Episode 81 – id Software’s FX Lead on DOOM, Wirginia Romanowska
Check out www.VFXRates.com
In this Podcast, Allan McKay interviews Wirginia Romanowska, a VFX Lead for id Software. Wirginia’s extensive experience as FX lead at id software on Doom, as well as working on many other major titles around the world. Wirginia shares many insights into her experience.
After graduating with a Masters Degree in Engineering from a university in her native Poland, Wirginia’s first job was working on the title sequence for Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, at Eurocom in the U.K. She then moved to Singapore to work on Assassin’s Creed 3, at Ubisoft. Since joining the team at id Software she has worked on games like Doom, Far Cry 4, Watch Dogs.
In this Episode, Wirginia talks about her decade-long experience in visual effects, working abroad; and shares insider tips on successful demo reels and job interviews.
Episode 81 — Interview with Wirginia Romanowska
NOTES & QUOTES
FIRST THINGS FIRST:
- [-1:53:12] One of the biggest problems we face as artists is figuring out how much we’re worth. We go to job interviews and either shoot ourselves in the foot by charging less than we’re worth and getting the job — but indirectly leaving tens of thousands of dollars on the table — and the same time you don’t want to alienate your employer by asking for too much.
I’ve put together a website: www.VFXRates.com. You can put in your information — your level of experience, your discipline, your location — and it will give you an accurate idea what you should be worth. I want to hand you the tools to grow: to negotiate better, to learn to ask for the right amount of money in the right way. The information is FREE! Check it out: www.VFXRates.com!
- [-1:51:43] Some big news: This week, I am releasing a brand new training series, about 15 hours in total. This time, I’ve decided to resurrect an old training DVD from about 13 years ago — but using today’s technology and techniques. I am taking the original content and raising the bar. This is free training and it will be available until about June 23rd.
III. [-1:49:49] This will be done in conjunction with my FXTD Mentorship. I haven’t launched this Mentorship in a year and a half. For me, it’s about having a call to action. The training is available at allanmckay.com/fireball (AVAILABLE JUNE 6)
[-[1:48:25] ALSO COMING UP:
- My first public Career Intensive.
- Hardware Q&A (www.facebook.com/allanfmckay).
- Facebook Live I did on the Equalizer movie — and recreating it in 3D.
- Podcast interviews with:
- More people at id Software,
- The CEO at Main Road Post,
- The creature team at Creative Engine,
- The Founder of Cebas,
- And ‘someone’ from Marvel.
So much stuff!
INTERVIEW WITH WIRGINIA ROMANOWSKA
[-[1:45:14] Allan: Thanks for doing this. Do you want to give a quick intro to who you are and what you do?
Wirginia: Hi, I’m Wirginia Romanowska. I am currently a VFX artist at id Software. I’ve always been a creative person. I’ve always been drawn to computers and VFX, and the best place for me was in games.
[-[1:44:41] Allan: I’ve seen some of your work! You’ve done some amazing stuff! Did you always want to be an artist or did you do [art] on the side until you figured out you could make a living at it?
Wirginia: I’ve always wanted to be an artist. As a kid, I was drawing, painting, sewing. But my parents wanted me to be an engineer. It’s so hard to make a living as an artist, especially in [my native] Poland. I am still an engineer. I finished a university in Poland, but as soon as I could — I jumped back into art.
At seventeen, I got my first PC computer. The first thing I did was learn 3D Max and Photoshop. My designs went to some indie games in Poland. At the time, I was ready for my first interview abroad. After I finished my thesis, I flew to England to interview with Eurocom. We worked on the titles for Pirates of the Caribbean. I started as a Generalist. VFX artists were pretty rare at that time. They asked me if I wanted to do VFX.
[-[1:42:26] Allan: When you did your Masters, were people surprised when you told them you wanted to be an artist?
Wirginia: I don’t think there was any surprise there. Over the last two years at the university, I was already doing paid art gigs. I needed my Masters degree if I wanted to go work abroad because having that education opens a lot of doors. My degree was in Material Science, which helps me to know how things break, how things burn. And of course, math, chemistry and physics!
[-[1:41:09] Allan: Did your parents always secretly know you wanted to be an artist? Or were they against your pursuing your creative passion?
