Interview: Stefan Jevremovic – Realtime Visual Effect artist

Can you introduce yourself and tell us about your beginnings?

Hi, my name is Stefan Jevremovic, born and raised in Belgrade, Serbia. I make Realtime Visual Effect for games.

I was always passionate about art and games. I started playing with LEGO when I was four and playing games on my Commodore 64 when I was six. My beginning was the same as a lot of other digital artists with Windows Paint, then Photoshop. I started self-teaching 3D computer graphics in 1998. mostly for fun. Back then there were no video tutorial and in fact not many tutorials at all. Many I found online had a lot of text and few screenshots, so I had to use a dictionary to translate them.
I also spent a lot of time playing video games. That was the reason I wasn’t improving much with 3D for some time. I was teaching myself 3D until 2006. when I enrolled to the Chiron School for VFX for movies in Belgrade. This time I was learning Autodesk Maya and the courses covered Modeling, Texturing, Rendering, Lighting, basic Rigging and Character Animation. When I finished the courses I had problem deciding on which area of 3D I want to focus and specialize in.
As soon as I finished the university for Business and Management I started getting work as Freelancer focusing on Hard-surface Modeling. Most of the work I got was the leftover project from a friend. After few project I became faster and better and I was working alongside that friend on cinematic trailers for World of Battleships and World of Warplanes.

You worked for Nordeus. Can you tell us a bit more about the company? What were the challenges? What were the project that you worked on?

In 2013. I saw opportunity to try out myself in gaming industry. I am a huge gamer and I always wanted to work on games but didn’t know it was possible in Serbia until I saw ad on the Facebook. Nordeus, a Serbian company based in Belgrade was looking for a intern 3D artist to work on RnD project. Nordeus is best known for Top Eleven, a mobile football manager game so I was surprised that they were looking for a 3D artist.
I had seven days to apply for an internship and I wasn’t ready. I had a lot of personal projects I didn’t finish. No portfolio and most of the stuff I did freelance was under NDA so I couldn’t show those.
I set a goal to finish as many projects as possible, make a portfolio and apply because this is one chance and there might not be another. I worked 14-18 hours those seven days and I finished everything I aimed for and applied.

I was contacted by Nordeus, finished the test and went to the interview. While I was walking through offices it felt like a perfect place to work. I was interviewed by HR and by a Senior Artist. After few days I got email that I was accepted. It was one of the happiest days of my life! Not only because I am going to be working on my first game but because all the hard work paid off.
I joined Nordeus in October 2013 as an intern and worked on prototype game for three months. Challenges started immediately with learning Unity engine to changing the mindset from working in movie industry and switching to games.

In those three months I learned a lot! From prioritization of tasks depending on the changes of the game scope to the brainstorming about game design of the game. I really liked that developing a game was so creative in so many ways.

After internship I applied for the job and got a new test. They gave me a task to make part of the race track Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps. So I guessed I would be working on the racing game and that was the case when I got accepted and introduced to the team. I worked as an 3D artist but most of the work was modeling and texturing the environment and props for the race tracks.
I was never a fan of racing games but it was a cool project that taught me a lot about cars, racing and making games.

I was on that project until December 2014. when I got a chance to work on new prototype games. Nordeus had a cool idea to create a page on which everyone can post their ideas for games. The goal was to have four teams making a game every week for four weeks. Every team had four people each specialized in different parts of game development. I was a 3D artist for one of the teams.

As a fan of Warcraft 3 and custom maps I had two ideas for game that would work well on mobile devices. One was to be competitive Tower Defense and another one to be game similar to Castle Fight from Warcraft 3. During the lunch with the colleague we discussed the game ideas and I said that I only have time to write down the vision for one of those games and I picked competitive Tower Defense. He on the other hand had a same idea about Castle Fight but with some really interesting improvements so I was really happy that he will work on that one.
From more than 300 ideas for games, both entered the final 16 that will be made in those four weeks. I was lucky to work on both prototype games.

After the prototype phase, it was decided which 3 games are going into pre-production phase. One of those games was Castle Fight-like game with the project name: “Wizarding Showdown” and I worked on game until i left the Nordeus. Now that game is called Spellsouls: Duel of Legends

For someone who just started working on the VFX for games, do you think it’s more important to have Technical or Artistic knowledge?

When I started to learn VFX for Spellsouls I was 3D generalist but I didn’t have much of the technical knowledge. Didn’t know how to make shaders but with the help of the few colleagues who are graphics programmers we made our Master Material that would use for VFX.

In my opinion it’s important to knowledge in different areas of 3D. During my time on Spellsouls I did modeling, texturing, rigging, and both character and VFX animation. After that it’s good to start learning how to make shaders by using ShaderForge for Unity or Material Editor for Unreal Engine. It’s also important to have 2D skills like making textures in Photoshop or After Effects. I try to find textures on internet than edit them to what I need. Try making texture so you can reuse them as much as possible.

Not long ago I discovered a website that helped me a lot to accelerate making of the textures.

When it comes to Artistic skills it’s important to know about shapes, colors and timing. I finished Animation Mentor basic course and that also helped me understand animation of VFX better.

Good book to have is Elemental Magic: The Art of Special Effects Animation

Tell us about your process for making VFX from concept art to final product.

