First Hand — How making fan art helped character artist Jacob Ovrick find work on Spyro Reignited

Posted 22 November 2018 Written by Jacob Ovrick
Interview by Marianne Hanoun

Fan art can often be snubbed as a legitimate artistic pursuit. While for many, drawing their favourite characters is simply an enjoyable past-time, others argue that as a valuable teaching tool, it’s one of the most effective ways to get into industry. But can fan art really help you land a dream job? And if so, how do you go about turning your passion into a profession? The story of character artist Jacob Ovrick is case in point. When Jacob was approached to work on video game, Spyro Reignited earlier this year, he had no idea a remastering of the original 1998 game was even in development. But being an avid games fan, he leapt at the chance. 

A graduate in creative media from New Mexico State University, and of online school Animation Mentor, before working on Spyro, Jacob was working as a freelance animator – all the while uploading fan art online. It was his fan-fuelled 3D renders of Spyro characters that caught the attention of an online contact. Looking at the professional quality of some of Jacob’s work, it’s not hard to see why within 15 minutes, Jacob had landed a role working as a character modeller on the game at development company, Sanzaru. While Jacob’s journey is uncommon, we caught up with him to talk about dispelling the myths around fan art, how it must be used as a platform for originality, and his experience of working on the game.

An early interest in games
Spyro Reignited was my first time working as a character modeller and the first time I’ve worked on a video game. But I’ve been interested in games since I was 11, when I got my first computer. Late in high school, I got a Gamecube and three games in particular inspired my love of stylised 3D art: Beyond Good and EvilZelda Windwaker, and Starfox Adventures. I was aware of the Spyro series through the internet and magazines, but I didn’t actually play Spyro until my last year of high school when I got a PS2. But it was kind of inevitable that Spyro would become one of my favourite game series.

Early experience in industry
Before working on Spyro, I attended Animation Mentor, an online school where you are taught by professional animators working in the industry. After a year and a half of training, I was hired by one of my teachers to work with Sony Animation on The Smurfs 2 and The Legend of Smurfy Hollow. After that, I did freelance animation jobs, then I worked as an animator for a year on the Netflix series All Hail King Julian at Bardel Entertainment. 

That’s when I began teaching myself to sculpt, and started doing fan art as part of my process of learning 3D art. The first character I successfully recreated to a satisfactory degree was Nessie, the main character from the Disney short film The Ballad of Nessie.

The first character Jacob successfully rendered – Nessie, the main character from Disney's "The Ballad of Nessie."

Sharing works in progress
I started posting works-in-progress of my Spyro models on platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Deviantart, Artella and Artstation. An animator on the Spyro team, who I’m friends on Facebook with, saw them and sent me a message saying his studio was working on something I’d be very interested in. 

He sent my WIPS and Artstation portfolio to the studio CEO and within 15 minutes they were asking if I wanted to work on the game. This was a few weeks before the game was first announced, I had no idea it was in production or even existed. I don’t see how I would have gotten the job if I wasn’t posting fan art at just the right time for the right person to see it. It was likely my work in general that really got me hired, but my portfolio is almost entirely fan art anyway.

“Fan art has artistic value, and I see no real reason to look down on it.”

The internet is giving artists more visibility 
Finding work in this way is probably not super-common, but it’s happening more now than 10 or even five years ago. This is mostly down to the internet giving more people the ability to network and gain visibility. Getting hired for any job is ultimately down to luck and someone liking you, but quality fan art can get you noticed. Quality artwork in general is what you need to get hired, and you are more likely to put out quality work if you enjoy what you’re making.

Plus, you are more likely to excel and progress faster in a discipline that you enjoy. You won’t be very motivated if you only sculpt or paint things you’re completely indifferent to. But drawing or modelling a character from your favourite cartoon or game will likely make you enjoy art practice more. 

A fan model of Spyro, made by Jacob

Making fan art is like doing masters studies
Fan art has artistic value, and I see no real reason to look down on it. There is something to be gained from studying it, just like you can learn a lot by studying any good art; and there is no appreciable reason to limit ‘good art’ to Greek sculptures, Renaissance paintings, and other traditional, realistic works. The art from a Disney movie, a LucasArts adventure game, or an anime series is all good art. 

Disney demonstrates exceptional design principles, colour theory, value, form, shape, and even anatomy. The same can be said of many other animated TV shows and some video games. You can learn a lot about colour and composition from LucasArts adventure games; and about dynamic, gestural posing and exaggeration from comics. These are all professional works created by seasoned artists, ergo they represent good art principles. They’re so good, why not study them? 

But remember: don’t just mindlessly copy. Attempt to understand the subject you are making fan art of – and go beyond it. Transform or exaggerate what you understand. This is good practice. Come up with your own poses for characters, try tweaking the designs, add or remove things. You get more out of fan art if you really do treat it as a genuine study. 

“There is no reason to limit ‘good art’ to Greek sculptures or Renaissance paintings. A Disney movie, a LucasArts adventure game, or an anime series are all good art.”

How it can get you noticed
The director of a short film I worked on compared fan art to cover bands. Bands sometimes start out doing covers of more famous bands, or do their own remixes. This helps a new band gain attention; it is extremely difficult nowadays to gain any kind of lasting notoriety. Fan art is similar; it’s hard to get noticed with your original work, so doing fan art of popular characters can help increase your visibility and get more eyes on your original work. 

Online visibility is part of the process of getting jobs, especially if you don’t have the means to live in an industry hub city or attend any of the major prestigious art schools. Visibility can help fund original projects. If you have no angel investors for a short film project or an indie game project, crowd funding may be your only option. You need a lot of visibility to make a crowd funding campaign successful. In the interest of being ‘discovered’, I would argue this cover-band way of looking at fan art has merit. You just need to stay professional and gracious about it.

A fan model of Sheila the Kangaroo, made by Jacob

Working on Spyro Reignited

On Spyro, I worked as a character artist, which meant I modelled and textured characters. My job was to take 2D concept art of each character and translate them into workable 3D models in the game engine. I worked on around 20 characters, nearly all of whom were cartoon animals, as that’s what most of the Spyro cast consists of. Most of them where friendly NPCs [non-player character: i.e. characters controlled by the game], but I also did a few enemies, and made a handful of props. 

The experience taught me about the technical elements of making game models, and gave me an idea of what it’s like to work in a video game pipeline. More importantly, I learned some new art tricks, one of which is implied detail. We are used to seeing detailed, realistic 3D characters in movies and games – even if the art is stylised. But stylised 2D art tends to imply details like fur, relying on strategic areas of detail, rather than filling everything in. 

“The experience taught me about the technical elements of making game models, and what it’s like to work in a video game pipeline.”

Spyro Reignited has a more streamlined style that more closely recreates this implied detail that 2D artists use. I made several bird characters: rather than cover them entirely in sculpted feathers, I learned to add patches of feathers, focusing on having larger primary shapes supported by a few secondary shapes over and around the main shape. Same with fur, I would sculpt patches of fur ‘blades’ rather than attempting to cover the entire character in fur strands. Strategically using implied detail and focusing on general shapes is a great way to make stylised characters; less can be more.

I also learned more about colour than I ever have before – mainly in terms of having gradients, where one colour transitions into another on areas of the character. Warmer colours transitioning into cool colours, adding splashes of colour in strategic places, edge highlights, and coloured areas of ambient occlusion. 

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artstation.com/jovrick
twitter.com/JacobOvrick
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The Spyro Reignited trailer

Posted 22 November 2018 Written by Jacob Ovrick
Interview by Marianne Hanoun
Collection: First Hand
Disciplines: Illustration, Animation, Digital
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