Interview with Maciej Kuciara

Hi Maciej, it is a pleasure to speak to you. Thanks for finding space in your schedule to let us know what you are up to. When doing some research I found a list of fantastic titles that you have worked on, but I couldn't find out much about you. Could you tell us a little about where you came from and how you ended up working in the games industry?

I come from Poland where I spent most of my life until I became a video games professional. I had never thought of art as a way of making a living and I kept thinking that way until 2003, when I first became interested in CG art. At first I mainly focused on learning 3D, although I quickly figured out that it's much easier to model interesting creatures or environments from my own concepts. Every single minute outside of school time was spent in front of my CRT screen and tablet. I used forums as a catalyst for all the personal work I had been doing and I finally decided to drop 3D and focus on concept work. This is when I got my first freelance job for a German table top game in early 2004. From that moment on everything started slowly coming together. After finishing university I kept getting small projects, doing mostly 2D artwork for online games and table top games etc. In June 2004 I got my first real job at People Can Fly. That was the breaking moment, I think, that ignited my career.

I have noticed that there are a lot of really talented artists coming out of Poland at the moment. Why do you think it is that so many talented artists come from your homeland, and is the education system over there set up to promote this kind of skill?

This is an interesting question and I don't think I could give a definitive answer to it. The artists' community has definitely been growing in Poland for the last couple of years, and it's great to see so many talented artists finding their spot in the industry.

However, I don't think it has anything to do with the education system. Most of the art-based universities still follow a very academic path that doesn't have much to do with entertainment or industrial design. There is only one animation school that was only opened recently, but that's just a ripple in a big ocean considering the needs of the people in the country.

I have been flicking through the piles of your fantastic work (whilst my jaw was dropping on the desk) and I noticed that you have a large variety of styles in your portfolio, from matte painting to speed painting and everywhere in between. Is this because of a desire to try new things, or just that the way you paint has developed over time?

I love to experiment and try things out. From almost every single technique I have tried so far I have taken away a few tricks and experiences that vastly benefit me and help me perform in my job. Apart from obvious things like Photoshop tricks, or using a mix of tools in concept creation, each painting style has brought its own challenges in terms of color, composition or detail. Making concepts for games usually follows a fairly straightforward pattern; you either work on the game ideas during pre-production or layout objects, scenes and characters for 3D artists - typical production art. I spend a little extra time outside of work experimenting to keep my daily work fresh, as the tricks I learn in my free time are the tricks I use later at work as an extra push to improve the quality of my studio's products.

It sounds like you paint during the day then come home to do some more painting. What else do you like to do in your spare time, and do you find that those things you do in your spare time inspire your art work?

There is a life/work/passion balance I usually try to maintain and I try to devote all the out-of-work time to my family. Obviously my wife doesn't much appreciate the times when I come back from work just to work more! So I limit myself so I won't burn both my personal relations and energy to work.

Apart from stuff like movies, games or going out once in a while, we love to travel and see cool places whenever there is time and the opportunity to do that. Seeing the wonders of nature helps to relax and fuel your imagination.

I also spend a lot of time with my wife doing exercise like running, hiking etc. California is a beautiful place for things like that. Over the last year I have found that regular exercise and generally keeping myself healthy and fit gives me much more energy than any amount of sleep I ever had.

Another thing that I noticed in your work is that you don't seem to be afraid to use big strokes of bold color. Do you have any advice for anyone who would like to use this sort of technique?

The best thing to do is to observe and study your references, whether it's nature or photography. Painting with colors can be hard, as it requires you to think about the color palette from the very beginning. It also requires you to know how light behaves and interacts with objects in a scene. I think possessing that knowledge is the most difficult step in painting in general. But it benefits you hugely if you master it, as it gives you more freedom to get away from what is in the reference picture or what you see, yet still keep color and values intact.

With each artist I interview I am always intrigued to learn a little more about their technique. Do you ever sketch your ideas first or do you find that your first port of call is to get some paint on the canvas?

There are several ways to start your painting and I recommend trying all of them. In most cases, I will start with a quick black and white thumbnail (or series of thumbnails) to get the ideas down on the canvas. If my focus is to get a really interesting composition I will limit my initial sketch to only two values: black and white. For a painterly look, I would probably go with a mix of photography and random custom brush strokes to create a busy texture to start with. I do likewise with images when my goal is to achieve an ultra-realistic look, since photography can provide the details.

I also used to paint with flat colors (just colors, no values) to lay out good light information into my concepts. But again, it all comes down to the purpose and it's never a good idea to limit yourself to just one specific workflow. You might be missing quite a few interesting tricks that would help your art become even better.

The variety of techniques you use really shines through in your work. Are there any artists that have inspired you to get into this field or that you look at and wonder, how did they do that?

Many actually! I always look at work by new digital art "heroes" as inspiration to push myself beyond the limits. I think over a long period of time Craig Mullins has been one of those heroes. You could probably find Neil Campbell Ross, Bill Anton, Nathan Fowkes and Xaingyuan Jie among my inspirations as well.

I also pay a lot of respect to traditional art masters, such as Caravaggio or Jean-Léon Gérôme, and even though I never had much to do with traditional art techniques, there is much to learn from just looking at their art. Last year I had a chance to see Gérôme's art exhibition in Los Angeles and it totally blew me away.

I noticed on your site that you are familiar with some of the 3D programmes. What part do these play in your pipeline and in what kind of situations would you use this skill?

I use 3D mostly for very complex scenes that involve a lot of tricky perspective, which for me only happens during production time. I might use 3D to lay out some of the initial lighting in the scene as well (for example, interior concepts). Usually I would model my scene with simple objects such as boxes and spheres in Maya and then make a quick light pass before I hit render. I render most of my scenes on layers so I can separate objects later on in Photoshop.

There have been several occasions where I have used the Maya mapping technique to change the camera angle in photography and then use it later on as a base for my concept scenario. This is a pretty fun technique to work with, although probably too time-consuming for non-complex scenes.

You have worked on some outstanding projects, which of these has been your favorite and if you could choose any project to work on what would it be?

There are quite a few that are my favorites but I can't really talk about them just yet. From those that have been released however, I think the Crysis

franchise and Hardkor44 stand equal, since both of them were quite challenging and both of them gave me a lot of production experience.

I noticed that you have given painting on an iPad a go. What do you think of painting in this way, and do you think there is an opportunity for it to be developed in the future?

In the end it wasn't my thing (Laughs). With my impatient nature and my desire to see quick results I found technical disadvantages with iPad that were just too frustrating. I did love the mobility of the device and the really nice battery life however. I like the direction the tablet market is going and I'm excited to see how this market will look in a few years time.

Well it has been great to speak to you and to have an excuse to spend time flicking through your great work whilst at my desk. Thank you for finding time to speak to us; hopefully we can catch up again in the future.

Thanks for having me!

To see more by Maciej Kuciara, check out Digital Painting Techniques: Volume 5
and Digital Art Masters: Volume 7

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