Rare Gamer Interviews Artist Sarah Ford – ExclusiveWe recently had the pleasure of getting in touch with Sarah Ford, an incredibly talented artist with a penchant for lemurs and sketching all of the behind-the-scenes bits for your favorite video games. At Rare, Sarah worked on Kinect Sports Rivals for the Xbox One, designing various elements including the User Interface that tracked players progress, as well as the Rare-inspired Photobooth backgrounds with homages to Killer Instinct, Blast Corps., Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts and more! While Sarah has left the Twycross pastures, we couldn't resist asking her some questions about her artistic practice, her experiences at Rare and her advice for anyone with sights on working for the games industry. Enjoy!
Rare Gamer: Can you tell us about your practice? What inspired you to chase the dream of working in the video games industry? Sarah Ford: Heh, it’s strange, videogames was never really my big dream, I just kinda ended up here. When I was a kid I wanted to be an animator then I found out how much hard work that was and I was scared off. I saw Jurassic Park in the cinema when I was like, 7 years old and it BLEW MY MIND so of course, I wanted to design monsters for movies too. I loved to get my hands covered in glue and make things outta cardboard, and the idea of making a cool giant dinosaur head that you can actually see and touch was badass... but then monsters for movies shifted from practical effects to CGI in a big way which didn’t seem as fun, so I didn’t wanna do that either. I then wanted to be a vet, or a zoologist, something with animals or the environment. To be honest, it got right to the point of me picking my courses for college when I decided that science wasn’t gonna be a thing for me either. My career guidance at school was kinda crappy so I didn’t actually know much about pursuing that kinda life other than that science was something that requires 8 million years of the most expensive education possible, and theres no way I could afford that. It’s not that I thought I wasn’t smart enough, I thought I wasn’t rich enough. There’s a PSA in here somewhere. HashtagPolitics. So I pursued art, because I figured I loved drawing, and you can study all of that yourself from books and from life without having to pay out your ass for university, AND, I get to geek out about bone shapes and muscles and comparative anatomy anways, win win. How that turned into games? Well, even once I decided art was a good option, I didn’t have a clue what the heck I wanted to do. I was a coin toss between choosing wether to go to uni for animation/VFX or for videogames. I think at the time videogames seemed like an infinitely more creative and exciting field, though I came to this industry wanting to work on cute cartoony 3D games that looked and felt like pixar movies – the best of both worlds! YEAH!! But those are so..rare now. Aha. Haha. Ahem. We do have weird cool exciting arty stuff like 'Gone Home' or 'Papers, Please' now though, games which are about exploring ideas and mood and feelings, great stuff, its great that the industry is so broad even if that one little corner of 3D platformers I wanted to work on doesn’t really exist anymore.
Rare Gamer: What was it like working for Rare and how did you come across the opportunity? Sarah Ford: The ending part was deeply unpleasant let’s just get that outta the way first. Other than that, I absolutely loved it. Coming into the barns with the sun down the corridors, watching rabbits frolic outside as you eat a fresh warm apple muffin at your desk, omg @_@. When I was in barn D my desk window was like a scene from Animals of Farthing Wood at all times, it was *amazing*. And I mean, that was just the location, the location is absolutely beautiful. They have these giant fish in the pond near the entrance gate who you could feed stale bread to, angry geese which would fight you off, an actual BEE SWARM WARNING email...ah...ahem. Yes. But on top of that the work was fun too, there are some super passionate guys and gals up there and even when the big drama of the day was something as mundane-sounding as arguing that we wanted to change the template for the buttons to be aligned to our layout grid - I’m talking two pixels difference here ( BUT IT MAKES ALL THE DIFFERENCE.) - it was still fun stuff, we still laughed about it and had dumb in-jokes about rainbows and graphs. That sounds so boring, how can pixels and graphs even be fun? But it was fun. Rare was FUN. They have this internal team who sets up cool things to keep everyone happy with things like ice creams and BBQs. There was a bake-off for Red Nose Day, lizards and parrots and meerkats in the lobby for the E3 summer party, an easter egg hunt with actual eggs hidden around the barns – inside and out! One week there was a Pac-man championship edition high score challenge which anyone in the studio could enter. It got pretty heated, my producer ended up winning it, but we reckoned it was only because he snuck in on Sunday to get some extra practise in. I always wondered if it’d get boring working in a studio that was in the middle of nowhere, but between the random little events and the ever-changing occasionally themed menu options in the café, every week felt different. Book your holiday there now, call this number act fast limited places~~. The opportunity kinda came outta the blue, I was working at Creative Assembly at the time but I’d had a lust to work for Rare since graduation, so when I got a phone call asking if I wanted to apply for a role I leapt on it, dream come true. Rare Gamer: You've held a number of impressive art positions that range from working on concept art, designing UI systems and 3D modeling. Do you have a preferred medium and are there any drastic differences between working with one over another? Sarah Ford: My passion is drawing, pencil and paper. Or biro and paper. I love making characters, creatures and places come to life, solving problems by drawing and drawing and drawing until the problem is solved. *love* it. When I’m concepting I get to geek out about lemurs or greek architecture or whatever, and then geek out with a pencil, and then geek out about my geek out until I’ve got a pile of like 30 ideas which is overkill because all anyone ever wants is 3, but it’s the best feeling. 3D is pretty nice, I’ve not done it for any professional projects…yet...and I wouldn’t want to do it as a full time AAA role, but it can be relaxing, like 'Minecraft' except like, a little more productive. I trained in 3DS max at uni, but max is super expensive so I only really play about with it when a new 30 day trial appears on the horizon. I have a couple of blender books sat there which I’m going to get round to at some point though, just to get my head around the weird interface. 3D can be a pretty useful tool for figuring out compositions and perspective. UI is my day job, and there are similarities to concept when I’m...yknow...concepting a screen, but it’s a bit...drier I guess. It’s super abstract which can get a bit boring at times, unless your team makes it fun by having daft in-jokes about pixels and rainbows, naturally. Rare Gamer: What are some important things to keep in mind when developing a game, and what tasks are specific to artists? Sarah Ford: Hmm. I guess in a big studio you have to be aware that your work isn’t just for you, you have to be clear about what’s going on because chances are it’s gonna be given to a programmer who has no idea what colours are or whatever. On the smaller scale, for personal projects or game jams, KISS (KEEP IT SIMPLE STUPID) is always important. I’m doing a side project at the moment and my dev partner is always telling me off (In a friendly nice lovely way :D) for overthinking, sometimes you just have to set yourself a time limit and get it done else you’re gonna be there forever. Tasks specific to artists? Well I guess...the art :D. It depends where you work, if it’s a small team you’re going to be doing a lot more. At Rare I was only really doing one thing, more or less, but at CA [Creative Assembly] I was flitting between UI and concept, and playing the game to give design feedback.
