Bay Raitt is an industry veteran whose commercial works span across the comic, film, and video game industries. Some of his most commonly recognized video game animation work can be seen in the Valve titles: Half Life 2, the Portal series, Team Fortress 2, and the Left 4 Dead series. Before joining Valve Software, Bay was at the forefront of computer graphics as the Creature Facial Lead at Weta Digital, where he was responsible for modeling and animating the award-winning facial system for the CGI character “Gollum” in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Behind the scenes, he has helped to design various tools for creative production such as the popular Source Filmmaker, and 3D creation software like Mirai, Wings3D, and Nendo, all the while contributing to his own Digital Sculpting Forum: Spiraloid, and even coining Edge Loop modeling itself! I have always been a fan of his work, and had the chance to ask him a few questions about his background, artistic viewpoints, and philosophies; and thought it savvy to share them here. Enjoy!
First off, I’d like to thank you so much for taking the time to answer our questions. Your work in the industry has been so memorable to many of us, and what you’re doing now is honestly inspiring in and of itself. Please tell us a little bit about what you are currently up to now following your work in the industry. As I understand, you have been traveling often?
I have been traveling quite a bit. A few years back I parted ways with Valve after 9 years, got hitched, and my wife and I decided to get an Airstream and hit the road. So far we’ve driven over 35,000 miles, exploring all four corners of America with our dog as navigator. It’s a sabbatical of sorts, and I spent most of my time learning to write screenplays. But, being the creator geek I am, I also made my 3D battle station mobile and brought it along; basically adventuring and dreaming up the craziest, coolest things I could think of to do next. We met some amazing people and had an amazing adventure. I recommend it to anyone who ever gets the opportunity. I’m off the road now and thinking about how to bring the dreams I conceived on my adventures to life. I’m looking forward to being able to share it properly soon(ish).
Oh man, that’s excellent! I tend to rant so much and it’s great to hear it’s had some positive impact for you. Super glad to hear it! Let’s see. First inspirations, ok… So I grew up way out in the woods, without radio, TV, or internet which meant I had to make my own fun. I remember using compressed air hoses and nail guns as toys from a very young age (Parents were Yurt builders). Basically, I built lots of wooden swords and scrap wood monsters to hack apart… That and I drew a lot. Later when we got a computer, I learned to use the alpha version of Photoshop in black and white and was hooked.
Also, because of my extended family, show business was always on my radar. My Grandfather was a famous Broadway singer (John Raitt), and my aunt won 13 Grammy’s (Bonnie Raitt), so that made it hard to romanticize that show biz is something unattainable. It was the family trade. It was work. Something that people went out and did for a living. You sing for your supper. I may have been isolated out in the sticks, but because of them I felt like the world was out there, just over the horizon. Especially when I made art with my music blaring. So I drew and I sculpted; and thought about machines, tools and eventually – filmmaking, games and CG. Basically whenever I found something that inspired me, I knew there were real people behind it, busting ass, struggling to make it great, to make it inspiring. I wanted to go find them, learn from them, team up and lend my shoulder to the inspiring efforts struggling to come into the world. I still feel that way. But what do you expect, I was the toddler in the wings watching my grampa out there on stage playing Zorba the Greek or Don Quixote in the Man of La Mancha. Of course I went out to help the dreamers dreaming the impossible dream. Got a few of my own.
Coming out of making such a memorable imprint in the film industry, at what point did you decide to work on video games? Were you always a fan of games growing up, or was the career field flourishing at the time?
Always been a gamer. I’m part of the generation that grew up with video games so everybody was obsessed with them. up-down-up-down-left-right-left-right-B-A-B-A-select-start etc. Back then I was playing sneakers on a green cathode screen on an appleIIc. But I remember every year video games kept getting better and better. I remember thinking at a young age that it was obvious someday video games would look like movies and comics. When I was 14, I could see the collision of those art forms coming and thought I wanted be at ground zero when they collide. So I got a night job at a local access TV station and started learning about the tools of media production. A few years later, when I was working for at a comic coloring company (Olyoptics) I met Lorne Lanning at Comic Con and asked him for advice. Lorne had just made a motion ride about a giant sea monster that was right up my alley. He told me to learn 3D modeling, and in the next few years, he started Oddworld and made Abe’s Odyssey. I remember watching this ex-film guy make a full color video game that felt like a movie, using polygons and thought – that’s it. Whatever movies, games, comics, toys or art I make are going to really be 3D polygons underneath first. So I dove deep into 3D computer graphics.
Many would likely see you as sort of a jack-of-all-trades, especially in digital art. Do you feel that a content creator is better suited to generalize or specialize their skill-sets? What would you think the industries prefer?
I think creators who can use all the dimensions available to them are going to be the most likely to succeed. Being deeply focused on one craft can get you contract work, but you’ll need someone guiding how your craft fits into the overall picture. This can isolate you from the audience and can get political. Remember that over time, digital crafts evolve and you can find yourself in a tough spot if you specialize too much. Think of what happened to calligraphy as a vocation when the printing press arrived. Don’t just wear one hat. 😉
I think a lot of specialists like to partake in the fantasy that their one particular craft is really what the audience came for. That it’s all really about the The Animation. The Writing. The Lighting. The Editing. The Level Design, The Gameplay, The Story, The Sound, etc. etc. This is disrespectful to your collaborators and can be toxic. In my opinion, it’s the orchestration of a lot of all these different disciplines in an artful way that really brings out the magic moment for the player/viewer/reader. For me, regardless, whether I’m working solo or with a group, I really try not to get too myopic. Obsession with craft can really get in the way when it’s too extreme. Sure, at times some specific aspect must be compelling to carry the moment, but spending too much time/energy/resources on one art form diminishes the whole.
