At a point, it’s not about who makes the nicest paintings. It’s about what you want to do, what universe you want to build.
Jean Brice Dugait is a freelance concept artist living in Montpellier, France. Over the years, he has worked on many successful video game series like Assassin’s Creed, Crash Bandicoot, and Rayman. Some of you may remember our last interview with him, which we published in 2016 after his work for Ori and the Blind Forest was first shown. We spent a while discussing that particular project but never had a chance to get to know him personally.
This next interview will change that. Today we’re happy to announce that a new article with our old friend Jean Brice is here for all of us to enjoy.
What sparked your interest in digital art?
Ah, have I ever told anyone about my love for Star Wars? Because I think I did, and probably far too often! I just can’t help it. It’s my only sincere answer to this question. I first discovered digital artworks when I saw the production paintings for episode 2 online. It was sometime around 2001, so I would have been 13 at the time. I remember sitting there mystified by what I saw. I wondered how all this is made? How the heck can someone paint with a computer?
I did some research and found about tablets and Corel Painter. Soon after I got my first tablet ever, it was cheap, and the pen had batteries in it. But it worked, and so my digital art life started! I spent countless hours analysing images by Ryan Church and Erik Tiemens to understand what tools they used. What was their process to achieve this look they had? I had prior influences for drawing, such as Carl Barks, Don Rosa, Franquin, Uderzo. But clearly, what brought me into the digital art world, are these Star Wars paintings I stumbled upon.
Crash Bandicoot 4
What’s life in your city like for an artist?
Well, lately, it’s been living at home given the circumstances. When it comes to my old life here in Montpellier, it’s pretty cool for artists. There are schools and lots of companies having studios, international or indie, video games or animation… this makes the city a great place to study and start a career. Or to spend your entire career even! There is a real community of people from the industry, so if you’re the social type, you won’t run out of opportunities to go out for plein air sketching or to drink beers. I tend to go for the latter.
Tell us more about the beginnings of your career as a concept artist. Were you formally trained or self-taught? What was your first ever job like?
When the time came for me to choose a path in education, I knew I wanted to be one of these talented folks making drawings and paintings for movies. I had no idea what this job was called, nor where and how I could study it. At this time, this field of work wasn’t so well known, and specialized schools for entertainment jobs were far less established than they are today.
It wasn’t easy to get information and find the right path to become a concept artist. At least it wasn’t for me in 2004, and so I found myself starting a course program specialized in “Applied-Arts” (design for everyday life objects and things, to say it simply). This was instructive but not quite what I wanted to do. I needed to learn about other subjects and develop skills that let me get closer to my goal. Anatomy, perspective, understanding colours and light… to do so, I pursued my education at the Emile Cohl Art School. That’s where I learned about illustration techniques for four years. This may sound like a long time, but this was actually a great shortcut. There weren’t as many resources online then, so there was no chance to hear about so many things in such a short time timeframe.
After school, I’ve been lucky enough to join the team at Ubisoft Montpellier to work on Rayman Origins. This was an awesome opportunity to kick off my professional life whilst also being a lot of pressure on my weak shoulders! Working my way up to that level has been a real challenge. I’ve had difficulties, but I learned so much surrounded by super experienced and super talented artists. My Ubisoft years have been the 2nd school. There I really learned how to do the job. I’ve had fantastic art directors who told me simple things I still use every day.
Could you tell us a little bit about your work on Crash Bandicoot 4? The series is actually one of our oldest favourites here at Vox Groovy.
Fun! The project was fun, the team was fun, the work was fun! Just fun everywhere, but not only that. Getting to work on a cult franchise that echoes my childhood is a special feeling. And I wish to thank Johannes Figlhuber, who brought me onboard through Airborn Studios. We were given “naked” gameplay maps, and our job was to define what the environment is and how it looks. Key aspects of this task were to make places memorable and easy to recognise (like, oh yeah, it’s the place with the colourful pirate city or the place where you jump on top of sci-fi buildings and flying cars…) All of the levels must be described with a few keywords. So the player understands and remembers where the action is set.
Another aspect of the environment is that it must tell some kind of story. We try to give hints and put the player’s imagination to work or bring a smile to people’s faces with fun details in the background… The game world must be lively, it must convey a mood, and it needs to appear inhabited. We don’t just want a “beautiful” empty shell. Concretely, after a theme and direction were given to us at Airborn, the process was this: first, brainstorming with the team. Discussing and sketching things, gathering references to get fresh ideas!
Then we define how the environment should progress and evolve from the start to the end of the map. We talk about what story we want to tell and the key areas we want to emphasise. Now that we know where this goes, we can distribute work and start concepts! There was lots of communication with the art director and the leads as the work was progressing. We always aim for the best solutions and try to integrate all the cool ideas we may have along the way. Once everything’s good, approved artwork is used as a reference for 3D modelling and set dressing.
The team at Vox Groovy will make it so that everyone can hear your interview on the radio.
Crash Bandicoot 4
When you’re given a brand new brief, how do you approach it? Walk us through the usual considerations, techniques and processes, etc. We want to help our readers with beginning to think like real concept artists.
