Bob Nicoll, artist, professional educator, and leader of training programs at Electronic Arts and Blizzard, talks about talent, job seeking, and ongoing education in the film and gaming industries.
- My name is Bob Nicoll. I've been creating training programs in the entertainment industry for, 25 years, 30 years, probably. It's kind of scary. I was in broadcasting, I was in film, and just about 2000, so the change is coming in the games industry. Went to Electronic Arts, went to EA and started their training program. So I was there for about 10 years. Created EA University. I left there, went back into teaching, I taught some at UFC, I taught some at Carnegie Mellon.
Then had an opportunity to go to Blizzard and I've been there for the past five years, I created Blizzard Academy. What we do, what I've been doing is, I've been a professional educator, at working with all different types of software, all different types of environments, and incredibly talented people. What I do now is I work with artists, engineers, game designers, producers.
So I'm responsible for the development community, the folks that make the product. It's been a lot of fun. I'm involved with skills based training, with creativity, with inspiration, and have had an opportunity to really been inspired as well as help deliver that sort of inspiration to other folks as well.
What am I most proud of? There are just so many different things. The landscape keeps evolving and changing in front of me, so rapidly that something that is like, wow, we did it and we've crossed that threshold, it becomes almost forgettable. I've worked through all the evolution of the film industry. I worked through early broadcast, I did live presentations working in sports. I remember the first logo I did for ABC golf.
And that logo was on national TV, I was like, wow! When I was a professional artist that was really cool. But I think that probably some of my most, memorable and proud moments are building EA University. You know, for 10,000 people, big corporation. And then coming to Blizzard and creating Blizzard Academy. So my creative moments have turned into almost more institutional in a weird sort of way, but they're all really personal to me.
I mean, people ask me the questions of what I do, and I have some flip answers, but the one that I think is probably most accurate is I think I'm a pixel carpenter. You know, I build things. Goodness, well certainly they're going to need the technical skills. I mean there are some baseline needs. They're going to need a technical proficiency at the level of craft that's required for where ever you're working.
And those skills are different from one studio or one profession to another. The type of modeling skills you would need at Dreamworks or Sony or Disney or Pixar, are totally different in a lot of ways than you would need in a game company. But some of the more contemporary companies, depending upon the company, might be using quite similar skills. Depending on which game you're at, within a company, you're going to need totally different skills.
So, the company that I'm at now, to be an artist, a modeler, a dungeon artist, we do have dungeon artists, you would need to be a qualified painter, a texture artist as well as designer as well as modeler and understanding the styles and look. Which is quite different than a lot of other places where the looks are more from the shaders as far as the surfaces and the qualities of the geometry that they're putting in their games.
Or the level of the complexity of the geometry might be a lot more, a lot higher resolution than what a game company would use. The skills need to be reflected upon where you're applying to. So, technical skills, is one. You need to be problem solver because in a lot of ways we're being thrown new curves in just about everything that we do, always, that never changes.
You have to have a sense of aesthetics, whether or not you're a designer or an artist or an engineer, you have to understand what elegant and simple and what is appropriate and what fits and what's appealing. Which is ageless, all those things go back. I mean, I almost sound like I could be talking out of Frank and Ollie's book from the Illusion of Life. You need to be a cultural fit to where ever you're going.
Again, it's a uniqueness to the type of place that you're going to. So I guess what I'm saying is you have to research what it is you're looking at, to then understand what it is they're looking for. Because it's different, no matter what your level of skill would be. Everyone knows that you should basically customize your resume relative to the job that you're looking at and relative to what the needs are. Well, that also is appropriate as a designer, as an artist, as an engineer.
Understanding what the engines are, what the code that they're working in, how they use that code, whether or not is there are legacy issues, the age of the product, and what the tools are. Let alone what the styles and look is of that product. And I guess what you could throw into that mix too, since you're going to be working in this crazy collaborative environment. So when we're interviewing people and we say it's not a cultural fit, I mean they may be, perfect in just about every way, but if you're in a cubicle alongside somebody else and you don't fit, you're toast.
It's just not going to work out. So in a lot of ways, people are using that... As one of the major elements as far as evaluating someone coming in. You have to be flexible, you have to work. When we're interviewing people, we're looking to try to throw them off balance and see how they adapt and what their sense of humor is. And that's also, as far as does this person get along well with others.
But if it's weeks and months and hours and hours that you're working with alongside of them, and they're not fun to work with, you're not going to want to work with them. That is always an evolving question. Because the nature of our industry is like, our technology, is evolving rapidly. So the training program, or me as a trainer, 20 years ago was totally different from today.
