A lot of artists are familiar with your work, but can you give us a quick recap of what you do and how you got started in the industry?
Sure thing! I’ve been working as a concept artist and art director in the entertainment industry for the past 11+ years. Most of my work revolves around videos games and feature films. I’ve also been involved heavily in education; from teaching at Art Center to Gnomon and finally starting my own design school in Singapore,
How I got started in this industry is directly linked to Art Center. I wore an Art Center T-Shirt to GDC (Game Developer’s Conference) and was spotted by a producer from EA. He asked me “do you go to this school?” I answered “yes.” And he gave me his card and told me to send him a portfolio. Well, a few weeks later I was sitting in an office at EA with a lake view and a beautiful blonde 3D artist office-mate! (whom later became a good friend of mine at went on to ILM) From EA, I moved around to different gaming studios and eventually ended up in Hollywood.
What have you been up to in the past few years?
Back in 2006, I was a bit burnt out and wanted to do something different. I actually started to fly airplanes and got heavily addicted to it (used to fly around LA at least 3 times a week). But I still craved something else. So, after speaking to a friend of mine, who started a successful mobile-games company in China, I decided to take a risk and start my own game studio in Beijing. It was not an easy decision; since I had put in A LOT of my own financial investment plus moving to China. But I also knew that taking risks is part of getting the reward. Thus, in July of 2006, my wife and I moved full-time to Beijing. China is a booming market in just about everything. There are a lot of investments going on especially on the media front. After moving to China, it took about 6 months to secure a 7-figure private investment.
After spending about 2 years in Beijing (which was wonderful in the most part), we finally completed the game and sold it off to a US publisher. This freed me from my daily position and allowed the company to run itself. In late 2008, I started to plan my next move. I do sometimes miss the fast-moving design world in LA, but I also have my personal goals in life to achieve.
I had a few things on the table. 1 – A very generous offer to start a media studio in Los Angeles; backed by a heavy investor. The aim of this studio was to design entertainment products which can bridge the gap between virtual items (such as films and games) to consumer products. 2 – Start another game studio 3 – Well, 3 is more complex so let me back up. During my time in Beijing, I often flew down to Singapore for business meetings. After going there so many times, I really fell in love with the country (especially Singapore Airlines!). So after Beijing, I was toying with the idea of starting another game studio in Singapore. However, after visiting all the schools and various studios there, I noticed a huge lack of qualified employees. There’s no use putting up a multi-million dollar invested gaming studio if there are no talents available for hire. This got me thinking about starting a school.
I love to teach and the idea of starting a design school came very naturally. We also held a lot of discussions with the Singapore government, who are very supportive of us. They offered us grants and other subsidies to base my design school in their country. Long story short, I moved to Singapore in the spring of 2009 and officially launched the FZD School of Design in July. We are now moving towards our second term intake and things are going very well.
You seem to have adapted to the business side of art almost seamlessly, which is a challenge for many artists. Are you as passionate about the business side, as much as the art itself?
Definitely! I have a mild case of OCD (I think most designers do), and thus I’m obsessed with just about everything – especially numbers. This works in most part to my advantage. For example, when I’m designing, if I think “I should do 5 variations of this design” then I’ll do 5, no matter what. Same goes for money. If I want to save up 50,000USD for something, then I’ll work my ass off till I have the amount. So in order to accomplish these things, I had to learn about business – the balance between time, effort, money, marketing, etc. I’m still not too good at it, but starting a few companies did help me learn. The investment side of things – Sand Hill Road in Silicon Valley for example – greatly interests me. I think for designers, anything that is a mystery is interesting.
It’s good to have a sense of business in our industry. As designers, you are essentially “drawing money.” The creations we make are not art, but products which will eventually go to market. Films, games, toys, comics, etc are all products. It’s good to understand what goes on behind the scenes on an investment level; especially input versus output. This will help you leverage deals and take advantage of situations. At the end of the day, I believe most people work hard to achieve financial freedom. But to get there, you have to work smart. Getting results in 1 hour versus getting no results in 8 hours are very different in the business world.
