Rafi Byron is a cool guy. He’s so cool, he recently moved to a cooler country (both literally and figuratively) just to be around cooler folks and do cooler thing (check out Extra Crunchy, will ya). He can dance. Heck, he danced at our wedding. He’s got great hand-foot coordination as well as great hand-eye coordination. But more than that he has phenomenal hand-eye imagination. Which makes him a fierce batman of 3D modeling (more on that later in the interview), a merciless spider-man of concept design, a vicious hulk of animation. Which made him perfect for working with us on our game King Down.
We worked closely with Rafi and his partner Nadav, as part of their studio Dream Catcher, to conceptualize, visualize and materialize our vision, to illustrate, animate and ultimately checkmate the product. It was a joy working, or simply hanging out, with them. We got a glimpse into their other amazing projects — practical film stunts, directing and editing, CGI, puppeteering… We also got to know them more personally, and we found out that Rafi is a self-taught master of his craft. And since his knowledge of, and proficiency in, the relevant tech of his industry is so vast and impressive, we wanted to get his take on acquiring skills, putting them to practice, and in general becoming a professional.
Why didn’t you go to art school and decided to learn it yourself?
From the age of 13 I started playing around with 3D software and enjoyed it so much that it was mostly what I did after school hours. At one point I seriously considered studying animation in Tel Aviv and even attended a class at an animation college in order to be sure it was good for me. Luckily it came to my attention in that class that the students were getting ripped off — They simply didn’t learn the material that was promised. At the end of that class I spoke to the instructor and asked where he studied, and he gave me the answer I needed most — “the school of life” he said, meaning he was self taught. This gave me the confidence to stick to it on my own.
How did you pull it off? Did you have a method, a strategy, a guide? Or did you just wing it, practicing on what you liked doing in the hope of getting better?
I simply worked on the best portfolio I could make at that time, and hoped for the best. I participated in animation forums that were popular and showed as much of my work as I could, and then one day I applied to a job offer that popped up in one of the forums and got my big break. From then on I started my career.
Do you think it paid off? I mean, do you think you are better than if you had studied it formally?
You can never really tell what would’ve happened in a different path, but what I know for sure is that I saved a lot of money and a lot of time by not studying in the “traditional way”.
Are most of your colleagues formally educated or are there many that are self taught like you? Do you think there’s a any distinction between them?
I had many colleagues from different parts of the world. Most of them studied in art or animation schools. But it seemed apparent to me that the few people who were self taught were more passionate, eager to improve and more artistic than the ones who studied for 4 years or more.
What do you think the advantages are of formal studies? What are you sorry to have missed?
The biggest advantage of formal studies for me is the final project. I always wanted to make a big project of my own (a short film for ex.), but each time I tried I just couldn’t keep my motivation till the end. Formal studies put the needed pressure on you to reach an end goal with clear deadlines. And that’s something I only had at work, but not for personal projects.
Can you recommend any books, websites, online courses or instructional videos to anyone starting out on their own? What was your greatest resource of learning materials?
You yourself teach. When did you decide that you’re good enough to do that?
It took me a while actually. I was afraid of not knowing answers to questions I should know. I got over it after managing teams at work and learning how to deal with it, as well as realizing my level compared to students or other teachers.
Sell me on your courses — Why should I attend yours instead of any else’s?
Because I am Batman.
If I can draw like your average 4–5 year old, how far and how fast can you make me improve?
It’s not up to me, it’s up to you. I can explain/demonstrate/challenge you, but it’s all about practicing at the end.
Can you make anyone a good illustrator, a good sculptor, a good designer, or are there lost causes that shouldn’t waste their time?
I really believe anyone can (or at least should try to) master art forms. But they should also be aware of how it makes them feel, and what really draws them to it. For example, if looking at amazing artwork makes you feel like a worthless piece of sh$* instead of inspiring you to get better, you should drop it.
What are the most important skills that someone in your profession should have? How do you help your students acquire these skills?
I would say the most important skills are the basics — color, perspective, anatomy, shading etc. After being good at these things and understanding them, you can be more creative and make high-end art. In every aspect I teach, I put my focus on those basics, students tend to go overboard and struggle with the complexity. It’s always helpful to practice basics and get better at them.
What are the most important skills that an art teacher, instructor, guide, mentor should have? Which ones do you excel in and which ones do you think you should improve on?
I always found it challenging to teach art because it’s a visual form, and you must find effective ways to put it into words. Giving constructive criticism is also an important skill. Artistic spirit’s are so easy to break, and that’s the last thing you want to do. I’m not sure I excel in any of the skills, there’s always room for improvement. I try my best to give good feedback as well as the bad. I try to demonstrate the process, for me that’s key to getting better, many times what keeps someone from improving is just a bad process or bad habits. Simply seeing how a professional works can give so much.
What of your creations are you most proud of (and it better be King Down)?
King Down is truly a great achievement. I feel that it reflected my design as well as team management skills in the best way. And I have to thank you for the faith you had in me and in Dream Catcher’s team along the way.
What kind of projects do you enjoy most — post production, concept development, practical effects? What subject matter excite you most — robots, dragons, aliens, knights, spies, murder mysteries, …?
This changes every few months… Currently, I enjoy concept development most. Lately I enjoy the hybrid between organic and mechanical forms.
You are collaborating with Nadav, your partner in Dream Catcher. Your individual skills must complement each other, but you also overlap in many of your competencies. Can you give us an example of something that you do well while he’s just embarrassingly bad at, and something that he is very good at that you are just a complete failure in.
That’s a good one.. I guess that on my side it’s drawing. And on his side it’s negotiating contracts.