Wirginia: Only at the start. When I bought my first computer, the money I spent were the savings of my life. My mom was mad! She thought I’d be playing games on it. (And I did play games on it!) She didn’t know I could learn from that [because] computer science wasn’t popular in Poland years back. It was all so new.
[-[1:39:37] Allan: It’s cool when you have that kind of passion. For you, did you acknowledge early on that if you got your Masters degree, it would help you long term?
Wirginia: I think it was always at the back of my mind. The strange thing is that we had English lessons in school, but they weren’t very practical. I knew those were useless. I just wanted to take what I wanted to use in the future.
[-[1:38:15] Allan: What about those years at Eurocom? Were they nerve wracking?To be moving to a whole new location and making a new life, was that nerve wracking?
Wirginia: Absolutely so! I don’t know how they hired me [after my interview]! I couldn’t say a word during the interview. I brought my reel and portfolio. They liked it. But I was so stressed, I couldn’t speak. But I expressed how excited I was! The thing that makes me calmer about moving to another country is that if things don’t work out, I can always go back. The door is not closed. There is safety in family!
[-[1:35:57] Allan: Did you have a lot of growth at that company? How long were you there for?
Wirginia: I was there for a year and a half, maybe. After Pirates of the Caribbean, it was time to move. My friend and I applied at BlackRook Studios. It was just bought by Disney and they were looking for VFX artists. They were working on a racing game with explosions. I loved that idea! All of my personal work at the time were explosions. It was a really talented team of people, great projects! We had so much fun! I learned so much, and at the end of the project, they wanted me to become a VFX Lead. It was sad when Disney closed that studio after the project.
After that, I was looking for something new. A new country. A few people I’ve worked with at BlackRook were working for Ubisoft in Singapore. I got great recommendations from them. I moved to Singapore.
[-[1:33:23] Allan: What was the job interview like?
Wirginia: I was much more confident by then. At that time, I did more interviews and I was ready to talk.
[-[1:32:59] Allan: Do you think in the beginning you were nervous because you just didn’t have experience in doing job interviews? Or did you feel more competent?
Wirginia: A few things. Not [having practice at] doing interviews made me more nervous. Also, speaking English over the phone is a lot harder because you don’t have the reaction of the person. I can’t tell if the person understands what I’m saying.
[-[1:31:52] Allan: I have found that in other countries, if someone doesn’t understand you, people will ask. Here, many people have less patience.
Wirginia: You’re absolutely right! I’m trying to get better with articulating. I try to understand the dialects of the people I’m spending time with. But back to interviewing, what helps [to be less nervous is]:
- Doing more interviews;
- Preparing the type of answers you might have to their questions;
- Having many options for jobs. If there is one place, one company — and that’s my only option — I feel more stressed.
I am interviewing for more than one company, they’re not just interviewing me — I am interviewing them. I can watch their reactions, too: Do they really care about interviewing me? Are they interested in not only what I do, but who I am.
[-[1:28:05] Allan: How many of those 7-hour interviews have you been to? “Here is the schedule of the 18 people who are going to interview you…”
Wirginia: The longest interview I’ve been to was 3 days long. They paid for my hotel and stay, plus the weekend. I went to the office for 3 days and I worked with them, showing what I would do and how we can do it better. I had other awesome things lined up though. It’s harder to choose, especially after these long interviews. If they’re nice people, I start double guessing.
When doing interviews, I also look at:
- What they’re working on now?
- What are their past titles?
- Do I believe in their design ideas?
- Do I like the people?
There are many factors. At the end, I find myself looking at the people the most.
[-[1:25:01] Allan: You started out as an environment artist and then switched to effects. Your environments are brilliant. Did you get any resistance when you decided to switch?
Wirginia: There are usually fewer FX artists as opposed to environment artists. I didn’t meet any resistance. What I find difficult with environment artists is:
- Competition: If you go on ArtStation, my mind gets blown away [by the type of work these artists are doing];
- Problem solving: I like thinking about solving problems. In environment, there is some of that, of course. But after solving the problem, you just have to do the work.
[-[1:22:14] This is why Houdini has a big appeal for me. This is the part I like: You solve a problem, you build a tool and you bring in an asset which makes it work for you (hopefully!).