20 years ago when you would join a company, you would go through an average of, depending on the place that you went to, anywhere from two to four weeks of training. You would not ever go to your workstation until you were done with that month's worth of training. And the reason for that was, all the tools were proprietary. And you would go through an extensive pipeline training as well as, what the heck is this tool I'm working with here? So we have trainers that would be our trainers and whatever they would be, design, engineering trainers.
And they would be specifically teaching people on what those in-house tools were. Now, there are still some of those, but so much has evolved in the industry as far as third party tools, getting to a point where they're usable from one studio to the next. People are coming in all those base skills. So the on boarding training has gotten smaller and smaller. And the types of training has changed. It used to be that we would have our own specialized trainers that would be in-house and work with all of us folks well.
That model has changed, drastically, to where we have hardly any trainers, we have more training specialist managers that understand the process, understand the pipeline, understand when someone comes in and says, hey, I'm having a problem with my group not understanding, let's use ZBrush for an example. Then we go and we look at what's going on there, and it's like, no, they know ZBrush really well. Really what we need to do is start going over anatomy, we'll work with some anatomy classes, we'll bring those folks in.
What happens is our getting folks used to the pipeline process, have gotten smaller and smaller and smaller. They've become more mature, the third party tools talk to each other more efficiently now. You have third party tools now that do the managing, the data asset managing process, where again, those were in-house processes, in-house tools. It is something that has gotten certainly a lot easier, but at the same time, there needs to be some basic naming conventions and processes, and this is where it goes, and we use this tool, and oh yeah, we're going to use KATANA, or we'll use Shotgun or we'll use, fill in the blank.
They're just tools. And whether or not they were an in-house tool or an external tool, doesn't really matter. But the fact that everybody knows the tool X coming in because it's a well known third party tool, makes our life a lot easier. The first surprise, especially if they're coming in out of school, is the level of expertise that they're surrounded by. Some of them come in being, the proverbial big fish in a small pond.
And they come in and they realize they're working alongside of folks that they saw do movies when they were just allowed to go into the movies for the first time, or that worked on Star Wars. So there's that. Then the amount of information and the amount of work that is there, is, can be, a challenge to get used to. Then certainly, lastly, the level of perfection and the request of, I want to see something I've never seen before.
Or this has to fit in exactly like the episode of that, you need to mirror some expert that you're admired. It's like, oh my god, this has to be seamless in there, it has to be perfect continuity. Those are initial challenges. But, in fairness, they catch on, pretty quickly. There's an awful lot of talented people out there. A lot of people ask me what it's like to be a teacher, with all these incredible people.
And in the professional production training environment, sometimes the best laid plans don't necessarily play out like they thought they would. We were working on a movie and I was teaching, oh my goodness, what was I teaching? I was teaching compositing at the time. And it was at Sony.
There was a movie that was in jeopardy of not shipping on time. Which is fatal to a studio when you have all the commitments to all the film being processed, this was film days. What happened was, there was an all hands on deck moment. So all the teachers, all the trainers, all of the people that could do, got pulled into production. There were multiple productions going on simultaneously pulled people in and it turned into the entire studio for the most part.
There was another one that was on production cycle that they were working for. That I then got pulled into the production process and it can be very stressful. I remember I went into a room, it was called the Beach Room. What's the movie, Contact, with Jodie Foster. And there was one chair in there and that one chair had all these little stick figures on the back of the chair and it had like a line through, there were five figures in there.
What it was, the people that were working in that station before me, were cracking. And they were bailing out. So I was going into the place where everyone that worked at that work station stopped working, for one reason or another. Whether or not they came and dropped a net over someone, I'm not sure exactly, the stories are kind of legend now. We had, oh goodness, we had about six weeks left in production before the final drop dead date.
Let's see, I finaled, 10 shots in six weeks. They were extreme, real heavy, deep shots, composition shots. Some of them were over a 1,000 layers deep. They were nuts. Normally they would take weeks and weeks to do a shot like that. So that meant I was working on average, about 95 hour weeks. My long week was over 120.
I was starting to lose peripheral vision. I mean, these were like, honored story. Thank god the studios are a little bit more managed than that today. But that's one of my proudest moments as far as that movie. I've worked on a bunch of movies that were terrible. As an artist, that's another thing that most, people coming in don't realize. They think that everything they're going to work on is going to be, Star Wars. Or it's going to be, Blade Runner.
No, some of them are going to be Anaconda. Some are going to be, fill in the blank, Lawnmower Men, it's going to be Godzilla. They're going to be Starship Troopers. I worked on a bunch of crawler films. You know, there was Starship Troopers, there was Godzilla, there was Anaconda. But then again, I worked on Stuart Little, which was a wonderful film. And Contact, I was always proud of that one, I thought that was a good one. And Castaways, but they're the hollow mans, and they're all the other ones in there that you just have no control over and you do the best you can, because you're a collaborative, creative cog in the production wheel that you work in this huge team, and the story you're handed.
