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Lily Zhu: ‘The role of lead artist is not something you land, it’s something you grow into’

Every month, MCV’s Levelling Up gives you cherry picked advice to help you reach the next level in your career. This month, Lily Zhu, lead artist at Splash Damage and one of our 30 Under 30 this year, tells us why lead artist doesn’t mean best artist and the importance of cultivating leadership skills.

What is your job role and how would you describe your typical day at work?
I’m a lead artist at Splash Damage where we work on numerous titles for PC and consoles, including the Gears of War franchise.

My current project sees me working directly with the VP of art and a team of artists to create visuals. My job stretches across numerous disciplines, including character art, environment art, VFX, UI art and lighting. Additionally, I work with the leadership team to oversee the execution of our project goals and I represent my art team in strategic conversations. The benefit of working in the games industry is that there’s always something new to do. Problems are rarely the same and tasks are rarely routine.

As a team, we scrum up in a circle every morning to discuss yesterday’s achievements, today’s agenda and any blockers. The rest of my day is spent completing art reviews. These and feedback sessions ensure that the team can move quickly and avoid reworking. I also prepare briefs and documents on upcoming tasks and I have numerous conversations with other discipline leads to ensure that the art team have the information they need.

I normally spend the end of my day reviewing the work submitted by the team and preparing for the next day’s feedback session.

What qualifications and/or experience do you need to land this job?
The role of lead artist is not necessarily something you land, instead I tend to think it’s something you grow into. I graduated with a BA in Interactive Animation and spent the last decade working in the industry, levelling up my skills in both art and production.

The common misconception is that the lead artist is the best artist, but this isn’t always the case. Within our organisation, the lead is more focused on smooth production and team efficiency. This year I took part in Splash Damage’s bespoke Leadership Development Programme where we study leadership fundamentals, team motivations, coaching methods and strategic thinking. These skills have helped me immensely at being a better leader, and I was very proud to see this being recognised in MCV’s 30 Under 30 list this year.

Technical knowledge is the bread and butter of this industry, and I think an in-depth engine knowledge, understanding of different workflows and pipelines is a must. Of course, as an artist, a solid art background in both traditional and digital art is critical.

“The common misconception is that the lead artist is the best artist, but this isn’t always the case. The lead is more focused on smooth production and team efficiency.”

 

If you were interviewing someone for your team, what would you look for?
In additional to the skills needed to execute the job, I look for personalities. In the end, I work with people not machines. I like creative people who can think outside of the box when solving problems. I also value professionalism and the ability to communicate concisely.

There’s rarely a part of any game that’s created by one single person or a solution from a single individual, so every member of the team should be a strong team player. Collaboration is key and because Splash Damage has cultivated a friendly culture that we’re all incredibly protective of, it’s important for us to find candidates that share our values.

What opportunities are there for career progression?
The position of art director is normally the next step on from lead artist. However, in my current position, I’m focused on levelling up my team. The fact that I can use my experience and knowledge to support others and help them grow is a very gratifying part of my job.

Alongside this, I think being in the games industry leaves room for progression and adding value in so many areas outside of my discipline. And I’m interested in advocating for diversity in our industry in general. I have the pleasure to work with a very diverse team, and I want to do more to support diversity initiatives in the wider game’s community.

Want to talk about your career and inspire people to follow the same path? Contact Marie Dealessandri at marie.dealessandri@biz-media.co.uk

About Marie Dealessandri

Marie Dealessandri is MCV’s senior staff writer, having joined the publication during its days as a weekly magazine. After testing the waters of the film industry in France and being a radio host and reporter in Canada, she settled for the games industry in London in 2015. She can be found (very) occasionally tweeting @mariedeal, usually on a loop about Baldur’s Gate, Hollow Knight and the Dead Cells soundtrack.

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