Hand-eye Imagination

Natural talent meets natural ability to learn.

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.

About Learning

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?

I recommend Google and YouTube. Whatever question you have will be answered within a few links if not on the first link.

About Teaching

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.

About Work

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.

No matter what you’re doing, you’re always involved in something interesting — What are you working on right now that you’d like to tell us about?

At the moment I’m involved with a very ambitious chain of sustainable hostels in Central America that is expanding worldwide, and my part in this along with my better half, is creating the art, which thousands of travelers from around the world will experience and interact with.

You said that you wanted to do more of your own content development and less commission jobs — Is that a difficult shift? How has it been going so far, having to still make a living while investing in projects that might take a long time to yield results?

The most difficult part, and in a funny way it’s also the easiest part, is saying “NO”. Once you’re in the loop of commission jobs you have to keep the ball rolling and keep clients so you don’t get stuck without any work. If you keep accepting jobs you won’t have enough time to develop your own projects or to promote them properly.So far so good, I’m currently working only on things that promote my own projects. I know that it takes time so I try to look at the big picture and direct it to my goals.

You are working with your girl-friends, Ruth (a.k.a. Ruzaza), who is also a brilliant illustrator. Who’s better? 🙂 How are you enjoying it? Aside from the fun of it — are there any other advantages to working with a romantic partner (and that’s not to belittle your love for Nadav, of course)? What are the difficulties? Any tips to anyone considering it?

When both of you love being together 24 hours a day, it’s only natural to try working together. We’re still surprised in how much this works well for us.

About King Down

You guys at Dream Catcher are special effects directors and media producers. What was it like working on a board game as opposed to working on a movie or show?

Almost every project we get into is a new ground to explore. It’s not easy, but sure is challenging. So why not go for an awesome board game to spice things up more? I believe that getting introduced to kickstarter was also one of the benefits from this project.

What was your biggest challenge of this project? What was the easiest part? What aspect was the worst? What was most fun?

The biggest challenge — recording your narration lol . The easiest part — recording Alicia’s narration… The worst — we really pushed the bar with the characters, so it was really tough making each one so unique and still maintain the same world. The most fun — Seeing the high quality 3d prints of the figures was super ultra satisfying!

King Down took to crowdfunding in order to be published. How much did you enjoy the process? What did you learn from that experience? Would you do it again?

I had a great time experiencing the KickStarter campaign, especially while it was live. It’s very engaging and cool to get feedback from backers and watching the numbers change daily. But on the other hand you never really know exactly what was good or bad in the big picture. My biggest problem in getting involved with crowdfunding campaigns is that I never ever backed a crowdfunding myself, so it’s hard for me to judge a campaign, or know how to pull it off. I believe that in order to succeed with a product, you have to be a potential buyer yourself.

What were your sources of inspiration for working on King Down? What worlds, characters, stories did you draw from?

Well, in terms of inspiration for King Down we collected hundreds of images from games, concept art, movies, figures and what not. Anything from swords to outfits, logos to card designs, colors and styles. As the art director, I had to fit my own sense of style into it. It was important for me to make the characters dynamic, as if they could just pop off of the board. The story line was drawn a little bit from Game of Thrones. We imagined that type of atmosphere, but with more humor and magic.

King Down is partly based on chess. How much of the visual language of the original game did you incorporate into the visual language and character design? Can you give specific examples where we can notice the similarities and influence?

The board of King Down is basically the original chess board, but pimped. The characters that originated from chess still have hints from the chess pieces. For example the King and Queen’s crowns, the Bishop’s hat, the Rook’s piece on his back.