THE WAY OF SUCCESS: interview with Iacopo Antonelli

For our special feature THE WAY TO SUCCESS, we meet with Iacopo Antonelli, a former student at Rainbow Academy who now works as Technical Artist at Rockstar Games.

Hi Iacopo, how are you doing?

Fine thanks! Shall I wear the mask? Fair enough.

Let’s start by talking a little about your career – you started rather young and you have always been moved by a great drive, your story is a very particular one – can you tell us how you fell in love with computer graphics and videogames?

Sure! Well, since I have memory I’ve always loved videogames. I started playing Game Gear when I was 5 – the only game I owned was Sonic, but it was simply amazing. Then, at the age of 6, I was given a Playstation as a present. And there I started playing Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy and other titles I don’t need to mention. They were unbelievable worlds to me, true masterpieces. Some years later my mother bought me a strange grey box with a keyboard and a mouse: it was love at first sight, the same love my mum felt when she saw the phone bills pouring in…

The first game I played on a PC was Heart of Darkness, my goodness.

I started visiting some video game forums – one day I read a post going “we need a graphic artist” and I instinctively responded “I’ll do it”: (I was 11 and I had no idea what Photoshop was at the time, but the term “graphic artist” sounded good). It all started there: web design, scripting, one thing leads to another and at high school I found myself studying computer programming, and at home the Adobe Suite; then at 17 I discovered UDK (Unreal Development Kit). When I learnt what that software could do it was like finding water in the desert. I bought a 1000-pages-long book about the use of UDK, then Maya, Zbrush… everything I needed in order to learn how to make a prototype. After a while, I noticed that what I mostly loved about those programs was to push past the limits by working on scripting. I never picked a clear direction, I always wavered between maths and art, mixing them as much as I could. I must admit that this approach caused me many problems at first, but it turned out to be a strength over time! When I was a kid, videogames were my protected shelter in many situations, and this pushed me to wish to be able to make them for the upcoming generations. Loads of people find comfort in the adventures we create, the power game developers have must not be underestimated, both in its positive and negative aspects.

You were one of the key artists and technicians at Indiegala for a long time, the company that has welcome many students from Rainbow Academy, giving them the possibility to make their dream come true. What can you tell us about that experience?

Working for Indiegala was just awesome, thinking back on it. It had its highs and lows, obviously, like in any company, but it is mainly thanks to that experience that I am here today. It gave me the opportunity to work on two incredible projects with incredible people. The first was Blockstorm, developed with the Roman team Ghostshark in 2013, then came Die Young, with Indiegala’s own team – I guess I am right if I say it was the first all Italian Open World made in Unreal Engine 4. The environment was always very exciting, all the people I worked with had an unbelievable passion for videogames and there was a noteworthy attention to detail. It wasn’t exactly a piece of cake – working on an Open World of that level with a team of just 10 people proved to be a heroic mission, but at the same time it was incredibly stimulating to be such a small team facing such a giant. On internet you couldn’t find all the support on UE4 there is today, so every engine-related problem had no easy solution, which meant you had to spend a lot of time dealing with problem solving situations. I strongly advice starting in an indie company, for two main reasons: first, indie companies offer experiences that triple A companies might never offer (and vice versa, obviously); second, you don’t know what the right environment for you is, indie and triple A companies can present very different environments. Anyway, when I talk about Indiegala I can’t avoid mentioning two former colleagues of mine and Rainbox students who worked with me on Die Young: the legendary Paolo Pallucchi and the “impeccable” Claudio Rapuano!

As of now, you work for one of the top companies in the gaming industry. Plus, you had an amazing experience in a super company like Ubisoft. From an indie reality to large and well-structured companies: you found yourself thrusted into totally different realities, but you were strong and determined. How was it like to experience such change?

Right! Honestly, such change was not that traumatic. Of course, you move from a team of 10 people to one of 600, it is a complete change of scenery and you have to get used to a new modus operandi, if you don’t have the attitude to team working you can’t go very far. You have to leave your ego at home. However, it was incredible to find out how things aren’t actually that different from a teamwork point of view. Even in a team of 600 people, depending on your role, you find yourself working closely with more or less 50/60 of them, a number that is not that far from that of the indie world, except for the fact that the project (for obvious reasons) is not that “personal” anymore. Decisions can’t be just made on the spot, asking your nearer colleague for advice – there are completely different and branched out hierarchies, and it takes some time before you understand who you should refer to: I remember once I was bounced back and forth 5/6 times before getting to the person I needed to talk to. As Technical Artist I found myself working continuously with more or less 100 people from the core team, and sporadically with 200 more, sparse in various studios. At a certain point you need to remember what each of them does, inform them when you make any change to their work and so on. The trick is not to go mad! As Bruce Lee says: be water, my friend 😉

Your role is a very particular one, could you explain in detail what a Technical Artist does?