Industrial design, concept art, concept design, Illustration. What defines the difference? what would you consider to be the most valuable traits for production art.
I always use a simple example to explain this difference to my students – follow the money. So what does this mean? Well, the difference between “art or illustration” and “design” lies within the final product and its monetary value. Lets start with art. When a painter finishes a beautiful painting, that painting is the final product. If you burn up a master painting, all its value is forever gone. If you sell the painting, the painting holds the value for its owner. For a design sketch, it is completely the opposite. Once a good design goes to market, the original drawing is actually worthless (to the general public). Take the iPod for example. The product itself is making huge revenue and it’s in direct contact with the consumer. The original sketch is probably sitting inside a designer’s desk; never to see the light of day. Even if that sketch somehow ended up on the street, nobody will care.
Thus, the most valuable trait for a designer is the ability to create designs which can go to market. When clients hire a designer, they are essentially taking an investment risk. They are balancing an input amount versus an output. It is now the designer’s job to provide a design which holds more value than the initial investment (his day rate). Designers which can consistently deliver “usable” designs will do very well in this industry. But what makes something “usable” or “marketable?” This is something which separates out good designers – they have a “feel” for shapes and balances. To teach this ability is very difficult (just ask most design teachers). How do you explain “make it cooler” to somebody? This type of skill is developed through a designer’s upbringing and how their lives were affected at an early age – how many movies did they watch? Did they play video games or go to museums? Were they interested in visual books? All these things help develop the young designer’s mind and build their mental library. Once they become designers, their creations tend to respond well on market.
At what point in your career do you feel you grew the most as an artist? What do you do currently to ensure your work stays competitive and fresh.
I’m never satisfied with my work. There’s just so much to learn and to improve upon.
Growth wise, working in a real studio is better than any school. Art Center taught me the technical side of drawing and design, but the work environment teaches you on how to apply those skills in a timely manner. I still remember my first job at Origin. I had to design spaceships with a polygon limit of 300. That’s something I’ve never heard of in school.
Currently I’m involved with developing a new IP and product line for a major entertainment company. I’ve created a business partnership with them, so this is no longer a client/service type of relationship. Thus, I have to work pretty hard to make sure whatever I’m doing is competitive. It’s definitely not easy. There are so many talented and wonderful designers out there; creating new stuff everyday.
Where do you find inspiration Idea generation? How do you avoid influence? How do you find reference material?
I look to nature for almost all my designs. I also love architecture and old technology (such as soviet airplanes). By combining all the above by balancing shapes and proportions, new designs can be obtained.
I don’t think I try to avoid influence. In fact, I want my mind to be inspired all the time. I of course hate copying and it’s something I’ll never do. However, inspiration is not copying,
These days, I’ve been playing a ton of video games (part of it is research, the other part is inspiration). I currently have about 20 of the best PC games (from the last 2 years) installed on my laptop and is slowing going through them all – just finished Mass Effect and about to finish Fallout 3.
What drives the decision making process when designing for the general public vs IP or personal taste?
Simple answer – money. As I’ve mentioned earlier, your clients want a much bigger return for their investment. So if you can deliver a design which only costs them a dollar (relatively speaking), but can make them 100$, then you’ll win.
Thus, for the general audience, I tend to make the designs “safer.” This is usually dictated by the clients anyways. Most established clients (companies) tend to take less risk. They have share prices to uphold and revenue projections to meet. If safe works, that’s the way they’ll go. Safe also means mass market. Their products can penetrate a bigger consumer pool and age group.
Personal taste of course comes into play – clients hired you for your design styles after all. But you must be able to balance personal taste with “mass market.” If your personal tastes do not meet with your client’s needs, then don’t push it in. One of the best ways to find out is by delivering at least 3 design variations: 1 – what the client wants; the safest and most generic 2 – a mix of your taste and mass audience 3 – completely your own design; no matter how weird. This way, you never piss off your clients and give them something to think about.
