Get to know: Gracie Arenas Strittmatter – Technical Art Director at BioWare and SIGGRAPH 2019 Real-Time Live! Chair

Let’s get started, a question we like to ask first is how you found your way into tech and animation! 

Ever since I can remember, I have loved creating and tinkering with things. I’m glad that my parents encouraged this and supported my participation in activities like summer art and engineering programs when I was young. Through these endeavors, I discovered that I really liked math because it was fun: a series of puzzles requiring logic and critical thinking to solve. My father, now retired US Air Force, has a degree in Computer Engineering and my family was lucky enough to have a computer around the house at a time when it wasn’t commonplace, which exposed me to navigating a PC environment and basic programming at an early age. On top of that, growing up in the 90’s during the Disney Renaissance was pretty incredible; it inspired many kids like me at the time to want to work in creative entertainment. 

Texas A&M has a great reputation for computer arts and sciences. Do you feel your education got you ready to work in the industry?

There’s a bit of a disconnect when you’re sitting in college courses learning theory, and then trying to understand “how does this apply to a professional role?”.  I think everyone experiences that in their own way. It wasn’t until I landed a Technical Art internship in graduate school that it all started to come together and I realized that everything I had learned up to that point—math, programming, art—had a very real cohesion in the professional setting that I couldn’t have fully understood without first-hand experience. 

Can you share your experience from school to first job? What was your path into the industry?

Growing up, I never let go of my interest in art and math, even though I wasn’t exactly sure what I was going to do with them. In high school, I learned through a few friends about the Visualization program at Texas A&M (a masters-only level degree program at the time) and saw the creative technical work coming out of that program. All the art schools I was admitted to were out of state, so I resolved to pursue Computer Science and continue art classes on the side. Long story short, I got into the masters program and during that time landed an internship at EA a Technical Artist working with a supportive team on challenging work. I was offered a full-time role after the internship, and today, over a decade leader, I’m leading a team of exceptionally talented Technical Artists at BioWare. It’s been an incredibly rewarding career path. 

And related, can you talk about your reasons and experience with volunteering and working with SIGGRAPH?

 I started out as a SIGGRAPH Student Volunteer in 2002, at the encouragement of my high school art teacher, Mrs. Linda Otstott. I didn’t really know much about it, other than the conference focused on computer graphics and interactive techniques, but I’m glad I applied to volunteer. It changed my life. In between shifts, I popped in to sessions breaking down how teams had produced animated shorts, I saw the Electronic Theater (the “best of” in animation in the past year), and simply became enthralled with the community at the conference. That was just the beginning. I continued to volunteer in the Student Volunteer Program throughout my college career, progressing from volunteer to Team Leader, eventually serving on the organizing committee, and finally chairing it in 2013. 

Some of the friends I made in those early years are now some of my closest friends and we continue to volunteer in the SIGGRAPH organization together. Throughout the years, I’ve served on the Production Sessions Committee, Real-Time Live Committee and Jury, and most recently chaired Real-Time Live in 2019. If there’s a testament to networking, this is truly it. This community has been my extended family and supports me in my own career journey. Volunteering gives me a chance to work with other creative individuals and exercise leadership skills. It really is a unique combination and I know that my years volunteering has had a direct correlation to my success as a contributor, manager, and leader in the video games industry. I’m incredibly indebted to this vibrant community and look forward to continue being involved in the years to come.

Can you talk about your path from junior tech artist to Lead and how you dealt with going from doing work to managing workers? Did you want to move into more of a management role or did it just happen over time?

I became particularly fascinated with leadership theory while I was in college. I was involved in many student organizations and I loved seeing different people come together, work toward common goals, and face challenges. Typically, the teams I was on had to overcome challenges, and we didn’t always have successes. I learned a lot of valuable lessons in executing visions, managing difficult conversations, and working with diverse perspectives. Though extremely hard at times, I found a lot of fulfillment in being able to help others through empowerment and inspiration. 

