I had the chance to talk with Kevin Johnstone recently about his past & present career as an artist for Epic Games, his beginnings as an artist and why he's been so shy to the community these past few years.
Kevin has been an artist at Epic Games now for nearly 7 years. Not only has he worked on Unreal Tournament 3, the entirety of the Gears of War franchise and many other miscellaneous Epic endeavours, he has also rocked the 3D videogame art community with his attention to detail in high poly sculpting.
If you've been impacted by Kevin's Work at all these past few years this extremely candid interview will be of high interest to you. Be sure to also check out the shots of never-before-seen sculpts from Gears of War 3.
Adam Bromell: You and I have known each other for a while now, but for those who don't know you why don't you tell them a bit about yourself, Kevin?
Kevin Johnstone: I as born in Scotland, married in Belgium and now live in Cary, North Carolina here in the States with my wife and two daughters. I've worked here at Epic Games as a Senior Environment Artist for the last seven years. I basically make really fancy pieces of Lego for the level designers to use to construct the levels, and I specialize almost purely in 3D, the highpoly and the lowpoly work. I've been making games for 14 years now, I think.
You’ve been a rather shy individual up until recently. And I know with me personally you had told me you’re putting in a contious effort to get ‘out there’ more with your fellow artists in this tight community of ours. Why the sudden urge to expose yourself?KJ:
I've been going through some life changing events over the last year. I've had Crohn's disease for 20 years and it has recently progressed from moderate to severe. I had a couple surgeries, developed additional diseases and I've been losing the use of my hands; my body was poisoning me and I didn't know what was going on; I suspected there was something seriously wrong for a year or so, maybe cancer or something as that's a risk with Crohn's disease.
I had to admit that I have a serious health condition, talk about it, find help and change my life so that I can make the most of what I have, for as long as I have it. I have some great doctors in Chapel Hill, NC who are fixing me up now. I've moved on to Remicade infusions, taking 7 tablets a day instead of 27, and my health is steadily improving again.
So, I'm trying to get past that traditional artistic self-loathing and angst and just get myself out there, do more things for myself, do the things I have put aside because of my obsession with work. I love my work, I expect I always will, but I am trying to live more for myself instead of for others. I have begun writing a bucket list, I am writing stories for my girls, learning to paint and sculpt, and taking the time for long breakfasts in the morning – which sounds like a little thing, but it’s not something I have made time for since I was 14.
I've never been good at accepting help, not since I got Crohn's disease, but I don't really see that I have any choice anymore, so I'm not hiding who I am or trying to compensate and prove that my condition won't limit my ability to excel. I don't want to paint too dark a picture here; the Remicade infusions may maintain a high quality of life for me for a long time, but I'm simply not counting on having an unlimited amount of time, and am not planning on doing so many things 'later'.
AB: Thanks for being so candid about yourself Kevin. There's a lot going on right now but it seems as though you're moving forward and being as positive about it as you can. Before you and I move too far forward here, why not tell me about the steps you've taken to get to where you are now?
I have no training or education but I played a lot of Quake
after Qtest1 and that got me obsessive enough to want more than just the clan league and Free For All experiences once QuakeWorld was out. So, I downloaded every file that had “PAK” in the name via ftp, trying them all out until I found one that would let me edit the PAK files that came with Quake.
I knew nothing, so I just tried everything I could until something happened. I slowly learned how to texture characters, weapons, HUDs, make levels, add sounds and so on. I entered comps, kept a journal online, displayed all my work, and ended up making money selling Quake skins to clans to keep me going while I looked for work full time. I got heavily involved in the community around then as well. I was there for the start of Q2PMP, though I didn't do anything other than occasionally lurk for a good while, and I didn't really understand the concept of a message board at the time. It's worth pointing out that my previous job before making games was as a salmon carver at Pinneys Fish Farm, just up the road from Stranraer in Scotland.
