Never let go of your childhood hobbies and interests even during difficult times, because you never know what life has in store for you !

Ajay Verma, our next pathbreaker, Concept Artist at a Gaming Studio, comes up with design ideas for assets, props and characters based on the vision of the Art Director.

Ajay talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about initially facing career setbacks, getting to a point of self-introspection and realizing that the only thing that gave him joy and happiness was sketching and drawing.

For students, initial setbacks teach us a lot by showing us what we truly value the most in life and help us learn the lessons before its too late !

Ajay, tell us about Your background?

I grew up in a joint family in a small town of Ghaziabad. My father used to draw and paint. He was actually good at it, but at that time nobody really thought that it could be a profession someday. I was quite lucky to be born in early 90’s when I got to see Old Mickey Mouse, Duck Tales, Aladdin, Talespin and some other cartoons on “Doordarshan”. I was into drawing from my early days at school which eventually helped me to decide where my interest actually lies. 

So, fast forward to my schooling (when I was in 10th class), I was really enjoying science as well. Being quite a curious kid at school, I did my best to dig deeper into science. By the time I completed my 12th class, there was one more thing which grabbed my interest. I wanted to serve in the “Indian Army” and hence started preparing for that. I attempted the SSB exam a few times, but couldn’t get in, probably because God had a different plan for me. Of course, I didn’t know at that time….ha-ha…I was quite pissed for a while after all those rejections. 

So basically, I was all over the place in my childhood, but all through that time I didn’t stop drawing because that was one of those things which gave me happiness and satisfaction, especially after being rejected so many times. I kind of lost hope and needed to look inside me to figure out what I wanted to do now. Although I had options to go for Engineering back then, which most kids tend to choose after doing 10+2 from Science stream, I somehow couldn’t get myself to agree on doing that. So, the only thing left with me was Drawing which always gave me joy. And after watching all those cartoons I knew that I really love drawing those cartoons, so I thought maybe this is something I can do and be happy. 

So, the journey started from there. It was kind of a blind shot as nobody in my family and in my circle knew anything about it. But somehow, through one of my friend’s elder brother, I got to know about this seminar about animation organized by “Toonz Animation Studio” (thats what it was called back then). And that’s how I got to know about animation and the industry.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I was already working even before I graduated, so my formal education didn’t really affect my career path. I did my graduation in Fine Arts from “Open University” but it was mostly just for being “a Graduate”.

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

Watching animation during my childhood days, my interest in drawing/cartoons and the constant rejection (SSB and other career paths), were kind of the key factors for me to choose animation as a career path.

When I was watching all those cartoons, I was constantly involved in copying all those characters. I didn’t actually know anybody who actually worked on those. 

And above all, my family was quite supportive for pursuing something regarding which even I myself didn’t know much about as a career. 

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

Due to some financial problems I couldn’t complete college. I had to drop out of college because I couldn’t pay the fee. So, I took help from the internet and tried to learn as much as I could. 

Around that time, our family was going through some serious medical problems. My father was diagnosed with a brain tumor and the financial crisis started to take over our lives. My elder sister was already working and helping out with all the resources. Since my younger brother was in college, I too stepped in to make things a bit easier.

My drawing skills were not good enough for me to land a job in my desired profile, but since I had to support my family financially, I took whatever job I could. But I kept practicing side by side to improve my skills so I could eventually get into my desired work profile.

 My father couldn’t make it through that medical situation and we lost him. That time was tough, and though I got a few more options within the same profile that I was already working in, I needed to decide how to get into the industry. So I talked to my family members and they were supportive enough for me to do the transition, leaving a high paying job and starting again from the beginning in my desired profile (By that time I developed skills to get me a beginner level position as 2D artist).

Since then, it was mostly focusing on work and getting better at the craft.

Tell us about your career path

My first major job where I joined as a 2D artist was in Bangalore. I worked with a small studio which was doing “Children’s Book Illustration” for kid’s story books. I worked there for a while and then moved to the next better opportunity which involved not just illustration but “Character Design” as well as a part of my work. Each of these places helped me quite a bit in improving my skills. I met some really cool people who were much better than me, so It was fun as well as a bit hard, but overall a good experience.

So, I finally started working in the same profile I wanted to. After some time, I moved to Hyderabad. I began working with an E-Learning company, “Next Education”. This was something new because I have never been in a place where there are so many people on the same floor. I met some really great artists and some really cool friends here. 

I started there as an “Illustrator”. Basically, I had to draw illustrations for children’s story books (around grade 3 to 5). It could be a fairy tale or sometimes mythology. Here something really unexpected happened when I was assigned to a new project where I had to work as a storyboard artist for their digital content (eBook). What that means is, all the stories which were written in the book had to be made in the form of a video, like a short film. So now I had to plan out the whole thing and conceptualise how to convey the story in this format where things are moving and you still want to keep viewer’s attention towards the story. I really enjoyed working as a storyboard artist and decided to add this to my profile. I worked on a few more projects as a storyboard artist. It was a really fun and learning experience. 

