Learn about composition, colour theory, lighting, patterns, camera techniques, shape language, symbolism, anatomy […]
Five years ago, we spoke with Johannes Figlhuber about his work on Ori and the Blind Forest (2015). Now he’s back on Vox Groovy to catch up with us and tell us more about the decade he’s spent working at Airborn Studios in Berlin. When asked about the company, he said that they specialise in outsourcing, doing things like visual development, concept design, marketing art, etc. Their focus is on stylised art, and their portfolio certainly shows it with several artworks for successful games like Fortnite (2017), Spyro Reignited Trilogy (2018), Valorant (2020), and many others.
This small studio was founded by artists for artists, only picking projects that they find exciting or want to work on. It’s truly amazing to see how many game worlds Figlhuber and his team brought to life over the years.
In this interview, we find out more about him as opposed to the projects he’s worked on. You’ll learn about the early stages of his career, his bachelor’s degree in 3D animation, and his job as a concept artist at Funcom in Oslo. There’s also plenty of info about his experience with Crash 4, along with some advice for aspiring concept artists who want to create stylised art like him.
His is a valuable story in our community, so we hope you all enjoy the read and feel inspired to create something new after.
What sparked your interest in digital art?
Computers and games were a hobby of mine very early on. I loved the experiences that games offered, and I loved seeing how the graphics got better and more detailed with time. It started with my older brother’s Game Boy, then finally my first PlayStation and eventually computers and PC gaming. When I learned about creating art for games, I got hooked quickly and wanted to work in that industry. I still enjoy it all very much, and I like making art for them. So I guess that all played out pretty well.
Crash Bandicoot 4
Food Run concepts
What’s life like for an artist living in Berlin?
When there is no pandemic around, life in Berlin is great. There’s a lively art scene and lots of different art events and hangouts to meet people in the gaming industry or just socialise with other artists. When I first moved here, it was such a big change for me compared to other cities.
With Covid going on currently, all of that is on hold, though some events still happen digitally. I am looking forward to going back to normal for this part of Berlin life.
You’ve been with Airborn Studios for as long as we have known you. Please tell us more about this company. What’s it like to work there?
This June is actually my tenth anniversary of moving to Berlin and starting to cooperate with Airborn Studios. Time flies.
At Airborn Studios, we do games art outsourcing with a focus on stylised art. We provide anything from visual development and prototyping to concept design, marketing art, 3D character and environment asset production.
Some of our recent projects include Overwatch, Fortnite, Spyro, Crash Bandicoot, Valorant and Astroneer. We have a core studio with around 20 employees and a network of freelance artists from all over the world. We have been growing organically with our projects at a fairly steady pace.
The studio was founded by and is still run by artists. The main goal was, and still is, to create a place for artists. We pick projects we find exciting and want to work on. We strive to hone our craft and experiment with new workflows and techniques whenever possible. There also is a big incentive to pass on knowledge and to train students and promising talent.
Hook, Line and Sinker
Tell us more about the early stages of your art career. Were you formally trained or self-taught? What was your very first ever job like?
My art education started pretty early on. I went to a high school with a focus on graphic design. There was some traditional art training with different techniques before the focus shifted over to digital work. We began designing logos, creating editorial layouts, taking photos and so on. At this point, I enjoyed drawing but did not think it would be viable as a career.
I then did a bachelor’s degree with a major in 3D Animation. I got an introduction to working with 3D there and started learning more about the entertainment industry and the concept design field.
My first job was an internship as a concept artist at Funcom in Oslo, working on “The Secret World”. It was an amazing experience! A big production like that and doing my part in a team before seeing the results end up in a real game was incredible. I am very thankful for this first opportunity and think it had a real impact on my later career.
Crash Bandicoot 4
We saw that you and Simon Kopp worked as lead concept artists on the new Crash Bandicoot game! Could you tell us more about that experience?
