The world of fantasy, unlike the real world, has no limitations. If there is a limitation, it is imagination. Gaming is a perfect example of an immersive “make believe” world with role-play, characters, level designs and a mission, created for all ages.

Sumesh Pillai, our next pathbreaker, works as Game Art Director, translating the vision of a game into visual representations, aesthetics and everything related to the look and feel of the game.

Sumesh talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his experiences as a cartoonist, illustrator and animator that ultimately led him to a career in gaming.

For students, the visuals that you see in your favourite games come from putting your imagination to work on paper through sketching, which you can acquire it only by practice.

Sumesh, tell us about your background?

I grew up in Mumbai and my schooling was in Thane Suburb of Kalwa. I belong to a Malayalee family. My mother is a housewife and my father was an Indian Railway employee.

My friend and my two elder cousins who drew well, copying superheroes from comic strips, inspired me to take up drawing at as early an age as 4. I also loved to do crafts origami and clay sculpting. I used to use wheat dough for lack of clay and fulfill my desire of clay sculpting. I used to make caricatures and cartoons of my schoolteachers and friends for fun. 

All these small things added up and I always got encouraged by and was appreciated by everybody around me for my drawing and craft skills. One of the most common comments I used to get from my elders was that I should get into JJ School of Arts after my 10th SSC Exams. Since i wasn’t much interested in academics, I did not give myself any options other than to become a professional artist. However, I got my admission in Sir JJ Institute of Applied Art after my 12th HSC Exams. 

As many kids of my generation even I was exposed and was crazy about computer games, which ultimately was my chosen field of profession as digital artist

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

I completed my Bachelor of Fine Art in applied art – BFA from Sir JJ Institute of Applied Art in the year 2004. My specialization was Illustration

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?

Best part of getting into art college was to be with many likeminded friends and access to library resources. Although the curriculum was mainly focused on graphic design for students interested in getting into an ad-agency, my interest was always to be an illustrator. I collected MAD magazines and looked up to the illustrations of Mort Drucker for inspiration. 

How did you get your first break?

Soon after my graduation in the year 2004 my brother showed me a job requirement of cartoonist in Just Another Magazine – JAM. It was a teen satire magazine and a desi version of MAD. I applied for it; I was given a test assignment; my assignment was chosen for the Cover art and that is how I got my first break. My editor and Senior graphic designers always helped me through my difficult phases.  My job was to create illustrations and cartoons for magazine covers, articles and editorials.

What were the challenges? How did you address them?

Challenge 1: All the writers want to appear cool and funny to their audience, but sometimes the topics or articles could be very boring, the only way to bring out the humor was through cartoons. So, everybody expected me to somehow invent humor out of the most boring topics. Of course, the writer used to help me with some ideas.  

Challenge 2: While doing caricatures it is relatively easy to exaggerate and distort faces, but the main challenge is get everyone’s appreciation for the artwork. You must be careful when you make a caricature of a celebrity who everyone adores. If you exaggerate him or her too much your audience might hate you. So, the challenge while doing caricatures is always to be able to strike a balance between exaggeration and cuteness.   

Challenge 3: Deadlines, especially for the cover illustration. 

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

From the year 2001 onwards there many new Indie Gaming and Animation Studios opening up in Mumbai. Demand for digital artists expanded. Art school graduates ( freshers or experienced ) without any knowledge of computer graphics were struggling to get into reputed production houses and some were even losing their existing jobs. I sensed that just depending on my drawing skills and knowledge of adobe photoshop was not going to be enough. I had to do more to move up the career ladder. I decided to move out of my comfort zone in Jam Magazine and look for opportunities elsewhere so I could upskill myself.

I sailed through multiple jobs as an illustrator, animator, graphic designer, team lead between 2005-09 in studios like Ettamina, Aryan Media and Animedia. I acquired most of my digital skills on the job with the help of many fellow artists. I also took up many freelance projects under my own business firm named Toonpillz.

Ettamina Studios – This was an animation studio where I played a dual role of a story book illustrator and as concept artist for animation movies. Here I was introduced to 2D Flash art, 3D Art and Book Illustration. Initially my job was to do book illustrations. I realized working within a team for an art project has a different set of challenges compared to working as a standalone cartoonist. There were many small groups working on various projects. I wanted to learn new things, so I took interest in every project that was going on. My enthusiasm was very well encouraged.  I was here for a noticeably short duration, but my work was so appreciated that I was expected to lead and motivate the team as well.

