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Breaking In - Elliott Gray

A few weeks before we revealed our new game to the world, a fresh face arrived at Bungie – unforgettable with a steely gaze and a toothpick clenched between his teeth.{{more}} Before he could even take full stock of the snack bar, we sat him down, showed him our social media channels, and said “Make these look like Destiny.” That’s how a first day around here can go. For more postcards from the deep end, read what this guy has to say about diving into our pool.

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

I’m Elliott Gray, a graphic designer on the Visual Identity team.  In a nutshell, “VizID” is responsible for the way you relate to Bungie and our games. My job is to help make sure that anything that comes from Bungie looks kick-ass. Everything gets a lot of care and attention from us; whether it’s one of dozens of new hire photo-shoots we do each month or a presentation for GDC. My secondary job is to try to keep my art director, Garrett Morlan, sane. By force, if necessary.

We’ll force Garrett to walk the plank soon enough. Until then, let’s keep this about you. Given how you spend your days here, what are you excited for the community to see in Destiny?

They’re going to see the same level of craft and polish applied to the graphic design that stuff like graphics, gameplay, and VFX have always enjoyed. I think that’s going be pretty refreshing for players, and I’ll have some small helping hand in that.

How do you spend your time when you’re not polishing elements of design in (and around) our games?

Shooters. In real life, I play airsoft on the weekends. In video-game-land, I was indoctrinated at an early age by “Pathways into Darkness” and the “Marathon” trilogy. I like to think that I can give some of our finest killers (like Mat Noguchi, Nate Hawbaker, and the almighty Tokino) a run for their money in "Destiny." As far as non-violent pursuits go, I spend a lot of time looking at art and trying to make my home look like Deckard’s apartment from “Blade Runner.”

For an artist, you seem to have a warrior’s soul. Did this make it hard, once upon a time, to decide what you would do with your life when you grew up?

I am 5’7” with 20/10 eyesight. I was basically born to be a fighter pilot. After watching “Top Gun” and “Iron Eagle” as a kid I knew it was my Destiny™. One day, however, my family went to Disneyland.  After a turn on the Star Tours ride which I can only describe as white-knuckled, motion-sick terror, I asked my father if that was what being in a fighter jet would be like.

Needless to say, his answer changed my life plans significantly.

When you realized that Annapolis wasn’t going to factor into your future, which school served as your fallback?

I have my Bachelors of Fine Art in graphic design from the mighty Central Washington University. I found that, even if I couldn’t be Maverick, I could be the guy who designed his movie poster. Go Wildcats.

Hooray. How did this freshly-graduated Wildcat make his first paw prints in the landscape of the working world?

In my past life, I worked in advertising as a graphic designer and art director. And yes, it was exactly like “Mad Men;” but only if you threw out the bespoke suits, extremely handsome men, fedoras, and antiquated gender roles (but kept the drinking). One major thing about working in advertising that prepared me for life at Bungie was the teamwork.  I also developed the ability to keep an emotional distance from my work so that I can put my own ego aside in the face of feedback and help create something fantastic with the team.

It certainly pays to have a thick skin, especially when you’re auditioning for a role here. How did you get us to notice you as a designer?

I actually got the job lead, and sage advice throughout the whole process, from Pat Jandro, Cinematic War Machine. Even though games had always been a passion of mine, before I met him at an art opening, I had never even really thought about getting into the industry. He mentioned that Bungie had been looking for a graphic designer for many, many moons, and that I should throw my name in the hat. His referral probably put a few more eyeballs on my resume and portfolio, but the work ultimately had to speak for itself.

This is true. And, sooner or later, we must all enter the interrogation chamber and speak for ourselves. Can you recall the most desperate moment from your job interview at Bungie?

My process took about three months, including submitting my resume, getting my portfolio reviewed, participating in two phone screens, a coffee interview, and the final all-day gauntlet. The most difficult part was keeping a laser-like focus on the tasks at hand during those months, while simultaneously going through some pretty rough times in my personal life. The interview process at Bungie afforded me the opportunity to focus all my energies on something positive. In a way, you could say that Bungie saved my life. By the time the final day rolled around, I had gotten to know Garrett and Senior Graphic Designer Lorraine McLees pretty well.  I felt really comfortable talking about how I wanted to combine my passion for creating visual solutions to problems with my deep love of games. Of course, just when I was feeling “en fuego,” Chris Gossett asked me to redesign on the fly.