As an Associate Technical Artist, I found myself working on creative teams, liaising and communicating with a wide variety of people as an individual contributor. This type of work was particularly important, because through it, I learned the nuances of the technical artist role. As I continued to volunteer year after year at SIGGRAPH, I learned one very important thing about myself: I loved to lead creative people. I found that it gave me great energy. I brought my leadership experiences from college and SIGGRAPH into the professional setting and began to refine them (e.g. volunteering to do presentations or volunteering to lead initiatives), with the intention of one day being a manager. This in turn made me more visible to senior leadership, and within a few short years, on short notice, I was called upon to fill a Senior Technical Artist lead role opening on Madden NFL and found myself managing interns throughout the year, too. At the time, I felt that I wasn’t ready for the role, but I am glad that I seized the opportunity. My departmental leadership had seen something very special in me that they wanted to see more of, and I was more than prepared to deliver it, even if I hadn’t recognized it in myself. To this day, I’m appreciative of that opportunity, because it was an incredible boost of confidence to my career. 

When I moved to BioWare, I struggled a bit. There was a lot of challenging work, which I enjoyed, but there was also a long time where I had to reprove myself and build a reputation with a new group of developers. I went back to having no reports and working on a smaller team. I continued to be involved with SIGGRAPH and used that as my outlet to hone leadership skills as I made strides in the workplace to develop robust solutions and take ownership of initiatives. I reached out to an old manager at my previous studio and began meeting with him regularly for mentorship sessions (still do to this day!).  I started a monthly studio BioWare Technical Art lunch for networking and idea sharing. I arranged cross-studio Technical Art meetings to help BioWare communicate with other teams. Soon, I caught the eye of leaders within the studio and was called upon to be one of the first developers in Austin to work on Anthem as a tools developer on the Technical Animation team. I dove deep into this work, began leading tools meetings, and started networking with colleagues in Edmonton. 

Within a couple of years, an opportunity opened up suddenly for the Technical Art Director role, and by that time, I had built such a positive reputation that I was offered the role immediately. I acted quickly, not knowing everything that I was getting into, but knowing with confidence that I had been putting in place the tools for me to prepare for this role for many years and that I was more than capable of filling the tall order. I remember within four days of accepting the role, I flew to Edmonton, met all of the team members in person, and started pouring myself into everything so that I could get things started on the right foot. I went immediately from being an individual contributor to having seven reports, organizing a task backlog, outlining expectations, and jumping head-first into a project that was already full steam ahead. From that point on, my mentality shifted from “me” to “we” and I haven’t looked back.

There are a couple of common themes in my career: opportunities have come very quickly and reputation/networking has always played a crucial role. If I was in a role at work that didn’t offer everything I wanted, I found ways outside of work to develop my leadership skills, so that when opportunities arose, I was ready to meet them. I worked at this incredibly hard, and still do. Even if I felt I wasn’t entirely ready for a position, I trusted the opinion of those who recognized the potential within me and said “yes” to the opportunity. Ultimately, you are in charge of your own career. No one is going to “make it happen” for you and I am 100% convinced that had I not prepared myself in the way I did, I would not be in the role I am in today. And my story isn’t over; I’m excited to see what the future holds. 

“As I’ve worked through the ranks of my career, I’ve learned to ask more pointed questions, gotten better at debugging (stepping through code), and have been more diligent about leaving things in a better place than how I found them.”

From Console to MMO

Not everyone gets to work on AAA projects that are locked to disk and console limits then move to an MMO where it is a very different scale and design. How would you compare your time on the different games and your experience having to work and deal with the technical challenges of both?

Both types of projects certainly have their share of challenges. Most of the projects I’ve been on in my career have been on console. In sports games, the cadence for development was cyclical and predictable: development essentially boiled down to 9 months out of the year, so we had limited amounts of time for research and development to prove out design ideas. Some of the tools we used for content creation in those games, as a result, would get incremental feature updates each year as needed. And, in some cases, if refactoring was needed, we’d have to prioritize against other objectives and build it in to the schedule, but that would very likely cause other things to fall off of scope within that year’s development. Anthem’s years-long development cycle afforded our Technical Animation team the time needed to create a robust tools infrastructure that now serves as the foundation for all art and animation tools at BioWare. There are also challenges with Anthem’s massive open world environment because you want to give this sense of expansiveness and realism in the world without killing the frame rate. So we have to put a lot of optimization measures in place to make sure that we stay within console (and PC graphics card) limitations. It’s such a different context from sports games, which are typically confined to an arena of some sort. 

