Posted in News on September 8, 2016
Each individual member of our team brings a unique and invaluable set of skills, hobbies, and worldviews to the studio. To better understand who the Tangentlemen are, we’re looking to tell their stories—from previous development projects to their outside-the-workplace passions. This week, we’d like to introduce you to our senior art director, Rich Smith.
Rich Smith never expected to contribute to a genre-shifting behemoth like Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare after he graduated from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. As a bicycle courier dodging big city traffic and an art student scraping to get by, the thought of modeling characters for multi-million dollar blockbusters wasn’t at the forefront of his mind.
Fortunately for him, Rich discovered his love for computer graphics just as the field was on the cusp of being democratized. Amigas with significant computing and 3D modeling power offered a reasonable alternative for artists unwilling (and unable) to drop $15,000 on high-end rigs, but that still didn’t mean there was a clear-cut path to success for the New England native.
“I didn’t know that I wanted to be in video games,” Rich explains. “I thought I wanted to be in film. I fell into video games.”
The first job he fell into was at Studio Mythos, a Torrance-based production studio that produced art for a medley of popular franchises in the early 2000s. The company acted as a variable asset warehouse where characters, objects, and environments were churned out at a low cost. While it wasn’t glamorous, the artistic challenge of creating a multitude of objects for a handful games at a time showed Rich he was on the right career path.
“It made me realize that the game industry was the place I wanted to be at, and I wanted to start working on my own games and have as much agency as I could.”
After a stint at EA that tested his patience and passion for game development, Rich joined noted art director Richard Kriegler at Infinity Ward—a young studio fresh off the release of the original Call of Duty. Modeling characters, vehicles, and weapons in Call of Duty 2 (where Rich was immortalized as Private MacGregor) led to his big break: Modern Warfare. The 2007 first-person shooter changed the way people looked at console multiplayer, but it also altered Rich’s impression of big-budget development.
“At Infinity Ward, I learned what it was to be on a good project, a good team,” he remembers. “That kind of understanding is what I took away most of all.”
Infinity Ward was a wonderful home for six years, and a later stint at Spark Unlimited introduced Rich to Cory Davis, John Garcia-Shelton, and Toby Gard—and eventually, the concept of breaking away from AAA development to establish Tangentlemen.
This smaller studio not only puts greater weight on Rich’s work, but also requires a healthy dose of creativity when it comes to how assets are generated. The esoteric, melancholy touchstones key to the first project, Here They Lie, demand a familiar, life-like look that would be too time-consuming to create entirely by hand. Instead, Rich has made use of a technique called photogrammetry to pull objects from the real world and place them into the game.
Photogrammetry is the process of taking a medley of photos of physical things and running them through software to create high-resolution, 3D models rich with coloration and detail. For Rich, learning this technique has been invaluable.
“Before, making objects was like slamming cubes and primitive shapes together, moving them around until they became a jeep or whatever,” he jokes. “What photogrammetry gets you is the real world; the ability to grab a chunk of reality and throw it into your game.”
This style of art generation wasn’t something Rich picked up on the job—if a new technique or aspect of art grabs his attention, he’ll often spend his free time learning its ins and outs.
“I’d find a banged up dumpster with garbage overflowing on the top, completely grungy and full of this super specific, authentic detail, and I’d just take the photographs of that thing on the spot. And I’d be able to take those photographs and turn them into a great-looking digital version to put in our game.”
Fractal exploration, drones, photogrammetry—all these techniques fascinate Rich, and they quickly informed the look and feel of Here They Lie.
“I had this notion that… If you were to look down at your feet, you’d think you’d be playing some realistic game. But as you look up toward the horizon, things would devolve into surreal, impossible spaces,” Rich points out. “It’s not just a crazy place where nothing makes sense… stuff that’s around you should feel very authentic so that you can feel grounded. But the way those spaces interact with each other and the way they moved out into larger architectural forms is where I’d want to make those surreal gestures.”
Beyond the world around him, Rich drew inspiration from an architectural artist named Piranesi who etched impossible buildings and prison spaces in the 1700s, as well as the Japanese manga artist Tsutomu Nihei. Nihei drew the black and white manga series Blame, where massive interior spaces representing the Japanese version of European medievalism defied the imagination. Recognizable touchstones like a street or storefront swirled out into impossible, mega-structured spaces, and that grabbed Rich’s imagination.
“I wanted to try my hand at these oppressive, stark, surreal environments. I think a lot of times when things get surreal in games, it’s filled with whimsy—like a storybook or a daydream,” Rich tells. “But there’s a version of surreal architecture that is not friendly and not inviting you to imagine a fun time to be had there. It doesn’t give a shit if you live or die.
“Your mind wants to discover the reason and the logic behind what it perceives to be an impossible thing. You’re intrigued by it.”
And that’s what Rich feels makes Here They Lie, as well as his own take on surrealism, unique. It doesn’t fit neatly into any single genre. Instead, it’s in defiance of that idea.
“The art reflects the mood, not the genre. The world shows you what it’s made of the more you focus on a particular thing,” Rich explains. “I like things that weren’t really designed, but instead were built up over time—like a favela in Rio where there are cascades of shanties and huts that course down the hillside. By building it out of necessity, it shows patterns that were integral to the terrain. That’s what we’re going for here, and that’s what I think we’ve achieved.”