Eventually, I got a job at Reflections Interactive developing Steam and then Driver for PlayStation 1. Once I had a shipped title under my belt I leveraged that to get a better job, and then another better job until I got the job I wanted at Legend working on Unreal II. It was the dream come true because that was when I finally got to make violent FPS shooters, skinning characters and weapons like I had always wanted to do. Again, it's worth explaining that at this point (around '99) no one was making FPS games in the UK, so I knew I needed to get to the US to make the kind of games I loved playing.
In the end, Legend went out of business and I had to scramble for a while, but it provided me with the portfolio I needed to impress the folks at Scion and when they took an interest, with the backing of Epic, well that was my ticket to ride. While a few US companies had taken an interest in me, I had no education which presented a challenge for obtaining a visa, but Epic had the money and the clout to bend the rules a little, and they really went to bat for me and fluffed up my application.
A week after I moved to the US in 2004, we found out that Epic wanted to merge with Scion, so I sort of sneaked in through the back door. The irony for me is that I lied about being able to model to get the job at Scion and now I model full-time.
And what about today? What do you do now to keep yourself educated in our craft?KJ:
I don't do a lot to educate myself the way I suppose many folk probably do. I read a great deal of literature on unrelated subjects such as fantasy, the occult, mystery, folklore, sci-fi, horror, history, and mythology, and I watch films and documentaries on the same subjects. I tend to follow clues from one piece of media to another, jumping whenever I see another signpost.
For instance, I watched Get Shorty, and saw the scene in the cinema where they laud Touch of Evil and, in particular, the line about what kind of cop Welles was in the movie. It made me curious, so I got Touch of Evil and it was brilliant, then I read up more on Welles and what he went through with that movie. I continued to enjoy the trail of breadcrumbs I was following and could see a bit of the through line between the subjects. You see, everyone who makes some form of media that is entertainment leaves invisible messages, little clues about what their inspirations and aspirations are or were, and you can follow up on that – you know, if you want to know more.
I enjoy educating myself in 'the craft' but not in 'our craft' if you see what I mean? Mostly what I'm good at is remembering, as in everything I’ve ever been interested in. Every song I ever heard, every book I ever read, every movie I ever watched, every city I ever visited, it's all there for me to draw upon and that's the one thing I continue to try to educate myself with, meaning life and my curiosity about it.
You weren't always a master at highpoly sculpting. Your portfolio, which recently went live with a brand new update, shows a lot of previous work; everything from character creation to concepts. Tell us about the transition from your previous body of work being shown to the new work from the Unreal Tournament
and Gears of War
I went from all that community stuff to working as Reflections’ level designer on Steam, a 3rd person action adventure, then I was a texture guy on Driver. Each job I took, I just did what they needed me to do. At Legend, it was characters and weapons, and when I got to Scion I did a bit of everything – characters, weapons, vehicles, 3D, 2D... because that's what they needed and I had done each job at some other place before.
I have typically just done what others wanted me to do and that didn't change until just after Scion merged with Epic. When that happened we were collectively offered the choice between working on Gears of War or UT3 and I just knew that if I went on Gears of War, I'd be a texture guy forever because that's where I was much stronger and the team was starving for dedicated 2D guys.
So I chose UT3 as there was no one on that team yet, and I explained I felt that I should dig in and learn how to do highpoly modeling because it was clear that's what would be needed more and I already knew how to texture. I had to do it because I remembered loving painting expressions in Quake and I felt a little impotent on Unreal II having to paint bland cipher faces and leave the 'character' part of their expressions to the animators. With each new stage of technology, there was less control on offer if I had stuck to 2D alone.
A lot of times you can hear about artists being pigeon hold in to a certain aspect of 3D video game art. I think it is safe to say that for the past few years you’ve been creating nothing but highpoly sculpts or hard-surface meshes for baking purposes. And for a few years before that you were creating textures or materials specifically. Do you feel pigeon holed? Is that a bad thing to happen in ones career?KJ:
Yeah, I'm like a fat man pigeonholed into eating cake every day. It’s torture, because I love cake.....? Oh wait a minute, no, that's not really tough at all; you can tell by the grin on my face it's not tough. Doing the highpoly modeling is the easy part. It's the fun part, you just look at some pictures, you let your mind wander, and you squeeze out an idea. Fun.
