Episode 84 – Interview with Dennis Mejillones, Senior Character Artist at Bethesda Game Studios
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Dennis Mejillones is a Senior Character Artist at Bethesda Game Studios. He is responsible for creating models for characters like Sole Survivor, Preston Garvey and most all the robots in Fallout 4. During the course of his career, he has also worked on Skyrim, Call of Duty: The First Modern Warfare, Borderlands, Shadows of Darkness. Independently, he created the characters of Undead Warrior and Sentry Bot.
In this Podcast, Allan and Dennis talk about mentors, the best mindset and skills for growing as an artist, the importance of fitness and much more!
Dennis’ Instagram: @vsions1
Dennis Mejillones’s Twitter: @Vsions
Dennis Mejillones on Deviant Art: http://vsions.deviantart.com
Dennis Mejillones’s Facebook Live Session with Allan McKay: https://www.facebook.com/allanfmckay/videos/10155214905717158/
EPISODE 84 — Interview with Bethesda’s Senior Character Artist Dennis Mejillones
Hey, this is Allan McKay. Welcome to Episode 84. I’m speaking with Dennis Mejillones, a Senior Character Artist at Bethesda.
Let’s dive in!
FIRST THINGS FIRST:
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INTERVIEW WITH DENNIS MEJILLONES
[-1:19:59] This Episode is with Dennis Mejillones who is a really good friend of mine. He is a super talented character artist who has worked at Bethesda and other companies. He’s been diving into a lot of cool 3D printing. We did a Facebook Live Session recently: https://www.facebook.com/allanfmckay/videos/10155214905717158/.
In this Podcast, we cover a lot of cool stuff that relates to his career, some of the games he’s worked on: Fallout 4, Skyrim.
[-[1:19:00] Allan: Do you want to give a quick intro and tell us about yourself?
Dennis: My name is Dennis Mejillones. I am a Senior Character Artist at Bethesda Game Studios. I’m responsible for character creation systems, creatures / monsters, stuff like that — designing all the assets, building the assets. I used the Automatron to create the robots in Fallout 4. Apparently, I like robots!
[-[1:17:59] Allan: I’ve never played either of those games. Obviously, they’re huge.
Dennis: Well, this call is over, man! It’s over!
Allan: I bought a lot of books on the artwork. It looks amazing! I was talking to Pixologic guys a few weeks ago (allanmckay.com/73). They gave you big props!
Dennis: Those are really good guys. I went to the Zero Summit this past summer and I did a workshop and talk for those guys. I was really honored. I learned a lot there. They were the most down to earth guys. They’re my idols. I can’t imagine I’d be doing what I’m doing if it weren’t for their software. I’m grateful for that!
[-[1:16:04] Allan: I love that it has such a huge community around it. Out of every software company I’ve spoken to, they have their finger on the pulse [the most].
Dennis: Absolutely. They have all these free updates. I’d be paying for them! Those guys are the ones to emulate.
[-[1:15:24] Allan: We met in 2007, right?
Dennis: We’ve had some drunken sessions. Those were fun times! The guys at Bethesda, they party pretty hard, [too]. Nowadays, I try to take it easy, with the kids. My producer has saved my ass many times. They throw some awesome parties and spare no expense. They take great care of us!
[-[1:13:33] Allan: How did you start out? For you, how did you discover 3D?
Dennis: Before I wanted to do 3D, I wanted to do a few things: I wanted to be a veterinarian, Indiana Jones. But the big thing was I wanted to be an actor. My mom didn’t know how to help me with that. [My parents put me in] art summer camp. I was doing little movies. At night, I would sneak out and pretend to be a ninja. I dressed up in all black and went across rooftops. One time, I snuck out and saw a light coming from one of the cabins. I look into the window and I see this guy using (at that time, I didn’t now) Lightwave 3D.
The next day, I snuck out again. No one was in that office. I picked the lock, turned on the computer and found the software. The guy walked in on me and caught me. I told him I wanted to learn. He ended up teaching me over a week and a half. We filmed the campsite and landed some robots in the middle of it. All the parents came to pick up their kids. All the kids were doing Autodesk 2D animation. And I go up and I remember being scared as hell. My project played to the music from Behind the Mind’s Eye. When it was done, there was a moment of silence. No one has seen anything like that before [at that time]. I was so excited and overwhelmed. I knew this is what I wanted to do.
