Blood, Sweat, and Life-Affirming Art with Ethan Redd

Blood, Sweat, and Life-Affirming Art with Ethan Redd

It would be a disservice to try and sum an artist like Ethan Redd in one word, but a theme emerges when you take a good look at his journey into art and game design: resourcefulness. Ethan developed his sense of craft through self-teaching and raw stubbornness. By embracing the early constraints of limited computing power, Ethan found an aesthetic that defines his work even today.

 

Founder of the newly-minted Virtuoso Enterprises, Ethan Redd makes his career spanning the roles of art director, animator, illustrator and game developer. That's a lot to keep track of, so a sense of drive and optimism helps. From independently developing games like Blazing Legion: Ignition and Kombatcha, to art directing titles Yucatan and Monarch Black, to animating Dyro's "Surrounded" music video, Ethan finds himself most at home in brash, colorful and energetic projects. He's never happier than when his zest for life can be translated into creative expression.

There are a handful of talented minds who somehow knew exactly where they were heading from an early age. Spoiler alert: this will be one of those tales. Read on to learn how Ethan forged his path through hand-written code, free 3D tools, and an obsessive commitment to creations he could be proud of.

 

 

Devon: I hear you started coding when you were 9 and doing 3D art when you were 12. Seriously?

ETHAN: I was a weird kid. One of my earliest memories is deciding that I want to make video games. At six, just thinking, "Okay, I want to do this. What do I do?" 

From there, I just went to the library a lot and started reading little kid's books. Like, this is how computers work, and then I leveled up to okay, this is WHY computers work. And then eventually I was in the tech section taking out these books bigger than me, like how to code. 

 

I didn't even know that 3D art was a thing until I came across Blender when I was about 12. Up until then I was just trying to learn how to code and doing whatever I could get my hands on. I was learning C++ from this weird Web 1.0 site and didn't have a computer because my family was having a weird moment, so I would just be at school in my notebook writing C++ and trying to figure this 💩 out on paper. 

I never had good tech, so I worked around that and got into low poly. The technology sort of forced the aesthetic on me and then I was trying to work my way around that up until very recently. Now I actually have a rig, but that initial impression is what what informs my artistic leans to this day. 

 

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I want to show people that no matter where you come from you can get what you want if you try hard enough.

We always hear people say they can't get started learning something because they don't have the best in software or hardware. And here you were, learning C++ on paper. 

I'm so against that! Like, in general, people look for any reason not to do things. If you if you want something bad enough you'll find a way to do it, right? I want to show people that no matter where you come from you can get what you want if you try hard enough. It's cheesy, but that's what I'm here for. I still remember those little bits of C++ I learned back then, but it’s nice to run code occasionally. [Laughs] 

 

 

You took that idea all the way and learned the entire gamut of skills required for making games. 

Yeah, I didn't really have a lot of friends who were into that stuff when I was younger. And then I was homeschooled and we moved around a lot so I didn't have a solid group of people around me. I just assumed that I had to do everything on my own. 

The audio guys I'm working with now, SKYBRIDGE, I collaborate with regularly. One of them is pretty much my oldest friend right now. I met him first day of freshman year of college and we've been working together since 2014. 

 

 

You're almost entirely self-taught, right? I know you went to NYU to study computer science and studio art, but dropped out after your freshman year. 

That was a weird experience! I wanted to go to school that year but I couldn't because they wanted a crazy deposit and I just couldn't do it at the time. My dad was like, "You're going to do something valuable with your time. I don't want you to be on your ass." I was planning to do my game anyway, but then he was like, "No! You should also work." 

I ended up doing this really weird training-from-hell montage. Like, I was working AND [an independent game developer]. All my actual hands-on learning with this stuff has been from practice and brute force. 

 

 

I like that your dad got on your case right away when you weren't headed back to school. Is he a pretty disciplined guy? 

I've been described as intense. My dad is WAY more intense than I am. He's very disciplined and focused. Growing up, his thing was always, "Whatever you're going to do, be best at it... or at least do YOUR best at it." That was really empowering. You come from knowing that you're going to bring whatever you can to the table and you expect that from yourself. 

