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Interview with Ken Toney

Ken Toney is a fantastic character artist working at EA games in California. We interviewed him to get to insights into his career path and future aspirations.

Ken Toney is a fantastic character artist working at EA games in California. We interviewed him to get to insights into his career path and future aspirations.

Hi Ken, thanks for agreeing to be interviewed by 3DCreative. I have taken a look at some of your work and you have been involved with some really cool projects. Can you tell us a little about yourself and how you managed to find your way into the CG industry?

I went to San Jose State University to study Illustration. In fact I have a Bachelors Degree in Illustration, which I kind of use I guess. My goal was to become a commercial illustrator and paint for a living.

In my last year at college I signed up for a Photoshop class and by accident somehow ended up in a 3D class. I remember walking into the room with the intention of dropping it, but the teacher had already started lecturing. I had no choice but to wait until he was done. At some point in his lecture he asked everyone to hop onto a computer and go through the simple exercise of building a ball on a plane and rendering the scene. It was really at that moment that I was hooked. From then I became a sponge and wanted to learn as much as possible about computer graphics.

After college I applied to every game company in the bay area and was rejected by all of them. It wasnt surprising considering I didnt have a CG portfolio or demo reel. Somehow I did manage to get hired by a tiny company working on software for kids. They were probably pretty desperate and I was pretty much willing to work for free as long as I could do CG work. At the time they were developing a program that teaches kids how to do magic tricks by using a CG bunny character.

At the time it was great just to get some computer graphics experience, but it also gave me access to 3D software. So by day I would diligently work and at night I would stay up until midnight working on my video game reel. Eventually, a few years later, I got my first gig in the video game industry working for Capcom and I would consider that to be my first true CG job.

(Laughs) Its amazing how your entire future changed in just those few moments! You mentioned

demo reels. Do you have any advice for anyone trying to set up their own demo reel?

From a character artist I like to see at least 3-5 characters depending on the experience level. During the turntable I would expect to see the wireframes at some point and a few close-ups.

As for content, I think its important to show a variety of styles and techniques. Its good to demonstrate organic modeling, anatomy, treatment of cloth, hard surface modeling, etc.

You have worked for some really huge companies on some big titles can you tell us a little about how you managed to get noticed by these companies? Also if you have any advice for anyone trying to do the same, what would it be?

I never set out to work for big companies, but it just somehow worked out that way. The one game studio that I did pursue heavily was Capcom, mainly because I was a Street Fighter 2 fan and a huge fan of their concept art. I think I applied roughly six or seven times before I eventually managed to land an interview, and even then I still didnt get the job. I applied again six months later and landed a second interview, which finally led to full-time employment at Capcom. From that experience I learned about persistence and to never take rejection personally. Also its important to note that each time I re-applied I made sure I improved my portfolio.

For someone trying to get noticed by companies these days there are plenty of CG art forums (3DTotal, ZBrush Central, CGHub etc.,) out there. I know plenty of art professionals, including myself, that visit these sites quite often so it is a great way to get recognized.

Theres also the Quality Assurance (game testers) route that some people do take in order to break into the CG industry. Although that method doesnt always guarantee youll get a job as a CG artist, it is a great way to make connections with professionals. Ive met quite a few aspiring artists/animators working as game testers over the years.

Do you have any future goals? Are there any games you would like to work on, or would you like to try something new like creating assets for movies?

When it comes to looking into my future Im definitely torn. As a character artist you naturally want to work on the best projects out there. Games such as Gears of War, Uncharted, and God of War (just to name a few) are hugely inspirational to me as a character artist. Also its important to note that these games are fun to play. I would jump at the chance to work on those projects.



On the other hand, as a game developer with over 10 years of experience you cant help but start thinking beyond your role. Its just natural progression to begin looking at the bigger picture. I do have my own game ideas and I have strong opinions on general game development, business models, and where gaming is going in the near future. The best way to apply these ideas is in a small start-up project. I certainly would like the opportunity to develop a game with just a small group of game developers and help grow a studio from the ground up.

My ideal five year goal is to do both at some point, so Ill just have to keep my fingers crossed for now.

I noticed on your website that you also do 2D art. Do you find that having an understanding of digital painting helps you when painting textures etc., for your characters?

