Naughty Dog Art Director Discusses 30 Years Of Innovation

Erick Pangilinan, art director at Naughty Dog, talks about how technology has helped the studio push interactive storytelling forward in this exclusive interview.


After the impressive gameplay demo at PlayStation Experience (PSX), gamers are looking forward to Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End from developer Naughty Dog. The studio is celebrating 30 years of innovation with a new hardcover art book, which makes for a great collectible even after Christmas. Erick Pangilinan, art director at Naughty Dog, talks about how technology has helped the studio push interactive storytelling forward in this exclusive interview.

What role have the advances in technology over the last 30 years played in bringing your art to life in games?

Advances in technology over the last 30 years brought together people. The more complex technology got, the more experts were needed to harness it to its maximum potential. Working with larger teams and some very talented experts has expanded the ways we could bring our art to life in our games. It’s remarkable the level of artistry we’re able to achieve with our team nowadays. All the technological advances bridged experts from different industries like film, fashion design, graphic design, special effects to work together to push the fidelity of graphics to the next level.  It seems like every day we learn a new way to push our boundaries even further.  

What has PlayStation 4 opened up for you creatively?

The PlayStation 4 is a fantastic console and technological powerhouse. Increases in processing power have enabled us to create more realistic renderings of the environment, characters and animation. We are able to create bigger worlds and populate it with more detail due to the increased memory of the system. The internet and networking have connected many players into a community of gamers from all over the world and that’s where all the real creativity flourishes – in how we connect with our fans and what our fans can do with and in our games.   

As far as technology has come, what has remained consistent when it comes to creating concept art for games?

Technology is just a set of tools, what never changes are good art fundamentals like composition, shape language, understanding of color and lighting.  You will always need a good understanding of art to effectively tell a compelling story with a single picture. Technology will just help you achieve your finish work faster, with more flexibility and efficiency. The availability of easy-to-use 3D software that can quickly simulate realistic lighting has helped concept artists with readily creating broad shape language and composition. They can quickly iterate and explore with different angles and change lighting quickly instead of guessing and starting from scratch every time. Yet it remains that keen knowledge of shape language, color, lighting, and a great sense of proper composition, and many other core elements of top notch artistic design are essential to creating good concept art for games.  

How collaborative is the process of developing characters for your games?

Characters are very story dependent and we need a close cooperation between the writer, concept artist and character artist to make them work. Everyone needs to understand the context of the character’s past, affiliation and relevance in the story to give any one character the proper design to fit in, or stand out in, the world, and with other characters. In other words, we’re highly collaborative across all disciplines. 


Where do you draw inspiration from when first mapping out worlds, stories and characters through concept art?

I believe inspiration can come from a strong memory from your past.  Whether it was when you were young and the world you lived in as you saw it.  It can also be a memory of a place you traveled, like somewhere whether it is in Europe or Asia or somewhere exotic and very different from what is familiar to you. There are many sources of inspiration but aside from personal inspiration we tend to look at movies and concept art from other artists in various fields. Sometimes it’s as simple as something we’ve watched or seen during the course of a day. 

Being in Los Angeles, how have you seen Hollywood and traditional entertainment evolve when it comes to video games as a true art form?

As the technology gap between film and games got closer, and the story telling got more engaging and complex in games. The talent and tools needed for both film and games has started to become very similar. So, now games, as an art form and as a repository for good stories, are getting much more attention within the film community.

We've seen an entire industry evolve out of video game music over the years. How have you seen appreciation for video game art?

There have been many inspiring ideas and concepts coming from video game art. Like comics, an entire generation of kids and young adults get invested in the story telling and the characters. Now you can see movies and TV series made from video game IPs. Video games may be for this generation what comics are for the generation of our parents.

What does it mean to you as a developer to see museums around the world celebrate video game art?

I grew up with video games and saw the rise of the industry. I feel the industry has come a long way from shedding its stigma, and becoming recognized around the world as a legitimate art form. It’s wonderful to see some of our work hanging in museums and upheld as an exploration of themes more traditional art once had dominion over. 

How much art is drawn typically to create a game?

It’s really impossible to give any kind of number anymore because as games get more complex, and as team sizes grow bigger, the need for more tangible direction is necessary to focus everyone on the same vision. Different concept art is also geared for different departments/disciplines such as Lighting, Texturing, Modelling, Characters, Particles, Graphic Design and so forth. It comes down to the simple fact that the more complex and rich the world, the more art you will need to describe it, to tell the different layers of the story.

How did you go about choosing what art would make it into this book?

We like to show the process of how the concept evolves via iteration. It will give you a glimpse of how we work here at Naughty Dog, and reflects our culture of seeking the absolute best decision by being flexible and open minded and not getting too attached to any one idea. In the book, we want to show this with as much variety among disciplines to show that we apply this thinking to all our departments. Often we don’t have enough pages to show everything but you should see the best possible representation of our process in this book. 

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From The Chatty