Get your 10,000 hours in. You can have it if you work for it. 

Me having whatever limitations and constraints, they didn't really matter because I knew I had to give my best shot. I see a lot of people think about the concept of talent. People use that as a way to disenfranchise themselves. You know, it's just... get your 10,000 hours in. You can have it if you work for it. 

 

What went into your decision to drop out? 

Money, mainly. It was really, really expensive. I had a pretty good scholarship there that covered pretty much everything except housing but that got too much. Once I was already out I was like, I might as well just go for it. So after a brief mourning period [laughs] I started taking myself seriously.

In October of 2014, I set out to make a game every two weeks as a way to sharpen my skills. I stuck to that for maybe three cycles and made my first kind of popular-ish game on Newgrounds. That's the first game I worked on with my boys SKYBRIDGE! And from there we made Rad Road Rally and then NE_01. And we kept putting out these mixtape-sized games as practice for going up to the big leagues. Now I'm doing what I want to do, so going back to school would feel like a step backwards. 

 

 

I'm obsessed with that. Doing start-to-finish projects over and over again is such an effective way to learn. 

You learn so much internally AND externally because you go through the whole release cycle. You do your pre-production, figure out what your problems are, figure out scope and project management. And then you go into production. But you try to always have more information from your current pre-production than you had last time around, so now you're getting better and getting hands-on skills. 

Then you release! Which is something people really deemphasize nowadays, actually putting your stuff in the wild. Art is ultimately a conversation, not just making something. And going through the whole cycle and getting feedback and letting people tell you they hate you or they love you or whatever. 

Now, going on to bigger games, I feel more ready to tackle them because I've gone through the whole thing three or four times already. 

 

You've been working independently this whole time. I know from experience one downside of that can be lack of access to experienced critique or mentors. Is that something you've thought about? 

I've made a few friends who are older than me who I ask questions, but having someone mentor me? That is a big, big downside to being completely independent. 

It's easy just to lean on style and not actually grow your facility. No one is pushing you outside of your box except yourself. I've had more people give me advice on the business end of things than artistically. I've had friends who I can to sort of shoot the 💩 with and trade philosophy with, but not really a straight mentor type relationship on the art side of things. It's something I do wish I had. 

What about feedback and critique? Is that something you do with your peers? 

Film for The Lab’s Dome at Panorama NYC

Film for The Lab’s Dome at Panorama NYC

Yeah, actually, I have a little team Slack. We'll all just drop our stuff in there and talk about it.

I like to get feedback from people who don't design and don't make visuals because they're ultimately who I want to get at, right? I want to make my stuff accessible. Especially these next few projects. I want anybody to be able to look 'em and get what I'm saying. So having people who aren't steeped in the sauce is helpful. 

The more you can get outside of your own perspective in any way... if you have a mentor that's awesome, if you don't, finding art you don't like and engaging with it. Finding art you really like and then picking apart why you like it and then trying to emulate that. And then trying to deconstruct it, or subvert it, or whatever. Just finding new and fresh ways to engage with other perspectives is the key.

 

 

I love the way you describe your work. You have an infectious energy. It's easier than ever these days to let the world affect our joy and excitement for things. How do you keep it so pure? 

I made a promise to myself that I couldn’t quit until I inspired someone the same way I’d been inspired.

Man, that's hard. I mean, to go full cheesy—this is full, anime cheesy here—when I was a kid I made a promise to myself that I couldn't quit until I inspired someone the same way I'd been inspired. I feel it's my job to bring that energy to people. 

Nowadays, there's this weird mass cynicism in art and popular discourse where we all just want to believe the world is ending and people are innately whatever sort of way. I don't want to believe that's who we are as a society and as people. I want to show people that things can be OK and you can try harder and the world doesn't have to suck. 

I like to go back to stuff that formed who I am. The first game that made me want to make games first and then later art is Sonic 3 & Knuckles. It was a really simple, colorful game but it's intricately done and it's a masterwork of the time. I play it once a year and don't pick it apart, don't analyze it, I don't do anything like that. Just play it and enjoy, like I enjoyed as a kid. I just let myself still feel that wonder and then try to put that into my stuff. I wish more people could feel that, you know? 