How do you handle critiques (understanding what is good advice and what is irrelevant) in a pipeline? How do you disperse critiques to other artist’s work?
If it’s coming from the client, then you listen – since they are paying for it, they have every right say whatever they want.
For general stuff, I usually look at the person’s background making the critique – basically, are they qualified? If a person has never brought designs to market, I value their opinions less.
I like to give constructive critiques to my students and other artists. A comment such as “this sucks” or “this is not cool” doesn’t help anyone. Instead, explain how the design can be better. You’ll also gain a lot more respect for doing things this way. I guess a lot of this comes from my teaching background.
What was it like building a studio from the ground up for your own IP? Were you responsible for putting the team together? if so what were the first steps you took.
These days, it’s nearly impossible to sell an original IP based only on a script or a design doc (unless you are famous or related to someone famous). So, in order to sell the idea, you’ll need to make a demo – proof of concept. The better the demo, the less risk your potential investors will see.
My studio was started with an initial seed investment to build up a team of about 10 people. We kept the monthly burn rate (how much you are spending per month) low until a playable demo of our game was completed. Once that objective was met, we started the “fund raising” round – basically, putting the product in front of potential investors.
We secured an investment about 6 months in, and used that money to ramp up the team to about 50+ people. Now instead of making a demo, we worked on the real thing.
In the early days, I was responsible for interviews, hiring people, actual developments, etc. As time went on, we hired producers and managers to offload this work. But I was always involved on the design side because I love it.
You recently sold the IP you had been working on. Was it something you will consider doing again? What did you enjoy the most and what did you learn from it?
I’ll definitely do it again! In fact, I am currently working on a new IP which should hit the market next year. I love designing and creating new things…and that’ll never stop.
The most enjoyable part was actually building up the company from scratch. It’s an addiction in a way. I love walking through a studio and seeing all the desks, PCs, people’s toys, etc. and knowing that I helped start all of it. It is a very rewarding feeling. Plus I’ve made so many new friends in a whole different industry.
I’ve learned so much about starting studios I think I can write a book! Haha. But all seriousness aside, starting a game studio was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. When you are the only one in charge, there’s nobody else to help you or give you advice. Eventually, every decision, no matter how small, will fall upon your shoulders. I had to learn how to manage these situations and make the right calls. Sometimes my decisions were not the right ones, and bad consequences resulted. But one of the best ways to improve is by learning from your mistakes (or even realizing and admitting your mistakes).
When I started my design school, it felt so much easier. I knew exactly which steps to take and who to hire in the initial phases. To put it into perspective, I wrote up the rough business plan in late December of 2008 and put in into practice by February of 2009. Construction for the new school started in April and we opened our doors in July. I could not have moved this fast if not for all the things I learned from my game studio.
What drove you to open your design school in Singapore and why Singapore?
First off, I love this country, I can’t work in a place I don’t like Secondly, it’s centrally located in Asia. We are basically within 6 hours away by plane to all major countries around us (Japan, Korea, China, Australia, India, etc.). Third, the primary language here is English. This allows our school to cater to a much broader student base. Fourth, we have very strong support from the Singapore government. The WDA and MDA government divisions are very cool people to work with and they understand what we are trying to achieve. We are also partnered with a local school here called 3dsense. I’m good friends with their founders and it’s great to be doing business together. All in all, everything just felt right about Singapore. Oh, and its location allows for great vacations! In fact, I’m typing up these interviews answers while sitting in a remote island resort in Maldives just 4 hours away from Singapore.
What sets your design school apart from other schools?
Almost all “art” based schools in Asia (especially here in Singapore) are focused strictly in art and fine art. None of them caters to actual design. Those which do teach design are more about installation, interior, and landscape design. There are no schools here which teach students about how to become concept designers in the entertainment industry. The weird thing is, Asians love the entertainment world; especially video games. So many of our students wanted to design for games, but didn’t have a choice when it came to education. Thus most ended up doing 3D or architecture. My school’s goal is to bridge this gap and offer a place for them to learn.