My mom saw that I found my way. She got me a computer. I got True Space. [Eventually], I got an internship at NYU. They didn’t have anything at the time. They had a Center for Advanced Technology (CAT), [with] the OnyxServers. I did some work for their VR for SIGGRAPH in 1996. That opened so many doors for me!
Have you heard of Ken Perlin? He was the guy who was head of the department. I learned from him a lot. That’s how I got started. From then on, I was in my basement with my True Space book, 3D Studio Max book, constantly trying to do artwork.
[-[1:07:38] Allan: When you were a ninja, what year was that?
Dennis: I was 15 years old, so maybe… 5 years ago? [Laughs.] I think it had to be 1998.
Allan: That’s so fucking cool! I love the fact that I get to find out about my friends. Let’s talk about your eating and living 3D. For a lot of us, we have to do 10,000 hours. You need to have that level of obsession, if you really want to master it. How was it for you?
Dennis: It was the same thing. Truth be told, in high school, I didn’t party. I was obsessed with 3D. With my friends, I wanted to teach them. I have a really loud mind: It’s a lot of stuff happening in there. It was the only time when it all got quiet and focused in there. I never did drawings. I gravitated more toward sculpture. Nowadays, I have people asking me, “How do I get into this? How do I get good at it?” The truth is a lot of people have such a short attention span, they don’t want to dedicate the hours to master stuff. ZBrush is some amazing tool! I see art that’s detailed, but there is no flow, a lot of design missing. They have an easy way now, to add this, or add that.
Allan: There is no planning that goes into it.
Dennis: Now you can design with simple brush strokes. The foundation isn’t there. They haven’t taken the time to understand.
[-[1:02:59] Allan: I came from being a Generalist, and I’ve always kept my modeling skills up. You would need to plan everything and how it would flow. Then, ZBrush comes out.
Dennis: But it’s available to us too. We have a different perspective. People have to know what value they have with ZBrush these days.
[-[1:01:29] Allan: The learning curve is what made you devoted. Even [my fiance] Christina picked up ZBrush the other day and created this amazing character in one sitting.
Dennis: But she is a talented artist.
Allan: You’re right. When you decided this was your calling, was there a struggle to get your first job?
Dennis: My first job was NYU. I went from an internship. They liked my stuff, so they took me on. I was very blessed! My parents helped me get focused and pushed me along. The right people came along the may, helped me along, taught be to stay patient. There would be ups and downs. I had a lot of good role model. You need to find role models and reach out to them. That’s what helped me.
I ended up getting into Pratt Institute. Funny enough, I flanked out. I got through 4 years. I was pretty arrogant and advanced. I didn’t have good respect for the foundation arts, and that’s something I regret now. I paid the price for that. In my last semester, I had nothing but art history classes. And I did not want to do art history. I dropped out. I did not want to finish those credits.
[-[58:37] Allan: Why do you regret it?
Dennis: I regret it because now I’m a very strong believer in finishing what you start. My problem is that it’s on my list as something I’d never finished. It’s like a ghost.
[-[58:08] Allan: Besides not finishing it, do you think there is any academic benefit if you would have finished it?
Dennis: Well, I would like to teach a course at some college here and there.
[-[57:53] Allan: There is a workaround. I believe it’s called Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL). If you’ve worked in the industry for over 10 years, you can transfer your work experience to count toward those missing college credits. That’s something that’s pretty common! But if you’re just stubborn as fuck and you want to go back there, why don’t you hit them up? So you can feel like you’ve accomplished it.
Dennis: I looked into it. I just can’t do it anymore. I’m in a good place with my career. The truth is, in my field, the schooling is less important than your experience. I was ready to hustle that up. I am completely self-taught. Even with the teaching, I could do courses now.
[-[55:36] Allan: I agree. These days, there’s got to be a reason why you’re going to college. It’s important to think if you need to go to college.
Dennis: I think part of the reason it bothers me is about finishing what you started.
