Video Game Artist
Mitch Bowler is the founder of Pencil Kings, an online professional art teaching institution that provides top-flight instruction at an affordable price to those who are unable to attend traditional art schools. Formerly a 3D technical artist with work experience on top film and game projects, his focus is now on building and growing the Pencil Kings brand to provide art training and support to enrolled artists.
Recently the Art Career Project interviewed Mitch to go in depth about his experience with design and animation and to find out more about his new role as an art school administrator:
Mitch, please describe your journey as an artist and your particular professional experience.
I’ve been interested in making games since I was a kid. When I was seven I heard this rumor that there was going to be a game coming out that would let you create your own games. That’s all it took to set the idea in my brain that it would be possible to make my own games, and I started to fill notebooks with story ideas, character designs, and environments that the games could take place in.
It wasn’t until I was about thirteen that I got my first computer, and at that time some rudimentary tools came out that would allow you to create your own levels and insert your own artwork into ID Software’s Doom and Doom 2. I had a lot of fun making characters like the Predator and inserting them into the game or taking my high school and redesigning it as a digital dungeon that you could play through.
I feel that I was lucky because I knew exactly what I wanted to do since the age of seven, and I worked consistently towards that goal.
When I went to university, there were no formal classes on games, so I taught myself to use various game engines, Photoshop, and 3D software. It’s actually a lot easier than one might think to create something on the computer and then get it into a game engine and be able to play around with it.
Please be so kind as to detail the education and early pertinent experience you received to prepare you for your professional career.
The most important part when I was getting started was just getting my hands dirty. There was no fear of failure, and I found whatever books and lessons that I could and just created without thinking too much about it. There weren’t any roadblocks then –just pure creative thought.
While I was in high school, I had an experience to job-shadow a 3D artist working on television commercials, and he invited me to a weekend workshop where a bunch of artists were getting together to create an animated short over a weekend. It was great to meet with other like-minded people because back then the online communities for digital artists were just in their beginning stages.
Reaching out to that first artist was important because it let me bridge a gap between my experience level and someone far ahead of me. I’ve continued to reach out to artists and those connections always help when you are looking for your first job or your next job, and in a few cases lifelong friendships have formed as a result.
How long have you been in the business, and what kinds of positions have you held?
My professional video game career started after I graduated university, and I worked from age 22 to age 30 working solely on games. Before that, I worked doing special effects while attending university.
I love to learn new things and did my best to always seek out the best people in any studio where I was working and always tried to get a spot on their team. As such, I’ve had a number of different titles: Previs Artist, Lighting & Rendering Artist, 3D Generalist, Modeller, Compositor, Senior Producer, Technical Art Director, and Creative Director.
Was there a period in which you labored as an intern or perhaps worked in areas outside of your area of intended expertise?
Yes. I really got my start by working for a gaming league as their graphic designer. This was all unpaid work, and it was important because it let me work under some very detail-oriented individuals, and it really upped my game. I remember handing in some work to them and having to redo it because the spacing between the fonts wasn’t perfect. This gave me a glimpse as to the attention to detail that I would need to develop in order to take my work to another level.
I always wanted to be a video game artist, but as there were no video game companies near where I grew up, I took jobs doing graphic design, television commercial animation, web design, illustration and visual effects. I saw all of these areas as possible avenues to continue developing my skills, and while I could be working in an unrelated field, my nights were almost always spent on learning gaming technology.
What are some of your favorite and/or most noteworthy projects?
I really liked working on the movies X-Men 2 and Alien Resurrection. These were some of my first projects, and I had a great team and working environment.
The most noteworthy game projects I’ve been involved with are in the Call of Duty series and many of Activision’s most noteworthy franchises.
Your online school is intriguing. Please give me an overview and how it came to be.
The idea for Pencil Kings hatched from my own experience of the challenge in finding mentors to follow on my path to become a game artist. There were people online that I looked up to, but nothing structured that put me together with other hopeful video game artists.
In my career, I have also worked with several artists that have spent literal fortunes on their art educations, so we wanted to create something that artists could turn to as an alternative to the traditional schooling model, an opportunity that we could offer to them for a fraction of the price that colleges charge.