[-[1:21:05] Allan: I remember when you were doing my courses, the one thing that set you aside was: Most people would go and build the effect from the lesson; but you would go and build an effect that you would make a killer environment for. Suddenly, the whole shot would stand out. That’s when you actually learn something — when you make it your own!
Wirginia: I like doing any kind of tutorial where I can “plus one it”. I feel that I can learn more [that way]. I feel that it’s more mine and I’m not ashamed to post it on YouTube. It doesn’t look like hundreds of thousands of other [similar looking] tutorials. It’s mine because it has a “plus one”. Of course, I meet more obstacles that way than other people. If you try to do it differently, you start asking questions: “Why is this crashing?” “Why is it not working?” You start asking these questions. This is when you learn.
[-[1:19:22] Allan: When you went on to Ubisoft, was that to try something different?
Wirginia: The job was in Singapore. Culturally, Singapore wasn’t my cup of tea. [Working on] Assassin’s Creed 3 was great. I was so proud of the work we did! After that, I talked with my Art Director and asked if they were looking for FX artists on Watch Dogs. He said he would make some calls.
It took maybe a month from the point when I wanted to go — to having a visa in my passport. I started working on a new team which was gathered a year before shipping Watch Dogs. That was a new IP. It was a group of the most talented people coming together, trying to figure it out. It was one of the best projects I’ve worked on because I felt I knew all the assets, all the tools. I wasn’t leading the team but I had my eye on every effect on the project.
On Doom, it was slightly different. I joined the team a year before shipping.
[-[1:16:45] Allan: Why do you keep doing that?
Wirginia: This is how most VFX artists are hired. One day, they realize they have the environments and the characters. “Wait, something is missing. Ooh! We don’t have VFX, let’s hire somebody!”
[-[1:16:17] Allan: I remember when you were about to start working on that. I remember being happy for you and being a bit jealous. I’ve always wanted to work on Doom.
Wirginia: I remember your telling me you were a big fan of Doom. You had an Arcade machine.
Allan: I bought it as a gift to myself. I was nerding out about that with Hugo Martin. That’s how I got into all this. I was 11 at the time. I wanted to be in games at that time. With moving departments did you find any friction? If you’re a valuable asset, there is usually some resistance.
Wirginia: From my experience, it depends on the person. For me, it was quite easy. The project ended. Most people want to move to Singapore from a cold climate. The move was easy. [The company] has a relocation team. They made sure when you arrive, you get a basket of food in the hotel [after a 32-hour flight]. It was very comforting.
[-[1:11:54] Allan: Who were some of the artists you worked with, that you could remember?
Wirginia: At Ubisoft? When I was there, I organized Ubisoft drink nights. “5 to 7”, they call it. That was amazing about Ubisoft: Nowhere else in the world you could meet with 20+ VFX artists that worked in games, that worked at the same company. That was great!
The closest I’ve worked with was Matthew Dufresne. He was our VFX Lead. He had tons of experience in cinematics! One person I want to mention: He did a DVD on how to do VFX for games, how to render stuff. His name is Maxime Deleris. He is a really cool guy too! He was one of the first who put this kind of stuff out. (Visual FX for Games: Real-Time Effects Using Unreal Engine 3 with Maxime Deleris: www.amazon.com/Visual-FX-Games-Real-time-Effects/dp/1597627801.)
There were so many VFX artists coming out of the movie industry. Artists can have more stability in games.
[-[1:07:23] Allan: Yeah, with games there is usually a 3-year turnaround on most projects. As opposed to with films, it’s here and there.
Wirginia: Plus, with games it’s more full-time, whereas with films, it’s mostly contractors. You always have to worry about what’s next. Where you have to move next. In games, people keep the same positions for 8-15 years.
[-[1:06:38] Allan: How did that id Software opportunity come up?
Wirginia: After shipping, I was going to stay. But Ubisoft had another project lined up for me. I asked to go to a smaller project, but there was nothing that was going to ship in one year. I really wanted to do some research and do some personal projects. You can’t work for 12 hours a day and then go home and create.
