Jason discusses the hard work (and daily game of League of Legends) it takes to work at Riot. He also talks about how he developed his skills from high school to his current job, and gives some valuable advice for those interested in a career in gaming.
How did you first become interested in video game art and animation? When did you decide to pursue it as a career?
Ever since I can remember, I’ve loved playing games — maybe a bit too much for my own good! When I was a kid, it dawned on me that someone somewhere was getting paid to make all this amazing artwork I was soaking in every day. Since about age 8, I started drawing my own little game and cartoon characters. I guess I never grew out of my childhood dream; I always knew I wanted to be an entertainment artist, and I was too stubborn to change my mind.
How did you first learn the skills to be artist and animator? Any advice for young people who want to explore this as a career?
For me, it wasn’t until I got to college that I realized how far I fell short with my art skills. It was a rude awakening. In high school, I took a few art classes, drawing maybe once or twice per week. Friends and family always told me I was “so talented.” But then when I got to college, the other students’ skills were way ahead of mine. I learned the hard way that there’s a big difference between natural talent and developed skill. One professor always taught us, “It’s all about the pen mileage.” Basically, whether you’re super talented, or just really want to do this badly, the great equalizer is how hard you work, and for how long. I’ve seen many people (including myself) fill up multiple sketch books in a year, taking their skills from mediocre up to competitive (that translates to at least 20 hours of drawing per week). I found that 10% of my success came from art mentorship and new information, and 90% came from the hours spent practicing on my own. The same tends to hold true for everyone else I see coming up in the industry.
Alight, a short that Jason created as part of a team at Brigham Young University:
What was your first animation job? How did you get your foot in the door?
I was a pre-animation major taking some classes at college, and I noticed one day how scatter-brained my professor was. He was clearly over-loaded and over-booked. So after class, I asked him if he needed a TA (teacher’s assistant). He gave me a puzzled look, and I realized he hadn’t considered it before. He told me he’d think about it. The next day, I got the job. That led to running errands, sitting nearby as he mentored others, scanning pictures, and eventually working with him as an in-between animator and cleanup artist. After I got into the animation program, my name was on a local mailing list for job opportunities. A little startup studio was working on a pilot episode for a TV show, and they were paying animators per scene completed. I knew I wouldn’t make much money at it (since each shot would take me many more rounds of revision than the typical animator) but I jumped at the opportunity.
2D animation reel:
What’s it like to work at Riot Games? What is a typical day of work for you?
Days vary widely. Sometimes, I’ll have a couple of meetings discussing what we’re working on. Other days, I’ll spend time at my desk working on production, collaborating closely with other artists, designers, writers, producers, and programmers. We also try to fit a game of League of Legends in each day, which develops team connection, and helps keep us in touch with our players.
Is there any aspect of your job that you find particularly awesome?
I love that no two days are the same. I’m always challenged to solve new problems, which keeps me engaged and excited for more.
What’s been your favorite game or project to work on and why?
Definitely the visual effects for Star Guardian Lux. The energy on that team was so high. We were all fans of pretty sparkles and the Magical Girl genre. We had a lot of fun, and it was clear everyone on that team put their best foot forward to make it awesome.
How do you learn and stay on top of new techniques and technologies?
I make it a point to stay in touch with my industry colleagues. Forums, groups, and conventions help me hear about what the newest stuff is all about. Also, it’s important I don’t get complacent with my current toolset, and embrace whatever is coming next.
VFX reel from League of Legends:
For kids interested in pursuing a career at a place like Riot: What should they expect? What should they not expect?
Expect to work very very hard. Honestly, it’s very satisfying work, but making games is a different story from playing them. Not every gamer is a good game developer (usually because they haven’t put enough time into making games). That being said, if you’ve got the work ethic, expect to have a lifetime of being stretched to newer and even more rewarding heights. For me, making games is even more fun than playing them (but I do still love playing them too!)
What skills or traits do employers look for when hiring an artist/animator?
When we look at art candidates, we simply ask, “Are they already making art that is high quality, and the right style for our game?” We love to see artists that emulate our style. Direct copies are not as interesting, but new art that would work side-by-side with what we do is a requirement in a portfolio. Think of it this way: if you can bring something to the team that meets or improves our quality bar, we want to hire you. If the portfolio is strong, we interview the person to make sure they match up with the company’s core values. If they haven’t done the research to learn what we care about, or if they seem to not be a good culture fit, then it’s thumbs-down, even if they’re a rock star artist. Being easy to work with matters a great deal to us.
Any other advice for aspiring game artists out there?
Work hard. Work smart. Getting the guidance you need is 10% of the battle. The other 90% will be the months and years you spend developing your skills. Guidance isn’t just mentorship either. Reference games you admire. Pause and look around. Look closely. Become a student of games and animation. Learn to develop a critical eye and understand what makes the games you love so awesome. Then take that knowledge, and spend hours practicing. Find tutorials online for whatever you want to learn. Take initiative to grow and become the artist (or game developer) you dream of being. You’re responsible for where you land. Nobody else.
A big thank you to Jason for taking the time to talk with us! If you’re interested in learning more, check out Jason’s YouTube channel, which has all kinds of super helpful tutorials and videos. You can also see more of his work on his website.
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image via Jason Keyser.