Creative Lives — Games artist and illustrator Catherine Unger talks goblins, space rovers and haunted houses

Posted 22 January 2018 Interview by Marianne Hanoun

Catherine Unger’s childhood consisted of watching Disney movies, looking after digital pets and sketching with her sister, among other things. So when she got to work as a lead artist on Snipperclips – the launch title game for the new Nintendo Switch – her childhood self suitably ‘freaked out’. Drawing and building worlds, as a freelance games artist and illustrator, it’s Catherine’s role to design and create the visual elements you see on screen. A job that doesn’t leave much space for boredom, she will move between drawing concept art, story writing and designing different levels. Catherine fills us in on ‘game jams’, why it’s important to share your work and the impact that RSI has had on her drawing process. 

Catherine Unger

Job Title

Game Artist and Illustrator 

Based

London

Previous Employment

Lead Artist, SFB Games, (2010–2017 periodically)
Game Artist, Preloaded (2011–2014)

Education

BA Illustration and Animation, Kingston University (2007–2010)

Clients

SFB Games, Preloaded, Channel 4, BBC, Tate, Science Museum, V&A Museum, Annapurna Pictures, Amplify

Website
Social Media

Catherine Unger

Day-to-Day

How would you describe what you do?
I’m a freelance 2D-game artist and my role is to design and create the visual elements you see in games. This can be anything from early concept art, environments, characters, menu designs, animations and textures. I mainly work with independent game developers and small game studios to help create games and interactive experiences for mobile, web, consoles and occasionally museum installations.

Outside of games I also like to do commissioned illustrations. It feels good to mix it up and do shorter briefs, because gaming projects can take a while to complete.

What does a typical working day look like?
It depends on the project; if I’m hired to work in-house at a studio I’ll mirror their schedule. I usually start my day with admin before working away at my current task list for each project. When I’m working remotely, I try and start my day early to give myself lots of flexibility to get my task list done at my own pace. I get typical freelance cabin fever and sometimes breaking up the day just helps my productivity overall.

Nearly all my work is done digitally, so I always try to take advantage of any task that can be done away from my computer screen. This also helps me loosen up and take me out of the mindset of working; stuff like idea generating becomes more playful and open in a sketchbook.

“There are plenty of game studios in London and a lot of them require their freelancers to work in-house. I would have struggled with this if I lived further away.”

A House of Many Doors, developed by Pixel Trickery (2017)

What do you like about working in London?
The thing I love about London is that it’s so convenient! I often feel very lucky to be here. The resources available are endless. Of course there are plenty of game studios in London and a lot of them require their freelancers to work in-house. I would have struggled with this if I lived further away.

It is busy, though. I was born here and even I get to a point where the hustle and bustle makes me want to run headfirst into a forest. Nature really inspires me but this can be limited in London. I’ve noticed more artists moving out of the expensive city and still landing incredible gigs from all around the globe. With tools like Google Hangouts and Slack available, I don’t feel like living in London is essential for a freelance artist.

How does your freelance work usually come about?
Twitter is definitely how most of my clients find me, there’s a supportive art community on there, and I always see tweets flying around of developers looking for artists or artists available for work.

Some people will contact me if I’m right for the game they are developing after seeing my work shared online. If they enjoyed working with me then they might recommend me in the future to someone else. I feel like my varied skillset is ideal for covering multiple visual elements during game development.

Prototaxites for the Botanica Exhibition at Light Grey Art Lab (2016)

How collaborative is your work?
I’ll often collaborate with an art director, programmer and game designer. All roles in game development rely on each other and a miscommunication can cost days of work. If all members of a development team are collaborative then it feels like you are a part of a powerful creative machine.

What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
I love drawing and world building. The most incredible feeling is seeing my art come to life and watching people interacting with it. A highlight for me was seeing kids designing their own space vehicles on the Rugged Rovers installation at the Science Museum. 

In game development sometimes you have to make multiple versions of the same asset with minor differences and that can feel monotonous. However, it does give me a break from concept art, which can be mentally demanding. I like that my job is generally pretty varied and I rarely have the chance to get bored.

What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months? 
Snipperclips: Cut it Out, Together for the Nintendo Switch. I worked with SFB Games and Nintendo as lead artist. Visiting Nintendo for the disclosure of the Nintendo Switch before it was released was an iconic moment. The fact that it was the launch title on the console, alongside Zelda, was even more surreal; my childhood self would have freaked out. 

“Giving the player the right visual feedback is as important as making the game look beautiful.”

Development of Goblins2Go, developed by SFB Games

Development of Goblins2Go, developed by SFB Games

Development of Goblins2Go, developed by SFB Games

Game walkthrough of Goblins2Go

What skills are essential to your job?
I would say a general foundation in art and design is essential. These days most places require you to create artwork digitally and knowing how to animate goes a long way. I always felt I had to learn 3D in order to be a game artist, although so far I have not needed it. Famous last words.

Are you currently working on any self-initiated projects? 
I recently opened an online shop to sell my wares. I’ve been drawing a lot of personal work in my own time and have started to turn that artwork into pins, stickers and prints. Nearly all my work exists digitally so it’s really satisfying to make something physical that you can hold in your hand.

What tools do you use most for your work?
Most of the time I use my Wacom Intuos Pro for drawing in Photoshop, and I animate in After Effects. I occasionally venture into Unity 3D, a platform for building games and where all the elements come together.

