BioShock Infinite's lead character artist, Gavin Goulden reveals how he crafts characters for triple-A games, such as the charismatic Elizabeth, in this exclusive artist interview
BioShock Infinite was a game packed with pleasures, but the one which most sticks in the memory is Elizabeth. A companion to the player character, she's one of the few game characters who actually feel like a human being, rather than a CG avatar.
Elizabeth's credibility is partly down to being well-written, partly down to her smart artificial intelligence, and partly down to her design – and they all add up to an iconic figure. Gavin Goulden was responsible for the latter, which cleverly blurs the lines between photorealism and cartoony features. We had a chat with Gavin about his career so far, and the pleasures and perils of working for a huge studio such as Irrational Games.
‘Duff' was created by Gavin to test out the Marmoset Toolbag 2 material editor and renderer - Image courtesy of Gavin Goulden
3dtotal: How did you get into character design?
I spent all of my free time in my childhood drawing fan art for DOOM and X-COM, and pretending to design games and doing some light modding, so game art seemed like a natural career choice when the time came.
"I always had an interest in characters, in some form, either through comic books, or action heroes”
Like a lot of game artists, I went to school for it. And, like a lot of artists, I really just learned the basics for a lot of different disciplines, bouncing from animation to environment art. But I always had an interest in characters, in some form, either through comic books or action heroes. I always wanted to create characters and creatures that populated a world.
When my skills became good enough to get an entry-level job, I needed to settle for doing other things. I started off making UI and pixel art for casual and mobile games. While I held that job, I practiced my character work outside on my own time. Eventually, I became good enough to do just that full-time, and I worked my way up through different jobs.
A pair of BioShock Infinite's fearsome, technologically-enhanced enemies - Image courtesy of Gavin Goulden
"Even if you are given a lot of creative control, it is still a team sport"
3dt: Do you have much back-and-forth between yourself and the studio, or are you left to get along with things?
Within Irrational, I am given a lot of freedom, but it is always a collaboration. Either between departments or between an artist and an art director. So far, in about my decade of experience, that seems to be the norm. Generally, you are never given absolute freedom. There is always going to be a client that you are working for. Writers need a character to match their story, designers need it to work within their game mechanics, animators need it to deform properly, etc. So, even if you are given a lot of creative control, it is still a team sport.
Gavin's attention to detail is outstanding, particularly in the stitching of BioShock's horrific-looking characters - Image courtesy of Gavin Goulden
3dt: What's the biggest challenge of your job?
There are a lot of moving parts and I need to make sure that the machine keeps running. It is my job to maintain best practices, manage scheduling, mentor artists, deny or approve asset requests, to make sure everyone has work – that it is getting done right and on time – and that all other departments are having their needs met by my team (or telling them why they won't be.)
Generally, you want everyone to be happy, you don't want to be the guy who always says no, but you need to keep people working and you need to defend your team's productivity, morale, and sense of accomplishment. So, it can be tricky to make sure that everything has been communicated properly, in both directions, and make sure that the time that is spent is spent wisely.
3dt: And what's your proudest moment so far?
Shipping BioShock Infinite
. It was a lot of work that finally paid off and a project that I personally did a lot for. It has been the biggest title of my career, it went over pretty well, and I learned a ton from the entire experience.
The Outsider was created by Gavin for a workshop he's taking in Bogota, Colombia - Image courtesy of Gavin Goulden
3dt: What are you working on next?
At the moment, I can't really say. It is a bit of a slow period and I need to be quiet about anything that could be coming up – for now. However, I am always trying out new things on my own time and staying busy with new characters, new tools and new techniques. In particular, I have been beta testing The Toolbag 2
by Marmoset and learning more about a physically-based rendering set up.
"You need to do things that will fail, take the feedback from the community, and work on the next project until you are as good as the people that you look up to”
3dt: What advice would you give to people who wish to follow in your footsteps?
I think if I had to give any advice to artists wanting to get into character work, it would be to never stop working, to have idols, and to self promote. You won't become a better artist by sitting in the dark and never showing people your work. You need to get out there. You need to do things that will fail, take the feedback from the community, and work on the next project until you are as good as the people that you look up to.
BioShock's Elizabeth visits a pre-fall Rapture in the Burial at Sea DLC. Goulden created a new look for the character - Image courtesy of Gavin Goulden
Irrational's next project is a closely-guarded secret, but we're hoping it'll be another trip into BioShock's alternative-history universe. It's set its own bar incredibly high with BioShock Infinite, and with next-generation consoles its work will be cut out. But we're sure they'll deliver something astonishing!
Gavin, meanwhile, has written a tutorial book for us entitled The Swordmaster
, which details every step of creating a character in 3ds Max and ZBrush. It's essential reading from one of the industry's bona fide masters, and you can buy it here
Gavin's official site
Irrational Games' official site
To see more by Gavin Goulden, check out 3D Masterclass: The Swordmaster in 3ds Max and ZBrush