Finding My Calling (Basically)
When I was a little girl, I drew and crafted constantly. There was never a holiday or birthday that went by, where I didn’t get art supplies. I would draw my own greeting & celebration cards. I would make Christmas ornaments out of popsicle sticks, balsa wood, felt, and paper. I wrote my own storybooks and pop up books and comics. I even got my own little pottery wheel where I made my mom a candle holder that she graciously displayed prominently in the house for well over a decade!
I didn’t really recognize that art was a calling when I was younger. I started writing when I was in the latter years of elementary school, and I was convinced being a writer was my calling. This was right around when Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was released. If J.K. Rowling could do it, so could I! I switched my focus to writing, and used my art skills to draw the characters I was writing about. I never did anything with those stories or characters (yet), but I still draw and write about them to this day—some 19 odd years later.
When I was in university, the writing thing didn’t pan out. So I switched to art and had a panicked moment that I’d never make a career doing the kind of high concept art I was instructed to. So I switched to history and comfortably breezed my way through those 4 years, crushing my classes, spitting out essays, making friends, and . . . no idea what I’d do once I graduated.
My fourth and final year of my Bachelor’s at the University of Windsor, the faculty went on strike. It was partway through my final semester, if I recall correctly. Everyone I knew was freaking out. How could they put our degrees at risk? Would we have to continue class well into the summer once the strike is done? How am I going to pay for an extended semester?
I decided, in that moment, to look up art schools, specifically with a Video Game Design program. This was back in 2003, so it wasn’t common. I had two choices—Vancouver, or Toronto. Both were expensive cities (albeit Vancouver was disgustingly more expensive), and both had great sounding programs. Thankfully, I didn’t have to bail on UofW and leave all my hard work behind; the strike didn’t last long, and we were all able to finish our semester on time to graduate. After I graduated, though, I had a clear vision: getting a job in video games is my calling. I’ve been an artist since I was six, and a gamer since I was eleven. So I looked at those two schools again, and I picked the one in Toronto; I had a really lackluster education, and left with a diploma. Armed with my BA[H] and this diploma, I landed a job at a studio in Guelph about four months after graduating, and thus began my career in video games.
My First Studio Job
At babby’s first studio job, I was a Jill-of-all-trades artist. I was a UI/UX designer. I was a graphic designer, making logos and icons. I was a 2D illustrator. I was a 3D artist and animator. I even dabbled in narrative design and game design—writing both story blocks and GDDs.
It was a tiny studio; it began as the brainchild of a former Triple-A Studio programmer who wanted to start his own studio, and make the games he wanted to make. He hired an artist from Mexico (and helped him get permanent resident status!), and the two of them built what turned out to be a highly popular soccer game on the Xbox Live Marketplace. A couple years later, these two wanted to expand to make new games, and I happened to have just graduated from my Video Game Design & Development program.
I found a job posting online for their studio, and applied. I aced the interview and I was hired! We were working on a high concept video game that was a really interesting blend of SIM builders and rail shooters (quite literally, it was about a train!). I worked on mob 3D models and animations, I unwrapped and painted atlases. I designed characters and built a story . . . and built levels . . . and tested the game . . . !
It was really fun! I got to try so many things, and the other two guys were so supportive of my ideas that I was lucky enough to just give it my all, knowing it’d get the green light. It was a great environment to work in, but unfortunately it was short lived. Microsoft made some changes to the Marketplace, and suddenly our game wasn’t even on players’ radars anymore. Revenue dried up almost overnight.
It broke the founder up; this was his passion project! And us artists were really empathetic about his situation as well as our own. The studio got shut down.
My First Brush with Depression
When that dream-come-true studio was shut down, it hit my hard. This was my first time getting laid off from an adult job. I had zero savings, because school and OSAP is a bitch, and I was in a panic. Hoo boy. The depression hit hard, and I burned some bridges with the other people living in my home, and the business owner next door who let me park in her lot for free. I didn’t give up on looking for a job though. I just completely devalued myself and was desperate enough to take any job.