Painting textures has always felt very natural, mainly because of my 2D background. All those principles of digital painting come in handy, such as an understanding of basic color theory, identifying primary and secondary shapes, warms/cools, and lighting etc. Most of my understanding of Photoshop layers has come from digital painting, which I also use when setting up my textures.

Do you ever get the urge to spend some time digitally painting again and creating some of your own concepts? Is the ability to do this kind of thing appealing to potential employers?

Oh yeah all the time. Its one of those things that I know I need to do more of and plan on pursuing in the near future. Its important for character artists to have some ability to concept. It comes in handy quite often at work. During game development not every asset gets a concept, so at times you may have to step in and do your own. Its quite appealing to have concepts in your 3D portfolio and it shows diversity.

In the footnotes to many of your images you mention that you use Marmoset to render your characters. Can you tell us a little about the benefits of doing things this way and why you use this method over the other software available?

Developing real-time characters is what I do for a living. So for me its natural to display characters through a game engine.

You know it didnt seem that long ago that 3D engines just werent accessible to regular consumers. These days, with Marmoset and Unreal, anyone can show off their work in real-time. The reason why I use Marmoset is because its so easy to use. In fact, when it comes to my personal work I use it in my pipeline during the texturing stage. In the past I would paint my textures in Photoshop and render out small test images afterwards in Maya to see how the character was progressing. Unfortunately these test images would take roughly 5-10 minutes to render. Nowadays I just toggle between Marmoset and Photoshop and see updates within seconds.

Another reason why I use Marmoset is because more and more character artists are using it to display their 3D artwork. For the time being it does look like its becoming a standard in our industry. All you have to do is visit any CG art forums and youll start to see more and more 3D artists displaying their work using Marmoset.

Can you tell us a little bit about using ZBrush in your pipeline? How long do you spend in ZBrush and is it hard to know when to stop sculpting there and rely on the textures on your final model for detail?

Using ZBrush can vary depending on the project. I used to just use it for general sculpting and to extract Normal maps, but over the years Ive also learned to use it for general 3D concepts,

UV mapping, and texture painting. For example, on the Captain America model (my most recent project) I used ZBrush at the very beginning to quickly concept the silhouette of the character. I had a very clear idea of how I wanted him to look and with ZBrush I was able to sculpt the main shape of the body within a few hours. After the concept sculpt was complete, I retopologized the mesh and GoZd back into Maya. For UVs I exclusively use the ZBrush UV Master tool. I like how it unwraps UVs perfectly and on top of that I can paint in areas that require extra density.

In terms of how long I spend in ZBrush, I would say somewhere between 30-40% of the full pipeline. In the next 2-3 years I do wonder if that number will increase as ZBrush keeps adding new features.

As for knowing when to sculpt and when to rely on textures, I primarily sculpt a majority of the tertiary details. The only ones that I texture in Photoshop are the very fine details, such as skin pores and cloth textures.

We are always amazed at what the ZBrush team manages to achieve with each new update of their software. What developments would you like to see in future updates?

It looks like with each update the Pixologic team somehow reads my mind. In the past I wanted to be able to set up UVs in ZBrush and they came out with UV Master. Then I wanted better retopology tools and they came out with the Topology brush and QRemesher.



The only thing I can think of that I would like to see added in future updates is the option to change the user interface (UI), so that it closely resembles Maya/Max. Personally having used ZBrush for years I dont have a problem with the UI, but it is the most common complaint I hear from other CG artists new to ZBrush.

I always like to ask people I interview what they do in their spare time and often their answers vary hugely. What do you like to do when you get chance to relax and do you find that this influences the way you work and the type of projects you are inspired to tackle in the future?

I did go through a serious motorcycle phase, but it has been winding down lately. Theres nothing like hitting 130mph and then swooping into a fast left turn, dragging your knee on the asphalt. I still own a Honda CBR 600RR (sports bike), but I dont take it to the racetrack anymore. Now I just use it to commute to work once in awhile.

These days in my spare time Ive been dabbling more and more with game development tools such as Stencyl and Construct 2. These tools are artist friendly, so you really dont need any hardcore programming skills. Having grown up playing classic 8-bit games, I thought it might be fun to try to develop my own 2D game. For now just getting a character to move around on screen has been a struggle, but youve got to start somewhere.

Thanks for letting me ask you a few questions, Ken, and good luck for the future!

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