February 21, 2024

7 min

Gaming Jobs

Juan Jimenez

Marketing Manager

What is a Technical Artist?

Graphics have always been a crucial part of video game production. After all, the visual aspect of games is paramount to their presentation and success by being the first layer we interact with.

This fact holds today, with most developers competing over who has the most impressive and realistic graphics and can deliver the most premium experience. Nevertheless, what we see in video games is usually a matter of perspective, “smoke and mirrors”, if you’d like to put it that way.

Visual fidelity and presentation always come from the technology and programming behind it. If a game engine cannot support a carefully crafted character model or present it adequately and smoothly at an optimal frame rate, your character artist’s effort was probably for nought. If a lush, vivid environment’s effects and lighting bog your game engine’s performance, its naturalistic rendering will not go beyond your environment artist’s desktop.

Fortunately, technical artists can always come to save the day. For some, they are the true magicians behind the breathtaking, almost impossible vistas of today’s gaming; for others, they are the gatekeepers that decant the ambitions of an ever-creative art team to more technically palatable standards.

Who’s right and who’s wrong? Let’s find it out in today’s article!

Tools of the trade

For all practical purposes, technical artists are the perfect blend between art and programming. As experts in game engines and optimisation, they develop the tools and techniques needed to execute the Art team’s grandiose vision in excruciating detail within the runtime’s technical constraints, usually acting as the liaison between them and the Engineering team.

Technical artists come from varied backgrounds, having dealt with art, graphic design, programming, or all of the above during their formative years. On the art side, they are usually 3D character artists with a remarkable knowledge of character modelling, texturing, and rigging or prolific with texturing, lighting, asset creation and optimisation, and advanced VFX techniques if they come from an environment art background.

Handling these aspects, however, means a technical artist must also be highly proficient with game engines and coding tools on most 3D editing software. Being knowledgeable at optimally importing game assets means they usually handle programming languages such as C++, C#, Javascript, Python, and Lua, depending on the engine and development environment. Therefore, they spend most of their time with the Programming team, ensuring every resource, tool, and asset caters to the project’s standards.

As you may have noticed, all of this means technical artists must have a particular skill set:

From an art perspective:

- A high attention to detail

- A substantial understanding of art and animation fundamentals, like composition, character/environment design, rigging, topology, and others

- Familiarity with art pipelines and resources

From a programming/engineering perspective:

- Considerable scripting and language experience

- Abundant knowledge of tools and processes needed to optimise assets

- Previous experience in rendering, simulations, and post-effects, usually gained from a VFX background

- Understanding of shaders, high and low-poly modelling, unwrapping and texturing, etc.

Other soft skills:

- Expert at communicating with teams and stakeholders

- Ability to lead and mentor junior and intermediate team members

- A problem-solving, efficiency-oriented mind

To acquire this skill set, technical artists can take several paths. The most frequent one will involve formal art or media studies at a university or art institute, followed by boot camps and coding courses on specific game engines and tools, depending on the artist’s particular choice and current market standards.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic

With such a plethora of skills and a broad background, technical artists often undertake the most crucial tasks to turn artistic ambitions into feasible solutions for every kind of video game, animation, or movie.

Technical artists hold a managerial position in every project, working closely with their Art Director and the Programming team to solve particular challenges within the visual development pipeline.

Their involvement in the project usually starts by coordinating and aligning expectations with team members and stakeholders. Translating the Art Director’s guidelines and instructions into a visual guide, creating work sub-teams in both the Art and Programming departments, and determining deadlines for each part of the project are some of their responsibilities at an early stage.

With those responsibilities set, the next step for tech artists is to develop the tools and pipelines that will ease the work of artists and programmers. These tools, e.g. scripts, interfaces, and import/export widgets, are created inside the game’s engine concurrently with the tools developers.

Once the Art team has generated all assets, technical artists intervene to ensure all resources comply with the art guidelines and function properly within the game engine’s constraints. This requirement may involve different processes and structures depending on the asset:

- Characters, weapons, and interactable objects pass rigorous tests and hypothetical situations to see whether their topology is adequate for their animations and interactions, how optimised the models are through baking, mapping, and texturing, and how efficient the rigging is. Technical artists frequently double as animators and riggers because of these needs.

- Environments get a set of physical laws, barriers, and causeways for the characters to move and events to happen. Technical artists work closely with gameplay programmers and script makers to ensure everything works properly, without bugs or instances such as clipping, deformation, or the player accidentally accessing areas designed to cover elements such as spawn points, lighting spots, etc.

- Tech artists also monitor rendering, lighting, and shading to ensure these procedures follow the art direction as closely as possible. This process involves VFX optimisation and testing with the VFX artists, memory evaluations through each step of the VFX, and graphic performance measurements.

Every step may involve training and mentoring artists across the development pipeline to let them adhere to the plan and resources. Tech artists are also responsible for uploading their assets to the game engine once those have been reviewed and approved by the Art Director.

Considering these requirements and qualifications, technical artists receive better salaries than other art positions. In Europe and North America, the average compensation of newly promoted technical artists can go between $45,000 and $106,000, depending on their employer’s location and resources. Complementary or dual positions, like technical art directors, VFX and lighting artists, technical shader artists, and technical animators, can go well beyond that point, with some earning close to the $175-200K range.

If you are just starting your art career or want to join the video game industry, pondering the technical artist profession would be an incredible asset for your employability and skill development. Landing a technical artist role will increase your career standing and provide several opportunities to improve your game creation and optimisation knowledge and evolve your soft skills to the next level.

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