I found a posting for an artist at an indie studio in Toronto. I didn’t really want to go back to Toronto after graduating, since I’m a small town gal and the big city doesn’t appeal to me. Thankfully, the job posting was for contract work, so I was intending on working remotely! I drove all the way from Guelph to Toronto for my interview, and was basically hired on the spot.
No, this isn’t me bragging about how I luckily landed all these gigs after graduating in a male-dominated field that’s highly competitive.
This is a tangent about me ignoring red flags.
Red flags are no-brainers. But I seemed to completely ignore the common sense that is red flags during the interview at my second studio job. The first flag: they were a software company that made payroll software whose CEO woke up one day and decided to get into video games and apps because they were “money-makers.” The second red flag: even though the job was advertised as a contract position where I could work remotely, they expected me to be in the office. I negotiated to working from home 3 days out of 5. But they made it clear I had to move to Toronto to be there full time, at some point, if I wanted to keep the job.
I took the job because I was desperate. I was making barely above minimum wage as the lone artist on a team of six—five of which were programmers. So that meant I wasn’t just an artist, but also a game designer, a technical artist, a graphic designer, a game tester, a level builder, and project manager. It very quickly became adamantly clear to me that it was a shitty place to be. We worked in the basement of a townhouse converted into a business. I was one of two women in the office of much older men, none of whom had any idea what a video game was or how to make one. I was hired because I knew how to do just that, but did they let me? No . . .
No, my “producer” didn’t trust in my abilities and made a habit of berating me in front of my much older male colleagues, often times for things he didn’t understand but I did. It was a shitty environment, and I hated the days that I had to go in. They had no respect for me, so I treated them in kind. The “games” they made me work on were a nightmare and I wasn’t at all proud of the work I was doing there. I regretted accepting this job in the first place.
But, again, I was d e s p e r a t e .
And I was even more desperate when I applied for studio job number three.
Where I’m at Now
I’ve been at studio number three for almost eight years now. I had to teach myself how to draw in vector, and how to navigate Flash & Illustrator. Thanks to my VGD program, I knew a bit of programming and wrote my own actionscript to make interesting and dynamic things happen in the assets I was making. I caught onto the work really quickly, and I am good at what I do. Damn good.
Day in, day out, five days a week, I draw and animate all manner of things. It could be a mermaid one day, a dragon the next, or a castle made of crystal. I’ve made famous cars, famous landmarks, famous geological features, and homages to famous people. I’m pretty sure I’ve drawn every Freshwater fish on the planet, and every species of North American deciduous tree. I get to draw things I’ve never thought I’d draw before. But it’s a never ending march of tasks filling up the queue. Working as a production artist, your work is literally unending. In my experience, art as a profession is challenging and rewarding and exhausting and fulfilling. It’s straight up demanding. I know some people who have the energy to sketch and sketch all day as an outlet. I know some people who work 8 solid paid hours drawing on a tablet to go straight home and work another 6-8 hours on a minutely different tablet. I know writers who never really stop writing, and photographers who rarely get a weekend to themselves.
A lot of the time, my first instinct when I get home is to do nothing. I’m usually creatively and physically exhausted because, here’s the thing, I have a disease that keeps my gas tank at half full at all times. I’m constantly tired (and I’m constantly in pain, but that’s another story). Because of the nature of my production art job, I’m also creatively drained by the time I get home, and come Friday I’ve got barely anything left in me at all to work on all the ideas and projects I’ve got floating around. I also felt a lot of guilt for a long time, as if I was “wasting my talents” by coming home and doing nothing. I couldn’t shake those feelings and it sucked.
But I was able to get out of that rut recently by making experimental mixed media art whenever I do get the energy to create. I’ve gone back to my roots and I’m working with wood again! I have a very rudimentary workshop set up, with only a few power tools and a lot of hand tools. It’s definitely a beginner level endeavor but I really enjoy doing it! Sanding or whittling; painting and carving; it’s great working with my hands and having tangible art, when most of my time is spent making digital art. It also makes me feel more confident in my abilities, and my status as an artist. I’m making things, and being a creator is a big part of who I am.