A games industry veteran with two decades of experience, Joel Emslie has worked at Ronin Entertainment, Namco Bandai Games America and Infinity Ward, on projects including Armor Command, Kill Switch, and the Call of Duty and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare series. He is currently lead artist at Respawn Entertainment, where he worked on online multiplayer first-person shooter Titanfall, in which players can commandeer Titans: giant mech-style exoskeletons. You can see over 90 pieces of art from the game in The Art of Titanfall: a free exhibition at Hollywood’s Gnomon Gallery from 3 May to 3 July.
Tell us about your journey
When I was four years old, my father took me to see Star Wars. That seems like the exact moment in time where my dreams of being an artist started. After that experience, I started drawing. Then somewhere around 1986, I saw my first manga in a comic shop. I was so inspired, all I wanted to do was draw manga and watch anime.
In my senior year of high school, I dropped a yearbook class and took an art class for an easy A. I met two other students that were using the class to get school credit for their venture into the independent comic-book business. It was a natural fit, and we became instant friends. We created and self-published seven comics in total. This was a brutal time in my career, but it taught me how to work with extreme passion and to start thinking with a business mind.
After that fizzled out, I managed to get a job at small videogame start-up as a concept artist. After a few months of earning what I could as a young inexperienced artist, I asked my boss how I could earn more. He told me I had to learn 3D. There really wasn’t a lot of schooling for 3D art at the time – this was in 1996 – so I begin to teach myself.
I did seven years at the start-up and didn’t have much to show for it in the way of shipped games but my experience was equivalent to seven years of on-the-job art school. My next step was taking a job at Namco. I did a year and a half there and shipped a really solid game, but realized I needed to move on. It was a long shot and a big move to LA from northern California but I took the chance and applied at Infinity Ward for a character artist position. IW had just finished Call of Duty and was looking for artists that had console experience to help create Call of Duty 2. I always look back on getting hired there as a real life-changing event: they were making games of a quality I had only dreamed of before.
After working on Call of Duty 2, I went on to become lead character artist on Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and then onto Modern Warfare 2. After the success of MW2, our publisher pulled some corporate shenanigans and didn’t want to work at IW any more, so I joined up with Respawn Entertainment in May 2010 as a lead character artist, then stepped in as art lead later shepherd the art department on our first game, Titanfall.
How do you want to impact the world?
I’ve been fortunate enough to work on games that have been played by millions. It’s hard to wrap my head around it sometimes, but my chosen profession has allowed my art to make a connection with people on a large scale. I hope that some of my work has inspired others to become artists in the same way that the artistry behind Star Wars inspired me.
What are you passionate about?
I’m very passionate about technique and craft. The way I look at it, I will be spending the rest of my life perfecting those two things – always with the intention that it will push my art to become better and better.
What would be your #1 advice to other artists?
I think we all need to get our hands dirty as much as possible, with some good old-fashioned oil paint, clay or pencils. I’m sad to see more and more practical effects and model shops going out of business as the digital world takes over. We can’t live without computers – they are a part of us as artists in so many ways – but it’s important to keep our analogue art skills alive and strong.