My Journey: A Deep Look Back, and Looking Forward

General / 28 January 2018

Hey folks, I'm Justin. And I finally "made it" into the industry not too long ago. It's been a long road to get here, and there was some insight gained into the hows and whys it was difficult, and the hows and whys of success. Personal growth, learning, blah blah blah.

Before going any further: opinions are my own, not that of my employer, and so on.

While this blog will cover a lot (a lot!) of learning, showing work in progress, finished shots, experimentation, and so on, it will also be home to insights I've had, and likely (hopefully) the minds of other creatives that are in the midst of the artistic struggle.

Before any of that can happen, I'm going to take a look back from early adulthood to now, and the happenings, internal and external, that led up to now. As an aside, I'm 35, and my first full-time, non contract gig started just about four months ago, as of this writing.

There's a summary at the very end if yinz want to skip all this.

2000 - 2006: "When I Grow Up"
Jeez Justin, six years to get your Bachelor's degree? What the hell? Don't try to start your adult life at 17, kids.

It all started when I saw some Warcraft III development in high school, and loved the Blizzard style of art. That feeling of "I want to make that" only intensified afterward. Even now, I'm still ...drawn... to it all, but for me it's better as a point of inspiration, rather than a goal at this point.

So, about this six years thing... 9/11 happened. I joined the Army Reserve in January 2002. I went to Iraq in December 2003 to January 2005 with a military police unit. After that, I finished my bachelor's degree. Yay. And six months of experience from an internship

Now what? I was 23 and had a bunch of student loan debt, a not-great portfolio, and only a tiny bit of experience through an internship. I thought I could just keep on wishing good things would happen. And I was a WoW head. That didn't help matters.

2008 - 2011: The Transition
Wait, did you just skip a year or two in the header? Well, to explain that, religion. I won't go into detail, but until late 2007, I had a set of beliefs I thought I had to believe. Then I realized I didn't have to. Spending time around those way more intense about that sort of thing will do that. Believe it or not, at this point, I finally embraced responsibility for my own life, after almost completely losing focus.

The real work begins...
So, remember the Army Reserve part? There's this program called Active Guard Reserve that puts a reserve soldier on active duty orders to a base somewhere in the country (for three years!). I rolled the dice with this program, because at this point, I had fully lost focus on my life goals, and needed a good starting point. I told myself, at the end of my military contract, I was done with it. Besides, I was an admin specialist. Gross.

Artist from then on. Hard road or not.

2012: Focus, Lose Focus, Focus
I spent a year and some change after leaving the Army to find my place in the game dev world. I had a handful of leads, ups and downs, but ultimitely wasn't getting anywhere. Depression rears its ugly head, weight gets gained, nothing was happening. Savings were dwindling, and I was very arrogant about not having a non-art job. All I desired was to be fulfilled as an artist. What I didn't realize, was that my portfolio was shit. It was "alright", but not enough to even get me an art test.

One night, after another rejection letter, I was going through an old sketchbook that I had taken to an art workshop years before. In the corner of a page was scribbled a note, the name of a school mentioned to me by an artist I had met at the conference. It said "SMU Guildhall".

What is this, I wondered? A quick Googling quickly explained that this was one of the top game development schools in the country. OMG. And my Post 9/11 MGIB would pay for all my tuition, and most of my housing? WHOA.

Wait six months.
... ... ...

2013 - 2014: SMUGH
Aside from moving (temporarily) to Iraq in 2004, moving from Pennsylvania to Massachusetts was nothing compared to moving from Massachusetts to Texas. I was so happy to be around so many creative and talented people. It woke up some sort of latent enthusiasm that had been lost over the years.

Everything was going great, awesome professors, team projects came together well, portfolio was shaping up very well, thesis passed, internship accomplished, and then three weeks before graduation, I get a phone call from my uncle...

"You need to come home, your Dad's cancer isn't reacting to the chemo this time".
(My Dad had been suffering from lymphoma since mid-late 2013, went into remission once during that time)

Skimming over all the sad bits: was with my Dad when he passed, did funeral planning, and then two weeks after, I went back to Texas to graduate with my class. And then hurried back home, without saying goodbye to anyone in my cohort, for a very sullen X-mas.

2015 - 2016: Taking Risks
So, now what? Honestly, I had no idea. I was in mourning. Destiny for 14 hours out of the day most days. Maybe some artwork here and there. In mid 2015 an opportunity from a startup came around and without any other work in sight, I decided to take it. Unpaid until funded. Yeah, I know.

I stayed for nine months, but I knew there was more out there for me. And the insecurities were mounting in my mind even after a bit of funding came through. I struck out on my own again. I refined my portfolio even more, was even featured on Sketchfab's blog. Neato!

Nothing was happening in Texas though. A couple of my friends from grad school that I kept in touch with decided to rent a house in the great state of Washington. I didn't say goodbye at graduation, but I did keep in touch with my closest pals, of course.

So, I moved. Packed up my car, and my cat. A four day drive in a 10 year old Civic.

Washington. Is. Awesome.

I spent a lot of time networking, PAX fell on the first weekend I was in town. Chatted with a lot of the VR scene folks. Met with recruiters, and so forth. Turns out though, a direct application to Monolith would change everything. After applying, I had an in-person interview, and found myself working as an Associate World Artist on the Shadow of War team! SWEET.

Get out of house. Get apartment

Unfortunately, contract ended early (nothing to do with me) and I was left with that feeling of hopelessness and despair that I felt a few times in my life prior.

BUT, as individuals, we aren't the same as we were even a week prior, let alone years. I took action. After spending a few days nerding out, I went back to working on my craft. Long, long hours working on my stuff. 50+ job applications. A few art tests. Nothing.

THEN, a phone screen with Amazon's Cali campus! A declination. But I was in their candidate system. Fast forward a slow, unmotivated two weeks and suddenly: an intense in-person interview on the Seattle campus appears.

A couple days later... an offer! Accepted.

2017 and Beyond: Success! And Forging the Path Ahead
Seeing my name in the SoW credits was one thing, becoming part of Amazon, something else entirely.

I'm still in disbelief and its been a few months since I started working there. Every day I'm in awe of all the talent that surrounds me.

Apparently, I finally did a few things right.

It's time to work even harder, create even better-er stuff, and stay abreast on new tech, do personal projects, fully embrace life, and continue to enjoy the journey. Wow.

Work hard, don't let yourself get in the way of yourself. 15 years is a long time.
Difficulties happen. Ride the waves.
Be a better person than you think you can be. In all regards.
Keep your friends close, and your close friends closer.
Don't ever stop creating. Pursue relentlessly.

Thank you for reading. I'm going to dive deep into some more granular aspects of my journey now and then throughout this blog, although I assure you though, most of my entries will be art-related. Models, textures, materials, environments, all the good stuff!