Inside the Vault: Robert Wisnewski

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After a week hiatus, Inside the Vault is back. Today, our Q&A features Robert Wisnewski, one of our senior artists. His main focus is on our dungeons – he created the beautiful fort ruins in Oblivion.

What’s your job at Bethesda?

Environmental/Dungeon Artist

What other games have you worked on?

Deathgate 1994
Shannara 1995
Mission Critical 1995
Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon 1997
The Wheel of Time 1999
Unreal II: The Awakening 2003
Unreal II: XMP Multiplayer 2003
Oblivion: 2006
Shivering Isles: 2007
Fallout 3…

What is the best part about being an artist? The worst part?

Making things in 3D is what’s most attractive to me. I love creating things in 3D – both made up objects and working from reference material. Just having the ability to create art and look at it from all different angles is truly incredible. The technology for modeling has become so accessible and user friendly today that I think a lot of people forget just how amazing it is to be able to create 3D objects on the computer.

The other best part of the job is the kind of assets I get to make. Since I do mostly architectural work, specifically ‘dungeon kits’, I basically get to create the places that the game’s characters live in. In other words, I get to build castles and dungeons and ruins [both fantasy and futuristic]. What could be better than that?

The worst part is that I make architectural set assets that get used lots of times. That may not sound like a bad thing, but when you see anything repeatedly in a game, it loses some of the impact that single location art has. This also somewhat limits what you can do with the models – a unique piece [say a wall section with lots of damage] is great when it’s used sparingly, but the wall sections that you see more often are the less unique ones since they’re used repeatedly – many times right next to each other. Trying to make kits where the pieces look good together and provide a lot of possible layouts yet don’t look very repetitive, can be hard. I’m always working on ways to make the ‘dungeon kits’ I create look less repetitive yet more ruined. And, adding damage to geometry is always time consuming.

How did you get into the industry? Do you have any tips for breaking in?

Purely by chance. Although I always loved drawing and painting, and was always heading towards a career in art, I never did any fantasy art. I graduated from RISD in 1986, majoring in Illustration, and then spent about 7 years freelancing. I did a ton of magazine work – covers and inside illustrations, and assorted books and advertising work. I was doing oil paintings for these jobs… I had no computer experience other than having played a bunch of Atari and arcade games as a kid.

When I was in my late 20’s, one of the art directors I had worked with on some freelance jobs called me to say he was now working with a computer game company [Legend Entertainment]. They were looking for artists and he thought I might be good for the job. I got in contact with the designer and after painting one background, got hired to do more background work for this game called Deathgate. At that time, I had just moved into my first house with my wife in Natick, MA, and I was FedEx-ing the paintings to the game company in Virginia. They in turn were FedEx-ing them back to an art studio in Natick, about a mile away from my house, to be scanned and palletized. Shortly after, I happened to get a call from a friend who was teaching at Mass. Art. She told me that the woman who ran the art studio in Natick had given a lecture at the college, and that the studio was looking for artists. I called the studio and asked for an interview. At first the woman I spoke to didn’t believe that I was who I said I was, but after showing up for the interview with some of the illustrations they had already scanned, I got a job with them… still doing oil paintings.

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It took a while for them to switch me over to working on the computer. I started working with Dpaint and eventually Animator Pro, doing all hand drawn art and animations in 256 color palettes. A couple of years later, the company got one copy of this modeling program called 3D studio. Modeling objects looked amazing, so I stayed after work to learn the program on my own time. I worked hard to learn all that I could and eventually was given the chance to do some simple in-game models for the game The Wheel of Time. I’ve been modeling and texturing ever since.

As for tips for breaking in… make sure you don’t have bad breath during an interview? Seriously, I believe that your portfolio should do your talking, so make sure you have only the best examples of your work. Also, make sure you present your work as professionally and well organized as possible. People who do interviews really want to remember you for your work, so anything that detracts them from doing so is a bad thing. Making your renders all the same proportions, labeling things sequentially and understandably, and grouping things in cohesive ways will let people remember the art itself, and not the presentation [or lack of].

What would you say is your personal favorite game of all time?

Robotron.

What games are you looking forward to?

Fallout 3
Assasin’s Creed
Crysis
Empire Earth III
Left For Dead
Lego Indiana Jones
Serious Sam 3
Star Wars: The Force Unleashed

That’s just a random few – there are lots I’m looking forward to seeing, but I definitely won’t get the chance to play them all.

Any other hobbies and interests? What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

I grew up playing sports all the time, so I’d say that’s something that’s still very important to me. I still play soccer twice a week after work. The mix of people mirrors my job – lots of younger people, and then there’s me. I also love photography, and recently got a new DSLR camera, so I spend a lot of time taking pictures. I recently figured out that I’ve taken over 28,000 digital pictures, so organizing them has been an ongoing job.

I’m married, have 2 kids, a dog and a house, so spare time is pretty non-existent. Work eats up the weekdays and on weekends, my son and daughter’s sports take care of at least one of the two days. Playing with my kids… nothing beats that as far as fun and entertainment goes.

Every weekend my Golden Retriever and I spend a couple of hours exploring the historic Battlefields and forests that surround where I live in Virginia. I love to read, watch movies, go fishing and hiking. I love to travel and ski, but haven’t done so in years. Someday though, I’d like to get back to Grand Cayman Island, Germany and France. There are a lot of places I’d love to see and photograph, and my kids are getting to the age where vacation trips to such places are possible, so hopefully that will happen in the near future.

Pitch your dream game.

Anything involving Alchemy :) Actually, I’d be very interested in seeing the “Mind Game” in the book Ender’s Game [and subsequent books in the series] made into reality. “A self-altering game that responds to the needs and desires of the player” and eventually becomes…. well, I won’t spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read the series, but if you haven’t, I’d highly recommend it.

Reader Comments

  1. I grew up in NJ and moved to MA after getting married. I loved living in Natick [and the New England area in general]. I used to take my dog, Murphy, swimming at the lake at the HS. Great place to fish too – there’s some good trout in that lake.

  2. Aye, I left the area when I joined the service, but growing up there was a gas. Going to the Cape on summer weekends with 6 or 8 buddies crammed into an old Plymouth brings a whole ‘nother meaning to the word debauchery.

  3. Yeah Enders Game. I always wanted the Game in that book made real too. I also want the Zero-G laser tag they had at battle school as well.

  4. Yeah, this is the man who I blame for the Forts. They’re lovely, but after 400 hours you get really, really sick of Grey Stone Castles.

  5. Cool, it seems that a Pole or possibly polish roots person is working on my best game to be (?), at least previous titles were. Anyway, shouldn’t it be Wisniewski (i)? Regards.