Much of what we do is on the fly. What’s your favorite aspect of that wild ride?

I used to work on things for huge national clients that millions and millions of people would see. When you’re working on that level, you can get pretty removed from your audience. It’s just so big and broad that it becomes completely abstract. At Bungie, it’s totally different. Whenever we put something out there, from a full-fledged ViDoc to concept art wallpaper, we get an immediate and passionate response from the best fans in the industry. Seeing people excited and engaged by stuff that I have a small part in creating is an amazing and visceral feeling. I grew up playing Marathon on a pizza-box Macintosh LC. The idea that I’m involved in the creation of something that the next version of twelve-year-old me is going to play (and possibly have his life changed by) is a powerful one.

Since you have such a lofty opinion of our fans, invite them into your world by describing a day in your life at Bungie.

Wake up in Capitol Hill. Check Bungiemail on phone. Crack knuckles, neck, back, fingers. Take shower and feed cat (name: Special Agent Johnny Utah). Drive over bridge at legal speeds. Arrive at the studio. Immediately acquire Diet Dr. Pepper from kitchen. My body is just a filter. Diet Dr. Pepper goes in. Sarcasm and design comes out. Sit down at desk and unlock computer. Stand up three minutes later for our daily huddle. Make sure I have all the approvals I need for the assets I submitted last night. Check my tumblr/various design sites/emails from Joe Cross for my dose of inspiration. Begin my Priority 1 design tasks up until lunch ‘o clock. Start to get things to a state where I can bring in my pod-mates to look at them and get feedback. The rest of the day is devoted to implementing that feedback and getting whatever I’m working on out for approval. Leave studio after dark. Drive back over bridge at legal speeds. Feed Johnny Utah. Place toothpick in mouth. Go to sleep in Capitol Hill.

Your days at Bungie sound demanding. Our work is not as demanding as your cat's mission to keep the world safe from bank robbing surfers, but we do set a blistering pace here. Of all the things we do to make you strong enough to keep that pace, which is your favorite?

Bungie doesn’t advertise this as a perk, even internally, but if you come over to the VizID pod you can hear all sorts of impressions done by the classically-trained actors we have over here.

It’s been hard to package that as a benefit, but we do aim to please.  What has been your favorite moment over in our colorful corner of the development floor?

My first day at Bungie coincided with crunch being kicked off for my team. I came in and hit the ground running, working no less than twelve hours a day for about three weeks straight. While this is nothing compared to the stories whispered by some of the Ancients here, or even the hours our own boss was putting in at the time, it was probably the hardest I’ve ever worked in my life. As you can see, I’m still here, with (most) of my mental facilities remaining.  And, I couldn’t be happier about some of the work we’ve been able to produce in that time.

Of course, we cannot just maintain our mental facilities. We must enhance them – always gaining new skills. Do you have a plan to keep growing and learning as a designer?

You can’t walk five feet in this studio without running into someone who is absolutely one of the best in the world at what they do. When I first started, this was incredibly exciting and incredibly intimidating. It motivated me to rededicate myself to become even better at my craft every day, and take on more personal projects in my spare time. I’ve taken to building a little library of design books at my desk. When I don’t have pressing tasks in my pod, I venture out and collaborate with some of the amazing artists we have here.

You sound up to the challenge. If someone reading your words also aspires to such lofty goals, what would you tell them?

I’ll fall back on the old cliché of working hard. Work hard and your opportunities will find you. Besides that, aspire to be a Renaissance man (or woman). Being well-rounded gives you a large pool of resources to draw upon when you’re trying to solve a problem, visual or otherwise. Besides, if you’re able to talk intelligently (no matter if the subject is football or high fashion) you’ll be a hit at parties.

I have a party trick for you: Experience, Work Ethic, or Talent?  Rank them in order of importance to your role.

If you spend ten thousand hours on anything you can master it. Only hard work gets you to that ten thousandth hour. I’m working next to people that have the work ethic of a Terminator: They will absolutely not stop, ever, until the task they are working on is killed. You have to be able to match that energy and determination. Then talent. Then experience.

During this little chat, Elliott inherited a whole new batch of design needs to terminate, so we’ll take no more of his time. If you find yourself inspired to spend ten thousand of your own hours mastering a discipline that we can leverage to make games, we’re hiring. Perhaps you’re not a designer, and better suited to another path. You may yet find your calling in our Breaking In archive.
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