The first thing I do is taking some time to brainstorm. Open up Photoshop, get to scribbling things, thinking about framing, shapes, design, composition… depending on what the task is. Completely unrefined work, with no intention to make anything beautiful. This helps me to jump from one idea to another, as well as to try things and eventually to find solutions I didn’t think about initially.
You’d be surprised how sketchy works can be when they are discussed with supervisors. As long as it’s readable, there is a matter to discuss! And I love to discuss, so many ideas can emerge from a conversation. I’m not really the solitary kind of artist, working on my own and sharing work when it’s finished. I prefer to share my stuff early, make it evolve as I get feedback. Nothing is set in stone until we settle on what we think is the best direction for the project.
From designs made in VR
We’ve noticed that this is a very fast-moving industry, with new ways of working being introduced all of the time. How do you keep up with it all?
While the fundamental principles don’t change, tools tend to evolve very often. This last year, I used quite a lot of VR tools at work. I found Adobe Medium and Gravity Sketch to be great assets when you have to think in volume. They make 3D so intuitive! Not great to go into details, but it’s perfect to quickly build a place, be it a cosy interior, a massive palace, a forest, you name it! When I open classic 3D software, I just don’t know where to start. Too many shortcuts, menus and sub-menus, and sub-sub-menus, and trillions of settings… With VR tools, I can find my way and end up with actual models, over which I can do simple colour & lighting passes. I use this to either show a rough design and discuss with the team or to use it as a base to draw and paint over. Complex perspectives can be a challenge. 3D makes it easy and quick.
VR also gives you the feeling that the place or objects you’re designing exist in the actual space you’re in. This is just so cool and satisfying. Keep in mind that as a concept artist, you can do perfectly fine with good old tools, though. There are plenty of successful artists proving it. Tools are just a mean. Try those you feel attracted to, find the ones you love, or just stick to your pen if you feel like it!
Art block might be rarer in a professional setting with things like crunch and deadlines, but I still want to ask if you’ve ever struggled with it. How do pros learn to overcome these kinds of issues?
Nowadays, this isn’t easy to do, but I would recommend staying away from art platforms and networks for a little bit. Be reasonable with it. It’s good to look for inspiration or to study what others are doing. But it can be very impactful in a negative way to compare yourself with artists you admire. You will always feel they are miles ahead of you, that their art is so perfect, and yours just sucks. Probably the more your art life goes on and the less you compare yourself… time goes by, and you feel more and more comfortable with your own way of doing things.
It hurts to see a 12-year-old kid making better paintings than you. I know that feeling. But at a point, it’s not about who makes the nicest paintings. It’s about what YOU want to do, what universe you want to build. This drives everything, and the rest comes naturally. Sounds cliché, right? Well, I really think there’s truth in it. This doesn’t prevent me from falling into the trap, though. On some occasions… wanting to “make something beautiful” before making something interesting.
From designs made in VR
Let’s do a lighter question now. We wanna hear about some of the things that inspired you recently. It can be an album, game, movie, or maybe even all three~!
Regularly I watch animal / nature documentaries. Sometimes they’re very similar, and I feel I’ve seen it already, but I watch it anyway because I’m fascinated by animal life and how nature works when it’s 100% human free. Be it about super exotic animals or more common ones, I’m a sucker for it. If I had to chose another path in life, I would work close to animals for sure.
Recently I watched a movie on a very popular streaming platform, a documentary called “My Octopus Teacher”. I highly recommend it to anyone having the smallest interest in wildlife. It’s about a diver who befriends an octopus, and it’s great. Sounds cheesy, but it’s not! Well, maybe it is a little bit, but still awesome. These documentaries completely trigger my imagination. If you look close enough, everything in nature feels alien… there’s so much to draw inspiration from if you want to design otherworldly environments.
I’m a very casual gamer and I won’t try to explain why Mario Kart is my all time favorite. Instead, I suggest people to go and have a look at “OctaFight”. An indie, pixel made fighting game. What defined the look, in addition to showing a great taste of developers, was this statement : How many pixels do we need to make visuals and animations readable? How many as in, how much can we get rid of, just to keep as little as necessary. For instance characters are rectangle made out of 6 pixels. Because with 4 pixels animation wasn’t so fluid and dynamic. Interesting, right? And great for console performances, too. Super fun game, made by friends!
Do you like the sound of Vox Groovy? If the answer is yes, don’t hesitate to engage in sonic adventures.
Radio stream is subject to geo-blocking regulations.
Mixing & Mastering is provided by Groovy Services.
Crew and Its Captain
The scientific unit of the “Meteor” expedition
What’s next for Jean-Brice Dugait?
I should come back to more personal work. Definitely. To make images about stuff I have in mind. This aside, today I’m fortunate enough to be in a place I dreamed of for years. I’m working on an animation feature, and I hope others will follow!
Visit Jean Brice Dugait’s ArtStation
By Vox Groovy staff writer;
All images used with permission by the artist
© Jean Brice Dugait or respective copyright holders