I also run our school in a studio environment as opposed to a classroom setting. Teachers are basically art directors, and students are treated like jr. designers. Everything is project based; even fundamental courses. This way, students learn to think and behave like professionals from day one.
A big part of curriculum comes from professional and current instructors; do you find there is a lot of talent to fill these positions or are you importing talent?
In Asia, this is still very hard to fill. We do have some very talented instructors with us; all of which have extensive work and international experience (two of whom worked in Tokyo game studios for a number of years). I do spend about 2 months training all my instructors prior to them going “live” with the students. This is to ensure that the teaching style I’ve built up is clearly passed down to the students.
We are still looking for additional teaching staff. So if anyone reading this is interested, drop us an email!
What do you feel are some of the fundamental skills to succeed as a lead concept artist?
This comes in two parts:
1 – The basic fundamentals all artists and designers should have no matter what industry you are in. This includes perspective, lighting, composition, color theory, etc.
2 – An understanding of the world. You can’t design something new until you first understand what already exists. Study everything around you. How does an insect fly? How does a car engine work? How were the pyramids built? Find out as much as you can and build up your mental library.
I guess lastly, don’t have an ego. Be friendly and confident, but never act like an asshole or center the world around you. The world is big and there’s always someone better than you. Accept that fact and be humble.
With all of the business building you’ve doing how much production art are you working on these days?
I don’t do much production art these days. But for the IP project, I’m doing it all – concept designs, production paintings, graphic design, etc. I love this project since it’s our own IP. There’s a different energy when the project belongs to you. Also my partner on this project is so cool and easy to work with; not to mention extremely talented and successful.
I do sometimes take on client work if it’s interesting. I recently did a project with Disney and another one for Ubisoft.
When working on films like Transformers were you able to work remotely or did you have to work in Michael Bay’s Studio?
Transformers was based at Bay’s studio which is only about a 10 min drive from my own studio. So I drove down there about twice a week for meetings. All the actual production work was done at my studio. I usually do everything at my own studio (all my equipment is there). But some clients require you to work in house – mostly due to security. For example, EA Los Angeles had a desk for me in their Marina Del Ray location. Even though I’m a “contract artist,” I still went into the studio about 2 to 3 times a week.
How do you get your foot in the door? How is it different from when you were first starting out as a artist?
Once you’ve established yourself in the industry, all the jobs will come to you. There’s no need to send out portfolios or look for work. But hire a good producer to help manage all your clients (my beautiful wife, who happens to be a business major, helps me with this).
Starting out however, it’s tricky. A lot of times it’s a catch 22. Studios want people with experience, but how do you get experience if they never hire you? Once you land your first job, the rest becomes easier.
In our industry, the key is a good portfolio. Build up a kick-ass book and send that to everyone out there (even if they are not hiring). Smart art directors will want to hire you even if they are not looking for people. Good talent is something studios won’t want to pass up.
Also try to get on “golden” projects. For example, Star Wars, Matrix, Lord of the Rings on the film side; or Mass Effect, World of Warcraft, Halo, etc. on the game side. These projects are high profile and will open a lot of doors for you.
Where is the volume of your design work spent characters, environment, or vehicles?
In Asia, this is still very hard to fill. We do have some very talented I do mostly “man-made” stuff – environments, vehicles, props, etc. I do love character designs, but most of my characters are either robots or military related. I have a huge passion for sci-fi; thus I choose my projects based on these goals.
At the end of the day, I base all my projects on the level of fun I’ll have while working on them. Even if the subject matter might be difficult, it is still rewarding to go through it.
Thanks for this interview and hopefully it’ll inspire some of the younger readers out there. Work hard and dream big!
Feng Zhu will be teaching a Gnomon Master Class, for more information click here.
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