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A Game Artist’s Trip Back to Creativity

I’m not sure how long I was gone, or even where I had gone to. A familiar ten-billion mile stare was on my face, as it had been for the past week. To say I was frustrated would be erroneous. This week had been hell. My mind would not cooperate.

On Monday it started with just the smallest mistake. I don’t remember what it was, but I remember just not being able to let it go – I began to recognize the silhouette of negativity hovering over my mind. We’ve met before. My entire life has been a string of events which had this elusive shadow hanging over them.

Over the course of the week this familiar, yet strange apparition of negativity thwarted my mental assaults and swallowed me whole, and I let it.

Every day became worse, and I started feeding on a sort of negative feedback loop. Every action just created more doubt, which then compounded in to a dense ball of self-hate; in my mind I could do no good. I could not succeed, I couldn’t even start. By Wednesday I was completely frozen. Substance Designer was open, but, instead of inspiring me like I was used to, the blank canvas was screaming at me louder than any human ever could.

My dubious antagonist had won, and I started to believe that it might completely take me over and revert me to a version of “me” encumbered by high-school level angst that I conquered long ago.

It took one particularly frustrated partner (In this case my amazing girlfriend) to help me pull my head out of the dirt. She of course had noticed my angst, and had no idea what she was seeing. I’m sure I had never let her see that part of me before. It took her a week of prodding, pulling, and pushing me before I finally let her in to help. She desperately just wanted to go on a walk and get some frozen yogurt – hoping that would be the straw that would snap me back in to place.

I Pffted sarcastically, only to look up and meet her steely, well practiced teacher-stare-laser vision hitting me right in the face, like a third grader I stood up all pouty and took her offered hand.

The walk was long, mostly silent, and incredibly therapeutic. She reminded me that I hadn’t been exercising for a few weeks, ever since I injured my ankle in a tragically-boring hockey-related event. It also occurred to me as I gimped along that my negative feedback loop needed to break. It wasn’t only hurting me, as I selfishly thought. I was dragging people I care about with me. I was hurting people I love and need.

My neurons fired randomly, and shifted my thinking to a particular event in 2008 that completely re-shaped my way of thinking and helped me win this battle for the first time in my life. Way back then I had been working in a dungeon. Sitting in the basement of a 3D art school for nearly 15 hours a day, 6 days a week. I had been in an identical negative feedback loop for months.

This particular morning I was sitting at TD Canada Bank, staring blankly at a man who was just absolutely disgorging on the poor woman at the front desk. What he was saying wasn’t important. He was a child, and only memorable for his grumpy-toddler like rage. This went on for a few moments. As a near-bye, but not too close observer I remember staring at the receptionist, and back at the man; over and over. For every emotional volume increase the man had, the woman seemed to grow only calmer. I remember that I just couldn’t process her present, yet calm reaction.

Eventually the man finished his fit and stomped away. Surely convinced that he had won something as he blew back through the front door.

Eventually the man finished his fit and stomped away. Surely convinced that he had won something as he blew back through the front door. Looking back toward the desk, The woman was still calm; she had tried to help him, and done her best to remain professional. It blew my mind how she wasn’t screaming back at the guy. I imagined myself in her shoes – surely I would have raged back at that jerk.

Not her. She eventually realized I was just staring blankly at her, mouth ajar. Somehow she just laughed, smiled, and asked if there was anything she could help me with.

In a rare-moment of self-confidence I decided that I needed to ask how did she do that. How did this lady put up with that bombardment of insults, then smile at me and just go on with her day? Her response is something that has lived with my for the six years between writing this article and that day.

She said “Happiness is a choice that I make every day.”

Looking up as I walked, I saw an amazing Seattle day. I was on a walk with my best friend and the love of my life. I chose to smile, and I chose happiness, I imagined that scene in Lord Of The Rings when Gandalf parted the sky, and rode in to save the day at Helms Deep, I remembered that strange and undeniable happiness I had in that theater which reminded me of what kind of happiness I was capable of feeling, and I cast that darkness out of my brain. I just let it go, and moved on. I chose.

You can too, every day. Every morning.

For the past week I’ve resolved to earn back my old habits. Resolved to wake up early and read, and draw. Resolved, as my friend Alex Dracott put it “Stop wishing to be the person you want to be, and just be him.”.

 


 

Creativity is a lifestyle, and here’s how you live it.

1) Wake up early, on your terms.