This can all be contrasted with live development, where tech (including pipeline/tools, engine, and in many cases, specific software versions) is largely set in stone before game launch and is very hard to change once it hits live service. Even more challenging is that if you don’t have an idea of how long the live service will be around and you decide to use third party software, you may eventually face the challenges of deprecated/unsupported technology, so it must be chosen wisely. I joined SWTOR after it had already been live two years and there were still plenty of opportunities, to streamline artist workflows within the technologies we had. The tools that I built years ago are still being used and adjusted in different ways to adapt to the needs of the game. One of the biggest challenges of live service is content creation. New content, once released, is consumed very quickly by players, so how can we go about creating more procedurally-streamlined or user-generated content opportunities? SWTOR continues to grow, and so technical artists proceed to work within the framework set years ago—understanding what can and cannot be achieved—to help fulfill game ambitions that contribute to developing storylines and engage players in new ways.

No matter what kind of game and platform, there is always a need for streamlined workflows to create more (and better) content. And no matter where that content ends up–console or PC–we must take into account the full capabilities of consoles and PC graphics cards, understanding hardware limitations, so that we can ultimately deliver the best experience to players.

Can you walk us through what your day or week looks like?

As a Technical Art Director, I am responsible for the direction of this discipline on a game team and for the people who execute it. I also recently took on the side role of Deputy Director of Art and Animation, which means that I help ensure that any concerns and feedback from content creators on the development floor are communicated to the Director of Art and Animation. My weeks are typically divided up in a way that balances all these important things and are a mix of company-wide (EA-wide) initiatives, studio (BioWare) initiatives, project-level (Anthem) initiatives, and team (report-specific) responsibilities. 

I’m involved in studio-wide leadership meetings to better understand how initiatives might affect Art and Animation departments as well as studio art leadership meetings to communicate with peers on other game teams and drive collaborative efforts. 

One of my biggest priorities is to make sure that my team is understanding innovation within the Technical Art discipline at a company-wide level and establishing connections with counterparts at other EA studios so that we can drive collaboration. I work with my team to divide-and-conquer through active participation in relevant steering groups and communities. Another one of my priorities is helping my studio and team understand the value that Technical Art brings to game teams. Often, you’ll see me representing the Tech Art team in various Anthem stand-ups and syncs, cross-studio or cross-project workflow meetings, or providing input on Technical Art career development initiatives at a company-wide level. I coordinate with other leads on the Anthem team to ensure that my team is delivering the solutions they need, and in a timely manner. I also hold regular team meetings, such as stand-ups, studio tech art reviews, and lunches to promote knowledge sharing between Technical Artists on my team and at the studio. A lot of my time is also poured into the people on my team in the form of 1:1s, career development, and scheduling impromptu time to help unblock them from things that may be inhibiting them from doing their best work. Ultimately, it boils down to a lot of communication and coordination with a lot of different people for a myriad of reasons. And I love it. 

Aside from these day-to-day obligations, I am also actively involved in volunteering at the studio, whether that is through leading studio tours, speaking on panels during student visits, participating in community service events, participating in our employee-led workplace culture council, or being involved in an Employee Resource Group (ERG). I serve as a Global Co-Chair for Somos EA, our Latinx/Hispanic ERG, and work with our executive sponsor and board to help drive initiatives at our studios to create a support network for employees and allies and celebrate the richness our culture brings to the workplace. I believe that all of these extra endeavors help create a workplace that is fun, engaging, and is a reminder that I get to do some really cool stuff every day.

Do you still get involved in the production work or are you bigger picture and making sure the artists are supported? What have you done or do to help support the tech artists (maybe something you had done or wished management had done or understood when you were in direct production)

I love production work and wish at times that I could be more hands-on, but now my role is about force multiplication: empowering other Technical Artists to do their best work. I’m very much in a wide range of technical conversations at the team, studio, and company level and I find satisfaction in being able to drive the direction of my discipline and set its strategy. The number one thing that I do to support the individuals on the Tech Art team is give them lots of time and attention. That means giving them regular, reliable 1:1 time and getting to know them as people (not just employees). It also means pointing them to resources for development so that they have the tools they need to effectively drive their careers. I understand that I cannot be an expert in every facet of technical art and I trust my subject matter experts. I’m a huge advocate for my team members and work hard to clear things out of their way so they can focus on creating high-quality solutions for the game team. I also make concerted efforts to travel to see people on my team who are working in other studio locations. And most of all, I am a champion of the value my team’s work brings to the studio. All of these things make a huge difference. My philosophy is that if you make people the priority, the rest falls into place. As a Latina, one of the biggest cultural aspects of my upbringing that shines through in my work is the idea of family: everyone is unique and has their idiosyncrasies, but at the end of the day it is necessary for all of us to come together to create something far beyond any single contributor’s capabilities. 

