Fireside Chat with Kobe Sek, Concept Artist and Art Director
Are you curious about what its like to work for AAA companies like Ubisoft as a Concept Artist or 3D Artist? Perhaps you wonder if you’ve got what it takes to see success in this challenging and rewarding career?
Join us as we sit for a chat with our Mentor Kobe Sek, Art Director at Ubisoft Singapore, and hope to learn more about his journey and the key lessons learnt along the way.
Kobe is an Expert Concept Artist and has worked on multiple AAA Projects such as Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon, Assassin’s Creed, and Prince of Persia.
Q1 : Just to get to know you a little bit as a start, what’s your favourite movie or piece of visual media?
A: I recently rewatched Interstellar, to me its very unique. The plot twist and pacing is just right. I like alot of the spaces in the cinematography, they look almost like water-colour. There’s a less-is-more approach in the spaces, its not overcrowded with visual effects or any visual complexity like the arrangement of items in the scene, etc It’s character building is very down-to-Earth, the father has an internal struggle of choosing between pursuing a dream and securing humanity’s future or staying with family.
Q2 : What about games?
A: I like Zelda, it also has that interesting stylised approach to their art style, they don’t overcrowd the screen. They make everything in the scene speak for itself. If you can observe any equipment on the screen you can experiment with it, you can pretty much go anywhere you see. That’s the power of when the visuals go hand-in-hand with the design.
Q3 : When did you realise you wanted to be a Concept Artist, and how did your life change after that?
A: I always loved to read Hong Kong comics, my father bought them for me as a kid. They always had beautiful covers. They always gave a summary or snapshot of the whole story in the comic. Sounds a bit cliche but it was a “picture speaks a thousand words” kind of thing, it gave you a sense of the storytelling aspect.
When I was in school I learnt there’s a thing called “concept art”. I was much more interested in it as it wasn’t only just creating a visual that tells a story but you can also apply the same principles in problem solving. For example, the Art Director or Creative Director can tell me “I need a design for a people that use fire in their lives but they live above water”, and so you start to think what design would suit, a mecha or a character, how would they be able to do that?
There’s a lot of creative problem-solving and puzzle-solving.
Q4 : What was your journey like from then to here?
A: I wanted to be a comics artist when I was in highschool. In College it was clear that my interest was in Concept Art and I’d want to explore and dive in.
I was lucky enough to start my first job in Ubisoft, they were just starting out with their Studio in Singapore. At first they did not need 2D concept artists, only 3D artists, luckily my background was in digital animation and I knew how to build 3D models. I moved forward to the role of 3D Artist.
Along this journey I kept showing them that I can draw, and create concept art. The opportunity arrived when I was working on Prince of Persia : Forgotten Sands.
My producer came to me and said “I know you can draw, I’ve seen you draw everyday every chance you get. We have an urgent task to come up with a concept of a level. Will you like to give it a try?” I just went “oh wow, this is my dream job! I’ve wanted to do a concept for so long, so why not?”
At the time, I kitbashed with in-game 3D assets in our game engine to paint over to create the concept. They were so happy about it that on-and-off I started to get more Concept Art projects.
Q5 : Which are some of the most memorable games you’ve worked on?
A: The day I was asked to be Associate Art Director for Assassin’s Creed : Rogue. I was still an intermediate artist then, I was asked if I’d be interested in taking up the role, I’d be working closely with the (Ubisoft) Sofia team which would be leading the project.
I consulted with people to see if it would be the right decision. I always wanted to be a Concept Artist but I had never thought about myself as an Art Director.
As a concept artist, I enjoy sharing my ideas and driving change. I found the role of an art director to be intriguing as it allows me to express higher-level visual direction. Therefore, I decided to take on the position.
Q6 : What was that experience like?
A: In the first two weeks, I was told that I needed to come up with the High-Level Art Direction, I had no experience at all. Luckily I had good people around who helped guide me through.
I remember I created this one concept art piece of a ship that’s cutting through the ice sheet, and that triggered a lot of discussions. The Technical guys started talking about how to render the ice sheet, the Game Designer started to think how to add a gameplay element to cutting the ice sheet, the Sound guys talked about the sound effects for a ship to cut through the ice etc.
That’s when I realised I’m not just doing up a concept, I’m setting the direction that will inspire people and also influencing the production.