Rare Gamer: Which is your favorite video game of all time, do you have a favorite title from Rare? Sarah Ford: My hands are leaping over themselves to type Ecco The Dolphin before I’ve even had the chance to read the question here. I like a lot of games, there are games I probably enjoy more than Ecco, there are games which I probably like more than Ecco, but Ecco is like, my default answer. It’s all about exploration, and tension, and a tiny dolphin screaming in pain as it slowly suffocates in a cave surrounded by jellyfish. What more could you ask for REALLY? An auto-scrolling section in a HR giger hellscape future alien PC machine computer? DONE. ITS IN THERE. ITS IN THE GAME. A bit where you get swooped outta the sea by a Pteranodon? Are you even listening plz, Ecco has that. A bit where all you can do is swim in one direction as sharks fling themselves at your face and ‘ oh my god we’re all gonna die’ music plays? Got you covered. Favourite Rare game, though? Man, that’s actually a hard question. Hands down their best game is Viva Pinata. You can wrap that one up and throw it in a hall of fame, Viva Pinata is amazing. Ok, the maze minigame is a bit naff, but the art style is outta this world, and the tone is just so chilled out even if your snake dude and frog dude just will NOT stop fighting. I’m also a big fan of Nuts & Bolts, I know people hate on it because it’s not Banjo-Threeie, but as a pre-Minecraft game about building things and solving problems creatively, it’s pretty special. I also really enjoyed Kameo. Again, probably not one that most would pick, but that game felt like a Saturday morning cartoon in the best way. I really dug that the elemental beasts were all weird as heck, it made for some interesting fights that could play out very differently depending on who you chose to play as. So many cartoony cute games just shove a gun or a sword or whatever into the hands of their monsters and be done with it, big respect to that game for designing the characters for interesting fighting as well as platforming. Also the soundtrack is awesome. All three of those games have amazing soundtracks, seriously. People are quick to hate on MS-Era Rare, but Kameo, VP and Nuts & Bolts are all pretty special in their own ways. Rare Gamer: What advice would you offer anyone trying to get their start into the games industry? Sarah Ford: I’ve been asked this before, I think I said something along the lines of ‘ Don’t give up, don’t be a dick, always be awesome’. Things have changed a lot since I got my first job in games, mobile gaming just…it didn’t even exist yet, people were trying to hire me for Facebook games when I graduated. Remember Facebook games? Facebook had games! Madness. I will say that, from graduation to 2013 my attitude was ‘ Well its inevitable, I’m clearly gonna end up at Rare’ and I pointed myself in that direction and worked hard until it happened. It is possible to do things like that. I dunno if I can advise being that exclusive in your dreams because this industry is always changing, and the studio or game series you have your heart set on working on might not exist in X years time, but having something to believe in to get you through the jobs that might not quite be your dream job helps. I will say, if you’re starting out you should attend as many dev talks as you can get to, stream em from the GDC vault, seek em out on twitch, theres a fair few on youtube too from various indie events, such as iGDC London . Firstly, because it’s always cool to learn from pro expert pros. Even if you think you’re not interested in the AI of the boat in Assassins Creed 4 ,you never know when that random fact about compasses they mentioned as an aside might come in handy. Secondly, this industry is teeny tiny tiny and its likely that if you’re going to events you’re gonna start bumping into the same faces over and over again, and if you know that one guy over there is the boat guy you could go say hi and geek out about boats, and I dunno, buy him some grog and end up in a bar singing like pirates 'til 3am. Achievement unlocked: Networking pro.
Rare Gamer would like to extend its thanks to Sarah Ford for her time put aside for this interview, we are extremely grateful for the opportunity. If you would like to see more of Sarah's art, you can visit her site at: https://frenchbird.wordpress.com.