Crash Bandicoot 4 was our second game together with Toys for Bob, and our third game together with Art Director Josh Nadelberg. We love working with them and hope there will be many more collaborations in the future.
Simon and I were brought in very early on in the project when it was basically just the Art Director, one game designer and the two of us to do some initial visual research and development. I love those phases in projects, just wild brainstorming and developing ideas, even if most of them will be scrapped or changed so much over time that not much of it ends up in the final product. Later on, we lead a team of concept artists to work on the themes and levels that make up the world in Crash Bandicoot 4. Airborn Studios was also responsible for lots of the character and environment art in 3D.
As an outsourcer, it’s always a nice change of pace when we get to do both the design and the 3D execution in-house. It allows for a much more direct and natural feeling process. Just going over to another desk for a quick chat still beats Zoom, Slack or Skype for me.
We are currently experimenting with Radio Vox Groovy—our very own Internet radio. The RVG programmes include: Art Relax, Liminal Spaces and VoxStream as of April 2021, but we will be introducing new ones in the foreseeable future.
Our new programme—Art Relax— (EN) will be launching soon. You’ll know that this is the go-to place for every art enthusiast as soon as you tune in!
Crash Bandicoot 4
Please give us your No. 1 piece of advice for aspiring artists who want to work on stylized games like Crash and Spyro.
It’s hard to boil it down to one single piece of advice. There are just so many moving parts that make up a particular style and art direction. There’s one point I keep emphasizing again and again when I am teaching, and that is to spend time on the fundamentals.
Learn about composition, colour theory, lighting, patterns, camera techniques, shape language, symbolism, anatomy. Those are the building blocks for any art style or design, and being able to break something down into those elements and understand why they do or don’t work is huge. It also helps with not being narrowed down to one particular style and applying these rules and learnings to all kinds of projects and art directions.
Could you walk us through some of the processes and techniques you’ve been using in your work?
Lately, I started incorporating 3D more and more into my concept design workflow. Back in university, I trained with Autodesk Maya but sidelined it pretty quickly after graduating.
It is an expensive piece of software, and it did not feel very accessible to me. It made me spend a large portion of time trying to identify and solve issues that popped up instead of doing the task at hand. With Blender – a free 3D tool – becoming better and better over the years, I started to look into using 3D for my design work again. Blender generally seems to be very popular with concept artists who also dabble in 3D. There are some great plug-ins and additions specifically developed for concept design. They’re easy to use while being capable enough to quickly design and iterate directly in 3D. Here a shoutout to Jama Jurabaev and Aleksandr Kilimnik for their quick tools. They are a game-changer for me.
I usually only do very rough blockouts in 3D. Whenever I’m trying to understand the depth of a scene or the volume of the object I designed. Then it’s a lot of back and forth between blocking out shapes in 3D and painting/drawing over it in Photoshop. When the work calls for it, I also like to do quick lighting and mood passes in Blender. I can gain a deeper understanding of what I’m working on and be more efficient with the time.
Crash Bandicoot 4
Snow Way Out
Since we’re also a radio, we really like asking artists about their music taste from time to time. Tell us about some of your current favourite tracks!
My taste in music is a varying mix. There are times when I barely listen to music at all, and others when I keep replaying the same song over and over. Here are some artists I’ve been enjoying recently in no particular order: Nine Inch Nails, Tame Impala, Tycho, Röyksopp, Trentemøller, Moderat, Lorn, Massive Attack, Tei Shi, Fever Ray, Santigold, Plaid, Peaches.
What’s next for Johannes Figlhuber?
I am currently working on a project/IP I have been a fan of for years, so that is a particularly nice experience. I’m mainly leading a team of concept designers, but I always try to get some creative work in myself as well. In addition to that, we are cooking up something else at Airborn that I might be able to talk about more later this year.
Visit Johannes Figlhuber’s ArtStation
By Vox Groovy staff writer;
All images used with permission by the artist
© Johannes Figlhuber or respective copyright holders