We’ve been working with artists at Pencil Kings for four years now, and it feels like we’re just starting to scratch the surface as to what’s possible in terms of providing artists with the tools that will allow them to take the visions inside their head and turn them into reality.
Wow. That is really quite a niche you are filling. Are you still involved as a professional artist as well and, if so, in what capacity?
These days, I create art as a hobby, and what professional work I do create would fall more under graphic design. After working towards being a game artist for twenty years I managed to burn myself out on creating 3D artwork.
After twenty years it also felt like the medium also hasn’t changed much –we’re still using controllers to play characters on the screen. It wasn’t until recent technologies came along, like the Oculus Rift, that things have become really exciting again.
Any tips for the aspiring animator or game designer (or artist in general)?
The biggest thing that you can probably do to help your career is to get a game engine and start playing around with it. There are so many different ones out there, but this will start giving you the real world experience that you need to get hired. I see a lot of people getting stuck as to what the next step is, but once you can make something, something even as simple as a wooden crate for example, try getting that into an engine and placing it in an environment.
There’s a tendency these days to specialize in your skill set, and that is great when you get to a higher level in your career, but I also see a lot of opportunity if you are looking to get your foot in the door if you are a generalist working at a smaller or start-up company. There are always lots of different jobs to take on in those situations, and the more you know, the more valuable you become. Working this way also allows you to test out several different possible career paths to see which one you enjoy the most.
Another highly sought after skill set is knowing how to program or script the tools that you use. Artists that can do this are invaluable because you can create new tools within the software packages that allow you to work smarter and faster. I’ve yet to meet someone who doesn’t appreciate work that is done faster and more efficiently.
What do see as the future of the gaming industry and in entertainment generally?
I think that we’re in a bit of a transition stage right now, and it will be interesting to see how things develop in the future. To me, the Oculus Rift looks like the single most amazing piece of technology that is pushing beyond the current experience. We’ve been playing within the confines of a television, computer, or iPhone screen since the very first games, and it’s going to be extremely liberating to be freed from the confines of those boxed screens.
As gamers we’re always craving a more immersive experience, and until we can plug in like Neo in The Matrix, the idea of being able to look around your environment without the aid of a hand controller seems like a giant step in the right direction.
Also with the barriers for entry into this industry being lowered all the time, there’s more opportunity for anyone to take up the challenge to create and release their own creations. If you want to make and release a game there is literally nothing stopping you these days!
You seem to be deeply enmeshed in your school now. Tell me about your plans for the future.
Yes, I am. I want to continue to work on creating new forms of education for artists through the classes at Pencil Kings and to see what’s possible in terms of blending technology together with art. Teaching and art have run in my family for generations, and I feel that this is the right place to be where I can inspire others and help them take the next step on their path as artists. That is really fulfilling to me.
Any other thoughts that might aid and abet a person on this career path?
Be fearless! Being an artist doesn’t have the same clear cut career path that say a lawyer or a dentist does, so you have to have faith that things are going to work out for you. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there, to try new things that might seem scary.
You’re going to have to work, and no one will hand this career to you, but there are amazing opportunities to work together with other artists to help bring those visions in your head into physical reality for all to enjoy.
Your correspondent’s final thoughts:
As Mitch seems to be stressing here, as an artist in the areas of game design and the like, it is vital to have a wide skill set and a willingness to go outside your comfort zone. The more you know and the more you can do, the more valuable you are as a potential hire. It is equally important to innovate and keep on the cutting edge. Several times Mitch mentions the Oculus Rift, for example. These are the kinds of cutting edge tech that would behoove you to investigate.
As I have gleaned from this interview, an art education is a very important facet to becoming a successful artist, not just for developing your talent, but for also cultivating relationships and contacts.
Finding work in smaller studios and start-ups can be a smart way to go, especially if you have developed a wide variety of skill competencies. Mitch also stressed that there is nothing stopping you from creating now! These days you can try your hand at making your own games as the technology to do so has become readily available and not prohibitively expensive.
Another recurring theme is this: You must hunger for this as a career choice, and you also must be singularly devoted and driven to achieve your goal. You must be faithful and willing to do whatever it takes. This always seems to be the case in any professional area that ignites passion and enthusiasm in the career aspirant.