The Quest for Balance and Growth with Vincent Ménier


Vincent Ménier is a Character Artist from France, currently working in the video games industry. After five years studying cinema and traditional animation in Paris, he moved to Montréal in order to start his career. Driven by curiosity and a passion for learning, he enjoys the collaborative aspect of working in a studio environment with like minded individuals. He has worked for several companies and clients including Unit Image, Ironklad Studios, Disney, DC Comics and Warner Brothers.

Tell us a little bit about how you got started as an artist
Actually I started in business school and quickly realized I was a bit lost. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do in life. I really liked video games and very early in the process of going to business school it turned out that this wasn’t my universe. I saw schools that were teaching VFX for movies, so I needed to turn around really fast, leave the business school and find something to do for that year. I was lucky to land into a VFX school in Paris. I did three years there and I slowly figured it out as I went. I didn’t have a plan. I wasn’t sure what I liked or “what I was made for”, even though I’m not sure we’re made for just one thing. So I just figured it out along the way, because I wasn’t aware what jobs exist within film, games, entertainment etc. These are industries that are pretty opaque to the general public. Unless you have a parent or relative that is familiar with that industry you’re pretty much left without information.

You initially went to business school, but did you always want to be an artist?
So my dad is a businessman and I guess I have some of that business sense that I inherited from him. I’m interested in the way that business works so that was logical for me at the time. But the way business education was taught in France was very hermetic for me; it was just not at all what I imagined. I was very bored. I felt it was an extension of the school system, which I already thought I wasn’t so much fit for. And I’m not one of those people who have been drawing since the age of 5

A lot of artists know they’re going to be artists since they’re really young, they start drawing at 5 and they never drop the pencil in their life. For me it was a bit more obscure and I had to find that out. I just knew I have this profound love for video games. It is a beautiful medium that I’m very passionate about. The ability to interact with the game as an experience is just so powerful. You can convey so many ideas and emotions with it that I’ve always been fascinated. At the same time I’ve always liked pretty pictures. I know it sounds a bit silly to say; I guess I traveled a lot when I was young. I had the opportunity to go live in countries like Thailand or Poland and that allowed me to see very different things. I was always fascinated by that and I guess the world of movies and games in general appealed to me to be able to be recreate those environments so it was quite attractive for me.

When you started pursuing art did you know where you wanted to go?
In the beginning I wanted to be a modeler for film. Then I realized I’d like to learn drawing to be able to make my own designs, so I studied traditional animation at another school. Unfortunately it didn’t work so well for me – drawing. I have a really hard time visualizing volumes on a sheet of paper. And at some point I stumbled on sculpture, on ZBrush specifically. There was a big unlocking moment where things started to click. I had a greater ease to apprehend shapes I could rotate. The ability to sculpt form rather than push vertices was a big deal as well. Things progressed from here and I found my tool of choice as I was discovering my love for characters and their stories.

Can you tell us a little about your first jobs?
From 2007 to 2012 I was in the world of art school, and education in general can often be disconnected from the reality of work. Especially in industries that can be so specific and technical like VFX and games. Then I got my first job as a part time QA Tester and part time 3D Artist for a video game outsourcing company in Montréal. I wanted to continue in games, but life decided to go another way. I ended up sculpting collectibles back in Paris for a bunch of different IPs but mainly for Disney.

It was a big adventure. It was something very different and not at all what I had imagined. However it allowed me to learn a lot of new things on the technical side and discover another industry. Suddenly I was talking to licensing owners and reviewers who wanted to make sure their characters were respected and it was a completely different world. I was also given the opportunity to go to China and work directly in the factory for a couple of weeks. That was a fantastic human experience. I went into collectibles but I didn’t know at the time that several years later, I would end up working on a Disney game. And so all that experience became a lot more useful than I would have thought. So yeah, there was never anything planned. I worked in several other industries as well, but I believe it’s for the better because it allows for an exciting career where you’re just never bored and you keep discovering new things.

How many hours do you spend working on art and how do you keep a work/life balance?
It varies between 40 and 60 hours. But I never work only 40 hours; probably more often around 50. When I work 60 hours a week I try not to do it for too long of a time. I’ve been very close to burning out and I’m very fortunate to have a fiancée that knows when to bring me back to Earth. She’s also my best critic and will give me the harsh truth about my work when I need to hear it. All in all, I’m a firm believer that it’s almost impossible to achieve anything without a strong support system and she’s definitely the cornerstone of mine.

Getting dangerously close to burning out made me realize that there is a great value to balance. A lot of my art heroes are people that work extremely hard and I thought that, if I was to become any good, I had to be exactly like them. Looking back I think there are different ways to make it (whatever that means) that can be a lot less extreme. Still, if you have a job and work only 40 hours a week, it’s not enough; especially when you’re young. It’s up to you to find your pace. If you work 60-80 hours a week all year long then maybe there are things in life that you’re missing out on. Maybe your art will get stale from not feeding your mind and heart with inspiration.