By now I was working as a story artist. I was enjoying storyboarding so much that I decided to work as a full-time storyboard artist. Around that time, I got an offer from a Delhi based studio. They were looking for a storyboard artist. Since I am originally from Delhi, I thought it’ll be a really good idea to go back to Delhi and so I did. I got through the test and the interview process and finally got the job. I came back to Delhi and was happy that I could stay close to my family and also work on something I always wanted to. So, I joined the company and it was a really welcoming environment. The place was full of talented people and I felt really lucky to be surrounded by them. I worked there on a few projects as a storyboard artist. That’s when I got to know about a specific project which really interested me because it was for “Disney” and with my background and appreciation for Disney, I was extremely eager to work on this project. The management, knowing my fascination for Disney, asked me to work on it as a “Concept Artist”. I feel really privileged and excited that I finally got to work on a project that somehow has the “Disney” brand stamped on it. 

For people who are not really sure about what these two disciplines are, a “Concept Artist” is basically someone who comes up with design ideas for any particular asset, it could be a “Character” or an “Environment” or in some cases, miscellaneous props like “War ship”. The role of storyboard artist is to figure out the best way to show a story on screen where it looks interesting enough to grab the viewer’s attention and at the same time convey the story effectively without losing its core idea. So, he/she needs to choose the camera angle and character acting based on what that particular story or moment demands.    

I am still working with them and that project was a great help for me, as I used to get feedback from all the great artists at “Disney”. Now I am at that point where I am looking for the next phase of my career, not necessarily a new place but a new milestone for my “self-growth” as an artist. So that is yet to come. 

How did you get your first break?

I was initially working in a job which was paying me enough salary to support my family financially. Around that time, I lost my father due to “Brain Tumor”. The reason I had taken up that Job was to support the medical expenses for my dad. After my dad’s death, I decided to make the switch because I knew that the longer I waited the harder it was going to get. All this while I had been working on my skills side by side to help land me a beginner level position in the industry. I was working in a small studio with maybe around 5-6 people including myself. It wasn’t the same as I thought but that was my very first break in my desired profile.

What were the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

My biggest challenge was to prepare my portfolio that could demonstrate my skills and artistic ability in order to help me to get my foot into the industry.

As I mentioned earlier, I wasn’t able to finish my degree program due to financial issues. So, I was mostly relying on books, the internet, listening to other artists, trying to copy them. I just kept working until I could build my skills to that of beginner’s level position. It wasn’t as easy as it seems, since I had a full-time day job where one has to spend a desired amount of time on a daily basis. I also had to travel, which takes some time. So, I utilized the travelling time to sleep, so that when I reached home, I could take some time from my sleeping hours for my study purpose. 

Where do you work now? 

Right now, I am working with a Gaming Studio in Delhi. Due to this lockdown and whole pandemic thing we all are working from home. So, we don’t get to interact with each other as we used to.

Right now, I am working in the same Disney project as a concept artist. There are some other projects going on as well. So sometimes, if the project demands, I switch to other projects as well. 

What is a typical day like?

In the morning we have an online scrum with team leads and project managers. Once we get to know what project or what assets we’ll be working on, we get all the files we need for the asset and just get on with it. Generally, for concept art, we do have some rounds of review and feedback discussion with the Art Director so that we all know that we are not going off the line.

The most fun part about this job is that I am working on something I really love doing. I have so many friends who are not enjoying what they are doing. To be honest I don’t think that I also get to work on exciting things all the time. Nobody does, but I tend to compensate that with my own personal work and my personal time when I do things I like to do. It could be anything. It need not be drawing related. I love drawing, designing and storytelling and it’s a huge part of my daily life, but there is still a lot more than this. I love sports, sometimes I play Volleyball or Table Tennis. Infact before this pandemic took over the world, we used to play Volleyball almost on a daily basis. I also like to do fitness exercises. The point is that the mind needs some rest and some fun time for it to process correctly. If you have a hard day at work which people have, no matter which profession, your mind also needs some time to process those things. Basically, it is like balancing your personal and professional life.

How does your work benefit society? 

I am not sure how my work benefits society. It may differ from person to person. We create entertainment resources for society so that people could release their stress while playing those games. During this lockdown most people are looking for some entertainment resources and that’s how it might help. I know that I like telling stories and sometimes this is what it takes, a story to change someone’s life. If we are working on something there is someone out there waiting to experience it. 

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

The project I am working on right now is “Disney Heroes”. I got the opportunity to redesign some of the memorable and Classic Disney characters for that game like Mickey Mouse, Li-Shang, Shen-Yu, Timon & Pumba, Darkwing Duck, John Silver and a few others. The one very close to me is Mickey Mouse. It’s a dream for every Disney geek like me to work on Mickey Mouse. I worked on another unreleased project which I really cannot share right now with anyone because it hasn’t come out yet.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

 Ha-ha…. advice …. I am not quite sure. Based on my experiences I would say follow your passion and it’s not an easy thing but you’ll get there. My father once told chasing your dreams takes a lot and not everyone have the courage to pay the price. The journey has been quite exciting and challenging but I am glad that I choose this as my profession. There is nothing more satisfying then seeing people responding at something you work on. 

Future Plans?

Right now, it just… keep myself occupied with work and keep learning this art form as much as I can. I am getting more and more into storytelling. I really like telling stories so that’s something I want to do moving forward. I have stories to tell and am sure I’ll have many more with time. Rest I’ll figure out as I go.