Yes, you might be tired, you might have a few hours more of sleep to get – but starting your day on the terms of your employer, or school is toxic. Rushing to get ready on time, out the door on time, and on the road on time is a neurotoxin.

Instead of all of that, wake up on your own terms. The best way to have a creative day is to start out doing something that makes you happy. For me, that’s reading, drawing, learning. Over the past year I’ve read more books than I can count on TWO full hands, learned basic .PHP and Python, and had more time for introspection than I’ve had in the past decade combined. Those two hours before work, of me time are an integral part of who I am as an artist, and an integral part of how I can be such productive, wow.

For you, it might be the same, or maybe it’s just getting up and having a great breakfast, like Dexter. Taking your time, watching the world boot up and drinking coffee, or some nice tea is a great reward for dragging your butt out of bed.

Try it, set your alarm a few hours early. It’s going to _exhale vigorously_ for the first week or so, but after that I challenge you to go back to sleeping in each day.

2) Forgive your failures.

Possibly the most difficult lesson here. Forgiving yourself for making mistakes, or messing up, or not having a productive day is not easy, it’s a skill that has to be worked, and your forgiveness muscle needs to be constantly worked out. (no, not that one. I mean your metaphor heart. Where love comes from.

Every minute you waste worrying about how your day was ruined, or how your project isn’t working out how you want it to, or how your art director always gives you the busy-work tasks is a waste. Those minuscule “failures” do not represent you as an entity, they merely represent where you were five minutes ago.

Let go, forgive yourself, you’ll do better next time.

3) Put your nose down and power through.

This too shall pass, a great song, great motto, and strangely powerful work-motivator. Have something you absolutely hate doing? UV’s? Have to clean up someone’s crappy geometry again? Have to organize someones scene? Have to convert over 1,500 materials to be Physically Based?

Let go, forgive yourself, you’ll do better next time.

That sucks, but just get through it as fast as you can. Work hard, concentrate. Turn off your second screen, close skype. These tasks all are things that you can power through if you are just able to manufacture a zone to work out of. You’ve all been there, if you hate what you’re doing just remember that soon it will be done, and if you work hard it will be done even sooner.

4) Manufacture your zone.

I hate the buzz-word “zone”. I like its synonym much more, “Flow”.

Flow is cathartic. It has a direction, it has momentum, and is much easier to visualize for artists. You do not have to always have a zone, but you should be developing an environment based on trial and error every day that will allow you to enter your “flow” state at will. Here’s my recipe:

– Skype / Gmail = off.
– Noisli + Focus Spotify playlist on. (http://www.noisli.com/, http://t.co/PhkrID00Yj)
– Second monitor OFF.
– Start bar hidden.
– 2-3 minutes of eyes closed focusing and introspection of my task

6) Just start. Create that primitive cube, start welding out unnecessary verts, lay down some base colors. Nothing is as important as this step.

7) Find a rhythm to your work. That playlist above gives me rhythm. I’m comforted by my speed, and confidence in the programs I use. After a while I just kind of melt in to my work.

5) Find balance in your life.

Lets get real. “I’m too busy for video-games” is an excuse we use because we feel guilty. Almost all of us got in to this profession because of our love for video games, and if you’ve been neglecting this in your life, try to make time for it again.

There’s no need to feel guilty for not working, just balance it out. Alex Dracott, the person I mentioned above who is an artist at SuckerPunch Games makes absolutely sure to play at least 30 minutes of games a day – he uses his love for gaming as a device to separate his work day from his personal time. It doesn’t matter what he plays, but he knows that is where his love is, and denying himself of that would be a costly mistake for both his confidence, and career.

Don’t let other people take away the love from you. We’re all here because at one point we made a choice. Nobody knew how difficult that choice would be to stick to, but we know that video game art isn’t only a profession. This is a lifestyle, and the way we execute on that understanding in our day-to-day life is integral to our inner-zen. Nobody can take that from you, and if they try use your mind-grapes to just say no, like Neo did when Agent Smith shot him, and he was all like “NO” and raised from the dead to defeat the evil robots in The Matrix.

Much love for reading. I hope you can find something in here for you. Have any thing you use to calm your nerves? Hit the comments!

  • All of the above has worked for me as well. Something I’ve incorporated into my day is to take a 15 minute siesta after lunch. I found that staring at the screen all day made my eyes really tired and heavy, but having that enforced rest in between the day makes things immensely better. I don’t really sleep most of the time, I just make sure to keep my eyes shut an lay still, and when the alarm goes off it’s back to work.