I think that depends on the current status of the project. If I am on the project that is in the preproduction my goal is to figure out the processes, pipeline, style of effects etc. On the other hand if I am in production that means we have nailed down all those and I find myself usually in two situations. One is that I have concept art for VFX and I need to make it based on the sketch or I don’t have concept so I need to go and design something myself. In that case here is the process:

  • First I talk to Game Designers and Art Leads to see what is the idea behind the effect? Is the VFX supporting the game design or is it just there to make something pretty?
  • Then I move to finding references and Pinterest is good place to start. I would search and gather all the images and videos from other games, cinematics, demoreels or real life footage. I also made the board that contains a lot of different references so I would go in and see what can I copy to the board specific for the VFX I am making at the moment. You can follow my Pinterest here:
  • Next step would be blockout. During this fase I am thinking about all the effects in game and is there something I can reuse. In the blockout phase I am trying to figure out some basic shapes, colors/values and timing.
  • When I finish the blockout I would implement it into the game and see how it looks/feels? Usually this is where I grab Art Director and other VFX artists to gather the feedback.
  • At this stage I see what I need to recreate and what is good enough from the reused stuff. This is also where I add all other elements that I want in the VFX but without thinking about animation at this point. Usually effects have Anticipation, Climax and Dissipation but at this point I only think about Climax, the frame in which you have the most elements activate. I would work on this still frame until it resembles the concept art image.
  • If I am happy with all elements and textures, I would polish the animations I had in the blockout, but also animate new elements.
  • Finally I would again grab Art Director and VFX artists but this time I would add Game Designers and discuss with them if there is anything else needed for this VFX? This is where the super polish is done as a cherry on the top of the cake.

Which software you use in process of making the Visual Effect?

  • 90% of the work I do in 3D engine (Unity or Unreal). Here is where I make materials and animate VFX.
  • I do modeling in Maya and sometimes Zbrush. BlendShapes and Riggin I also do in Maya and for UVs I use Maya or UvLayout. The only plugin I use is VFX-Tool for Maya It’s really useful for modeling 3D strip meshes. The tool is free and if you like it support the creator.
  • Textures I make in the Phothoshop but I also use After Effects, Substance Designer and EffectTextureMaker i mentioned before. Sometimes I would simulate particles in Maya or Houdini to make Flip-book textures.

What is the difference between making VFX for games and movies?

Mostly it is technically different in terms of creating VFX. The first obvious difference is that the games use engine and render particles in real time, where movies use pre-rendered images.

VFX in Movies concentrate on the specific shots that were shot with the camera or made as animatic. Your job is to make that effect look good from the specific angles and those movie shots usually last for a few seconds. Today you don’t need to think too much about optimization because once you have everything setup you can simulate and render those millions of particles on render farms.

VFX in games is something totally different. First it depends on the target device. Is the game going to run on console/PC or mobile devices? What is the lowest hardware you support? How much of the graphics budget do you have for VFX? Once you have this information you can start thinking about the effects. You create effect to work from either one or multiple angles. In my case every effect I worked on had some challenges I need to overcome and that is the main reason I like VFX for Games so much. It is like a puzzle because you have to think about so many different things while making it. Every part of VFX can be made in multiple ways. Sometimes you use flip-books, sometimes you just pan multiple textures on the 3D meshes, or it can be part of UI. Sometimes post-processing effect can help you out, it really varies. Figuring out what is the best approach is both challenging and really interesting part of the job. Some will say Movies have more creative freedom when it comes to VFX but I consider creative freedom not only the final result but also the process of creating the effect. In that case I would say Games give you more creative freedom and challenges.

Outsourcing the VFX for games can be really challenging because it depends on the company choice of engine and pipeline and because you need to be in collaboration with different teams across project.

I know that VFX for movies have their own challenges but I would always pick games when it comes to VFX.

Which personal project are important for the development of the artist?

I think a lot of different project can help you become better VFX artist or artist in general. Sometimes you will need to draw the textures and in that case you would use your 2D drawing skills. Live sculpting can teach you about shapes and material textures. Visual library is really important and a cool thing is that you can expand it anywhere you go. All you need to do is concentrate and observe things around you or take photos/videos. You never know when and how your mind will use those images to help you out with your art.

Even if you love your job you can burn-out from working too much and become slow, so it’s important to rest and move away from the computer.

What would you recommend to the people who are starting now in VFX for games?

  • Love the games and VFX
  • Get familiar with all areas of 3D: Modeling, Texturing, Rigging, Animation, Particle Simulation etc.
  • Become good at Modeling, Texturing and Animation. You will use these the most
  • Learn how game engine works
  • Focus on both Artistic and Tech knowledge
  • Join VFX community
  • Share your knowledge with others and they will do the same
  • Join the challenging projects

What are the pros and cons of working as VFX artist for games in Serbia?

Generally good thing is to be VFX artist because the it’s huge demand across all major gaming companies. There is too much work and not enough VFX artists. That also means that pay is good.

If you are in Serbia there is only few gaming companies if you want to work full time and only few have fair salaries. Most of them are in Belgrade and not many of those companies have VFX artists so it would be challenging to learn from other people if you are starting. If you want to outsource then Serbia is a good place to be because of difference between cost of living and money you make. Overall it depends on the personal goals but there are for sure pros and cons for being in Serbia.

Where are you at the moment and what are you working on?

For the past couple of months I’ve been contracting for Riot Games and I am in the process of getting visa so I can move to Los Angeles and work full-time.

I am working on RnD project and all I can say is that it’s super fun to both make VFX and play the game.

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