A Presentation on Portfolios from Jonathon Banks

Today at the University of Advancing Technology we had a special presentation from Jonathon Banks of Telltale Games, where he discussed portfolios and how to make it in the competitive game industry. This was a fantastic talk, and I was able to write down quite a few notes to share with those who missed the presentation or would just like some more help with their portfolio. Jonathon’s talk focused on artists, specifically environmental artists, but the information presented would be helpful for anyone pursuing a career in the game industry.

Jonathon Banks at UAT (Sorry for the blurriness!)

About the Speaker

For those who don’t know, Jonathon Banks currently works at Telltale Games as an environment artist. He has worked on games such as Jurassic Park, Puzzle Agent, and Tales of Monkey Island. If you’d like to learn more about him, you can check out his portfolio site at www.jonathonbanks.com

Portfolio Advice

Jonathon offered a lot of advice, but his primary focus was on portfolios, specifically for artists, although this can also apply to level designers. First off, you need to have a web site; there really is no excuse to justify not having one, and this is something that has become almost required these days. When it comes to the actual web site, you need to keep it fairly simple, well organized, and easy to navigate. The site should definitely have a contact/about you section, but you want your work to be the first thing the viewer sees when the open your site. As a student, you really don’t need to have a flashy, cool looking site since you’re just starting out, although you do want to try to make it look nice. Jonathon also notes that flashy sites often take longer to load, and studios typically don’t have the time to wait for your site to load just to see your work. No matter how diverse your skill set is, you want to focus your portfolio on what it is you want to do, but you can also show off a little bit of your other skills elsewhere in your portfolio or on your LinkedIn profile or resume if you don’t have the space.

The actual content of your portfolio depends entirely on what you do. Designers need to show that they can clearly communicate their ideas and create something that is fun, while programmers might want to show code and how it is implemented into a playable game. Level designers need to show that they are capable of creating a playable level with gameplay elements, and artists want to show off their artistic abilities and how they can work within certain constraints (low-poly, low-res). The argument of quality versus quantity often comes up when discussing portfolio content, and Jonathon said that this really depends on the studio; some studios would rather see lots of good work, while others would prefer only a few really great works. No matter how much content you have, you need to make sure you also provide a description with each piece. This description should give the reader a good idea of your thought process in creating the content, as well as provide significant information regarding the tools you used, the number of hours put into it, and anything else that would be applicable (poly- or tri-counts). If you’ve worked on something with other people, you might want to list who did what and be clear on what exactly you did. Speaking of other people, if you’ve created something based off of someone else’s concept art, go ahead and show it next to your work, but be sure to credit the creator.

Jonathon talked quite a bit about tips for artists’ portfolios, and although I’m not an artist, I thought that he offered some good advice. For environment artist portfolios, you want to focus on detail, stylization (if applicable), textures, and lighting. If one of those isn’t exactly your strong suit, there are little tricks you can do to make it less obvious. Lighting in the Unreal Engine is rather simple to do, so if you are having trouble with lighting, try building an environment there. When you do work on lighting, try to make it unique and interesting, and make it fit the mood or atmosphere of the environment. Effective lighting can hide low-polys on a model, as well as low resolution textures. Jonathon stated that anyone can model, but artistic quality is often lost when it comes to texture quality. Unreal is also great for helping hide low quality textures, especially when you apply post-processing. Post-processing can be a handy tool when trying to make things look good for your portfolio, but if your screenshots still don’t look the best, try tweaking them a bit in Photoshop; just remember that you can’t Photoshop all of your game’s aesthetics, so try not to rely on this too heavily.

Something interesting that Jonathon recommended including on your portfolio was a sketch section. He explained that this could be an additional section of your actual portfolio, or just a blog where you show works in progress. This sketch section should show any experimental art, actual sketches, models, or anything else that you’ve created that you wouldn’t normally put in your portfolio. These pieces won’t have the greatest quality but will show your progression as an artist. I found this idea very interesting, and while I think this could be applied to game and level designers who might have some additional work that isn’t quite worthy of being in their portfolios.

Your portfolio is what is going to get you the job, so ensure that it is your very best work and that it is easily accessible. If you want to work at a triple-A studio, try to make your work as close to film quality as possible, and always use the highest resolution images and videos you can when showing off your work. Jonathon also suggests to make your work timeless so that it can hold up even over the next five or so years, despite the advanced technology we will have then. It is also recommended that you update your portfolio periodically to ensure that your most recent and best work is available to view.

