YouCanBlue is massively grateful to have the opportunity to interview Foundry 42 (Star Citizen)’s own Matthew Trevelyan Johns, senior environment artist (the one that makes cool spaceship cabins and other awesome stuff) and all round really nice guy about his work, his influences and how he got into the industry. Get yourself a nice cup of tea or coffee and a bit of chocolate and read on.
What benefits do you find with using Quixel and Megascans in your workflow?
I do enjoy using Quixel products, I mainly use Quixels DDO, I’ve not yet had a chance to play with megascans, although the results from other artists that I have seen have been impressive. Previously I have employed the use of DDO when texturing certain assets, usually those that have a high poly counterpart that I wish to extract additional maps from, normal, height, occlusion etc. With those maps DDO enables me to quickly create a basic pass on all materials for my asset, applying realistic albedo, gloss, specular and normal values based on real-world values and so within a few minutes I have pleasing and realistic results. For me, this is where the texturing fun really starts and from here I am able to refine and fine tune my textures, adding the personal touches rather than spending all of my time establishing the basics. This is a huge benefit in a time sensitive environment like a games studio.
You work at Foundry 42 for CIG, what did you get up to before working there?
Before Foundry 42, I worked at TT Fusion as a senior environment artist for just over five years. Whilst there I worked on numerous titles, mostly Warner Bros IPs and a whole host of Lego games which were a great deal of fun! Prior to that I studied for my Bachelors and then my Masters degree in Computer Games Technology at the University of Portsmouth for four years. Before attending University I was actually still really interested in game development and I spent a year between college and university making numerous multiplayer maps for the very first Call of Duty game and was an active member of what was then, a huge modding scene…I guess that’s really when my obsession began!
There’s a lot of movement towards midpoly over lowpoly work now. Do you find that moving to midpoly is less restrictive for you or did you prefer the more draconian boundries of the ‘good old days’ of lowpoly?
My previous work at TT Fusion might be what you term low poly in some respects, I created environments and characters for consoles like the xbox 360, playstation 3 and the Wii-U and so polygon counts and texture budgets were certainly a lot tighter than they are when working on a PC game, particularly one that hopes to really push the boundaries artistically. While the restrictions are certainly less however, they do still exist, only now our code department might be more concerned with how complex our shaders are, or how many drawcalls an asset makes, rather than it’s particular polygon count. I think as a game developer working within limitations is part of the job description, so it’s best to embrace the mindset and just try to get as much as you can out of the hardware and let the programmers work their magic!
What is your inspiration as a hard surface artist? Do you have a go-to film that you have to watch every so often to reinvigorate your creativity for example?
I’m inspired by my colleagues around me of course, I’m fortunate enough to work amongst a lot of talented people, but I am definitely a film addict. Since working at Foundry 42 on Star Citizen I’ve really enjoyed being absorbed by the sci fi genre, which admittedly wasn’t something I had any special preference to prior to working there. Now however, whenever I’m in need of some inspiration certain films do spring to mind,
Interstellar, Alien, Prometheus, Tron, Avatar, Oblivion, The Matrix, Sunsine, Moon, to name just a few…Outside of sci fi, I pretty much love anything that is visually striking, there are too many films to list!
What made you want to be a game developer / CG artist?
So many things seem to have guided me towards this career, all of which I’m thankful for, I think it all started really with me just being a child that loved to draw and had an extremely over active imagination. More than once my teachers referred to me as ‘a dreamer with his head in the clouds’…I guess I’m still just the same now! Sometime in my early teens I became obsessed with computer games and when we finally got the internet in Cornwall, my parents bought a PC and a 56k modem and I discovered Call of Duty multiplayer. Soon after I found the modding community and began making levels for people to play on. Our internet was actually too slow to play my own levels, I made one called Bonneville that was quite popular, but I was never actually able to join a multiplayer match to play it with a team – my connection lagged so much that I’d get kicked off the server, despite them playing a level I’d created, ha!
Now that video games are using much higher polygon counts and are able to do post effects in real time, where do you see what you do as an artist in 3 years?
That’s a very tough question, it’s certainly a really fantastic time to be an artist in the games industry with so many incredible tools and workflows emerging. I really think that procedural and simulation based methods for level, asset and texture creation will began to become even more common place than they are now. Programs like substance designer, substance painter, world machine and marvellous designer are all incredibly powerful, I imagine one day that perhaps their capabilities might be integrated into our game engines as standard functionality. It would certainly be interesting to work on a procedurally generated landscape, textured with procedural shaders, populated by procedurally ‘grown’ plant life and that is detailed with cloth and debris using physics simulations, all within one editor and all completely real time with no lag…or maybe I’m diving into the realms of science fiction again!
What is your own personal favourite project you worked on?
I love working on Star Citizen, because I’ve been able to learn so much, meet great people and I’m really proud of the artwork I’ve produced. But I do have a soft spot for my time on a game called Lego City: Undercover. It was a Wii-U exclusive title and my first opportunity to be a team lead on a project. I managed a team of really talented artists as well as being responsible for my own levels and helping to define the final look of the whole game. It’s a special project for me because I worked on it all the way from pre-production right the way through to its release, it was TT Fusions first chance to develop its own IP and it was a huge challenge for the whole studio, but we all pulled together and burnt the midnight oil to get it done and I think everyone was really proud of the result. The artwork might look a little dated by today’s standards, with the strict budgets we had to comply to, but I still smile when I look at the images I have of it, each one conjures a lot of good memories!
Do you have any advice for younger game developers and artists who want to be doing the cool things you do?
My only advice is to be sure that above all that you are passionate about it. Whether it’s creating the art, programming, or designing the levels themselves, whatever someone’s preferred role in the industry is, it’s so important to enjoy the process itself. As Confucius once said, ‘Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life’.
When you are working on a detailed scene such as a scifi interior environment, how do you approach the scene when you start it out?
With every artwork I always start with reference, I gather hundreds of images of the things that interest me and categorise them, I gather reference for materials, textures, lighting, mood, and atmosphere. Eventually I’ll annotate a mood board and make notes so that I’m totally clear on what it is I’d like to achieve. From there I’ll either produce a concept sketch or perhaps jump straight into making a blockout of the scene and concepting a rough layout and design as I go. With my block scene finished I’ll study my references and begin to think about the textures and shaders – how to plan around my texture budgets, any advanced shaders I’ll need etc. I’ll then go into production, making textures and shaders and modelling assets, lighting the scene as I go and adding elements like fog and atmosphere to help define the look that I’m hoping to create. From here it’s a case of refining and asking for critique from my peers until I’m happy with the final environment, critique and appraisal is a hugely important part of the process.
When building your textures and materials I notice that there is a lot of wear and tear in places and plenty of logical wear. What tips do you have for new artists wanting to achieve wear without overkill on their materials?
I think it can be easy as an artist to create assets that best show off the things that they want to see, rather than simply creating something that looks believable. As an example, with so many pieces of software now making it really easy to add edge wear, scratches, damage, rust etc to objects, it’s very easy for an artist to go all out and add far too much, sometimes perhaps losing sight of the original reference they were hoping to create. I think that subtlety when texturing can go a long way and sometimes it’s the smallest of details, or most subtle of colour variation that can sell a material.
Tea or Coffee?
I’m definitely a tea drinker, milk with one sugar, though on a Friday, I treat myself to a latte, with a little hot chocolate thrown in for good measure.