Of course! Basically: is there anything more rewarding than putting a smile on the face of an artist/animator/designer/developer in difficulty? Jokes aside, the role of Technical Artist varies from company to company and is not exactly all black and white all the time. A Technical Artist is usually a person who has a variety of experiences and has a passion for dipping their fingers in different areas – as I said earlier I have always had a passion both for graphic arts and for technical drawing and maths. My very first experience was in a rather odd role: I worked on a prototype in Unity and Maya for Crisma (a Roman company) which was meant to be used for virtual visits of the Milan RHO fair. I already took care both of the code and of the artistic element, generating a procedural environment in Unity by way of coordinates provided in XML. After Crisma there was Indiegala, where I worked as C# Programmer on Blockstorm using Unity 3D – I mainly took care of the game UI, always graphics and code. My first approach to Shaders happened in Unity, but I then moved to Unreal Engine 4. I was very interested in Node Material Editing, and it was very easy for me to understand how it all worked, being able to always see a preview, both of the final result and of each node. On Die Young I worked on shaders, scripts and environments (creation and optimization) and it was my real kick-off. Most of times, a TA does not make environments, but I worked at Indiegala as Environment Artist, I only became the studio TA out of general necessity and inertia. At Ubisoft (The Division 2) I found myself working mostly on the graphics of the main missions: creating “exotic” shaders, optimizing and profiling, making technical decision on the creation of world/missions, scripting for procedural generation or for technical analysis, creating interactive game elements and doing problem solving on anything that needed fixing. At Rockstar I do something completely different – I mainly work in the field of tool development for the world of animation and audio. It is quite hard to exactly say what a Technical Artist does, but I can easily tell you that it starts from scripting, shaders and problem solving. The TA are the jack of all trades in a studio and they are able to work in different departments, they are actually the glue that keeps all the departments of a studio united. It is also possible to specialize; the choice is usually between shading and scripting or animation, but these three elements often blend together. I remember when, in one of my first work experiences in Italy, a guy tells me “you can’t be both a graphic artist and a programmer, you have to make a choice” – well, it wasn’t true, luckily. A Technical Artist is a person who has a predisposition both for the technical and for the artistic side (a bit more for the technical one though). I have never been particularly brilliant as an artist, but what a Technical Artist does allows the Artist to get a better final result. The following image shows what figures relate with a TA and in what fields they usually work.

In your opinion, what is the most common difficulty a Technical Artist has to face and what are the main differences, if any, with the other departments?

A Technical Artist is constantly asked technical questions by all other departments: animation, arts, design, programming… most of times related to a technical problem that needs solving. The Technical Artist is the figure in a videogame studio who has a crystal clear vision of how everything works and how to put all the pieces together, he know how to solve problems and how to create new technology and improve the graphic quality of the product. A banal example: 3 months left to deliver the completed game and it turns out there is not enough memory, there are too many mesh/textures in the game. If you are lucky, a TA will have already written a system of analysis of the game world months before, and the skimming work will require just a couple of weeks, it might be actually done automatically. As I said earlier, the role slightly changes from society to society and, as a conseguence, difficulties vary. At Ubisoft, for example, Technical Artists have also decisional power on the graphic elements and the biggest issue in that case is to withstand the pressure of an entire Art Team when it comes the time to say “No, this can’t be done otherwise the console explodes”, being frowned upon and thrown tomatoes at. This is also part of the job of a Technical Artist.

In your opinion, what characteristics and skills does a Technical Artist need to have, from an artistic and technical point of view?

From an artistic point of view, I think he needs to have an eye for beauty. From a technical point of view it is a little more complicated. If he works with shaders, he needs the necessary mathematical knowledge to make equations, sometimes even very complex ones, or he needs to know how a GPU works, also in relation with the other elements of a system. If he works on the animation, he will need other technical knowledge, mostly of scripting and animation, but it still revolves around mathematics, it is inevitable. Another skill a TA needs to have at all costs is problem solving – being able to break up a gigantic problem in many tiny problems and get to a solution step by step.

You have come to a point where you have a clear idea and knowledge of the gaming industry, what do you think the main difficulties are and what the differences between Italian and international companies are? Do you believe there is an actual possibility of growth in Italy?

Italy is definitely growing at a company level; there are many new ones and the existing ones are getting larger and larger. When I started, in 2012/13, there was not a single job offer in the gaming field in Rome; now it has changed, there are more realities, more possiblities. There is definitely a big gap in terms of growth prospect between working for a local indie dimension and for a large international company. One of the main differences I’ve witnessed is that in Italy there is the tendency to hire a sort of ninja who works for 10 people, which saves companies a lot of money. It is also a logical consequence of the companies’ need to grow, and as the sector grows things will change; they are already changing.

What are the last projects you have worked on and what are the next ones, if you are allowed to mention them?

In the last years I have worked on many VR projects as freelance: The Division 2 for Ubisoft and a bit of Red Dead Redemption 2, the PC version for Rockstar. About the future ones, just wait and see!

What is your favourite and most rewarding project?

It’s a head-to-head contest between Die Young and The Division 2, but I’ll go for the latter. Truth is I am very proud one scene I dedicated myself blood, sweat and tears to was publicly shown at the E3 2019! It took me three months to make that fish tank, including all the work I did with the animators and visual artists to achieve the final result. I still have the notebook with all the sketches and equations!

What advice can you give to all the young guys who want to pursue a career in this field and what do you think the most common mistakes of newcomers are?

Be extremely humble and get ready to work as hard as you can! You can learn from everyone, you must be totally aware you know nothing at the beginning. No matter how many years you work in the industry, there is always a lot to learn. Most companies reward mistakes and disapprove of arrogance. I made this same mistake myself. When I started I thought I knew it all, but the more I learned the more I realized I knew nothing at all, and this awareness made me learn even more. I have always been lucky enough to work with some truly great people.

We want to deeply thank you for your time and availability.

Thank you! It was a true pleasure 🙂