[-[54:49] Allan: I want to go back to that arrogance thing. I think, as artists, we all have that early in our career. The better we get, the less arrogant we become.
Dennis: You’re right! Later on, I got a job at an art outsourcing store. When I was there, I was thinking I could do this stuff. I look back at my work, I could’ve done so much better if I hadn’t been so arrogant. I realize that the more feedback I take, the more I listen to people — the faster I grow! There is no question. It makes you rethink things. If three or four people tell me that something is wrong, I’ve got to figure it out. You’ve got people who have different tastes. But if several people say the same thing, you’ve got to rethink. Every time I’ve gone back, I’ve gotten better.
On Shadows of Darkness, Rick who was brutally honest with me. He didn’t hold back or try to sugarcoat it. When I would come around, I would see growth. But even then, I would have a hard time with feedback. I think every artist does. You will get better about it if you have an open mind: If you listen, if you apply what you were told, you grow! You will become better, there is no question about it! When people say stuff now, I listen.
[-[51:02] Allan: The more you’re talking, the less you’re listening. At the beginning of your career, you’re more talk, talk, talk. And later in your career, you’re not trying to prove to the world that you belong.
Dennis: I think that what happens is: If you sit and talk less, but you’re doing good stuff, people will talk for your stuff. You just got to chill out, listen and be humble. People like that. They want to feel like they can connect to you. If you’re arrogant, that hurts your own credibility and growth.
[-[48:40] Allan: You’ve mentioned your parents were really supportive which is awesome. Not everyone’s parents are supportive. There is this starving artist mentality and a lot of people just don’t get it when you say you want to do this for a living. It’s not a legitimate career. It’s got to pay bill.
Dennis: I think nowadays, it’s less of a thing. I think our industry established itself, at least with 3D or game artists. It is a good accomplishment to have. I think people are starting to see that. I think it is a gamble, definitely. You do the hard work — and your skill improves, and you’re open, you’re humble — you will succeed! I believe it wholeheartedly: Anybody who applies himself can make it!
[-[46:42] Allan: You’re right. A lot of students think that if they just follow the recipe, you’ll master VFX. You’ve got to put in the time. If you put in the time and the effort, you can accomplish it. Most people are no willing to immerse themselves.
Dennis: And the truth is, people don’t realize it’s more than just learning the program. I mean: I’ve poured over anatomy books!
Allan: The 360 immersion. You’ve got to live and breathe it every single day!
Dennis: Exactly! Vehicles, robots. I’m constantly looking at stuff! Non-stop! It’s not just learning the programs:
– learning animals’ anatomy;
– learning human anatomy;
– looking at other people’s monster designs.
It’s a whole package deal!
[-[44:44] Allan: Recently, my friends and I had to make it a rule of no shop-talk during dinners with our partners. What other industry has to make that rule! We’re excited to get together and talk. It’s rare!
Dennis: This kind of stuff is exciting to me. I love talking about it. Or you vent your frustrations.
[-[43:36] Allan: In terms of role models, you’ve been pretty fortunate in that aspect. How did you find your mentors?
Dennis: I never ask my role models to dedicate themselves to teaching me. I am going to teach myself and follow what they do. You can have a role model you’ve never met. One of the guys I follow is Vitaly Bulgarov and many others. Before I could meet them, I would just follow their stuff. I didn’t try to depend on them. I proactively dissected their work and tried to learn from them. I have role models now like Todd Howard. Probably one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met. He teaches me about leadership, humility, a lot of things that go beyond gaming. He has a gift for it. Being a role model is not just about what you can do in 3D. Being a role model means that they can teach you to be a better person. There are many things that role models can teach you.
[-[40:56] Allan: This is why I started this Podcast in the first place. There is so much stuff in life that can teach you to be a better artist.
Dennis: I think it’s important to listen to people who have been around. It will make you better overall.
[-[39:44] Allan: When was the first big job [that made you say], “Alright, I’m digging this!” I’ve made it.
Dennis: When I worked with Shadows of Darkness, I got to work on Call of Duty: The First Modern Warfare. I got to create some environment assets. That’s pretty good stuff. I got to work on Borderlands. I was starting to get into good visibility. Tronic, that was also a good learning experience. But then after that, when things went south, I found myself unemployed. The economy was tanking, the studio was downsizing. Basically, after that, I told myself I would get into AAA Studio. I’ve spent months just working on art. I looked at other artists who worked them and my goal was to surpass it.