Q7 : You’re obviously very comfortable in this role, its a heavy responsibility but definitely creatively rewarding.. What were some of the challenges you faced ?
A: For me, English is not my native language.. There was some level of imposter syndrome. That was always at the back of my mind.
I pushed myself to go and share my thoughts, ideas, talk to people, trying to express myself more.. Slowly the challenges become less and less prominent. Eventually it reached a point where I realised I didn’t need to talk so much to get my idea across. I would rely on my art to inspire to inspire people.
Q8 : What’s the most fun project you’ve worked on?
A: Alot of them. Every single project always has one breakthrough moment where I feel its interesting and creatively rewarding. Sometimes people do ask me “don’t you feel bored working on the same thing over and over again”.
No matter how “boring” the task, there’s always a fun element.
Q9 : How does one get prepared for a career in the digital art space? What advice would you give to an entry-level Concept Artist?
A: Two things come to mind.
Be open-minded, so you can face challenges in the right manner. You will be faced with alot of requests, some reasonable and some some need more energy to deal with. Being open-minded will allow you to think of the possible solutions rather than the problem itself. The industry is moving ahead and evolving very fast. AI Art, for example, is still not mature, lots of legal debate, but AI has other uses than just copying art, in the future, it may become a part of the tools that you will use.
Long ago people hated photographs and artists started competing with photographs, now people use photobashing as a technique; there was backlash against 3D art stating that people used it only because they weren’t good at Perspective. All these techniques eventually became tools and were accepted.
The next would be to build your artistic sense and foundations, and continuously strengthen them with consistency in practice. Regardless of what tools you utilise today or will utilise in the future, these fundamentals will not go away and will help you make the right choices in your art.
Q10 : Bonus Question : If you were to change one thing about the Industry, what would it be and why?
A: Take out all the Digital. Haha.
The industry is moving so fast, there’s new technology made available on a daily basis and is evolving every minute. I think we’re lucky to be living in the era to see so much improvement and moving forward so fast. Artists now live much better and easier lives in terms of technology so it would really help challenge them in interesting ways.
It would be a fun idea I think, if I woke up tomorrow and I realise there’s no computer and we all have to go back to traditional art; reminds me of how the master artists from hundred+ years ago. They most they could do is maybe a photograph. It’s difficult to achieve the same level of quality using digital methods nowadays. The craftsmanship is truly exceptional.
Q11 : What approach would you have for a student who doesn’t have any art background?
A: Foundation is the most important thing which is unavoidable.
My main advice for students is that if you have a limited time during the day to practice and hone your art, also make sure to exchange your ideas around you. Go to school, talk to your peers, learn what they learn from, listen to what other people are saying. Going at it alone can be challenging.
These days you can Youtube search any tutorial and begin learning on your own, but its better if you have someone to talk to in-person, then you can share the experience of creating your art and discussing what mistakes were made.
Q12 : What things should an aspiring artist do to enter the industry, apart from core skills and portfolio?
A: Schools would usually have activities to expose you to the industry people, which is the most straightforward and easy way.
Try to find places that you can learn with a group of people, where you can critique and learn together. Such groups will expose you to more like-minded people.
Do make sure that your focus on honing your craft doesn’t waver. During the Pandemic I spent a lot of time focusing on my personal portfolio, trying to paint three to four pieces per week which is a crazy amount. I didn’t aim to make very high quality pieces, but with every piece I painted I learned something. The consistency was the key point.
I kept posting to Social Media and it started to draw attention!
Q13 : How would you enforce discipline in a classroom setting?
A: I think the older generation generally has more discipline haha, and are more in line with the method of teaching and teachers were very strict. The younger generation (not to say that this is bad), has more resources, so they can go to Youtube and look for a tutorial and start to compare what is being taught.
I generally go for a different method where, for example, there’s no need to do your homework for four or five hours every day but if you can dedicate one hour a day with laser focus you will really understand the big picture direction you’re heading in.
This also depends on the course, how its structured and what you want the student to learn.
Everyone knows that if you don’t spend enough time on your practice you will fall behind, it doesn’t need to be emphasized. Teachers should help them move forward with positive reinforcement and bring them to a stage of consistency
That’s all for now, folks!