Atomhawk Vancouver Studio Director AMA

Atomhawk Justine

Registered Developer
Apr 22, 2020
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atomhawk.com
Hi PC Gamer! I’m Chris, Director of Atomhawk’s Canadian studio here in the beautiful city of Vancouver, Canada 🦅🇨🇦

Before joining Atomhawk in 2018, I spent the previous 10 years working in the trenches of game development as a Producer in studios such as Midway, Ninja Theory, and Capcom. Over the course of those years I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with every department involved in the game making process, but seeing design ideas formulate and then come to life through art in the coolest of ways was always the biggest buzz for me. When Atomhawk approached with the opportunity to focus exclusively on that area of development on a wide variety of games for some of the biggest developers/publishers in the industry, the hardcore gamer in me was left with just one question… “Where do I sign?!”.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Atomhawk, we are an art and design studio that for the last 10 years, has had (and continues to have) the privilege of collaborating with many highly successful studios in the video game space. As we work on a wide variety of different projects for a variety of clients, there’s a good chance we may have contributed to some of your favourite games, with recently completed projects such as Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition, Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order, Mortal Kombat 11 and FIFA 20 to name a few! With so much cool stuff going on across our two studios (UK/Canada) at all times, life at Atomhawk is never dull 😃


With all that said, I’m really looking forward to chatting with everyone about anything you’re interested in, provided it won’t break any of our NDA’s!

If you have any questions about Atomhawk, any of our already released projects, life as a professional concept artist, or getting into/working in game development, please take a moment to drop a question below and I promise I’ll do my best to get you an answer 👍✨
 
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Mknott

Staff member
Nov 25, 2019
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I haven't had a chance to play Chimera Squad just yet, saving it on the side for when DIY isn't consuming my free time, but the style is great and I was wondering what inspired you guys to go for this kind of funky, dynamic look?
 
May 11, 2020
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Hi Chris - with you working so far geographically from the UK team I wondered if you guys worked on different projects in each studio/country? Or do you work on the same stuff just at different times of the day!
 
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Nov 24, 2019
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When you have a big project that comes in, where do you start? Do you begin with the inspiration, and assemble a design bible, or do you just dive in and see what works?

How do you keep competing aesthetic directions from conflicting with one another?

And lastly, because I'm cruel - what's the roughest, most difficult concept piece your team has done up - the one that was an abject ordeal of inordinate magnitude that made you want to die? (Without throwing anyone under the bus, that is. ;) )
 

Atomhawk Chris

Registered Developer
Apr 22, 2020
1
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atomhawk.com
Hi Chris! Weird question: Is it true that concept art people like to work in darkness? I've seen pictures of some studios where all the windows are covered - is this just an urban myth?
Great question! A lot of concept artists do prefer to work in darker conditions, as any sort of glare on their screens can make creating and assessing their work a lot more difficult. We've just moved into a brand new studio here in Vancouver that is set up to provide a lovely dark environment for the team, but in our old studio we actually ended up taping thick black cardboard on the windows and took out light bulbs to get the space as dark as we could for everyone! With that said, it's never pitch black, as a lot of people have desk lamps and stuff on for ambient lighting :)
 

CParsons

Staff member
Dec 9, 2019
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Hi Chris, thanks for joining us and taking the time to hang out! Atomhawk has done quite a bit of work but out of some of the more recent projects which have been your favorite? Also, what would you say are your biggest challenges at work?
 
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Atomhawk Chris

Registered Developer
Apr 22, 2020
1
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atomhawk.com
Hi Chris - with you working so far geographically from the UK team I wondered if you guys worked on different projects in each studio/country? Or do you work on the same stuff just at different times of the day!
Good question! We very much operate as one Atomhawk and share visibility on everything coming in and happening across the company, but the most important factor when planning new projects is artist suitability. If a project can be tackled within one studio that's great, as it allows the art and production team to work together locally on it. Sometimes that can't happen due to the most suitable artists being in different studios, or we have a project so big in size that we need to balance the workload across two locations (like our collaboration with Microsoft on Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition which you can read an exclusive Q&A on here: https://forums.pcgamer.com/threads/pc-gamer-exclusive-age-of-empires-ii-definitive-edition.3520/). In that situation, the difference in time zones kind of helps as the Vancouver team is starting their day just as the UK team is ending theirs, so as long as we have excellent communication between the lead artists and producers, we're able to keep projects constantly moving forwards and have both studios contribute and share in the success of the projects.
 