Demo Reels

Demo reels are a great way to help you land a job in the industry, especially if you’re an artist or even a level designer. Jonathon explains that while they are indeed great, they really need to sell you. The fact is that most companies receive a lot of applicants for the same position, so they are not always going to have time to watch your demo reel. If the studio you are applying for likes what they see on your portfolio, then they will be more inclined to look at your demo reel to see if you are really the right fit for the company. Jonathon says that your demo reel needs to show all of the content, as well as be exciting for someone to watch. He says that they need to be more like a cinematic experience; your demo reel should excite the viewer and make them more interested in hiring you. There are a few tricks to accomplishing this, one of which is to add in music. If you do add music, make sure it fits and isn’t too crazy or loud; after all, you want people to focus on your work, not whatever music is playing in the background. Another way is to show more than just screenshots. If you’re building 3D environments or levels, show camera movement through the environment to give it more depth and showcase all of the details you’ve put in. For 3D modelers, rotate your models to give the viewer a better idea of how it looks. It’s a good idea to show the wireframes if you have them, as well. Include any important information for the work you’re showing, and be sure it is your very best work.

Example Portfolios

Jonathon brought up several different portfolio sites during his presentation that he found to be very good examples. Next to each name below is their title, and you can check out their portfolio sites by clicking on the names.

Applying & Interviewing for the Job

Before you apply to a studio, research it and try to learn more about how it operates. This holds true even if this is your first job and you’re just trying to get a job; learning more about it will come in handy later on and can help you to tailor your cover letter and resume to the specific company. Get to know some of the people that work at the studio you are looking to apply to, as this can be a great way to learn more about the company or even possibly help you get the job. A great place to meet people is at GDC and similar events, and be sure to get connected over LinkedIn, as well. When it comes time for you to actually apply, submit a personalized cover letter with your resume and a link to your portfolio site. If you do submit a demo reel, remember that there is a chance they might not watch it or it could get lost.

With the application process out of the way, perhaps the studio would like to interview you. Jonathon did not mention anything about phone interviews, but instead focused on in-person interviews. You want to come prepared, with a copy of your resume, portfolio, demo reel, and personal recommendations. If you’re interviewing at a studio that has a specific artistic style, you may want to pick out portfolio pieces that show you can easily fit right in. Being well dressed is also important when interview time comes around; you want to dress nicely without looking overdressed or like you don’t care. Dressing well for an interview shows that you care about the job and the studio, but showing up in a suit and tie will make you seem out of place in a generally casual work environment. Of course, you don’t want to show up in a t-shirt and jeans either; business casual is usually the way to go. Jonathon suggests for men to wear khaki pants and a nice polo or button-up shirt, and also comments that jeans are probably not preferable since they come across as informal. During the interview, keep calm and confident, and showcase your passion for what you do. When things aren’t quite as formal, try to get to know whom you are interviewing with, but be sure to keep things casual.

Art Tests

For all artists, the studio is going to ask you to complete an art test, and this is something that has to be done. You might need to do it after applying or after the interview, but it really depends on the studio and their preferences. Jonathon says that these are often fun to do, as they ask you to create something in an effort to see your artistic ability in action. When they give you the art test, be sure to ask a lot of questions on specific details on what you should make. This shows that you care about your work and also makes it easier to complete the test to their standards. If the studio has a specific art style, try to mimic it in your art test to help them see how you will fit into their company.

Your First Job

The game industry is a rather difficult industry to get into, and there is a lot of competition when applying. But when you do get the job, Jonathon notes a few things to be wary of if it is your first job in the industry. Most of the time, entry-level positions are brought in during the middle or at the end of production, which means you will likely not need to deal with pre-production, but you will need to playtest more often. Because you are coming into the project so late in development, you will instantly be part of production and will be put to work on the game with little time to train. You will also likely find that the studio will want you to expand your skillset while you work there, which Jonathon says is part of the idea “specialize to get the job; be well-rounded to move up.” Remember that your first job is most likely not going to be your dream job, but it will provide the necessary learning experience in order to move up in the industry.

Final Advice

To close his presentation, Jonathon told everyone to do three things if they want to make it in the industry: 1) go to GDC, 2) finish projects, and 3) ask for help. GDC is an excellent way to network and learn valuable information about the game industry. Some of the talks from GDC can be found for free on the GDC Vault, so try to watch anything you can on there, or better yet, try to get a membership so you can access all of the talks. Finishing projects you’re working on is also very important since it shows that you are capable of completing things. Even if the project didn’t turn out very well, it provides great experience that can be applied to later projects. Of course, if you ever feel stuck while working on something game related, just ask for help. If you go to a school that offers game courses similar to UAT, be sure to collaborate and seek guidance from fellow students, and if you aren’t in school, try to meet up with other game developers in your area. It’s important to get direction from someone else, especially outside of your area of expertise, to further your skills.

While at UAT, Jonathon also hosted a workshop and offered individual portfolio reviews for students, although I wasn’t able to attend these. However, if you’d like to hear more from Jonathon Banks, he has a similar presentation available to view on his blog, which can be found on his portfolio. I hope you’ve learned a few things as I did, and thanks for reading!

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