Want a successful career working as an Concept Artist in Games? Zach Cohen is a Syn Studio alumnus and Concept Artist at Ubisoft headquarters in Montréal. Zach sits down with us to share his journey and advice to aspiring artists looking for an exciting and challenging career like his own.
What's your current role and what does it involve?
I am a Concept Artist at Ubisoft. I create characters and environments as well as weapons and props.
What type of projects are they involved with?
We are currently working on an unannounced project. We have recently worked on Rainbow6 and the Farcry brands. In general Ubisoft do mainly AAA games for consoles and PC.
When did you first realise you wanted to work in this industry?
As soon as I realised it existed! I became aware of it in 2013. I’m not a gamer however.
How did you get your first big break?
I was almost accepted to work in a mobile game studio in Israel back in 2014. At first I was invited for an interview and got rejected. HR mentioned in the rejection letter that I left a good impression. I was still pretty disappointed. Yet, surprisingly after two months they reached out and took me for a new project that had opened shortly after.
Describe the journey you took into your current role?
After working for two years at Plarium ( the mobile games company in Israel), the project got canceled.
I then started freelancing with some outsourcing studios. I later joined the 2016 intake of students at Syn studio. With my diploma I started hunting for a job in Montreal and eventually started working at Ubisoft. My journey involves many rejections and projects that got canceled. It will be way too long to detail. Nevertheless it’s a fun journey with existing highlights and good rewards.
Day in the life
Describe a typical day for you and your team?
Normally I will start the day with feedback from my Art Director. After a short chat with him and some art direction briefing, I’ll get right into my assignment. Once a week we have a team meeting where we review the WIP of all the team mates. Lunch time is a good time to associate with friends.
What third-party and proprietary tools do you use on a daily basis?
Which departments and key people do you work closely with?
I’m in the core creative team. I work closely with my Art Director. I may have collaborative work with another concept artist and I may share some files with the layout artists and the 3D modelers. On a few occasions I will communicate with the writers or the marketing department but normally it’s the AD who briefs me about everything.
Are there any industry trends that are changing the nature of your role?
Not really, but trends in the industry can definitely influence the visual of the game or product I’m working on.
One thing you’d never change about your job?
As long as I’m painting and creating for my living, I’m loving it.
But one thing you wouldn’t mind seeing changed is?
I’d be happy to see more diversity in characters in games, especially body types...
Is formal education essential for someone aspiring to do your job?
I do work with some artists that have no formal education. However, they have integrated into the industry many years ago. These days, I’d say that for a beginner artist that is trying to break into the industry, good education can compensate for a lack of experience.
What tasks would you typically ask a junior artist to handle?
It really depends on the project. I often see juniors do pro environments.
They typically don't do key art however.
What skills do you look for when hiring an artist?
I’m not hiring anyone anytime soon, but the most valuable skills in my opinion are quality of execution, diversity and good and humble attitude.
What skills seem to be missing all too often?
In many portfolios that I see, there isn’t a lot of consistency in terms of subjects and style.
Students will benefit a lot from learning about soft skills and the social conduct in a corporation. Many aspects of the job are related to good communication with colleagues and managers.
Describe a project brief that you’d recommend artists create for their portfolio?
I think it all starts with inspiration and research. You must be very inspired and enthusiastic about your project, otherwise it won't last long before you will get bored or discouraged. You should dedicate a good portion of time for research and reference gathering. Many projects don’t look credible enough or look too eclectic because the research wasn’t done properly.
There are different briefs and pipelines to develop a project, but I think these two tips are most relevant for whatever the project is.
What mistakes do you see artists making when applying for jobs?
To be honest, there are many factors that can influence a candidate being accepted and rejected for a job. I’m simply not in a position that I can be confident and testify I know 100% how it works.
If you could give one piece of advice to artists starting out, what would it be?
Be patient. It will take time for you to level up your art skills to a point of satisfaction. It will also take time before you will position yourself inside a team, so that you know what your key role is. Be persistent and keep on pushing. It’s only with perspective that you can see the progress that you have made.
If you could go back in time to when you first started out, what advice would you give yourself?
Don’t let rejections get in your way. Everyone is sharing their success story, but I can assure you there are rejections in everyone's path. I had quite a few rejections on my way and if I would have not lifted myself up trying to adopt an optimistic view, I’d have quit long ago.
Rejection can be very harmful and take a long time to recover from. It’s the same experience as in personal life, especially for artists as they take their job very personally. You should know that new doors will open and opportunities are on the horizon. You should always stay optimistic. I promise you, eventually it pays off.
I think one thing artists that start on their new job in the industry should be aware of, is that a work in a corporation is not a personal work. A game is no one’s creation. It's a collaboration of many. As a student you are a lot more responsible for the look of your designs and project. Remember that as an artist in a company you are a problem solver and not necessarily a decision maker. You may become an art director one day but first, try to be attentive to your managers as much as you can and make them happy. Nothing stops you from continuing on developing whatever it is that you desire to create on your personal time.
You can find more of Zach's work on ArtStation.