I started looking for a new jobs; flew all over Europe for interviews. At the end, it was hard to choose. The id team were excited about what they had coming up and they were humble. I really liked that! They had only one VFX artist Derek Peth. He did almost everything on those games. I had a chance to interview with him too. There are four of us on staff now.
[-[1:02:55] What I like about working here [in Dallas] are the people. They are nice but honest.
[-[1:01:04] Allan: I never told you this, but about four years ago, I got approached for the Art Director position on Doom.
Wirginia: How did you not take it?!
Allan: A part of me, I knew I would rock it because I just love the visuals of it so much. But I felt there were better suited people for the job. I got to meet the whole team though. Really cool bunch of people!
Wirginia: They really do value people who are passionate about Doom. Anyone who gets interviewed, gets asked: Have you played Doom? What did you think about this or that?
[-[59:25] Allan: I’ve seen some companies who ask you to create scores on their games. It’s part of HR. You want people who are passionate, as opposed to people who just clock in and clock out.
Wirginia: It definitely helps when you’re working on it. You have a choice to go a step further. And if you hire people like that, overall, you will get a better product. And the people are happier too, if they like what they’re doing.
[-[57:48] Allan: I’ve interviewed the Lead Artist at Bethesda, as well as Hugo Martin. Bethesda seems to be a great company to work for. Did you find it so?
Wirginia: Yes. We definitely collaborate with these guys a lot. We always get all their games and we play them. We take ideas from each other. We’ve had people moving departments as well.
[-[56:09] Allan: The more I’ve learned about Bethesda, the more I see that they treat their people really well. As far as synergy is concerned, they’ve figured out a way to make it work as opposed to having a competitive thing. That’s so cool!
Wirginia: They are great about letting teams cooperate. There is no official competition. Whatever technology is best, we all get to use it. Whatever each team needs, those needs are met. It saves time. They make sure there are no big egos. They share technology, art, ideas, anything that makes us more creative.
[-[54:33] Allan: Did you play Doom when you were younger?
Wirginia: I didn’t! I was 17 when I got my first PC, and at that time the only Doom that came out was the scary one.
Allan: Which one? Doom 3?
Wirginia: Yes. It was the most realistic looking one. I was so happy to see the new Doom, it’s not supposed to scare you. You should feel like a boss when you are killing demons.
[-[52:57] Allan: It’s one of those games that’s so rich in content. It doesn’t need that story. It has it but it’s more about having fun. What Hugo was saying: “a push forward combat”.
Wirginia: That was the genius of Hugo and other designers. We have so much competition. We have narrative but it’s more through clues. People understand what’s happening. I was really happy!
[-[51:29] Allan: It’s such a huge IP. Did you feel the weight of that on your shoulders? It’s got such a huge fanbase. A lot of people grew up with it.
Wirginia: Definitely, there is responsibility. The biggest weight is on the shoulders of the designers. They get blamed for something going wrong. For me, most effects I do, I always talk with designers:
- What is this weapon?
- What does it do?
- How do we want it to be communicated?
We think, talk, test it a lot. It’s a long process. At the end, you run out of time. And then I look at the final product and I wish I’d done something better, or had more time with it. But at the end of the day, it counts what the fans say. If they say nothing about VFX, we did well! If they say the VFX looks good, it means we did an amazing job. Now, we have more VFX artists, so hopefully we’ll have more resources for the next project.
[-[47:21] Allan: I feel that VFX is an integral part of everything now. It changed the field. By adding fog or other atmospheric effects, it creates a proper immersive environment. When you work on movies, there is more depth that goes into lighting. Now, we’re starting to see that in video games. It so much more rich!
Wirginia: It definitely makes the game look more alive. You’re right, in movies, there is not a single shot that doesn’t require effects. It’s becoming the same in games. When you’re reloading a gun, you don’t even think about the separate lights going off. You don’t think about the effects anymore. There is so much stuff! Each gun is different, each character is different, each action is different.
[-[43:28] Allan: What were some of the biggest challenges working on that game?
Wirginia: There were many aspects. I started working with a team — again, in games it’s a new thing. When you have a team of people, it’s weird. People who are used to work as individuals, they now have to work together. There are some personalities, it’s a challenge. Bringing people to work as a team is interesting.