Aryan Media – This was a media agency where I was put in charge of the art production. My job role was to create and conceptualize art and animations for Online Games, Websites, Marketing and Sales Presentations and TV Commercials for multinational clients like Infosys, Reliance, Sopariwala and Hiranandani.   

Animedia was an online game production studio which mainly focused on web-based flash games. I worked as senior illustrator, animator and team lead.

Toonpillz is my own freelance art business firm. As freelancer I do book illustrations, caricatures, magazine cover design and design magazines. One of my main clients was Intellecap – Advisory Services Private Limited. I used to design bimonthly microfinance magazines for them.

Finally, I ended up in Games2win Pvt. Ltd. as a Junior Art Director. My earlier companies played a great role in shaping my career and experience as an artist and team leader, which ultimately helped me to get into Games2win. One could say Games2win has been equivalent to any post-graduation or any PhD. In the next 8 years I not only matured as an artist, but I also gained good understanding of the overall business. My CEO and my colleagues have been a great influence throughout my professional and personal life.

In the initial years at Games2win we primarily focused on developing online casual flash-based games, but after the advent of iPhone and Android we shifted our focus to produce mobile games in Unity Game Engine. We cater to different genres of racing, dress-up, role-playing and so on. I went on to become Art Director and was responsible for all the art produced in the company. Key responsibilities included creating style guides, project planning, finding art resources, quality assurance, mentoring, troubleshooting and managing-timeline. I was part of the core team, which included product managers, creative leads and Game-design leads.

Where do you work now? Tell us what you do?

I moved to the US with my wife and work from home as a freelancer. I still do projects for Games2win.

A Game designer’s responsibility is to build gameplay by adding level designs. The art team creates the art as per the vision of the creative team and product manager and then sends it to the development team to build the final game. My job as a Junior Art Director was to assist and share the responsibilities of art director and coordinate with rest of the team. I would also take briefing and art requirements from product manager, creative team and game-designers, and provide my wireframes/storyboards, feedback and art references to further improve the gameplay and determine the art style.

As years progress one is expected to take lot more responsibilities, and as your seniors move up the ladder you are expected to fill their position. As my art director moved up to be a product manager, I went on to become the art director in the year 2014. 

I was fully responsible for any art produced in the company and I directly reported to the CEO. Key responsibilities included creating style guides, setting the budget, project planning, finding art resources, quality assurance, mentoring, coordination and networking with external freelancers or teams and managing-timelines. An Art-Director, being more of a managerial position, is not expected to do any hands-on work but whenever I had a chance, I used to take up concept art and UI designing.

Basically as Jr. Art Director I was expected and had to micromanage. As an Art Director it was more of a macro-management.  

What are the skills needed for the role of an Art professional in gaming?

Most important skill one needs is sketching, and you can acquire it only by practice. As an artist whichever tool you may choose, how well you use those tools depends on core sketching skills and understanding of art fundamentals. My typical day is spent in Sketching, Sketching and Sketching😊

I can choose the work that I want to do and do not have to travel much.

How does your work benefit society? 

In games, art is mostly done for entertainment and to reduce stress. As an editorial cartoonist one can criticize and put forth his views against the establishment in a satirical manner.

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is close to you!

Please visit https://www.sumeshpillai.com/ to see some my selected art works

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Be it art, sports, music or any profession, if you are facing difficulty, chances are that you are making some fundamental errors. It is always a good idea to pause a bit, step back and revise your fundamentals, before you push forward. 

There are many cons and pros of joining both startups and reputed companies. Joining startups will get you a lot more opportunities, but you may not get a good mentor to learn from. If you don’t have enough skills to back you, it will be a constant struggle to meet deadlines and expected quality. Ideally, one should try to get into a reputed production house, look for mentors within the studio and try to learn as much as possible from seniors, master core skills and gain enough experience before moving up the career ladder and taking up more senior and leadership roles. 

But sometimes things do not go as planned, circumstances may force you to take up jobs that may not be a good career move. Being a full-time illustrator is not easy, key is to keep learning new things and not giving up. Get rid of any old baggage or negative experience and always remain positive.

Getting into an art school could be exceedingly difficult and could be an awfully expensive affair, but that does not mean one should give up the aspiration to be an artist and for an art career. These days one can be a self-taught artist and get his/her art education from many online resources like https://www.proko.com/ , https://drawabox.com/. There are many more.  One can easily find many global freelance job opportunities through crowd sourcing portals like https://www.upwork.com/, https://www.guru.com/ and so on

Future Plans?

Strengthen my fundamentals, keep improving upon my core skills. Keep abreast with the latest technology and keep mentoring young budding artists