One of my favorite artists, Ash Thorp said: “It’s about finding the alchemy of you.”

Do you have other hobbies than art?
Other than art I really enjoy playing games. It’s still my biggest passion. I feel like games have amazing potential thanks to their interactive nature. A good example would be the airport level in COD: Modern Warfare II. You’re playing a “good guy” infiltrated in a terrorist group that is walking through an airport. Suddenly they open fire on civilians and the game lets you make the choice of taking part in the carnage or not. I don’t think anyone went through this sequence without having a weird feeling in their gut, especially if you chose to shoot too. There’s a reason why that scene caused so much controversy at the time, but I think it was very brave of the developers to pitch that scene and the publisher to actually go with it.

It’s one of my most memorable moments as a gamer. So many games involve defeating/killing hundreds of people but how many of them make you consider your actions? In the airport scene previously mentioned, each time you pull the trigger you think, “Damn that was a civilian.” It made me pause for a moment and ask myself questions bigger than the game itself. Video games are a medium that is designed to be played and the impact they can have goes far beyond what most people think. That’s also the reason why I never watch Let’s Plays.

Reading & Experimenting with life
I’m an avid reader. I’ll read anything from novels to so called self-help books. I’m quite passionate about the latter ones because I’m very interested in learning about people who have found their own balance and perform at a high level. I see these books as toolboxes where I can dig in and find new things to experiment with. Each day will never be more than 24 hours and at some point you die, so I’m striving to make better use of this time and get the most out of it. There isn’t really one perfect formula so it’s a game of trying things out, seeing what works and what doesn’t and constantly calibrating as we move forwards. All in all, I try to always keep in mind that while art is an amazing journey, it’s not everything.

Still as a Statue
I also have a lot of statues. There’s definitely some magic that happens when a 3D file becomes a real object. Having made quite a few myself, I’ve gained a better understanding of the work that goes into creating collectibles. Sometimes, I get caught in contemplating them for hours trying to reverse engineer the creation process. I guess that’s very art centric. However I don’t associate my work in collectibles with the statues at all. It’s very rare that I showcase my own work at home. Not that I’m not happy or proud of it but I see it as a reflections of the past. Looking at your own art all the time is a bit cannibalizing you know? I’d rather feed myself with something that somebody else made. At the same time when I look at something I did, I have a really hard time appreciating it like someone who would just discover it, not having made it.

Do you have any tips for people who would like to become professional artists?
Business Sense
In this case I can tell you that learning about the way IPs are dealt with when I started working in collectibles ended up being very useful later on. The whole business school thing worked in my favor too because I’m quite active as a freelancer. To have even a minor understanding of business is crucial even if you work in a studio. I feel that, as artists, we tend not to care about anything other than art, and when you bring up the subject of money there’s no one here anymore. As commercial artists we evolve in a system which is business driven, so better start learning its ropes if you don’t want to be on the receiving end of bad contracts, under budgeted projects etc.

Team Collaboration & Empathy
The reason I’m not a fulltime freelancer is I really enjoy being in an environment where I get to work in a team. Games and movies fascinate me because it’s often impossible to bring an idea to life on your own. It takes these really big teams to make these large scope projects .Yet you often stumble upon people who are exceptional at their job but don’t communicate so well. There’s not a great sense of empathy. Therefore, something I really recommend to younger artists starting out in the industry is not to just stay in their little corner.

Whether you’re just doing small things because you’re part of a really big production or you’re a generalist in a smaller company, try to get to know other people’s jobs. Not by doing it, but by going to them and asking questions and figuring out how they depend on you and vice versa.

I find that this creates way better work for the end user. Whether it’s the moviegoer/gamer or the team making the project, everyone ends up having a better time. It creates a sense of family too because people actually care. I highly encourage anyone to ask, “Hey what is the other’s job, and how can I help them?” I think that’s a great skill to have.

What are your plans and hopes for the future?

No Plans
I’m working my fulltime job and am slowly getting some leadership oriented tasks on top of being a character artist, which is very new to me. I’m able to learn and see more. I currently work in a team that is split between multiple cities which is an exciting challenge too.

At the same time, I’m freelancing with a couple of other companies but mostly with Ironklad Studios. We have a lot of exciting projects that are coming up. I don’t know what this is going to give birth to but the collaboration with them is nothing short of amazing. It’s just been great. Let’s see what comes next.

In the next 5 years, I’m hoping to take part in a AAA game. I would really like to work on something that players are anticipating. As a developer I’d like to have that feeling of responsibility to make the best thing I can for the people that play it. Suddenly, it’d give a lot more weight to every little decision which I find to be galvanizing.

I’d also like to work on projects that mean a lot to people and that can be life changing. I’m thinking of games like Hellblade or Journey, games that have a huge impact on their audience. As much as I enjoy doing art for myself, I find that doing it for others can be just as fulfilling.

Up to this day I’d say I have nothing figured out and I just try to make sure the next step makes sense. Very often I end up being surprised and not always going in the direction I expected. I embrace it as I find it’s a lot more exciting that way.