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Michael Dashow
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Page last updated on
February 14th, 2009

At one point, I was asked for advice on being an art director. Here is what I answered:

Being an Art Director is all about having the necessary experience... and there's a lot of it required! On the Art Side, an AD has to be able to give feedback on every aspect of the art pipeline: Modeling, texturing, rigging, animation, effects, graphic design and layout, and anything else that comes down the road. It helps if the person has a lot of experience doing all of these things. In a small company like the start-ups where I've been recently, and hi5, I have not only had to be able to effectively critique all of these areas but I also end up doing them all myself! Not to say I don't have an art team, but the smaller the company, the more hats you wear. I do all of the above quite often.

Even if you don't have to do them yourself, you need to have solid skills in all of them. It's hard to advise an animator on how to improve an animation unless you're familiar enough with the process to have something valuable to add, for example. Plus, it helps to be a person whose skills people respect in various areas. If people look at your work and say, "I've seen his work, he's not very good and doesn't know what he's talking about," it has a tendency to undermine one's credibility. Not to say you have to be better than everyone in everything - I have worked with animators who are a lot better than I ever was - but at least we can discuss things on a technical level.

A lot of times, Art Directors are hired up through the ranks of a company because they're a known quality: They're not a stranger coming in off the street, but they're worked there a while, and shown a capability for a lot of different aspects of the art pipeline. They've probably earned some respect for their art skills along the way and people know that they know many aspects of the job. It would be a lot harder to get a job as an AD right out of college because there would be very little real-worlds experience to back up a claim of knowing all aspects of the job.

But there's also more to being an AD than just being good at art. An Art Director has to have a solid vision of the whole product and how it all holds together visually. An AD doesn't just say "make everything look cool," or "Just make all the characters look like I drew them." Each title or franchise has its own distinct look and feel, which may be seperate from the AD's personal style. I've ADed childrens' titles at Broderbund, dark gory ominous games at Blizzard, and now teen-oriented 3D avatars at Meez - three very different styles, all of them. And none of them exactly how I tend to paint my own stuff (i.e. the Cataclysm cats and my CGSociety Challenge entries are good examples of my personal art.) But you need to hold together a style that is appropriate for the specific company, game/film/show/books, and the clients or bosses above you.

Also, you have to be able to communicate that look and vision to everyone else - your team, the client/boss, and the public in general. An AD often has concept artist working for them, but these days a lot of Art Directors at game companies are also fantastic concept artists in their own right. Stephen Martiniere (Stranglehold), Daniel Dociu (Guild Wars) and Justin Thavirat (World of Warcraft) are three who come to mind right off the top of my head, ADs who regularly get work published in books like Spectrum and Expose. They're all incredible artists, and I'd have to imagine anyone working underthem would be increedibly aware (and appreciative) of that level of skill... (Going back to that earlier point about having the skills to back up your leadership.)

However, it's important to note that an AD's role is less one of an artist and more of a manager and communicator. It's not enough to be good at different art tasks and styles. You have to be able to effectively communicate with your team about what changes need to be made. Sometimes this is done verbally, or sometimes it's written (I have at times worked with a lot of artists not in the office, so I constantly needed to communicate changes via the web or e-mail. This can and will be done with diagrams, screen captures, text, arrows and call-out, paint-overs, acting out animation, video, and sometimes just rolling up the sleeves and fixing something yourself! And it all has to be done in a way that is respectful of the artist's talent and feelings - you can't just order everyone around (if you want to keep your team!) and you need to be able to communicate the direction for the entire project, either by your own example or other means. Because the main part of the job isn't doing the work yourself, it's getting a whole team of people to do the work, and to all be doing it in the same direction!

And lastly, there's the management part of the job: Giving job reviews, meeting with clients or bosses, woking with technical staff on art implementation and programming, analyzing costs, scheduling assets, figuring out budgets... If you're lucky, you have a producer to help you with the last few... Currently my company is too small for that, so I have to do all those things myself too. You'll have to hire a team, which means writing job descriptions, searching for talent, reviewing portfolios, giving interviews, implementing tests... And then there's occasionally firing people too - it's all part of being a manager, which is what you are.

Lastly, here is an interesting thread on CGSocietyon the topic of Art Directors. Specifically, look at post number 12, from Robert Chang - lunatique. He summs it up pretty well also, and it's worth checking out.