Hiring artists isn’t like the hiring process for any other job. After all, the hiring manager can see what you can do right away, from your portfolio. That means your portfolio needs to impress – but that isn’t all that it needs to do.
What is the hiring manager looking for?
In an earlier post, I raised the question, why should anyone hire you? The answer is because you solve some problem for them that they need solved.
We can use that same reasoning for developing the contents of our portfolio! We need a portfolio that shows how we can solve problems.
“But wait,” I hear you exclaim. “I don’t know who the employer is!”
How do you create solutions for problems you don’t know?
This isn’t a big problem. Most AAA video games fall into a few categories, most of which are easy to predict. So we know what kinds of problems those games will need solved.
What are the common problems?
Lots of games feature real-world analogs – cities, cars, and people. Lots of games feature soldiers with modern weaponry, possibly in desert environments. And there are other standbys, like the (primarily Tolkien) fantasy worlds and the (primarily Aliens) sci-fi worlds.
One more caution before making a portfolio:
If you are a student, DON’T TRY TO MAKE PORTFOLIO PIECES IN CLASS! Don’t use in-class assignments to try to populate your portfolio. See my earlier post for an explanation.
Wait until summer vacation, or after graduation, and then take what you’ve learned, and make great art with it. Trying to learn and make great art at the same time is usually a futile effort!
So what goes into a game art portfolio?
Game art portfolios differ by discipline:
- a basic anatomy study, to show you understand it
- an army man of some kind, because these are ubiquitous
- a character in street clothes, also ubiquitous
- And the last should be something more creative, like a fantasy or robot character, something geared to what you’d ideally like to be doing.
When presenting your character art:
- Use stills, not turnarounds, because turnarounds are boring and waste time. The only reason to use video is to show animation.
- Use basic lighting, maybe IBL or physical sun and sky, because bad lighting will ruin even the best model.
- Same goes for animation: choose good poses or neutral animations, because bad animation makes your character look bad.
- Build both individual props, and whole levels.
- Ubiquitous props include guns, cars, dumpsters (j/k don’t do this), military vehicles, etc.
- Start with a small but densely populated basic environment, like a city streetscape, a building interior, or a Call of Duty style desert level – all in-engine. Focus on capturing an actual place instead of being creative.
- Then do a small but densely populated creative environment – a dungeon, a fantasy village, a sci-fi space station, etc. Again, this is all in-engine.
When presenting your environment art:
- Use stills, because they are quicker for someone to view and evaluate. You can create gameplay videos of your level in-engine, by walking around. I wouldn’t suggest a fly-through camera, just because those look very fake, but some nice overhead perspective shots could be good.
- Lighting is really important for your level.
- Similarly, showing that you know how to tile textures and create materials in-engine is important, it shows that you have at least some of the technical chops needed for this job.
- Include simple scripted events where possible. This will again highlight your technical chops.
- Simple walk/run cycles are a bad idea… the assumption is you KNOW how to do a walk cycle. You prove that by showing actual (good) animations!
- Instead, I would suggest creating enough animations to define a fair bit of gameplay – a walk cycle, run cycle, jump, shooting a gun, getting in a car, etc. – and then string those together to show a character acting out some standard gameplay. i.e. guy walks to car, gets in car, gets out of car, runs away, shoots at someone.
- Multi-actor scenes are good, because most games feature characters directly interacting with each other. So: football players tackling each other, kung fu guys fighting, characters having a conversation, etc.
- Facial animation is extremely important in today’s games. Showing lip synched conversation is good, showing a range of emotion while talking is even better.
- Technical artists can show simulations like muscles and cloth.
When presenting your animations:
- don’t be afraid to use a generic rig. Having an ugly character will make your animations look ugly.
- Similarly, really basic environments and lighting work fine.
Visual FX artists:
- There are plenty of staple game effects like gunshots, explosions, dust puffs, and electrical effects that you can include.
- But also include less obvious effects, like dust puffs for foot prints or falls, or impact explosions for gunfire hits a wall.
- Weather effects are also a good choice.
- Show a variety. Just because you can do explosions, doesn’t mean you can do magic spells.
- And if you get stuck, play through a game and create your own take on in-game effects.
When presenting your effects:
- Do it on a grey background. Black hides a lot, and will make experienced people suspicious!
- Similarly, really basic environments and lighting work fine.
- Variety is important! VFX are a catch-all for a lot of polish at the end of a project.
- Show as much in-engine using native particle effects tools as possible.
- And highlight efficiency – performance is always a big concern for games, so if you can show that your VFX go easy on the engine, that will be a big plus.
- UI is a different bag. Artists usually aren’t hired strictly as UI artists. Instead, contractors are hired (usually on a temporary basis) to knock out menus etc.
- In that case, your portfolio would be more website, Flash, and motion graphics design, as opposed to game specific!
- Concept artists must be flexible – so, read through all the other lists above, and include similar content.
- Also, show a variety of styles. Most art directors will have a specific style they want to work in, so showing you can mimic various styles is important.
- Show your creative process. Show the quick silhouette sketches you used to define your ideas, then how you elaborated on those sketches, then added detail, etc. People want to see your thought process, and you need to show that you understand how to give people options during the process!
What else for game art portfolios?
This should give you a good fighting start for developing your portfolios. I created this list based on my own experience hiring artists, and by asking friends working in each discipline, but I’m sure other people have different ideas on portfolios. Definitely add a comment or email me if you have ideas!
8 thoughts on “what goes into a game art portfolio?”
Great post James! Students really need this kind of info.
We have some more here, another take on what various art roles should have in their game portfolios: http://wiki.polycount.com/wiki/PortfolioContents
Thanks Eric! Looks like there is a lot of good info in that link as well.
By the way James, what should a 3D generalist have in his portfolio?
The simple answer is, a little of everything, and all of it really good. The realistic approach to this is to understand that generally only someone with a lot of experience builds up that kind of portfolio. Most people aren’t good at everything, and they are better off specializing.
Thank you so much for the post, really useful information for students such as myself.