Working as an Environment Artist with Brennan Howell

Brennan sits down with us to share his journey and advice to aspiring image makers, looking for an exciting and challenging career like his own.

Want a successful career working as an Environment Artist at some of the world's leading VFX and Animation Studios? Brennan Howell is an Environment Artist and graduated from Champlain College in 2019. Since then, Brennan has been working at Velan Studios, located in Troy, New York. Brennan sits down with us to share his journey and advice to aspiring image makers, looking for an exciting and challenging career like his own.

The Journey

When did you first realise you wanted to work in this industry?

For as long as I can remember I've always wanted to spend my time either playing games or making art. I was probably about twelve when I realised that creating art for games was a possibility. Once that clicked for me, it was the only thing that I ever seriously considered for my future. I visited colleges that would allow me to learn the necessary skills, and decided that Champlain College was my top choice. After speaking with faculty there and understanding what I would need in order to be accepted into their game art program, I worked towards that, and in September of 2015 I started my journey!

What's your current role and what does it involve?

I’m an environment artist at Velan Studios.  My day to day work involves creating the levels and maps that our games are played in. That can be anything from creating 3D structures or props, to creating textures and materials, to the lighting of the levels as a whole. The environment art team at Velan is only 6 people, so there’s a lot of creative ownership over the work that each of us does, and that’s really rewarding.

Our workflow often involves getting a level that has been blocked out by a level designer, and then use any 2D concept art that has been created for the spaces to inform how the maps should look. Often our concepts will be great jumping off points, but there are always a lot of problems to solve once we get into 3D. That means that a lot of my work involves communicating with level design and other artists to get the levels looking the best that they can, while still meeting the design needs.

Where do you work, and what type of projects are you involved with?

Velan studios is a relatively small studio located in Troy, New York, with about 80 or so folks working here. It was founded in 2016 by Karthik and Guha Bala, who previously founded the studio Vicarious Visions and led them in creating titles like Skylanders and Guitar Hero. At this time we have yet to reveal much about what we’re working on, but I’m really excited about what I’ve had the chance to work on so far.

How did you get your first big break?

I was fortunate enough to get an offer from Velan Studios before I graduated in May of 2019. Although, I had been in communication with Velan’s art director since October of 2018, after he came to visit a Champlain College career fair. I showed him my portfolio as it stood and asked him what projects I could take on that would make me a more appealing candidate. I took his suggestions and I’d say that turned out pretty well!

How did you learn the skills needed to get your job?

I absolutely owe my skillset as an environment artist to my time at Champlain College. They take an approach to education which they call an “upside down” curriculum. What that means is that students begin taking classes in their major starting in their first semester. That was part of what made Champlain College such an easy choice for me, I just didn’t want to wait any longer to start making video games. Not only did I learn the variety of software that I use at my job today, but Champlain has a collaborative aspect to their game majors that taught me skills I couldn’t have picked up through tutorials.

I was involved in projects with programmers, designers, and even producers who helped manage the teams. The experience I gained in those environments were eye-opening for me, and since at my job I’m constantly working with other disciplines, I can’t imagine going straight into the industry without knowing how to communicate and compromise the way I can now.

What was the interview process like and what advice would you give others?

My interview process at Velan felt a little unorthodox compared to interviews that I had with other studios. I never had an official sit down or call where I was asked about my biggest strengths and weaknesses. A lot of it stemmed from my initial conversation with Velan’s Art Director. After my first time meeting him, he was willing to give me feedback on one of my projects in progress, which turned into a bit of a general conversation about his time in the industry, and at the end I was once again able to express my interest in Velan. That led to scheduling a follow up call where he talked to me a little bit about what the studio looked for from its employees outside of their defined roles like ‘artist’ or ‘programmer.’ I had never really had a conversation with someone at a game studio about those topics, and that was a big part of why it became my goal to work there.

The closest thing I had to a standard interview started under the premise of a portfolio review run by an environment artist at Velan. We began looking at my portfolio and he had several questions about choices that I made about my pieces, what I might do differently now, and what my process for creating them looked like. That was my last conversation with anyone from Velan before receiving my offer.

Champlain has a collaborative aspect to their game majors that taught me skills I couldn’t have picked up through tutorials.

The thing that kept me comfortable throughout the whole process was researching Velan before I applied. From what I’ve seen, most studios will talk a little bit about their values and goals somewhere on their websites. Doing that before talking with Velan’s art director gave me a good frame of mind for how to approach the conversation and how to best display what I had to offer. It was also helpful for me in determining whether I thought Velan would be a good fit.

Describe a typical day for you and your team?

We’re free to get in at any time in the morning that works for us, some people come in super early and leave early, some people come in and leave late. It’s really up to us to do what works best for ourselves. I come in around 9AM which gives me about an hour before the levels team’s daily scrum. I use that time to wrap up what I was working on the day before and get it ready for a post scrum review if I can.

The levels team consists of all the environment artists, our level designer, our levels QA, our producer, and one of our graphics programmers. In our scrum we each go over what we’ve been working on, and what we’ll be working on next. Sometimes we’ll get an announcement from a lead or producer but most times it’s pretty straight forward.

After our scrums we take a look at any environment art that’s ready for feedback. After all our feedback is received we go back to working on our tasks for the day. Sometimes we have meetings to discuss long term decisions or what we’ll be doing in future sprints.

The environment artists are also frequently asking each other for small bits of feedback, or other technical questions throughout the day. Occasionally we’ll have a question for a designer or a programmer, which can lead to some super interesting conversations that we learn a lot from. There’s a lot of day to day communication that happens between all the artwork we do, and helps inform our decisions on that front.