That said, I have gotten good at a lot of specialist skills, but once I get “good enough” at one art form, I force myself to stop and focus on a different dimension. Understanding which dimension to employ creatively is an art form unto itself. Of course, this attitude has gotten me in trouble with various craft-focused people over the years. While I might have portfolio work that is “good enough” in a lot of different disciplines, it’s not the “greatest” work in that field. This attitude runs contrary to a lot of people. So many artists are trying to either become the next “legendary talent” and so many employers are hoping to find the next “legendary talent” for their project. I concede there’s certainly a place for that kind of rockstar market, but over time I think it becomes a trap. A field of one-hit-wonders and sing-along-celebrities who think they are rockstars. Being focused on a great portfolio piece instead of what works best for the audience is a mistake that is too easy to make. In stand up comedy, they call it “playing to the back of the room” – Where you’re making your friends in the industry laugh instead of the audience. I’d rather my reel suck and have the audience cheer.
In shifting to a different field altogether, what advice do you have for programmers who want to be creators in the entertainment industry? How does it compare to pursuing a professional career in art?
Not sure how they are different, honestly. I’ve found that good business acumen, good programming and good artistry are all so extremely similar to each other when done well. Sure, the grammar of each is different (as are the public perceptions) but at their hearts, they all use iteration, analysis and passion. Hack-and-Hone. Some of the best programmers I’ve worked with have degrees in art or were dropouts. I suggest that no matter where you start from, if you really want to make something, just go learn the tools and crafts you need to get you there. That’s it. Don’t get caught up thinking that some obstacle, talent, tool, knob, degree, or job title is what’s stopping you. These days writing code has kinda become a knob turn, just like painting a texture, or recording a sound. Sure there’s an art to doing it well, but keep at it, keep iterating and it will get better and better. That’s just how it works. Saying something is “programmer art” is kinda like saying “I’m not going to iterate on this because I specialize in ascii text”. I say go ahead and iterate on that programmer art in the same way “real artists” do. You might surprise yourself. If you’ve dreamt up something you’re passionate about, then go out there and learn how to code/paint/model/capture what you need to get it working. The clock’s ticking. The tools are right in front of you. Know that it’ll suck at first, but get feedback and iterate. It’ll get better over time and you facing the context of the problem will teach you what you need to know and what questions to ask. It works in programming, it works painting with a burnt stick on a cave wall, it works with performing. It’s called rehearsal. You just need to show up for it.
“Don’t get caught up thinking that some obstacle, talent, tool, knob, degree, or job title is what’s stopping you.”
I’m still working on it. I’ll let you know.
As technology continues to develop, people are making creative content in new ways every day. What direction do you think user-generated content will move towards, and how do you think technologies, such as VR technology, might impact it in the short term?
Hmm, that’s a broad question… Ok. I think showmanship, really having something to say, or a compelling piece of work to share, will start to shine more and more as the new-tech-feature-of-the-day gets overused by casual creators and becomes stale. (think lens-flare). Just as tools amplify the casual creator making user generated content, it also amplifies the dedicated professional creator. It’s a creative competition that is going to be a challenge as the market gets saturated with certain kinds of entertainment offerings. But for the arts, it’s a wonderful crucible to form the artistic movements of our time. Unfortunately, competing with their own audiences will be tougher and tougher on specialist technicians who’ve dug in too narrowly and lost sight of how the entertainment hour is created. That “craft over experience choice” will spell the end of a lot of careers over time. But we’re living through the dawn of an automated economy and it’s not limited to just the entertainment field. (i.e. the youtube video Humans Need Not Apply) but I digress.
It likely isn’t too common that artists have the freedom to travel as you do now, with most industry jobs anchoring people to a specific city or schedule. Have your previous experiences in the industry, as well as recent travels and lifestyle changes affected your outlook on creative content and your philosophy overall? What do you consider to be your main focus?
Tough to encapsulate. First off I’d say that trade-offs were made in our household to do this and I’m really lucky to have the support from my wife. Taking time to dream up projects that I’m really passionate about bringing to life was really important to me. Our time is the most valuable commodity we have, and using it to inspire and add to the happiness of others is really important to me, now more than ever. I still take on small freelance gigs and collaborative projects that seem fun or help out friends, but if it takes up much of my time, it needs to be symbiotic to this larger project I’m starting. One that I’m not ready to talk about publicly just yet.
As for my how my philosophical outlook has changed… hmm. that’s a much longer answer. I’d say the short version is this. Previously I was willing to sort of vaporize my focus across every aspect I could so that I could do something impossible. And now, I’ve come to a place where I admit there are just some aspects that I simply enjoy doing. Be it in conversation, in the arts, or in life. It’s a gift to find others who enjoy complimentary aspects, and instead of trying to corral others, I guess I’ve learned to let it go in ways I wasn’t able too before. Going through a tornado has that kind of effect on you, but that’s another story.
“Our time is the most valuable commodity we have, and using it to inspire and add to the happiness of others is really important to me, now more than ever.”
Which artists, games, or other work do you find particularly inspiring today?
Oh man, that’s a long list. I actually publish my random bookmarks on www.spiraloid.net lots of what I’m inspired by over there.
And finally, what do you consider to be the greatest advice you can give to someone who wants to work in video games, film, or entertainment?
Sing for your supper. Never turn your back to the audience. Do your warm-ups. Come to play. Take the stage.