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By Tom Woolley on

Interview: Neil Thompson, Director of Art & Animation at BioWare

Ahead of Neil Thompson’s visit to the museum, we caught up over email to find out a little more about what makes him tick.

In a few weeks we welcome BioWare’s Director of Art and Animation, Neil Thompson, to Bradford to speak at this year’s Animation Festival.

With a career spanning 20 years, Neil has a wealth of experience working for some of the UK’s most renowned game companies such as Psygnosis, Sony Liverpool and Bizarre Creations. 2011 and a move to Canada saw Neil take on the Director of Art and Animation role at BioWare, home of the world-conquering franchises Dragon Age and Mass Effect.

Neil Thompson
Neil Thompson, Director of Art & Animation at BioWare

Hi Neil. What first attracted you to working in the games industry?

It was an art job that paid a regular wage! In the late 80s, when I got involved, it was very much a cottage industry. I was struggling to find work as a traditional illustrator and when the opportunity came along it looked interesting and fun. In no way did I think it would be a career that would last any more than a couple of years at best…

What’s it like working at BioWare? Is it very different to other game studios?

There’s a certain mystique that comes with success, and sometimes this can translate into arrogance. What struck me most was that here at BioWare everyone is still very humble and grateful in spite of the success and the desire to improve and make better games is still incredibly strong.

It’s a great experience to work with teams and individuals who are so creatively motivated.

What is the role of a Director of Art and Animation? What does a regular working day consist of?

My days are filled with one to ones with the Art Directors and art and animation discipline leads. My job is to assist with any personnel issues and to give creative guidance when needed. How do you keep teams of artists and animators inspired and motivated to produce their best work under sometimes stressful circumstances? Providing a creatively inspiring environment and perspective on the development process can be invaluable…

Weekly reviews from every department are an essential part of the team building philosophy. Critique and discussion are welcomed and I try and attend as many as I can, primarily because it motivates and inspires me to see the great work that is being done!

Mass Effect 3
Mass Effect 3 artwork

Is it very different working in Canada compared to the UK?

Living in Canada is very different—particularly in a city like Edmonton which is not European at all—but in terms of working, it’s still the games industry. Details and people change, but the broad strokes of what we do are the same.

What’s been the biggest change you’ve seen in the games industry over your career?

The size of the industry and the move from being a hobby for a bunch of geeky guys to a mass market entertainment medium embraced by millions!

What advice would you give to an aspiring professional animator or artist looking to find work for the first time?

Continue to work on your portfolio and strive to better yourself as an artist. Continue to critique your own work against the professionals and look to develop your core traditional art and animation skills. If you have no formal art training, go to life drawing classes at a local college: you will learn so much about form, proportion, composition and technique that is directly applicable to the art of games.

Remember that games are a different medium for you to express your artistic creativity—just like painting, sculpture, film or photography.

What elements do you look for in prospective employee portfolios and show reels when recruiting at BioWare?

I often look at personal work in a portfolio first rather than the professional images. This work tends to be done with no constraints and can often give us a better idea of skillset than a piece done for a game from someone else’s concept and art direction.

With screenshots we’re not only looking at the individual assets, but also the composition of the shot itself. We’re trying to assess your ‘artist’s eye’ as well as your technical knowledge.

Traditional illustrations are always nice to see, but only if you think they’re good enough to be shown! We want to see anything that a prospective employee thinks portrays them in the best light as an artist and a creative individual.

Dragon Age 2
Dragon Age 2 concept artwork

What are you most excited about in the future of games?

Just the ongoing journey. From an art perspective, our ability to realise what we envisage gets closer with every hardware revision. To provide an immersive, emotive experience interactively is every game developer’s dream and the drive to do that better is always going to be exciting.

Do you play many games in your spare time? If so, could you name your all time favourites?

Not as many as I used to! My tastes are pretty esoteric… my all-time favourites stem from the dark ages! I hate to be pinned down on favourite lists, but here you go:

  • Phoenix—greatest arcade game of all time, hands down
  • Everybody’s Golf World Tour—I still play this
  • Portal 2—more recent, but I really enjoyed it as a ‘pure’ gameplay experience
  • Every game I’ve ever worked on is my favourite during its development period!

Do you have a favourite film? Do films inspire your work?

Films inspire my work more than any other medium. Narrative pacing, composition, lighting… it’s all there. Favourites? It would be a big list but if I must…

  • Blade Runner—so influential still
  • The Big Blue—a chick flick for guys with the added bonus of being beautifully shot
  • Barry Lyndon—Kubrick at his finest: every scene is beautifully composed
  • Conan the Barbarian—got to have this is in as I first saw it at age 13 and it had a profound effect: also Thulsa Doom is one of the great cinema villains

What other artists, animators, directors, games designers, writers inspire you?

Above all else I believe it is vital to take influence from as many creative mediums as you can… There are so many names that have inspired me (and continue to do so) over the course of my life, that it would take a page to list them all!

Thanks Neil!

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