The son of an art teacher, Tyler Fermelis is motivated by a lifelong love for art. His passion for art led him to attend the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, CA. where he received formal training in 3D modeling. While in school, Fermelis did UV setup and modeled, rigged, and textured characters for Phoenix Online Studios. After graduating in 2006, Fermelis became a texture artist and modeler for Giant Killer Robots where he worked on movies like Spider-Man 3 and Fantastic Four 2. In addition to periodically doing freelance work, Fermelis has been with Gazillion Entertainment since 2007, where he is currently the Lead Character Artist on the MMO/ARPG, Marvel Heroes.
GS: You have been interested in the arts since you were a child. In addition to being the son of an art teacher, what are some of the ways your family encouraged you to develop this interest?
Tyler Fermelis: My family really encouraged me to explore my artistic side. Our house was always full of murals painted on the walls, and I was even allowed to draw anything I wanted on the walls of my own room. Art was just a really integral part of our daily life.
It’s one thing to love art, it’s another thing to want to pursue a career being an artist. Why did you pursue this as a career?
In a way, art as a career was not even a choice for me – it was something that I felt I HAD to go do. After looking at alternatives, I just couldn’t see myself being happy doing anything else. It may be a competitive and difficult career, but I am a firm believer in finding what drives you and chasing it with everything you’ve got.
What are some of the ways the Academy of Art University prepared you for a career in 3D animation? In retrospect, what advice do you have for others thinking about going into this field?
The Academy offered an amazing traditional art background before getting students into the 3D side of things. For me, that was the biggest element that set the school apart from others. For anyone looking to get into 3D character art, I would strongly suggest developing a strong foundation of traditional skills first, such as sculpting and figure drawing, before studying the 3D side.
During and after college you did a lot of freelance work. Given that there are so many digital artists out there, how did you get this work? Also, how do you feel these jobs helped you grow as an artist?
For me, getting freelance work has consistently depended on two things: contacts and online presence. Networking and being able to reach out to contacts at companies often results in follow-up work or recommendations to other companies. LinkedIn is a powerful source for both recruiters and those seeking work, and having a strong website to show off your work is absolutely vital! Freelance work has been extremely important in expanding my skill set because it has exposed me to new types of projects and challenges that I might not have come across in my full-time job.
The longest job you have had is with Gazillion Entertainment, which you have been working with since 2007. How has working there compared with your freelance work?
Both opportunities have taught me valuable lessons. In freelance work, you grow because you are oftentimes presented with a challenge that you’ve never dealt with before, so you are forced to learn on your own. At Gazillion, I’ve learned more from being surrounded by other talented artists, where we are able to bounce ideas off of one another and grow as a group. Each has its merits – freelance work teaches self-sufficiency and working at a large company teaches how to collaborate creatively.
After graduating you did some texture work for Spider-Man 3, Happy Feet, and Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer. What are some of the differences working on a movie as opposed to a game?
Some people may not agree, but I actually found movie work to be a little easier and more forgiving than games work. In films, models are only viewed from the shot angle, so you only need to put detail into what is close to the camera in each specific shot. Some shots do require incredible amounts of detail, but with shots that are not close-ups you can get away with less detail. In games, models are consistently viewed from all angles, so you have to put equal amounts of detail everywhere. Also, after you build something in a film, compositors and lighting artists then work to improve your model, so the end result is a lot more forgiving. In games, what you make is what you get, so you have to put in all the work yourself.
Artists often strive to develop their own unique style. How do you balance your desire to have an original visual style when film and gaming studios require you to work within a standardized vision?
Ideally, I like to look for work that is similar to the style that I am trying to develop. For example, I wanted to create a hand-painted look, so I worked on an MMO that featured all hand-painted textures. Later, I took an interest in anatomy and body shapes, so I worked on the Marvel Heroes project. This allows you to keep interest in your job while also developing what you want to develop on your own. Sometimes, it’s impossible to align your own artistic visions with your company’s, and in that case you need to create models outside of work that bring you closer to your own style.
In regards to Marvel Heroes, the Marvel Universe is filled with characters of widely varying shapes and sizes. What steps were taken to remain true to the uniqueness of each character while still striving to remain efficient and meet your company’s deadline?
Being true to Marvel’s style has been a big part of this project. Our original idea was to use Marvel’s official height values and model each character accordingly. However, Marvel Heroes uses a top-down camera view, from which height variance doesn’t translate very well. We quickly noticed it was hard to tell the difference between characters of different heights, and this led us to create a more uniform and efficient system based on using several basic body size archetypes for all characters.
In addition to building 3D models of Marvel’s characters, you’ve probably learned a lot about the legal issues surrounding licensed characters. How has working on Marvel Heroes expanded your understanding of how videogames are made?
Working on Marvel Heroes has taught me how complex it is to work on a project with a well-known existing intellectual property. The rights to various Marvel characters are owned by different people, and therefore require different means of acquisition. In the character approval process, beyond getting the artistic look approved, there are also various legal requirements for each character involving logos and specific color values, etc. It’s definitely a more complicated and multi-tiered process to approve a licensed character than it is for an original IP character.
Since you first started contributing to videogames, the industry has witnessed a shift from console games to free-to-play games. How do you think this shift has impacted the way you approach game design?
This shift has impacted game design hugely because it has changed the way games monetize. Many projects out there focus solely on making a game ‘addictive’ rather than ‘entertaining’ so that their free-to-play model succeeds, but to me this strategy strays from the original goal of a game as an entertainment medium. I hope there are more people out there who agree with my approach to game design, which is creating something that is, first and foremost, fun and stimulating.
In addition to free-to-play games becoming popular, mobile games are also becoming a larger share of the market. In addition to your thoughts on this, how do you think this trend will influence your work?
We are seeing less jobs for non-mobile game development, and a slew of small mobile games companies springing up. Investors will always follow the product that generates the most money, so they jump on the latest profitable trend and try to mimic it. The truth is that there will always be another gaming theme, such as mobile games, that will transform the industry, and then we’ll see a new theme that investors will be backing. For a truly successful project, the real question is: what is that next big theme in games, and how can you be the first to make it happen? In terms of my work, these trends will influence the types of projects I choose and pursue, and how I develop my style accordingly.
Popular games seem to either be fairly cheap or rather expensive to make. How do you think the divide between production costs will impact game development?
Popular indie or mobile games can be successful and cheap to make, but many of them require a large amount of luck and good timing. Rovio, for example, created hundreds of games before striking gold with Angry Birds. Production costs are a large problem because although consumers’ graphics expectations grow every year, their cost expectations drop, especially with free-to-play games on the rise. This divide has led to many companies shutting down or shrinking.
With the hardware and software for games consistently changing, how do you stay on top of the latest tech?
Keeping up with new hardware and software is a constant learning experience in this field. I commonly read online software tutorials and watch videos that share the latest tips and tricks. I’ve found that it’s best to keep up with evolving software on a regular basis, as the changes made can sometimes dramatically speed up your workflow.
Finally, are there any projects – personal or professional – that you are working on that people can look out for?
Definitely! You can check out my website or follow me on twitter (@BC3D) to learn more. I can’t share any details right now, as my current projects are confidential, but I promise to give updates on all my latest work as soon as I am able to!