How has your workflow progressed or advanced from when you first started out, any big “wow” wish I knew that moments? Any advice for your past self if you could?

Game engines are so ubiquitous nowadays: it’s amazing that anyone can download one and start using it to create their own game immediately. I’m quite jealous of that, actually! When I was in school, that lack of accessibility (plus not having relevant courses in my program’s curriculum at the time) was a huge reason why I didn’t initially think of games as a career (which is a little crazy since I had grown up playing video games!). The closest I got was writing physics simulations and a raytracer in C++ in graduate school, which was fun. Thankfully, I had a lot of training in programming, traditional art, and computer graphics fundamentals, and it then became a matter of learning how to fit this all into a game development setting when I landed my Technical Art internship at EA. Perhaps a nice stroke of luck was also the timing: when I graduated with my masters, Technical Art was still a very new discipline, so in many ways, the game industry was still figuring it all out as well. If I could go back, I would have to have gotten more involved in a game developer club (we did have a small one at the time) and worked with others to get more game development experience. I would’ve gotten into more scripting for content creator applications, too.

A common thread among Character TDs having to get up to speed on new pipelines, tools and workflows…what is your approach to do this effectively? Wondering how you found this process as you worked through the ranks in your career?

Getting up to speed on unfamiliar pipelines, tools, and workflows is only as good as the documentation that is left behind. (This is why I am a huge proponent of wiki documentation, coding standards, and well-commented, peer-reviewed code on my team.)  In the absence of good documentation, I’ve reached out to content creators who actively work in the aforementioned pipelines, tools, and workflows to understand how they are used in production before diving into the code. What is used the most? The least? This helps prioritize where you should spend the most of your time. Sometimes the process, for me at least, was painful because of lost tribal knowledge, and I had to brute force get into code and step through it. Sometimes I discovered features that end users didn’t even know had been available to them. As I went about my audits, I made it a point to comment code as much as possible and get user documentation posted; I made it as easy as possible for anyone coming after me (even “future me”) to ramp up on that knowledge more quickly than I had the first go-round. 

As I’ve worked through the ranks of my career, I’ve learned to ask more pointed questions, gotten better at debugging (stepping through code), and have been more diligent about leaving things in a better place than how I found them. In fact, our Technical Artist on SWTOR recently went through one of the game’s animation systems and was able to understand it very quickly due to some documentation I put in place years ago. That made me so proud. And ideally, this is how it should be. Commit to making documentation a priority; it will ultimately save costs (and sanity) and pay off in dividends.

Can you think of an example, something you thought was going to be a great fix or process and it turned out not so simple, or maybe it worked better than expected?  

Absolutely! One of my favorite examples of this is the Outfit Stubber Tool on Star Wars: The Old Republic. While I was a technical artist on this project, I learned that adding a new outfit into the game was quite cumbersome: it required manual database connections, our outsourcing liaison had to craft detailed posts for their forum communication with vendors so that art was created in a consistent manner, and design had to wait for final art to come back in order to add metadata like abilities, power, etc. to outfit components. I was tasked with creating a tool for outfit creation that enabled artists and designers to work simultaneously by populating our asset database automatically, creating placeholders in 3ds Max for game (this portion was done by my colleague Kathryn Long) while art assets were being worked on by vendors, and pushing these placeholders out to game so that designers could do their work. When completed artwork came in from vendors, we simply replaced the placeholder meshes with the final art and pushed it to Live. 

This was one of my first assignments on SWTOR and breaking down the database automation side of things (with proper naming conventions) for this particular assignment was tricky, because hundreds of entries and connections were created during the outfit creation process. (I was shocked that our artists had been creating these entries and connections manually for so long – it was very prone to error.) Once addressed, I was able to turn an hours-long manual database entry process into a few seconds. To me, that’s what Technical Art really brings to the table: solutions that empower artists to focus more on art creation itself rather than the steps needed to facilitate it.  