The other aspect is: One of the hardest things is communication. When you shoot the demo and your targeting is good, you want to be informed about that. Doom is very colorful. There is a lot of red, yellow. It’s getting very difficult to see. We realized we can separate the colors.
On Doom, it was the first project on which I couldn’t overlook everything. I had to rely on other people. It was interesting. Everyone did a very good job. When you have a good team, you have to trust them because you are not going to have time for everything. That was stressful. I could never say, “Everything is fine”.
[-[38:12] Allan: Did you have a chance to interact with the original team?
Wirginia: Absolutely! Kenny is really easy to talk with. We wanted to package some of the original effects so people could use SnapMaps and smokes, and jets. That was pretty cool. I never met some of the other guys.
[-[35:53] Allan: I’ve got a pretty big female audience with the Podcast. Some of the subjects that came up were: A. Get more female interviewees on. (I’m trying!) and B. Get some insight from a female perspective. What’s your perspective being a woman in the industry?
Wirginia: It’s pretty straight forward. I don’t know why there are no more women in the industry. We definitely need more women in the games. I think it may be some kind of a misunderstanding. I knew a few great women Art Directors. If any woman is listening to this, don’t be scared. It’s a civilized office, but more creative.
[-[33:15] Allan: At Blizzard, there are more women artists. When I go to Japan, I get blown away. It’s 50/50 balance in video game audience.
Wirginia: It is changing here! 10 years ago, mostly men played these games. Now, it’s more balanced. I think it will become that way with employment.
[-[30:39] Allan: Do you review a lot of artists’ portfolios?
Wirginia: Most recently, at id — yes! When somebody is applying for a job, they try to invite multiple artists. So, I definitely have seen some good work.
[-[29:40] Allan: What do you think makes for a good reel? What do you keep an eye out for?
Wirginia: I always look at a portfolio keeping in mind [that person’s] years of experience.
- I don’t expect a person who has 2 years of experience to have a 5-minute reel but maybe two good screenshots.
- If they have a screenshot of one personal project — and they’ve just graduated — and that screenshot looks great, that’s still good.
- If they have 10 years of experience, I expect them to show more.
I want to see a history of what they’ve been working on, the best pieces.
Sometimes, I find that there is miscommunication. They pause a screenshot from a movie. I understand they’ve done all of it. When you ask them, they point to a small part of it.
In games, it’s hard to get the company you’re working for to release screenshots of what you’ve been working on. You have to go through PR. If the game is not release, you can’t show anything. If you do show — you’re a liability.
I don’t like long demo reels. Anything above 5 minutes is too long. Include the best of the best of your work on it.
[-[26:02] Allan: I noticed with YouTube, when they show a movie trailer, they’ll show a bumper in the beginning. There is now a 3-second attention span in millennials. Time is valuable. If you have a 100 reels to go through, a lot of stuff gets skipped over. I just interviewed In-Ah Roediger. She includes quick shots in the beginning. It’s like selling someone on watching your reel. Every single shot should be great. One bad thing could cost you the job.
Wirginia: There is so much good advice out there:
- Put the best thing at the start;
- And put the best thing at the end of the reel;
- Put a nice environment background so it looks like a complete shot;
- If you can model a character and animate it, animate it. You will win over just a modeler.
[-[21:28] Allan: If you know effects, it’s good to know environments. Learn the skills that compliment your main one. Knowing shaders as well makes you a stronger VX person. You’re FX, then you should learn modeling, compositing and lighting. If you’re an animator, learn to rig and model. The more you know of the surrounding areas, the better understanding you’ll have about what happens to your shot.
Wirginia: It’s not just for your portfolio. It’s for working in a team.
[-[19:58] Allan: On the hiring aspect, what’s the number one thing you look for?
Wirginia: There are a few things that go hand in hand. Mostly it’s about the balance: Being a rockstar and being a team worker. You want a person who does a great job but doesn’t think they’re the best in the world. The morale of the whole team would go down.
- Practical skills — but that’s not everything;
- Personality: How does this person fit the team?
- Take critique very well. You can’t get frustrated by it. Artists are sometimes overprotective of their creations. If someone comes and tells you to change it, you’ll never know how they’ll react.
[-[16:29] Allan: Do you find that as a senior, you still get asked to do tests?
