Rebecca Zak – Technical Artist

Rebecca Zak – Technical Artist

“A strong engineer of all things visual.”


Hey Becky!  I hope you are well.

“Hi Marcus! I am, thanks for having me.”


Can you tell me your current job title and where you work?

“I am a Technical Artist at Crystal Dynamics.”  


Nice!  Crystal D does great things.  What are some previous game titles you’ve worked on?

“I’ve actually worked on both games and movies. When I was in college I interned at Turn 10 Studios at Microsoft and worked on Forza 3, and after college I went to Dreamworks Animation as a Technical Director and worked on Madagascar 3, Rise of the Guardians, and Turbo. After Dreamworks I spent some time at Glu Mobile, and now I’m at Crystal Dynamics.”


Where did you go to college? And what was your degree in?

“I went to school at Carnegie Mellon University and graduated with a Bachelors of Computer Science and Art. It was a relatively new program that incorporated both the school of computer science and the school of art.”


Rise of the Guardians

Did you focus your studies in any particular area?

“I was very interested in graphics and entertainment, so I took a lot of animation and computer graphics classes.”


Carnegie Mellon is fairly prestigious.  How did you get an internship at Turn 10?  Did the school have connections there?

“It is a great school. Their computer science program is very rigorous, but you come out of there knowing so much about the field. We had a few career fairs every year, and I got the internship that way.”


What did your internship entail? Looking through the lens of your few years of game development, did it give you real insight into how games are created?

“Microsoft had a great internship program – we were able to write code that would end up the final product instead of just shadow. I was an Artists’ Tool Intern, so I wrote tools for the artists to help their workflow. It certainly gave me insight into how much work goes into the creation of a game, and the extraordinary attention to detail that AAA games put forth. Turn 10 used to hire professional race car drivers to test out their game and tell us how to make it more true to the experience.”


You had an internship in games, but your first job out of school was in film.  How did that opportunity come about?

“For the longest time I thought that I wanted to go into film. I wanted to work for Pixar when I was in high school, so I tried to cater my college experience towards getting that opportunity. However it wasn’t until I was at Dreamworks (which by the way is a fantastic company) that I realized it wasn’t for me. I wanted to create a more interactive experience, and work on a smaller team. You have so many opportunities as an engineer at a video game studio, and I found that that environment was a much better fit.”


Forza Motorsport 3 (Gameplay)    

How did you get your first paying job in games?  How did you get your foot in the door?

“Having Dreamworks on the resume helped, but I applied to many places before landing my first game job. Networking also helps tremendously. It’s a small industry, so the more people you know and work with, the better. For anyone trying to break in, aside from knowing people, I’d say the best thing you can do is make games. Make a game from start to finish to learn all the different parts that go into it. Before going to Dreamworks I made many animations. I used to animate, create sound effects, edit, and worked with a few different programs to learn the different methods. Flash was by far my favorite. My senior year I was able to show one of my animations at a few film festivals, which was great exposure before entering the industry. That’s another important thing – it’s super important to get your work out there. A website is a great place to start.”


Networking is key.  This industry is still strongly who you know.

“It definitely is. Talent gets you pretty far, but you need the right people to see your talent to get you in the door.”


Where did you grow up?

“Long Island, New York.”


East coast!  Was it hard making the transition to the west coast?

“It took some getting used to. The biggest part of the transition was not having the seasons I was used to in New York, and not having snow. My first year in LA, my husband and I drove up into the mountains one time in the winter when we heard there was snow up there. Everybody was coming out of their houses to see it, they were as shocked as we were. But getting used to California weather is much easier than getting used to east coast weather.”


I miss the seasons still.  I like breaking out winter clothes.  However, I do not miss shoveling snow.

“Me neither. Or scraping it off the car in the morning because everything is frosted over.” [Laughs]




Now you are at Crystal Dynamics as a Technical Artist.  What is your typical workday like there?

“It depends on the project I’m working on, and what stage we’re at in development. If I’m writing a tool most of my time is spent coding and talking with the artists. Lately I’ve been working on the animation pipeline so most of my time has been spent with the artists talking about their workflow and what tools would make their lives easier, and the engineers to plan a good solution to fit in the engine. I want to make our engine as artist and designer friendly as possible, but since almost all of our tools are written in house I’m still learning a lot about how things are set up.”