The best part even beyond this? This tool continues to be used in production today and has been in use for over 5 years now, long after I’ve moved on to another game team.

Can you share any tricky problems that you encountered on Anthem? 

Performance was probably the trickiest thing we encountered on Technical Art. With such an expansive world (and with the flying mechanic and VFX thrown in for good measure), we had to exercise a lot of optimization techniques to ensure that things like streaming hitches were mitigated and work with content creators to optimize art where possible to provide the best playing experience.

Our shaders were created to resemble things that were simultaneously foreign and familiar, and technical artists on the team had to work closely with the Art Director and content creators to achieve an artistic vision. There were a wide variety of environments, a day/night cycle, and variable weather. These elements compounded on each other, proving to be quite a challenge.

On the tools side, we had a lot of time-intensive processes that we were able to encapsulate in workflows which yielded significant savings in areas such as icon generation for UI artists, the generation of tree billboards for the lowest LODs, and world map generation. 

If you’re interested, I encourage you to take a look at my team’s SIGGRAPH 2019 talk on the ACM Digital Library, “Creating the Immersive World of BioWare’s Anthem”, for a deeper dive into some of the challenges we faced with content in bringing this game to life.

What have you found , training wise to have been the most helpful to you to grow as a tech artist? Did you have a mentor or an artist that helped you improve your work while on the job?

Hands-down, mentors have been the single-most helpful resource for me training-wise as I’ve navigated my career. This is an aspect of career development that must be self-driven, and throughout the years, I’ve approached a number of individuals who have characteristics and skills that I aspire to develop. I have engaged in single or recurring sessions with these people, coming to these meetings with a prepared agenda and focusing on areas such as management, leadership, strategy, and excellence within my discipline. These people have been within my company (both inside/outside my business unit) and external to my company. They have been leaders in Technical Art, thought leaders in other disciplines, management leaders, studio leaders, and executives. The ones outside my business unit provide unbiased opinions, which has been crucial on days where I was frustrated or needed insight into approaches in other areas of the company/industry. My confidence has increased incredibly over the years because I have seen firsthand the returns of mentoring on my career. I’m glad I didn’t wait to start making this a priority. 

All of my mentors have helped improve my work while on the job in different ways. One of the longest-standing ones who has helped me navigate through years of Tech Art roles and challenging scenarios has been my previous manager Chris Baker, who is a Senior Director of Technical Art at EA Tiburon. He has helped provide guidance and support when there was no one else for me to look to. It’s an especially important relationship to me today, because I am the only Technical Art Director at BioWare. He has been a sounding board, given me confidence in areas that I was previously new to, and inspires me to mentor others. 

What does continuing education look like for you now as a Lead? 

As a Lead, a large part of my job entails leveraging my network, particularly within EA, to drive cross-project and cross-studio conversations across disciplines that relate to technical art. I can no longer focus on individual contributor work, but instead firmly believe that I must focus on my people and a strategic vision of technical art in order to move us forward. 

Continuing education has many facets for me: leadership training, management training, staying on top of industry trends, networking, and mentoring. There are a lot of programs that are internal to EA that focus on manager and leadership excellence, and I make these a priority. I also read a lot of articles and books on leadership philosophy on topics such as career development, team building, crucial conversations, change management, and company culture. There are also a variety of online tutorials out there, including those on Gnomon Workshop, Pluralsight, and LinkedIn Learning that have been helpful to ramp up on specific topics. My continued volunteer involvement in SIGGRAPH over nearly two decades has helped me sharpen my skills leading and working on distributed teams to execute a vision for a conference venue (and, more importantly, network within the greater computer graphics industry). In addition to SIGGRAPH, I regularly attend technical conferences such as GDC, SXSW, Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, and access resources from internal conferences at EA. It’s important to mention here that the value of networking cannot be understated: it is the single-most thing that has propelled my career and given me a support network far beyond my immediate development team. The second-most important thing has been making the self-driven effort to establish mentoring relationships with people I admire. No one is going to do this for you; take the reins on your own career and make the investment right now. The worst someone can say to you when you approach them for a mentoring relationship is “no”, however I guarantee you that most will find it an honor. I’ve learned so many tips and techniques from my mentors throughout the years and have had incredible forums where I can bounce off ideas and frustrations and get good dialogue, and there’s no price tag you can ever put on that. 