Atomhawk Chris

Registered Developer
Apr 22, 2020
1
18
15
atomhawk.com
Hi Chris, thanks for joining us and taking the time to hang out! Atomhawk has done quite a bit of work but out of some of the more recent projects which have been your favorite? Also, what would you say are your biggest challenges at work?
One of the great things about Atomhawk is that you get to work on so many different projects across a wide range of styles/genres/platforms etc, that there's always something cool going on! On that note, some of my favorite recently completed projects at Atomhawk include the likes of "Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition", "Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order", "FIFA 20", "Mortal Kombat 11" and "Empires & Puzzles".

As for big challenges, what's fascinating to me is that despite Atomhawk doing what it does for 10+ years now, every single project that comes through the door (no matter how big or small) is treated as its own unique challenge in itself. It may be an artistic challenge, a logistical/production challenge, or even a bit of a both, but ultimately our focus is on leveraging the immense skill and experience of the team to take projects to new heights and delight our clients every step of the way.
 

ajimundi

Just a guy
May 10, 2020
13
10
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Hi Chris,

This question may sound mundane, but what tools are a professional art and design studio like Atomhawk using? Do you use FOSS like Krita and Blender, for example?

And how does the current Covid-19 pandemic affect your studio?
 
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Atomhawk Chris

Registered Developer
Apr 22, 2020
1
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atomhawk.com
Hi Chris,

This question may sound mundane, but what tools are a professional art and design studio like Atomhawk using? Do you use FOSS like Krita and Blender, for example?

And how does the current Covid-19 pandemic affect your studio?
Our artists primarily use Adobe Photoshop for 2D painting/illustration and Blender for any 3D work. While there are still times artists may need to use some other specialist software to get the job done, the above packages are what the majority of our Concept Artists are using on a day to day basis. Having everyone using the same tools is great for training and personal development, as you're surrounded by people you can learn things from!

As for the COVID-19 situation, we rapidly transitioned everyone across both of our studios to work from home at the end of March, and it has gone amazingly smoothly, all things considered! Our IT team did a fantastic job getting everything set up for us, and the team have maintained the same high standards ever since!
 
May 5, 2020
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Hi Chris. What programming language (if it's C, what parts, if any, did you use Assembly Language and for what purpose) you use and what 3D software & 2D apps did you use to develop your games?

What is your favorite programming language and what 3D & 2D tools would you like to use if you had the freedom to choose (not necessarily the most powerful or industry standard but it makes your feel right at home)?

Thank you. God bless, Proverbs 31
 
Jan 13, 2020
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Hi Chris,

Seconding the question about design bible, was there a deliberate set of design principles your team developed in advance of doing the 2D and 3D concept art for Chimera Squad? And what were they? I'm curious how much was evolution as you designed and how much was a conscious choice to deviate in some ways from XCOM 2?

Great job btw!
 
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Atomhawk Chris

Registered Developer
Apr 22, 2020
1
18
15
atomhawk.com
When you have a big project that comes in, where do you start? Do you begin with the inspiration, and assemble a design bible, or do you just dive in and see what works?

How do you keep competing aesthetic directions from conflicting with one another?

And lastly, because I'm cruel - what's the roughest, most difficult concept piece your team has done up - the one that was an abject ordeal of inordinate magnitude that made you want to die? (Without throwing anyone under the bus, that is. )
Great question! I’ll tackle this in two parts:

For any project, large or small, the preparation phase is key. Having a clear brief and vision is typically the foundation of fun, constructive and creative projects. More often than not that vision comes from our clients and typically comes in the form of a written brief backed up with visual reference. Verbal communication is also super important, so having regular calls between the art team and client allows both sides to ask questions, throw around ideas and also convey enthusiasm (or concerns). In some cases, clients come to us because they are looking for our guidance on the creative vision. Maybe they have an awesome game prototype but need a visual look to wrap it in. In those cases we hop into the role of art director and create the visual look and rules. But each project is ultimately different, so it’s all about finding the process that works for the best end result, and not being afraid to pivot as the project evolves.

And the most difficult piece? That’s a tough question! We’ve been lucky enough to work on some incredible projects over the years, but there are certainly some that land on our doorstep which provide unique technical challenges. One that springs to mind was for a mural at a theme park called "Angry Birds World" in Abu Dhabi. The piece itself was incredibly cool; basically visualising the entire vista of the characters’ island. However, the challenge came down to scale; the final piece needed to be printed at over 20m in height and run the entire width of the park. This meant that the art had to be ultra-detailed and interesting at every piece of the canvas. The file itself was gargantuan, sometimes causing the artist’s PC to crash as it struggled to handle such a massive document. The final piece took the art team over two months to complete. By the end they were proud of the work but certainly keen to get a change of style on their next project!