Wirginia: It depends on the years of experience that person has and how badly you need the person to start now. If you have three great artists applying, ask them to create the same thing.
Allan: What if they have 10 years of experience?
Wirginia: Personally, I don’t. Many people would say no. If you have a candidate with 10 years of experience, they’re most likely interviewing at other studios.
[-[11:41] Allan: I’ve done a few paid tests before. It usually comes down to the last few candidates: I pay them to do a test. For you, do you still find time to learn new tools? Or do you mainly focus on learning at work?
Wirginia: That’s the beauty with game industry. After shipping, we have normal working hours. It’s nice! You can go home and learn new software. We can people come in and do training on new software. Now, I’m learning Houdini. I want to stick with it. We want to use it for production.
I find it nice to find time to do personal projects. You learn different things. At work, we rely on doing what we know. At home, I can do the crazy-insane thing I don’t know how to do. But somehow, I’m going to learn how to do it!
[-[9:04] Allan: Are there any resources you would recommend for learning?
- When I was learning, the great resource was Pete Draper’s books (allanmckay.com/62). Those were some of the best tutorials.
- When I was learning FX, I also loved all of your tutorials. You went in slider by slider, property by property.
- Now I’m learning Houdini. Mainly, I go to Side FX tutorials (www.sidefx.com/tutorials), for free or for purchase, depending on the budget. They also have great customer support.
[-[6:20] Allan: I’ve wanted to do a Maya tutorial. I really like Houdini. If you want to be highly technical, you can do so much.
Wirginia: With Houdini, so far I can do anything. My only limit — is my skill.
[-[5:04] Allan: Thanks again for doing this!
Wirginia: Thanks for the invitation! It was a pleasure.
- Podcasts: I think this was really insightful into the mindset of the team at id Software. We have a few more interviews coming up with that team: The Creative Director Hugo Martin, Creature Lead Jason Martin (no relation to Hugo). The next Episode is with Dennis Mejillones. We talk a lot about his direction as an artist.
- Free Training: In the meantime, make sure to sign up for the training: allanmckay.com/fireball (available June 6)
III. Facebook Live Sessions: I am also doing some Facebook Live sessions, including one on scripting (www.facebook.com/allanfmckay).Typically, you’re going to people who know math and assume that we all thing that way. That’s what alienates the rest of us. I never knew math. I don’t need that to be able to code. So I want to showcase that. You can automate anything, to be built for you and how you think.
Please let a comment as well: allanmckay.com/81.
“What helps to be less nervous at job interviews:
- Having practice in doing more interviews;
- Having canned answers to possible questions;
- Having many options for jobs. If there is one place, one company — and that’s my only option — I feel more stressed.”
“When you have a good team, you have to trust them because you are not going to have time for everything.”
“There is so much good advice out there:
- Anything above 5 minutes is too long!
- Only showcase the best of the best of your work!
- Put the best thing at the start and the best thing at the end of the reel.
- Put a nice environment background so it looks like a complete shot.
- If you can model a character and animate it, animate it.”
“In an interviewee, there are a few things that go hand in hand. Mostly it’s about the balance: Being a rockstar and being a team worker. Things I look for in a candidate:
- Practical skills (but that’s not everything);
- Personality: How does this person fit the team?
- Taking critique well. You can’t get frustrated by critique as a VFX artist.”
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What are the key things that I’m doing wrong?
Money, negotiating, probably two words that build the most tension just at the thought of, other than public speaking.
This guide was designed for Artists – whether you’re a Designer, Illustrator, Matte Painter, Animator, FX, whatever! We all need to get hired for productions, and we all need to get what we’re worth.
But, most of are afraid of missing the mark, and scaring away our employers. Or, just not sure how to even start the conversation. Worse, we’re not sure what we’re actually worth, or we just plain don’t want to be in a tense back and forth negotiation.
Realistically – a good negotiator never needs to haggle, they never have a moment of tension, they never are in an uncomfortable situation. It’s actually very seamless, easy and kind of fun. But, it does require understanding many of the fundamentals that this guide covers in-depth. Negotiating your worth the wrong way can cost you tens of thousands of dollars per year, and it’s the most critical thing we all shouldn’t ignore.
Get the guide now, and never leave money on the table again!