So You Want To Be An Art Director
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Hey everyone, Matt again! If you’ve read the last two articles I’ve done talking about designing a species for the world of Redsky, you know how much I love creating every last detail and visual design choice as the Art Director and Principal Artist for Solar Studios.
I thought it was time for a behind the scenes, slice of life kind of article walking you through what exactly an Art Director does. So:
What Does An Art Director Do?
On paper, I work to marry every visual element of Redsky, Solar Studios, and all of our marketing so they all work together. This involves everything from graphic and web design, concept art, character design, and lying awake at 4 a.m. wondering if I can get Brandon to adjust the kerning *juuust a little more* on the headers of the website. My work will be the first impression thousands of people will get of Redsky, but if I do my job correctly everything I create will blend together into a cohesive visual style.
How Was Your Experience Trying To Do That?
It all depends on what y’all have to work with. You have to make due with what you’ve got. AAA game studios have entire departments of staff that can do things like art management and talent acquisition. Since we’re tiny indie devs, all of the organizational nitty gritty work fell to me.
One absolutely solid thing I had to work with was the lore for the world. The six sentients, Eldertech, the locations. All of their main ideas were already largely imagined by the time I was brought onboard to the team a year and a half ago. My role involved having the final say on all of the look development. Not only what a Featherfolk looks like, but what kind of clothes they wear, the style of their architecture and weapons, patterns, colors, textures and more.
Redsky is a classical/medieval mashup. It should still have a distinct vibe as a fantasy world, even if it’s grounded in reality. Vanilla Romans would be boring. We had to figure out how to make it unique. It’s casual worldbuilding times ten, because I’m trying to get these ideas into good enough shape to look professional quality.
What Do You Have To Do To Make A Picture?
Being the entire art department meant I also had to assume the role of Principal Artist for most of the pre-production of the book. Taking my early sketches and concepts and bringing them up to final polished renders to be able to pass them off to freelancers for them to interpret and iterate on with my guidance. Concepting, sketching, drafting, and painting all 6 sentient species, as well as the world map, exploring Eldertech, designing the website, logos, and marketing materials, and the first trailer, took the greater part of a year for me.
We scoured sites like Artstation and Deviantart for artists who could closely match the style I created. This involved, like, hundreds of emails. Are they established in the field? Can they work on our timetable? Who would be the best fit for the category?
The correspondence had a nice flow to it once I got going. I’d start with pleasantries, a quick version of who Solar Studios was and what we were looking for. “Will you work for a small startup that needs help? It’s a paid gig. Can you deliver us these goals by these dates?”
Then, if the stars aligned, we would get an answer in the positive, with a suitable timetable and I would assign them a scene or landscape I thought they would best be suited for. At this stage I would make them a design document as well as lengthy descriptions - these are normally supposed to be short. Since we’re a totally brand new IP, they typically need more context and explanation to make sure the scenes would land as close to the lore as possible.
All of our artists were a pleasure to work with, but I’ll use my man Ramazan Kazaliev as an example. You can check out his Artstation profile here for more examples of his work. This is his Midnight Isles piece:
Every design choice is intentional. The Midnight Isles, as you can imagine, are almost always shrouded in darkness, a sunrise or a noon day shot just wouldn’t be possible. The lighting, the material the buildings are made out of (deep one bones!), anything that can come together and create a specific mood.
How did we get to that point? After Ramazan had his context information, I asked him to create thumbnail and composition sketches. These help with things like establishing if a certain angle is the best perspective to be looking in on what’s happening in the image. As a general rule in art, your first sketch is almost never the best. Thumbnails give yourself half a dozen or more ideas to pick from and then refine, tweaking things like poses, angles, big shapes and layouts.
Once we pick a way to go, Ramazan does his thing. He gets the first pass back to me, then we update things between versions until it’s ready for a color pass. What’s a color pass? Well, should the Midnight Isles have more purple/blue/green undertones? What kind of mood does that set?
At this point, it’s time for the final render. Once I agree the final image is in great shape, we tender payments, lift the non-disclosure agreements, and continue the cycle until we have all the work we need! As a freelance artist myself, I make sure we pay industry standard rates by category. If you skimp on the funding, the quality will always suffer.
Bam! The Midnight Isles now exist beyond ideas in our heads. I had to rope other members of the team in to help duplicate this process. It was a Herculean effort to find all of our artists. But it got us the 1st and 2nd rounds of artists. Again, this would normally be the job of a separate art manager and co-workers to delegate to. Many cups of coffee died to bring you the deserts and cities you see on our blog.
Things I Wish I Knew Earlier
How much time it takes to write a hundred emails a day ahhhhh-
In hindsight, I wish I would have tripled my estimate on just how many hours it would take to establish the look of most of the universe of Redsky, as a one man department. We’re talking hundreds and hundreds of hours, on top of my freelance work. But that’s the thing. Real life will never, ever want to give you enough time to do your dream work. A lot of things lined up perfectly so that I even had the necessary life experience to juggle all of these tasks.
I graduated with a degree in illustration, and did a bunch of graphic design and typography both in, and right out of college. That helped with the logos, class icons, elemental symbols, trailers and the website. Brandon put our website together, but I designed its feel to evoke many of the more popular websites for gaming these days.
I spent 3 years as an animator, which helped with things like the trailer and landing page background animation. I have a broad experience with fantasy and sci-fi character art. It served me really well when working out the baseline concept art for each faction.
So, yeah, potential Art Directors for indie projects like ours would need a decent amount of similar experience to break into art directing. You need familiarity with a wide range of styles, themes, what’s shifting or becoming popular in the industry. It took a year and a half of pre-planning the conversion book. All the art you see presently has taken a solid year. And we did it all during the Covid-19 pandemic.
It’s been a journey. All of our artists were awesome. We were lucky to work with them and see their unique takes influence this world. Since we’ve knocked our fundraiser goal out of the park, I’m looking to squeeze out spot illustrations with some promising leads known in the industry. Those stretch goals are going to go a long way to making visuals like these develop this whole new Redsky universe. If you’re a backer on our Kickstarter, I just want to say this would be literally impossible to keep doing without your help. Thanks.
Why Do This Incredibly Long And Complex Process When There’s Easier Work Elsewhere?
But seriously, for the love of creating, even more. I wanted to help make the kind of universe people could lose themselves in. We have made enough on Kickstarter to produce and expand at a steady rate, and that’s the key. I had my fears Redsky would die on the cutting room floor, or flop day one of the Kickstarter. But the small and growing community that has begun to lift us up has given me renewed vigor at the future of the project. As long as people like you keep seeing the potential Redsky has, we’ll keep making the magic happen.
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