And if you’re looking for something more notorious, in the very early days of Atomhawk a few of the team worked on ‘Ride to Hell: Retribution’. If you’ve never heard of it, look it up :)
 
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Atomhawk Chris

Registered Developer
Apr 22, 2020
1
18
15
atomhawk.com
Hi Chris. What programming language (if it's C, what parts, if any, did you use Assembly Language and for what purpose) you use and what 3D software & 2D apps did you use to develop your games?

What is your favorite programming language and what 3D & 2D tools would you like to use if you had the freedom to choose (not necessarily the most powerful or industry standard but it makes your feel right at home)?

Thank you. God bless, Proverbs 31
Atomhawk focuses exclusively on the creation of art content, so there's no programming involved on our side I'm afraid!

In my past game development positions the programming teams have used C++ when building games in Unreal Engine and C# when building in Unity, but I'm not a programmer so I can't really offer you much more than that!
 

Frindis

Moderator
Jan 14, 2020
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@Atomhawk Chris Do you have a favorite tool that you like to use in Adobe Photoshop? I just started using the software myself (2019 version) and I must say it is quite fun playing around with the different brushes. The pen tool also looks quite interesting, though I don't have much clue about how to use it properly yet.
 

Atomhawk Chris

Registered Developer
Apr 22, 2020
1
18
15
atomhawk.com
I haven't had a chance to play Chimera Squad just yet, saving it on the side for when DIY isn't consuming my free time, but the style is great and I was wondering what inspired you guys to go for this kind of funky, dynamic look?
The team at Firaxis had a very clear vision for the game. It has a fantastically pulpy look which references comics, graphic novels and Saturday morning cartoons. It’s totally appropriate for the tone of the game and the rag-tag Chimera Squad, so we were really happy to work to this unique brief.

By coincidence, one of the references that they supplied at the start of the project was from a piece by one of our Senior Artists, Mack Chater. Mack has worked on some amazing comics for Dark Horse and Marvel, so he was thrilled to bring his distinctive look to this project. I asked Mack for his thoughts:

“One of the most enjoyable aspects of being involved with the XCOM project was the opportunity to define the style/look of the project from the ground up. The back and forth with the client, as we developed the initial ideas, and the confidence they had in our approach was especially inspiring.”
 

Atomhawk Chris

Registered Developer
Apr 22, 2020
1
18
15
atomhawk.com
Hi Chris,

Seconding the question about design bible, was there a deliberate set of design principles your team developed in advance of doing the 2D and 3D concept art for Chimera Squad? And what were they? I'm curious how much was evolution as you designed and how much was a conscious choice to deviate in some ways from XCOM 2?

Great job btw!
The vision for the look and feel of the game was driven by the team at Firaxis. It’s fair to say that Chimera Squad has carved out it’s own distinctive look within the XCOM universe.

At Atomhawk, one of the most interesting challenges relating to the style was how to replicate the look at scale. The early artwork was led on our side by Mack Chater, the Lead Artist on the project. Before we could bring more of our art team onto the job he had to deconstruct his style and create an art system that others could follow. This allowed other members of the team to match thing like anatomy, line weight and rendering. Couple that with lots of face-to-face training and support and the team was able to scale up to hit the large volume of art required for the art and animation pieces. It was a great team effort and testament to the value of good training and project documentation!
 

Atomhawk Chris

Registered Developer
Apr 22, 2020
1
18
15
atomhawk.com
@Atomhawk Chris Do you have a favorite tool that you like to use in Adobe Photoshop? I just started using the software myself (2019 version) and I must say it is quite fun playing around with the different brushes. The pen tool also looks quite interesting, though I don't have much clue about how to use it properly yet.
I asked this question to Steph McGowan, one of our extremely talented Senior Concept Artists and she said outside of the classic brush, the masking tool is hands down her favorite tool:

"Being able to add transparency or to erase parts of a layer without actually erasing the contents of that layer has infinite uses. Not to mention that you can also use it to erase or paint using entire layer groups instead of (or as well as) individual layers. Use it to mask out or mask in an under-drawing, pieces of line-art, textures, adjustment layers, anything really! It’s pretty fantastic."
 
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Jun 9, 2020
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noonan.design
Hi Chris!

How do you feel about the industry in Vancouver? Do you think there's enough potential growth to bring back the AAA game development scene it once had?

Hope all is well, chap :D
 

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