Snipperclips: Cut it Out, Together! Launch title for the Nintendo Switch. Developed by SFB Games, published by Nintendo

Snipperclips - Cut it out, together! Trailer

How I Got Here

What did you want to be growing up?
I went through phases: a Disney animator, concept artist, children’s book illustrator, archaeologist (thanks Indiana Jones.) As a teenager, I didn’t really want to think about my future career and I didn’t think I could realistically get a job doing art. I have a vivid memory of being in school and seeing one of those career boards with a brainstorm of what jobs you can get through studying art. It was encouraging to see animation and video games listed as genuine options.

What influence has your upbringing had on your choice of career?
I spent most of my childhood watching Disney, Spielberg and playing Nintendo. When I wasn’t doing that my sister and I would be drawing together. It was a magical time inventing new stories and adventures. After school we spent our evenings on websites like Neopets and Deviantart, continuously creating artwork. That constant fostering of imagination and idea generating never really left either of us; my sister is now an illustrator too.

How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
Incredibly useful. It made me realise I didn’t want to do solely animation. I struggled with the subject because I found the process too repetitive and long. That being said, I don’t regret it! Without the understanding of animation and the technical skills I learned, I would have found it more difficult to find a job in games. The knowledge I gained in animation has been very transferrable.

Haunt the House: Terrortown, developed by SFB Games (2013)

Haunt the House trailer

What were your first jobs?
My first job was a barmaid at a nearby rugby stadium where I got really good at pouring pints of Guinness. Later I got a game artist internship at a studio called Preloaded it was a valuable experience that really opened my eyes. Being around skilled professionals and seeing their process really levels you up in a short space of time. Landing a job with them was a huge plus.

What in particular helped you the most at the start of your career?
My friend and colleague, Adam Vian. He’s a talented artist and animator who I met at university; he had been making games for the majority of his life. He was enthusiastic about me wanting to pursue a career in games and invited me to work on one of his titles. He introduced me to my first game jam (an event where you create a game within a short space of time). The game we made eventually led to my first full-time job. I still work with him and his brother regularly at SFB Games to this day!

Was there a particular project you worked on that helped your development?
When I was working on an indie game called A House of Many Doors, I was responsible for nearly every visual element on screen. I was flitting between jobs like painting environments, designing user interfaces and animating giant spiders. It was the first time I had that much artistic responsibility on one project and I enjoyed it, but it really did challenge me. Finishing up on the game was rewarding and really boosted my confidence. 

Rugged Rovers, developed by Preloaded

Rugged Rovers, developed by Preloaded

Rugged Rovers, developed by Preloaded

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The Prince of Wales plays Rugged Rovers at the Science Museum, developed by Preloaded

V&A Seekers, commissioned by V&A Museum, developed by Preloaded

What skills have you learnt along the way?
I have a much better understanding of user experience and graphic design, it’s something I constantly take into account when developing assets. Giving the player the right visual feedback is as important as making the game look beautiful. If a jump animation has too many frames and takes too long, then it could ruin the player’s experience.

I pick up new knowledge constantly. I feel like the games industry is quite fresh and dynamic; there’s always newer and better ways to achieve something.

What’s been your biggest challenge? 
A couple of years ago I pushed myself too hard and gave myself repetitive strain injury (RSI) in my drawing arm. I couldn’t draw for 5 minutes without having to stop, because it was too painful. With 3 to 4 months of no improvement, I started to worry and my outlook became really negative (which made it even worse.)

I’m still tackling RSI to this day, but I’m now seeing a specialist who has helped improve my condition and helped me adapt to new ways of working. I have a much deeper respect for my work-life balance and the value of taking regular breaks. In fact, this way of working facilitates my process more and stops me rushing through art pieces without reflecting on them.

Is your job what you thought it would be?
I am way more creatively involved in the process than I thought I would be. I’ve brainstormed game ideas, participated in story writing and designed levels. That’s something I love about working in small teams; you get the opportunity to contribute to all sides of development. 

Banana leaf plant, personal illustration (2017)

Thinking Ahead

What would you like to do next?
I’m continuously trying to improve and develop my own artwork and would like to do more with my personal illustrations in the future. I will hopefully get the chance to art direct more games and would love to work on more narrative projects, whether it is in games or another medium. 

Could you do this job forever?
Yes I would love to. My arm says no, but I’m ignoring it for now.

What do you feel is the natural career progression for someone in your current position? 
Maybe an art director or start up my own company. Being freelance means that my career could bend all sorts of ways, so who knows...

Catherine’s workspace

Words of Wisdom

What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to become an illustrator?
Make art you love, share it and don’t overthink it. It can feel cringeworthy to share your work with people, but getting over that hurdle really does pay off and people will start to remember you when new projects come up.

If you’ve never worked on a game before, then create concept art and assets for an imaginary one, reinvent existing games or head down to a game jam to work a with a programmer. You don’t want to rely on employers or art directors to try and imagine how your artwork would work in their games, so take away that step by showing your art in that context. Most importantly, take breaks, make yourself tea and be nice to yourself!

Posted 22 January 2018 Interview by Marianne Hanoun
Collection: Creative Lives
Disciplines: Illustration, Digital
Mentions: Catherine Unger, Nintendo, Science Museum, SFB Games
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