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Breaking In - Isaiah Sherman

You’ve never shot your way out of a Bungie game bigger than Destiny.{{more}} To create this sense of size and scale, we’ll need a big team of artists to beautify every level of detail. Some of them will decorate up close and personal. Others will illustrate the farthest expanses of our destinations. There are some vantage points that you will simply never reach, and they’ll be the work of artists like this guy…

Who are you, and what do you do at Bungie?

HEY GAIZ! My name is Isaiah Sherman and I'm a Digital Matte Artist or "Sky Artist" at Bungie.

Are you one of those stunt fliers that crop dust messages in the air on a clear day? Or is this an actual development gig?

The position is a badass mix of modeling, texturing, photo-manipulation, matte painting, shader building, animation, and basic effects work all combined. It's a job that requires a diverse skill set, mostly because of the responsibility you have: make epic backgrounds!

So it’s about more than just the sky, then?

Other companies typically call the position "Sky" or "Skybox" art. At Bungie, we invest a lot more into backgrounds than just skies and clouds. Think of it as environment art that has no gameplay area. If there is something cool looking in the environment that you can't reach, odds are our Sky Team made it.

Before we dig deeper into all of that, let’s talk about your background. Where does real life find you when you’re not painting our virtual horizons?

I like spending a lot of time with my wife and two dogs, playing video games, reading, and making art. When I was in high school and college, I would play video games all night long. That tapered off a bit once I started working full-time over three years ago.

What kept you awake all those years?

Some games I've loved over the years are (in no particular order): Secret of Mana 1 & 2, Mario RPG / Paper Mario, Mario Kart, Smash Bros, Pokemon, Final Fantasy 7-10 and Tactics, Elder Scrolls, Dark Souls, World of Warcraft, Diablo 2, Ragnarok Online, Battlefield, Half-Life, and Left 4 Dead.

You have a long and distinguished career as a gamer, for sure. Did your dreams of making games go back as far as your love for playing them until the sun came up?

I wanted to be a million things, as any kid. Most notably I wanted to be a jet fighter, but when I started to grow up I realized that was dangerous as hell and scary. So I stuck to doing art.

The training programs are a lot lower-impact as well. We almost never have to go on a morning run at Bungie.  Did you seek out formal schooling as an artist?

I went through Junior High and High School with a focus in art and did lots of drawing and sketching. After knocking out a bunch of general education classes in English and Math at a community college, I transferred to an art institute. There, I busted my ass to do awesome in all my classes, as well as do extra projects at home.

Tip: Never put school projects in your portfolio! It hurts more than it helps when potential employers see the same project in a hundred different portfolios.

If art school isn’t a place to build your portfolio, is it a good place to learn your craft?

What I learned is that you need to be focused, dedicated, and try to out-do all of your peers to stand out. Also, have lots of good/talented friends. The industry is competitive, so take it seriously!

Seriously, though. What were some of your first jobs in this competitive industry?

I started out with an interest in comics and digital painting at a company called Dreamwave Productions. They worked on comics like Shidima, Warlands, and Transformers. They had some of the best digital painting I had ever seen before.

After a few years, I finally realized that making art for games was a legitimate career as well. I decided to curve in that direction, as it would be combining my two big hobbies: video games and art!

I took to 3D art and started learning as much as I could, with a focus in environments. By the time I was nearing the end of my education, I was working part-time at an outsourcing studio named Liquid Development. Then I got offered a full-time gig at Sucker Punch working on Infamous games and was there for several years.

How did you get Bungie to take you seriously?

The Digital Matte Artist position sounded like a challenging role to fill. From what I heard, it had been open for well over a year. I would say the fact I had been working in the industry for almost 3 years already was a huge bump.

My portfolio also showed a strong focus on 3D environment art and 2D concept art, which was kind of a good mix for what was needed to create Bungie's sky art.

A strong portfolio goes a very long way, both in the quality of art and SIMPLICITY of the website itself.

So your experience was impressive. Your portfolio was solid and easy to browse. All of that leads to the hard part: The dreaded Bungie interview loop. You obviously survived, but was there a moment of doubt?