Any last tips or advice you can give to someone that wants to improve their current skills to get their first job or move between film and games?

If you’re trying to land your first job, be honest and clear with yourself in terms of your ideal role. If you like wearing more hats in the development process, being at a small studio might be up your alley. If a AAA studio is your aim, development teams are much larger, so ensure that your portfolio and resume are focused on one specific area of game development. Look at job requisitions from a wide cross-section of companies to see what skills and technical proficiency they expect from applicants. Based on this, are there areas that you need to develop or polish? Some studios use proprietary tools that you can’t necessarily “study up” on, but what can get you the closest to the experience? The earlier that you are armed with this information, the better you can tailor your coursework or extracurricular activities to elevate your profile. Play games: what about them makes them engaging and fun? Get involved in group projects and game jams to help you understand the dynamics of working with others and better understand how everyone’s skill sets come together to create a game from start to finish. And finally, the game industry changes quickly; instilling a lifelong interest in learning early-on is crucial no matter which area of development you see yourself in.

If you’re looking for a move between film and games, certainly many elements of the advice above can help. The major difference between film and games is the computing time–hours/days vs. milliseconds–so understanding techniques and best practices that can significantly improve rendering time in real-time scenarios is incredibly important. In games, many optimization techniques are used to achieve a balance between performance and visual fidelity. Download a game engine and tinker with it. Create a game to understand the development process; you can typically find in-depth tutorials (and community support) that will walk you through the creation of one from start to finish. 

At Rigging Dojo we get a high percent of female students and some of our most successful students have been women. If at all have you faced issues or challenges that male peers might not have or simply not thought about? Of course positive experiences are great to hear as well.

There is a common theme across many women whom I’ve spoken to throughout the years who are either in the industry or wanting to get into the industry, and that is that they often focus too much on the number of women in the room. My philosophy is that if we, as women, continue to dwell on this instead of focus on the skills that we bring to the table, we perpetuate our own insecurity (impostor syndrome) and lack of representation in game development. In the United States, we are at roughly 22% women in game development; there is a lot of trailblazing work ahead that is not for the faint of heart, so for those who are ready to lead the charge, now is the time. 

My dream is to see a more diverse game development world where the representation of females and other underrepresented groups more accurately reflects our player bases. (We’re nowhere near that right now.) Everyone plays a part in seeing this future through. Leading causes of attrition of underrepresented groups within the first year include unwelcome work environments and lack of support. Regardless of whether you fit in an underrepresented demographic, get involved in sponsoring and mentoring others in this community to help cultivate a network of support for all. Identify or start an Employee Resource Group to bring together employees and allies. Be cognizant about the environments that you are creating at work and how you can be an agent of change in promoting inclusivity. Your company will thank you when it starts seeing the increased profitability and greater innovation that can come as a result.

I wish that there were women that I could look up to in my direct line of work. Truth is, there aren’t any that I’ve found. So what am I going to do about it (and who am I going to enlist the assistance of?) so that I can continue to set an example for others? No one said pioneering was easy, but if we want to see a change, we must be part of the solution. 

Personally, as someone who grew up in a military family and had to adapt to new situations regularly, the numbers in the room haven’t phased me. I’ve understood that to move forward I have to make use of the resources that are in front of me. A good 80% of my mentors (which I have nearly all sought out myself) have been male, and have been incredible forces of inspiration, thought, and support that have made me incredibly confident in my own abilities and career. I understand the value I can bring to the table and I’ve sought out work in studios where my opinion is respected and my skills appreciated. It is my hope that through my own work, I can inspire others–men and women alike–to do the same.

Last question, what book are you reading right now or last finished?

I’m currently reading through Ed Catmull’s “Creativity, Inc.” and Harvard Business Review’s “On Change Management”. I am fascinated with creating and sustaining rich work cultures that nurture creativity and empower employees.

How can people best find you and your work online? 

LinkedIn is the best place to find me! I try to keep this up to date with information and resources as much as possible. https://www.linkedin.com/in/graciearenas/

Thank you so much for taking the time for this interview!

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