One of the big pieces I did was Undead Warrior. It got into books and magazines. It got me calls from Blur, Naughty Dog, Bethesda Game Studios. Bethesda snatched me up immediately. I was star stuck. They gave me a tour: gym, cafeteria. I was sold!
[-[37:10] Allan: For you, how long was the transition from Tronic to when you got the gig at Bethesda.
Dennis: Oh, man. I think it was a few months. And I was working non-stop on trying to find something really strong; redoing my portfolio and demo reel. When I launched the Undead Warrior on CG Society, I started getting emails and calls. I was still doing some freelance gigs here and there. I would say 4-5 months.
[-[36:05] Allan: That’s an investment. You’re essentially saying, “I’m going to raise the bar.” You went the next level. You embraced that moment in time and reinvented Dennis.
Dennis: Reinvent. That so true! I wanted, with the next place I went to, I wanted to grow. I told myself: I am not moving to the next place unless it’s a step up. I try not to move laterally. I’m trying to move up. Once I got in here, it was the perfect click. Meeting Todd sealed the deal.
[-[34:11] Allan: Going to Bethesda, what was one of the first things you’ve noticed that you’ve gone to the Big Leagues?
Dennis: You’re in there and (not to sound arrogant) you’re a star among stars. It’s different level. When you do that, you grow so much faster. If you surround yourself with people who are better than you, you’re going to become better.
A. They teach you, and
B. You’ve got the fire under your ass. You have to step it up.
The place was so laid back. Tronic had some long hours. Bethesda’s main dude will hang out with you — and he’s just got accepted into the Hall of Fame for video games. And everybody was so laid back. They have a gym at the studio. It was pretty amazing.
[-[31:59] Allan: If you’re surrounded by people who pull you up, that’s the number one thing. If you have friends around you who pump up your ego. It’s cool to be the King of the Crop. I think it’s better to find yourself at the bottom of the barrel and have these people [inspire you to grow].
Dennis: When you’re around people who aren’t better, you become stagnate. Competition is no joke. When you go into a competitive mode, you can grow. That’s why I love the internet. I see a lot of talented artists whom I admire. I see their stuff and I want to [do better].
[-[29:09] Allan: I think that’s really powerful. It’s like when people tell you you can’t do something.
Dennis: Oh, yeah. That’s really fires me up! Todd messes with me all the time. I’m onto his game though.
[-[28:41] Allan: For you, what is the thing you’ve most proud of, at Bethesda?
Dennis: For me, it’s definitely Skyrim. There is something really magical about that game! Maybe because it was my first AAA game I worked on. Fallout was an awesome experience. I got to create more character creation systems. As far as art design, I’d say the robot creation system I’m most proud of. This gave me something I always wanted to do. It was a really small team, so I did a lion’s share of those parts. But I remember, every night, I had the deepest satisfaction. I would put them together — and then I would blow them up.
[-[26:56] Allan: What were some of the challenges, day to day? Some of the things you struggled with?
Dennis: I’d say the biggest challenge — is myself. I aim really high, but at times I don’t know how to rein that in. I get bogged down by the bigger picture. I’m too much of a perfectionist. I obsess. I got better about that too. It eats at me.
[-[26:04] Allan: Can you give an example?
Dennis: A lot of the robot designs. I revised them a bunch of stuff. Faces, what I started with needed a lot of work. I’d go back and rework the model. If you go fresh, you pick up on new things. Because of that I can be really intense. Todd says he appreciates that, but it’s hard for people to deal with that.
[-[24:22] Allan: How does the review process work? Do you present it to a team or a specific person and they come back with feedback?
Dennis: I search for a lot of individual feedback throughout. I do it at stages that are pivotal. Sometimes, when I’m boxing something out, I get feedback at that stage. I get feedback when I’m actually developing art, putting in details. I always go to the Leads.
[-[23:17] Allan: Do you ever mess around with the id Software guys?