 

 

Do you feel like you live a life most people would consider "balanced"? 

No, definitely not. It's really not healthy and I don't try to glorify that. I lost a lot of weight the last couple of years just because I've been grinding. I'll just forget to eat! That's really bad. But this has been the most important thing in my life, so just putting the due energy into this led me to neglect other things.

I feel like balance is overrated too. Everyone's built differently, right? We're not just one production model and there's one ideal life. I'm not just grinding away for no reason, I'm living my best life! I feel like if you're just honest with yourself about what you can tolerate that's a better life. There's this self-help committee nowadays where people feel like there's one formula for how to treat yourself well. I don't buy into that. 

If you want to be extraordinary, you can’t put in ordinary effort.

And here's the thing too. We're all striving to be "in the industry", right? I want to see people striving beyond that. I want to see people striving for greatness. If you want to be extraordinary, you can't put in ordinary effort. I want to make stuff a kid could look at it and get the energy they need to go live their life harder. Where is that energy? That energy sometimes means you don't sleep. That sometimes means you don't eat. Sometimes that means you don't get to take a break. 

Art is key. We do important work because we tell people what they become and what the possibilities are. We don't actually build things. We nourish the imagination. This is something to take seriously. 

 

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You're mostly in the independent games space, but you're also an artist and designer. How often do you see other black people working in these spaces with you? 

I was at GDC and IndieCade this year and at IndieCade I felt like I was one of five black dudes. Like, we got a picture together. No lie! It's on Twitter! 

GDC was a little better but it was like a drop of coffee in the milk. There wasn’t a lot of black dudes and even just people of color. There's not a lot of representation on the making side of things. I think that's what's reflected on the output side. Why we see so many of the same characters, the same stories. 

But I do think things are getting better! There's a conference happening in New York, Games Devs of Color. It's a whole conference celebrating people of color doing things in the industry and there's a lot of women involved, too. I'm speaking at that, actually! I'm still freaking out. 

I think the cool thing is the dialogue is happening, right? People want more diversity in the output and people who are making this stuff are being more vocal and getting more of a fanbase themselves. Even in the mainstream, we're seeing more people of color and women getting normal roles. Not just black guy or the Asian guy, you know? We're getting cool characters. I think it's on the up and up. 

 

I saw an Asian priest on Supernatural the other day!

I feel like that's kind of representation that matters! We need people just doing normal stuff. Hey, they're people! Let them have roles. They don't need black roles, they need roles. We see Wonder Woman, right? It's just a really cool-ass superhero movie that anybody could be into, but it's about a woman just doing stuff. A little boy would want a Wonder Woman action figure because she's just dope. That kind of representation!

 

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Visibility is so big in this, too. We have access to more platforms than ever to be seen as individuals.

We're in a larger community! It's not just our local markets. I've never had a client in Buffalo. Almost all of my work has come from my online presence, and that extends to speaking at IndieCade and GDC and my art direction stuff. All of that has come through just my web presence. 

There’s never been this much proliferation of ideas ever in human history. And we get to witness that in our lifetimes. Like, how awesome is that? 

Even if your local market is 💩, you can put yourself out there now and have your own image and social media really makes that matter. You can reach a real market and tangibly change your life. That's something new that I think will really help diversity as well because everybody out there hustling on their own, they're visible. They're not just selling their prints on the street. You go to their website and buy from anywhere. 

You don't even need to code to sell stuff, it's amazing! The barrier to entry is so low. Anybody can do something if you just want to and have the drive to stick to it. We're in a golden age right now but everyone wants to feel sorry for themselves! 

There's so much art being produced. So much good art and bad art and creative art and innovative art. There's everything, and it's happening every day, and you have access to all of it. There's never been this much proliferation of ideas ever in human history. And we get to witness that in our lifetimes. Like, how awesome is that? ✦

 
 

June 22, 2017. Interview by Devon Ko. Editing by Devon Ko, Morgane SantosBushra Mahmood, and Danilo Campos

 
 

Devon Ko is a designer and art director specializing in 3D visuals and motion graphics. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, TIME, SPIN, Pitchfork, and many more.