The hardest part for me was the fact that there wasn't enough time with every person I met. I had a fat stack of questions for everyone. While we were interviewing, I came up with more. It's very important to be engaged in your interviews and to interview them as much as they do you. That also takes stress off your shoulders because you don't feel like you're getting drilled, but rather it's a two-way conversation. We are conversational beings, so make your interview conversational. It helps.

The next hardest part was the waiting. I think it took another month after my interview before Bungie responded, telling me that they wanted to offer me the position. You need to have patience, because hiring someone is a big choice and companies need to make sure they're making a good decision. So give them plenty of good reasons to know you're the right choice.

That big choice you described is another two-way street. What’s an aspect of your job that makes you feel like you made the right choice?

The level of organization is very rewarding. It was amazing to come to Bungie and know: "We have two days to work on this, five days to work on this, and one day to work on this.” It's rewarding because you put your very best work into these smaller chunks of time.

The responsibility is number one, though. Knowing you're making such a massive impact on a badass project is reason enough to get out of bed in the morning. Working in the game industry in general is rewarding, so long as you work for a company that respects your life balance.

To that point, we’ve already talked about how you spend your life outside the studio.  Balance that with a glimpse of how you might spend one day inside our studio.

No problem. Well the first thing I do is...

Get some snacks (LIKE A BOSS). Unlock my 'puter (LIKE A BOSS). Sync up on Perforce (LIKE A BOSS). Talk to the team (LIKE A BOSS). Check my email (LIKE A BOSS). Get some work done (LIKE A BOSS). Eat my lunch (LIKE A BOSS). Bungie barter (LIKE A BOSS). Bust my ass (LIKE A BOSS). Take a dump (LIKE A BOSS). Work 'til dusk (LIKE A BOSS). Fly into the sunset (LIKE A BOSS). Now I'm dead (LIKE A BOSS).

Or something like that…

I guess we’re done taking things seriously. Aside from making you feel LIKE A BOSS, what is one perk that Bungie provides to justify the blood and sweat that you put into your work every day?

It's not the perks that I love most about working for Bungie, it's the satisfaction. If I were to choose a perk that I enjoy most, it would be the new hire lunches.

For the first six months of your hire, you and your party get free (reimbursed) lunch so long as the party you're with has not taken you out to lunch previously. This encourages employees to take new people out to lunch to get to know them, and the company will pay for it! For six months!

What is your favorite accomplishment as a member of the Bungie team? Describe that one moment in which someone appreciate your work, and assured you that you belonged here…

I can't describe too much without giving away secret game details, but I recently worked on an area where I had done a lot of the work that you see, based on concepts. It was very well received by the team and art directors. It's made clear to me that the work I do is well appreciated and not taken lightly.

Something else we don’t take lightly is the challenge to keep getting better at doing that work. How do you meet this challenge?

When I'm home, I am constantly looking at new art from other artists or video games. If I see something badass, I try to figure out how they made it. What tech did they use? Where did they start? Trying to reverse engineer things is a great way to add workflows to your own process.

I also like doing personal concept work at home. It continually makes me strive to better myself.

Our community is packed with artists that would love to work alongside you. What would you tell them if they could pick your brain for a moment?

Bust. Your. Ass. I don't need to say anything else.

Hold on, there. We have one more thing for you to tell us: Experience, Work Ethic, or Talent?  Rank them in order of importance to your role.

I strongly believe it is this order: Work Ethic, Talent, Experience. You could be a twenty year old newbie, but if you had a lot of talent and know-how, and insane work ethic, that puts you pretty far and builds very strong references.

Experience is definitely necessary, though. It builds professionalism and, for lack of a better description, shows to companies you are already several steps ahead of other applicants. I understand that gaining experience is very scary and frustrating for new guys. I was there just over three years ago. Just work hard to land your first gig, and those years will fly by in no time!

Isaiah has some more work looming on the horizon, so we’ll let him get back to it. The Bungie team is bigger and more talented than ever. If you’d like see yourself dining on our dime (even though there’s really no such thing as a free lunch), you can find a lot of stories that might remind you of your own ambitions in our Breaking In archive. As Isaiah has proven, not even the sky is the limit.
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