So you do the best with it you can. I'm fascinated with neuroscience. And how the brain works and how memory works. Maybe it's getting older and I'm more interested in my myelin wrapping around my neurons to remember things longer and have faster throughput. I'm constantly curious about science.
Certainly creativity is a passion of mine. And whatever I can do to feed that, for myself and for the program that we work on. We do life drawing, I'm involved with the sculpture classes, we have puppeteering, we have acting classes, we're doing improv, we have life drawing with animals. So it's where are the opportunities for collaboration, because it's all collaborative.
How do we think about bringing life to our characters, bringing elegance to our imagery, how do we think about working closer as a team. I tend to go a little left and right instead of right down the center in technical tools or directions. If I want to talk about how do I communicate better, I think about improv. I don't think about, you know, the traditional, having a class with difficult conversations, so it's that sort of approach.
I think about, how do we get people to listen better. How do we get folks to make their partner look better than they do. How do we get them to learn how to critique properly, where you're talking to the work, instead of to the person. How do you, plus, something. So a lot of my creativity in learning is about people, it's about my students.
And how I constantly, help them grow. That happens to be one of the core values of the company I'm now working at, at Blizzard. It is something that I'm always interested in and I'm always looking for new answers and new sorts of classes and new directions. I refer to it as going analog, it's time for us to go analog, all right. And it's serious on multiple levels.
It's serious one, because of eyestrain, it's serious one because blood chemistry, you got to get up from your desk. So we have, in old studios, they've been evolving to, you know, where our desks move up and down and I have a standing desk. There are folks in our area that are literally on treadmills and they're walking while they're working on it. But we have a once a month, plein air painting program where our artists go offsite, with outside, plein air.
Natural lighting, and paint. We have drawing classes where we're teaching people not just to look, but to see. Because if that's not the case, they're just going to draw what they think that thing should be. So getting them to look and participate. I have a lot of my meetings are walking meetings, so there's this whole path that goes around, the campus where I'm at.
I do much better when I'm up walking around. But we have contests, we have guest speakers coming in constantly. The last few places I've worked at, I've run a guest speaker series. And on average they run, I don't know, 20-30 different programs per year. Which means one a week, or somewhat. Depends on the cycle.
You might not have any in one month and the next month runs along and you'll have three in one week. It's getting trust as far as there is something worthwhile to learn, breaking down silos, getting communication, getting air, transparency up to what goes on. It is a challenge when you have folks that are incredibly passionate about what it is they do, to get them to come up for air. I think in a lot of ways, I'm lucky.
Because I was born before all of this. When I went to school, oh, god, and now I'm talking like an old guy! I took real painting classes and I took real clay classes. I lived around New York so I'd be in and out of the museums all of the time. My instructors were artists. So we would go and see their shows and we would have constant dialogue and conversations.
Now what's happened with all the incredible tools that are out there is that, sometimes we get a little too focused on the technology, on the process, that we tend to forget that the real strength comes, in storytelling, in emotion, in understanding what light offers as far as in a mood and in appeal, what compositions are. And unless you go and stand on the shoulders of our giants before us, and the only way to do that is to go to the museums, and have an opportunity to see some of the greats that are certainly showing in galleries, just about anywhere, in any city or any place around the planet these days, you're going to miss that.
So yeah, get away from the computer. I know that that's heresy, but go outside, look at a real tree. Go outside, paint. Paint a real dog. You know, just draw. So when I first started, I was an artist. I say in the past tense, I started as an artist, that's better. And I went right into teaching in college.
Then I thought to myself, here you are, you're a college teacher, but you became a teacher because you were a good student. Well, maybe you learned 90% of what your teachers were telling you and you're going to teach it 90% less and your students, your really good students learn, only going to know 90%. It was classic gen-loss, you know if you had a VHS tape and you kept re-recording it over and over again, that's what I was helping propagate. So I decided that I was going to leave and after a full career of being, a professional working artist, then when I retired, I would become a teacher.
Well I seemed to have, done an end-around with that. I've had an opportunity to become a professional educator. And teach and work and learn, I learn just as much if not more than what I teach from some of the best artists of our time, in a time that we will look back on, centuries from now and understand that this was the second great renaissance and I've been in the middle of it.
I mean, I'm just so lucky. I was just born at the right time, had opportunities. It's been, I don't know how to top this. I'm lucky to continue to be a professional educator. To work in communities that are still breaking new ground. Probably something, when I'm about 100, I think I'll have to back off a little, but I'll probably just do consulting.
I don't know, we'll have to see. Get back to me.