reputation in the industry for the quality and variety of their artwork and become sought-after artists.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the median annual salary for multimedia artists and animators was $49,900 in 2004. The lowest paid 10 percent of this group earned $29,610 or less, while the highest paid 10 percent earned $94,080 or more during the same time period. According to the International Game Developers Association, artists with two or less of experience earned an average of approximately $57,000 while the highest paid artists with six years of more of experience earned $200,000. Animators with the same amount of experience earned similar annual salaries. Artists and animators working for small companies and start-ups may have few if any benefits, such as health insurance and retirement plans. Freelance workers must buy their own health insurance and provide for their retirement themselves. Also, they are not paid during any time off they take for vacations or illnesses. Artists and animators who work for large companies, however, typically receive benefits that include retirement plans, health insurance, and paid vacation and sick days.
Multimedia artists and animators work primarily indoors and at one location. They work with pens, pencils, and paper as well as with scanners, computers, and other high-tech equipment. The environment is usually casual—business suits are not required—but busy and often fast paced. Although artists and animators typically are required to work a 40-hour workweek, there are often times when they will put in much longer hours as they work to fix any problems with a game and complete it on schedule. Because this is a creative environment, artistic disagreements come up from time to time and egos can be involved. These artists and animators, though, also get great satisfaction from their work and appreciate the opportunity to be in an environment where their creativity is valued.
Many of the jobs in this field are located on the East Coast and West Coast, and those just starting out may need to relocate to get employment. In addition, artists and animators frequently move within the industry, from one employer to another. This helps them gain experience as well as work on a variety of projects and advance their careers.
Multimedia Artist and Animator Career Outlook
The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that employment for all artists, including multimedia artists and animators, will grow about as fast as the average through 2014. Those within the industry see a bright future as the demand for games continues to grow steadily and technologies make new kinds of games possible. Competition for jobs should be strong since many creative and technically savvy people want to be part of this business.