Alexander Alza on Creating Believable Environment

Don’t miss out on one of our newest interviews with talented game environment artist Alexander Alza. Currently a Lead Environment Artist at Bethesda Game Studios, Alexander has been involved in the industry as a well-established and accomplished artist since 2006. Starting his education in 2003 at The Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, he earned a Bachelor of Game Art and Design, and was able to start his journey into the game design industry.

As a well-developed artist he has worked on a large quantity of well-liked games in this day and age. His works are constantly evolving showing a hidden story, making you as the player feel as if you’re actually in an existing realistic world, exploring a whole new dimension.

With an extensive range of skills and experience, he has created a broad spectrum of game environments for a variety of games. His most recent works being: “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare” (PC, consoles 2019), “Destiny 2: The Forsaken” (PC, consoles 2018) and “God of War” (PS4 2018).

Tell us a little bit about yourself. What sparked your interest in digital art? Were you formally trained or self-taught?

My name is Alexander Alza. I was born and raised in Peru but have lived in the US most of my life. I’ve been fortunate enough to be an artist in the game industry for 17 years doing exactly what I love, creating art and telling stories through the interactive gaming medium. I’ve always been artistically inclined as far as I can remember. However, once my brother and I convinced my mom to get us a Nintendo Entertainment System I think my path unknowingly became clear, combining gaming with art was going to be my passion.

After finishing my secondary education. I decided to attend The Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale (AIFL), which was just starting out their Game Art and Design curriculum. I didn’t know a thing about 3D art creation going into AIFL and it was exciting to learn and connect with like-minded people and instructors. Through AIFL I managed to get an internship with a studio prior to graduating which then led to my first studio job directly after graduation.

Where does your inspiration come from, and how do you keep yourself motivated?

I would say my artistic inspiration comes a little bit from nature and a lot from all sorts of visual media. Besides seeing what the game industry is doing it’s always good to soak up what’s happening in movies and streaming shows, etc.

My motivation is something that comes from an insatiable appetite to learn and discover new techniques, to see what may practically work for me and what may be a case-by-case workflow both in personal and professional situations. I think ultimately, and gloomy as it may sound, I’m driven by mortality. My time creating art on this planet is limited so while I’m alive and capable I’m excited to be able to do what I do for a living.

Making art will always be a privilege I don’t take for granted. As such, I try to help young up-and-coming talent trying to get into the industry by mentoring them or connecting them to potential job leads, etc. It’s my small way of paying it forward to an industry that has been good to me.

In this day and age, most artists are influenced by movies, games and other media products. How do you think that has affected you personally and art as a whole?

Without a doubt the art we consume plays a part in what we create, for better or worse in some cases. We’ve never had more access to Artstation or Pinterest type of sites where the amount of quality art you absorb can be overwhelming. This can naturally lead to feelings of self-doubt or imposter syndrome because we see insanely good content being pumped out while we may sometimes question, “..am I doing enough?, am I even good?”.

The over stimulus is there but I try to harness it. I tend to save/bookmark certain pieces that may resonate so I can come back to them in the future when I’m brainstorming what to create next. Sometimes I’ll really like one thing from a movie, combined with something from a game and something from a concept art piece and just start exploring that way. As the great Bob Ross once said, “There are no mistakes. Only happy accidents.”

As long as the influences are leading me to do something I can be proud of and feel as if I’ve learned something or just had a blast doing then that’s mission accomplished for me on personal work. With professional work it’s a bit different since it’s a business and you would ideally hope for great critical, peer and commercial receptions.

What makes a good environmental design?

This question comes down to what the functions are for your level/scene/world. Scale, art direction, collision, several things must be taken under consideration. At least in the game industry, quick greybox iteration is quite helpful in the early stages – make a lot of mistakes and course corrections early on so you hopefully minimize them later when changes can be more difficult.

Once you have established your fundamentals it’s about fine tuning: Do you want the player to see their destination in the background nicely framed or lit in a beckoning manner? Do you want to create pockets of light to instill a sense of suspense in your world? The key here is great communication and teamwork as all the questions that come up are going to require a team effort to create ideal solutions. Design, art, lighting all need to be in sync so there are no surprise changes.

Please walk us through your favourite workflow from start to finish.

I don’t know that it’s my favorite but in totality the process of creation, from reference gathering to putting together the final product is very satisfying.

Gathering references that can at times inspire concept art pieces or paint overs to get the juices flowing is fun exploration. Blocking stuff in is enjoyable as well as it’s all very loose and iterative. One must remain disciplined not to go overboard with finer details as tempting as it may be at this stage.

Early on, on personal pieces at least, I also like to establish basic lighting and atmosphere to see how the lighting is going to frame my scene and what I may be able to do design-wise to support a more impactful composition. Whereas professionally at this stage you’re still working under temp lighting until your area is deemed completed enough for a first lighting pass.

Throughout the whole process flexibility is key. Materials you may introduce later may suddenly change the original complexion of your world and you may then have to pivot to a path of least resistance such as lightening up albedo values and tweaking lighting or fog.

Know that you’re not getting it right the first time and that there will be times when a substantial amount of work you’ve done is just not working out for whatever reasons. We pour ourselves into our work, but we also must know that the end goal is what’s important. It’s not wasted time, it’s more life experience and a chance to do better the next time.

Keeping a positive attitude about things like this are paramount to being an artist that can be trusted and collaborated with.

You’ve created a broad spectrum of game environments for a variety of games, so we want to know if you have any personal favourites that you’ve worked on so far?

The fun part about having worked on a diverse game line up is that I’ve experienced numerous methods of channeling creativity depending on what the project or situation called for. Sometimes you lean more heavily on official concept art if you’re working on an established franchise. Other times it’s up to you and your team to brainstorm and reference gather to determine what the desired style is and just as important what it isn’t going to be.

To me my favorite projects to work on are the ones that trust and allow me to add my own flavor into the work. Those are typically projects where the artist feels more ownership and a deeper connection to the work which hopefully translates to the work as a whole being elevated.

What was the best advice you’ve been given?

There are lots of sound mantras I try to keep in mind – but one that stuck early on when I started my studies was said by Monty Clark, who was the charismatic head of the Game Art and Design department at the time.

“Be nice to those you meet on the way up because you will meet them on the way down.”

I know it’s not his original quote, but it resonates with me to this day and reminds me to treat anyone particularly in the industry as if they were going to be my future boss.

What’s next for Alexander Alza?

Personally, I’m always exploring what project to do next whenever inspiration strikes me with a focus on learning new tools and maybe even collaborating with other artists in a no pressure situation since we all have lives.

I want to thank Vox Groovy for the opportunity to be interviewed and for their part in highlighting the visual arts and the artists behind them. Not many of us stick around for the credits so it’s great when the “average artist” can be recognized, and you never know who you may end up inspiring!

By Vox Groovy staff writer;
All images used with permission by the artist
© Alexander Alza or respective copyright holders

Audio profile: Devices
Reading by: Ryan

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