Building a new universe happens on a construction site that blends art and science. A team of Engineers lay the foundation. A team of Environment Artists plot the maze that will ensnare the gamer. They take the raw space, and turn it into a place they hope will feel as real to you as your own back yard. If you want to know more about how that happens, and how people prepare themselves for such fascinating challenges, check out this guy…
Who are you, and what do you do at Bungie?
Hey all, I’m Coolie Calihan (real name no gimmicks) and I’m just one cog in the exceptionally well-lubricated machine that builds Environment Art. I help create gameplay spaces by modeling in 3D, painting in Photoshop, and engaging in stimulating critiques. Occasionally, I’ll even drag a pencil around on a piece of paper.
We'll delve deeply into the intricacies of that stimulating work in a moment. First, let’s get to know that man behind the badass name. How does life occupy you when you're not dragging pencils?
I’m a pretty average guy. Besides typical dude stuff like drinking beers and watching Kung Fu, I snowboard and enjoy watching the Sounders play every now and again. I think my girlfriend is pretty rad too, so we hang out. I’m also a big fan of RTS games, especially Relic’s Dawn of War games. I still play Retribution quite a bit.
You've also been known to play a game of Battlefield 3 from time to time, not that I'm keeping track (but I am
). What stops did you make on the road to turning your passion as a gamer into a career making games?
Shortly after graduating architecture school I found a nifty job doing some drafting work for a small firm outside Cincinnati. It was a classic ‘from A, go to B so you can get to C’ job where I learned a good deal about being a man in the 21st century. The job afforded me the spare time I needed to develop my game art skills as well, so it was definitely time well spent.
Was building things all part of your plan? What did the young Coolie dream of doing when he became the old(er) Coolie?
It varied quite a bit from marine zoologist to automotive engineer at Mercedes Benz’s AMG division. At one point I wanted to become a hydraulics engineer so that I could design the world’s first walking tank, but when my parents asked me how I would feel knowing my life’s work would undoubtedly kill lots of people, I shifted my attention to fine arts and architecture. Now I get to create structures that will inevitably be filled with the symphonies of death. So it works out.
Video games do provide a victimless war. What sort of education prepared you to realize that happy medium of conducting symphonies of death where no one has to actually die?
I have a B.A. in Architecture from the esteemed Miami University (of Ohio). A lot of the knowledge I rely on daily is self-taught, but the experience of going through architecture school is absolutely priceless. One of the most valuable lessons (that I’m consistently re-learning) of my education was how to receive constructive criticism without getting your feelings hurt. I’ll never forget the first critique in our studio class where one professor, which turned out to be one of my favorites, made a few of my classmates cry. At that moment I just smiled and knew I was in the right place.
Speaking of making people cry, let’s change the subject to how Bungie recruits brave new talent. How did you entice us to scrutinize you in the first place?
In a blind stroke of luck, I made a great connection to Bungie through Miami’s Architecture Department. Bungie Professional and Grizzled Ancient, Chris Carney, also attended Miami for architecture schooling. I corresponded with him for several years, which included a Bungie studio visit in 2009, before consulting him on a formal application for employment. He was able to get me an art test under the ever watchful eyes of HR which turned into my invitation to interview.
Way to work the contacts. Once Carney threw you to the wolves, how did you survive your interview with a whole pack that was looking to pick your bones clean?
The hardest part was convincing the interviewers I would be useful (and even a benefit) to the company with no game development experience. I knew that hiring me was a risk for Bungie and if I wasn’t confident, there’s no way they could be. I didn’t mind the length at all, since every interview was a fun, unique challenge. That said, I was exhausted when the day was over.
That doesn’t stop with the interview. Exhaustion is half the fun at Bungie. Tell us about the other half of your fun. What’s your favorite thing about working here?
Being an artist at Bungie means that even a noob like me has real responsibility and every chance to make as big an impact on the game as some of the more senior artists. For me that’s the best part, and it reflects the commitment to quality that Bungie strives for when looking for new recruits.
Take us through a day of that responsibility. Put us in the shoes of a Bungie Environment Artist on a day of your choosing (choose wisely).
It’s Friday, obviously, and literally millions of bagels adorn the kitchen counter. I grab one, but not before Jerome says ‘have a nice day’. I walk across the studio to my desk, look out of the tall, blurry windows behind my monitors, log into my workstation and spend the morning continuing whatever task is at hand. Lunch is usually with a few coworkers, and lately a lot of us have been playing Diablo 3 over lunch hour. After lunch it’s back to game art, maybe a meeting or two. Usually the day flies by.
I'm not sure that we consume millions
of bagels on a Friday. That might be hyperbole, but we do like to keep our people happy. Of all the tactics we employ toward that end, which one makes you happiest?
The benefits are too numerous and generous to pick just one. But I am a huge fan of the carpool tally sheet where, if you carpool or bus to work, Bungie gives you a dollar to your favorite retailer. It adds up pretty quick.
And how do your skills as an artist add up? We're never done learning at Bungie. Can you tell us how your time here has enriched your craft?
I lean on my fellow artists for help all the time and I have yet to find someone that isn’t happy to lend a hand. Everyone has a different way of doing the same thing, so I try to soak it all in then add my own special sauce on top. After a little while people start asking you how you did certain things and that feels pretty cool.
It is very likely that an aspiring artist or architect is reading this right now, thinking about how they would love to do the work you are doing. Impart to them some wisdom that will put them on the path that you have traveled…
If you want to work in the industry, you have to make something first. Nobody gets a job in this industry from knowing a certain tool or being able to write in a certain programming language. I don’t care if you can draw out the entire interface and every menu of 3ds Max from memory. If you haven’t made anything, you can’t prove that you would be useful to the team.
But also don’t be afraid to start small. Every person that works here was a noob once. I think the first thing I ever modeled was a bike rack. A stupid, curved tube. And it took me something like 3 1/2 hours. Pick a project that is just out of your current capability and don’t stop working until you nail it. That’s how you get on a roll to something great.
Your wisdom is appreciated, as is your willingness to share your story. Let’s take this home with the final question we always ask: Experience, Work Ethic, or Talent? Rank them in order of importance to your role.
Work Ethic, Talent, Experience. Nothing trumps wanting something so bad that you’ll give up sleeping for it.
If this sounds like work you would like to do, there are many ways to lose sleep at Bungie. Coolie is a member of one of many teams at Bungie that work tirelessly to delight our fans. The rest of the teams are also looking for new blood. Our Breaking In
archive is a great place to learn about all of them, and how to make your own case to join.