It's the making it 'right' part that is tougher, thinking ahead far enough to plan for the restrictions of the situation the assets will be applied in, making it in such a way that it can be contorted to a variety of other interlocking forms in an efficient and pleasingly high-res manner that doesn't require much if any optimization later. Getting the process to come out just right, creating lightmaps for so many lowpoly assets and any manner of other annoying little 'price of doing business' type tasks.
I do sometimes feel the burden of being a Lego machine, it is not always easy to just be 'on' but that is why they pay me. A large part of my worth is that I know how to do whatever is asked of me. I would not be capable of that without having focused purely on one thing for so long and I like being capable of doing some things that others aren't. Of course I do, who wouldn't?
A lot of the time I really don't see myself for who I am, or appreciate the worth of my work. It is only occasionally when I catch sight of myself mirrored in others respect for something I have made. When I see that, it's one of the most amazing feelings, like taking pride in my daughters’ accomplishments or realizing how much my wife loves me or understanding truly for a moment that everything in life is going to work out. It's just one of those ineffable feelings that all people, not just artists, want to experience.
So, no, I don't think being pigeonholed has been a bad thing for me. It's given me the freedom to excel here amongst a group of people known for excellence and I like being able to contribute to that.
AB: Your career is the epitome of art transitions where the artists - in this case yourself - does there best to master the aspect of videogame art they are specializing in. What’s next for you Kevin? Whether its professionally or personally, do you have another area you’d like to jump in to and surround yourself with?
KJ: Well, I'm just trying to get back to my own mad wee notions. I'm committed to the idea of doing more personal projects and just exploring myself again. I think I stopped for too long there. It's great to have a new goal. I don't really know where it'll lead, but it'll be somewhere new and that's always what I want.
AB: Before we end here let’s talk a bit about Gears of War 3. You’ve been at Epic long enough to have worked on all three Gears games. What has changed in how you’re creating your sculpts for the game along the way?
On Gears 1, it was all about just trying to fit in with the big boys. I put in a handful of months near the end of production, mostly on the Ephyra section (sort of Old World Greece with a tinplated topping). Just going into my first Gears art meeting was an amazing experience, being a part of the energy in that room. So that was fun, but for me it was mostly about trying to step up to the plate. Some of my work was in the “Mad World” trailer and that became the high water line for my sense of achievement.
With Gears 2, it was about becoming one of the big boys. I got to jump around a lot from the COG Hospital's traditional Gears style to the extreme Locust Palace stuff to the ruined Outpost theme. Making the first Locust-themed pieces was the big prize for me, because it was a chance to invent something new in the Gears universe instead of being as focused on staying true to what had been invented before my time.
I would have liked to have worked more on the Outpost set, too. I generally wish I had gotten to do more at the end of each game. Using the grid, better pivot points, increased modularity, lightmaps rather than vertex lighting, these were all new things we had to get up and running as a team on Gears 2. We were building bigger worlds, and we had to do more with less, so the need for optimization was greater.
Gears 3 has been more ambitious again with larger, more varied environments and the addition of Unreal Lightmass. It's changed how we work again. Things need to be cleaner and more open, and bold forms and lighter materials let the bounce lights do their thing. There is more modularity, more reuse of higher res textures, more smoke and mirrors but still plenty of opportunities to have fun playing with new styles.
From ruined cities to giant art deco bridges, from high-tech devices to old world towns, and the occasional hero pieces – these all allow me to stretch. I think the variety has doubled each project and that's great, it keeps me busy. There's nothing worse than simple repetition for me; it's the passion killer.
I hope I've done better this time. I’ve received a lot of good feedback from the community and have had time to look back over what's been done already. I'm too close to Gears 3 now to call it, though. At this point in a project, I'm looking mostly at the things that are wrong with it so I can make them better. I don't get to see what I made until I play it later with everyone else when it’s released.