It seems the best engineers are the ones who sit with the team and watch workflow.  Anything you can do to reduce iteration time is always greatly appreciated.  What are key traits or skills needed as a Technical Artist?

“Definitely. As a Technical Artist you can either lean more towards the artistic side and help generate content, or the engineering side and help develop tools. However in both cases you need a strong technical background and an eye for visuals. It also depends on what aspect of the pipeline you are working on. I am working with character animation so I needed to know Maya and Python scripting, rigging, animation state machines, and C++ to help with engine programming. However if you were working with shaders then you would need to know more about rendering techniques and graphics engineering.”


You list a lot of different aspects to being a technical artist, but what is your favorite part about what you do? Animations? Shader work? Tools development? D, all of the above?

“Being able to make a game itself is very rewarding. That’s a tough one because I enjoy a lot about it. Working on character animations is great because the game comes alive when you can see figures moving around in it, and AI is fun to work on also because you can control how the characters think and react. I also have to mention the people that I work with make it a great experience because we are all passionate about what we do.”


A strong and passionate team makes a better product.

“Absolutely. The best projects I’ve worked on were made with teams who had great team chemistry.”


What is your favorite development tool or plugin?

“Visual studio is the best for debugging. And this isn’t exactly a development tool but Unity has a great animation system called Mecanim that has a very intuitive interface for working with animations. Overall I think Unity is a good engine to use for someone learning to make games because it does so much under the hood, but when I was working on mobile games I especially enjoyed working with Mecanim because of how visual it is. You can control the parameters that trigger state transitions at runtime, and you can see which animation state the character is in. You can also preview transitions between states easily, which saves animators a lot of time since you don’t have to wait for the transition to be triggered at runtime.”


How do you stay up on the latest programming trends and tricks?  Are their specific websites you go to or twitter hashtags you follow?

“I read a few gaming blogs, like Kotaku, but it depends on my project. When I was working with Unity I would go to Unity’s website to look at the new features in product updates. At Crystal most of our software is written in house, so if I have a question about our engine or have an idea for a feature I can talk to one of the engineers about it.”


The best resource is sometimes someone at the desk across from yours.  Are there any trends in gaming development now that interest you?

“There is one trend I would love to see more of and that’s location-based games. I think that type of game is a very smart way of engaging people with their environments, and each other, in addition to just their device.”


Madagascar 3, Rise of the Guardians

There were a few other geolocation games prior to Pokemon GO and aside from Ingress.  They didn’t have the hook needed to become viral.  I hope we do see more.  The space is wide open for experimentation.  Speaking of games, what one game has influenced you the most?

“Oh man, that’s a tough one. I’d have to say Pokemon. I was not a hardcore gamer growing up, but for some reason I just got hooked on Pokemon when it came out. I played Pokemon red on the gameboy and could not get enough of it. When I finished the game and heard there were more pokemon in the japanese gold and silver editions, I couldn’t wait for them to come out in the US in english so I bought pokemon silver in Japanese and found a walkthrough online that guided me through it. It was such a simple game, and that was part of the appeal. It’s interesting how that franchise became such an icon of the 90’s, and now it’s coming back.”


Have you been playing Pokemon GO?  What level are you? [Laughs]

“Haha of course! Although I’m not very far, I’m only on level 9.”


Better than me.  I’m only like level 7.  How do you like to spend your free time?

“When the weather’s nice I like to go hiking, and I also take boxing classes. I also enjoy sewing. A few years ago I took a sewing class and got hooked. Now I make a lot of my clothing.”


If you had describe yourself in one sentence, what would you say?  What is your tagline?

“A strong engineer of all things visual.”


If people wanted to find you later, how can you be reached? Linkedin? Twitter? Smoke signals?

“Homing pigeon is the best way. [Smiles]  But if you don’t have one, my website is and here’s my LinkedIn.”


Fantastic.  Well, thank you Becky!

“Thank you Marcus!”


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