What third-party and proprietary tools do you use on a daily basis?

Personally I use primarily Autodesk Maya and the Substance Suite  for my work. If I ever want to do any quick 2D work I’ll use Adobe Photoshop, but most of my work involves 3D assets or texture authoring.

A few folks in the studio use ZBrush as a part of their workflow, especially the character artists. We’ve also created our own engine that we use as a part of our development. I can’t talk much about the specifics of it unfortunately, but it was definitely one of the biggest changes coming from working on personal projects to working at Velan.

Which departments and key people do you work closely with?

Since Velan is only about 80 folks, I’ve had the chance to work with almost everyone at some point throughout my time at the studio. The individuals I work the closest with are definitely the other environmental artists, especially our lead environment artist as he sits about 4 feet away from my desk. It’s amazing to be able to turn around and ask for feedback or help whenever I need to.

Level design and Graphics programmers are probably the departments we have the most interaction with outside of the environment art team. We go back and forth with our level designer to make sure everything is functioning properly after our maps leave the block-out stage is super important. We talk with the graphics team a lot to make sure that we’re staying reasonable with the art in our levels to keep everything running as smoothly as it can. That process can end up being more complicated than we expect sometimes, but more often than not we’re able to arrive at a creative solution that allows everyone to get what they want.

We also have a fair amount of interaction with character artists and concept artists. Sometimes we’ll want clarification on the intent of a concept, and a lot of times it can be faster to send a screenshot of a part of the level to a concept artist for them to do some quick iterations, before we commit to something in 3D.

We also talk with character artists pretty often. There’s a balance that has to be kept between the visuals of the characters and the environments to make sure that the characters can read properly, while keeping the environments interesting.

Because of my choice to go to Champlain I was taking classes in game art starting in my first semester. I was learning industry standard tools and techniques my entire time there.

One thing you’d never change about your job?

The amount of creative decision making that the environment art team has is one of my favourite things about working at Velan. We get amazing concepts that help us develop the spaces that our game takes place in, but when it comes to the details and specifics of how the game actually looks in 3D, we get to create it all, and try out ideas that we have along the way. It’s one of the most rewarding parts of game developments to take a create risk and have it pay off. I get to take those opportunities when I see them, and that’s the best part of my job.

But one thing you wouldn’t mind seeing changed is?

Since everything we’re working on has yet to be revealed, it’s kind of hard to talk about a lot of what I do. So it might be a bit of a cop-out, but I’m going to say the fact that everything is under NDA! I’m really excited about the work I get to do at Velan, but I can’t even imagine what getting able to talk about my first game publicly is going to be like.

Why would you recommend your school to others?

It’s pretty safe to say that I would not be where I am without Champlain College. Because of my choice to go to Champlain I was taking classes in game art starting in my first semester. I was learning industry standard tools and techniques my entire time there.

I had interviews with studios that had never met students that knew some of the techniques that I learned in my second year at Champlain. On top of all of that, the professors are incredible. Especially the game art faculty. They all have experience working in industry so everything that they teach comes from firsthand experience. They teach you not only the hard skills like software, but also the soft skills like giving and taking critique, communication, and collaboration.

One of the best things I did during my time at Champlain was take advantage of their travel abroad opportunities. Game majors will often go abroad to Montreal, which is a massive game studio hub. Students that go there get to take classes from current industry developers who come to teach classes at night after they leave work at places like Ubisoft.

My semester in Montreal is where I created my first portfolio piece, and from there I only learned more. The network that Champlain keeps with game studios around the world and its game major alumni also means that you have an incredible amount of support breaking into the industry.

Champlain brings in game professionals to our career fairs and campus events where students show off their student production games and portfolios. Artists come from studios all around the country to perform in person portfolio reviews. Because of all that, it’s not uncommon for game artists to have job offers well before graduation.

What do you wish you knew about the industry before you started?

I felt very prepared for my first job in industry, based on everything I had heard from my professors, and learned through my years at Champlain.

One thing that took me by surprise, despite having heard it several times, is just how much collaborative problem solving there is. Hardly a day goes by where the environment art team alone is involved in a discussion about how to solve a given visual or gameplay need. Oftentimes other departments are involved too.

It’s amazing to see the types of creative solutions that everyone brings to the table. Folks who have been in the industry decades will bring up a solution that I’ve never heard anything like, and at least at Velan junior developers are expected to have input in these discussions.

If you could give one piece of advice to artists trying to get a job, what would it be?

One of the most important things that I think an artist can bring to a job, is their commitment to the work that they’re doing. A good artist will tangibly increase the quality of the projects that they work on. It can be tricky however to show your dedication as an individual in a way that most studios will see, especially because for artists most of the time your portfolio will determine if you get an interview with a studio. So something that you can actively do is show your dedication in the pieces of your portfolio.

Something that I see a lot, in student work especially, is a prop sitting by itself on a grey background. Showing something like that in your portfolio can make another artist looking at it think that you weren’t invested in the piece. Adding context and storytelling to the work that you do can not only make the work itself more interesting, but it shows that when you’re making art, you’re not thinking about assets in a vacuum, because in a game they never will be.

Taking your props and giving them a fitting platform or environment to sit in, taking your material spheres and applying them to game geometry, or painting several concepts of the same environment or character from different perspectives are all ways that you can show you have the dedication to your work to think about it in a larger context.

Check out more of Brennan's work here.