Dennis: Oh, yeah. We hang out. They are good dudes, really talented. Hugo — that’s my dude right there. I geek out over Pacific Rim.
[-[21:22] Allan: Hugo said a lot of nice stuff about Bethesda, how you guys work.
Dennis: This is definitely a good place to work. I’ve heard horror stories about some places. They really go through great lengths to make us feel appreciated. I think the biggest part of it is Todd Howard. And if Todd is listening to this, I’m not saying it to kiss your ass.
[-[21:05] Allan: Did you go to GDC?
Dennis: I went last year. I wanted to go this year but I had a new baby. I’d love to go every year!
[-[20:43] Allan: I’ve never been to the convention. I just went to the parties. It brings everyone together. One of the things I wanted to bring up is keeping in shape. Do you think that working out has a huge impact on you?
Dennis: Definitely. It has a huge impact on my mental state! When you get older, you’re still capable of doing stuff. I’m in a better shape now, I’m more focused now. More disciplined. I started a workout club. I started doing this calisthenics routine. Ninja shit! But it’s awesome!
[-[18:09] Allan: How do you find the time to do it?
Dennis: I hear that all the time! It probably one of the most frustrating thing I hear. You just have to schedule it out. You always have the time! If you really want to do anything, the time is there. Even with meetings: If they cut in, I just move the meeting. I am going to the gym! Bethesda is really flexible with the time. Most of the crunch time comes from my own stuff that I want to add to the game. They know I’ll put in the time. As long as they have that, they’re really flexible.
[-[14:55] Allan: For you, with typical workflow, where do you find the inspiration? Is there a lot of places you seek out?
Dennis: I doodle on paper or ZBrush. I look at life. I’ll see a construction truck will drive by, I see the beauty and functionality in things. Different CG communities, 3D printing communities, NASA. I love that stuff!
[-[13:59] Allan: Do you ever mess around with 3D printing?
Dennis: I do it all the time. If you look at my Instagram, I’m in a process of building Sentry Bot. He’s huge too! One day, I can see myself designing toys.
[-[12:51] Allan: What’s your process?
Dennis: I bought my first 3D printer when I started printing robots. I’ve decided to 3D print every robot from Fallout. I think I want to build some animatronics stuff after.
[-[12:00] Allan: So, I’ll finish up with this: How many kids do you have? How is married life?
Dennis: I have two kids. One is 2 months old, the other is 3 and a half years old. I have a lovely wife, of course. She’s been a huge inspiration for me. She’s one of the biggest role models in my life. She is a strong woman, very kind, very patient. I was so focused inwardly. She helped me see that and be better. I’m so grateful for that! Being a game developer isn’t easy on a relationship, even at a place as laid back as Bethesda.
[-[10:34] Allan: That’s a good thing with video games, there may be a few milestone when you have to crank it out. Where were you living during your New York days?
Dennis: In New Jersey.
[-[9:35] Allan: Was it hard to make the decision to move?
Dennis: It was. My wife was going to school. She’d come visit on weekends. There were a lot of tearful goodbyes. I hated it. You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. Everybody who is dedicated knows that it takes some sacrifice.
[-[7:24] Allan: I was really happy when Rick joined you at Bethesda. Rick and Amy. This week, I’m doing a talk on failures. I remember how disorganized Tronic was. But I loved everyone there.
Dennis: I think we bonded because it was such a tough situation.
[-[3:59] Allan: It would be great to meet your daughters. This has been cool! Thanks for taking the time!
Dennis: I’ll just say that Bethesda is always looking for talented people. They want to hire the best. There is no doubt it’s one of the best studios to work for. If you work hard, you will be in a good place.
[-[2:45] Allan: You guys are doing Quake.
Dennis: We have a lot of projects coming up. We have Prey. There is some good stuff down the pipe. We’ll do whatever we can those games are the highest quality when they ship.
Allan: You’re like the Pixar of video games.
Dennis: We try. We’re privately owned.
Allan: It’s good talking to you!
Dennis: Yeah, man!
Alright, next week, I’ll be back with Philippe Leprince who is a Render Engineer at Pixar. It’s a super cool episode, and super critical for us to hear.
In the meantime, check out the training at allanmckay.com/fireball. Rock on!
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