Judd Simantov on paving your own path

Judd Simantov, a self-taught 3D wizard, sidestepped a basketball career and joined Naughty Dog for the first Uncharted game when he was only twenty-two years old. Since then, the prodigal son has returned from the USA, and become something of a local legend. He shared his inspiring story and some words for the wise at the […]

Judd Simantov, a self-taught 3D wizard, sidestepped a basketball career and joined Naughty Dog for the first Uncharted game when he was only twenty-two years old. Since then, the prodigal son has returned from the USA, and become something of a local legend. He shared his inspiring story and some words for the wise at the inaugural event for Jo’burg’s rebooted animationXchange.

Q: How did you acquire the right technical skills and knowledge to propel yourself into a world-class company like Naughty Dog?

There wasn’t much in the way of schools when I started, and I wasn’t much of the academic type, so I taught myself by reading books, watching videos and interacting with people on forums. By focusing on what people were doing overseas and holding myself to that standard, I was able to self-evaluate and really propel myself closer and closer to where I wanted to end up. By following what was happening in the industry I was able to put myself in a position where I had the skills that companies like Naughty Dog were looking for.

Q: Being self-taught, how did you gauge your progress, and do you think it’s the right option for others?

A: This is a great question and one I talk about all the time to up and coming artists/developers. It’s crucial to make sure you’re looking at the best people in the world and comparing yourself to them. You have to have perspective and understand that it takes a while to get that good and you might even never be as good as the best. What’s important is that you have some kind of metric by which to measure your progress. What better metric, than the best at the thing you’re doing?

If you put your head down and really work hard, it’s shocking how much closer you get to your goals. I watched a lot of behind the scenes of DVD’s, read about the current trends and problems online. My gauge was whether or not I was solving the problems and whether or not people in the industry where interacting with me positively and responding to the work I was posting. I think that part of it is quite logical and tends to happen naturally.

I’m not an education expert, but I do think being able to grow and learn things in your own personal time is a crucial component of getting better at anything. So maybe some people need school as a jumpstart to their education, but if that’s where it starts and ends, I don’t think they’ll go very far. I’ve never met anyone really great at what they do, sitting around and waiting for someone to spoon feed them information.

Q: What part of your journey are you most proud of?

I’m most proud of Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. It was my first big game and I was given a lot of responsibility (I was only 22), but I managed to rise to the occasion despite almost no prior experience. I still look back on that time and wonder how I wasn’t scared to go into work every day; I think being young and naive has its advantages.

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Q: What’s the difference between being a ‘generalist’ versus a ‘specialist’ and is there any advantage to being one over the other as an independent contractor?

A generalist has a broad range of skills but risk spreading themselves too thin. A specialist is someone who focuses on becoming as good as he/she possibly can in one discipline. There are advantages and disadvantages to each one, but I think the best people are people that specialise, but not to the point that they literally know nothing about the other disciplines on either end of them. Ultimately when you work in production you’re part of a process (often a very iterative, cyclic process) and so it’s crucial that you understand the disciplines before and after you. You don’t have to be an expert at them, but the more you understand the better you can execute your job.

Unfortunately the market in which people find themselves also dictates the route they go. For what I do, being a specialist is crucial. For a lot of smaller companies in South Africa, they can’t afford to bring on a specialist in every discipline, although I do think it’s becoming more and more inevitable for even smaller companies to go this route in order to compete with international quality work. You just can’t have an artist who spends his day doing five different jobs and then produce the same quality work as someone focusing on only one.

Q: What advice can you give to someone hoping to rise in South Africa’s gaming industry?

First and foremost, go out and start making games. With Unity3d being free and making game development more accessible than ever, there’s really no excuse for not making your own games. If you feel like you’re lacking in a certain discipline, reach out to people and collaborate; surround yourself with like-minded people and start producing games you’d love to play yourself. If you’re interested in getting into the AAA game space pick a discipline and really focus on that. The nice thing about a lot of the art disciplines is you can apply them in other fields like feature animation and TV work. Either way, if you stay hungry, keep learning and work hard, you will succeed.

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Judd making a maquette at a workshop

Q: How would you describe the current state of South Africa’s gaming industry, do you think the country is heading in the right direction?

A: We have a really strong and growing indie community that’s passionate about game development and they’re out there making stuff, as well as a few companies like Free Lives who have put South Africa on the map. I know there are more games such as Desktop Dungeons and a few others that have done the same, but we’re not quite at the point yet where people globally associate SA with game development. Ultimately developers will need projects funded and the more sample cases there are that show that games can make a return on investment, the more likely people are to invest.

I think we need more educational institutions teaching game development and offering it as a viable career path to students, and like all developing industries, we need grassroots development and an actual industry to absorb the people coming into it. We could really stand to benefit from incubator-type programmes that can provide a platform for developers to make games that achieve critical and commercial success. Then it’s really just up to people to take their passion and build a viable industry out of it.

Story trailer for The Last of Us

Q: What consoles did you play growing up and at what stage did you realise that you wanted to pursue a career as a 3D artist?

I was lucky in that I had a lot of the consoles growing up and more importantly I rocked arcade games a lot. I also played a ton of PC games. I started out on an Atari playing Breakout and Pacman, then moved onto a NES, then Super Nintendo. Then I went onto Sega and Sonic, but probably the most defining console was Nintendo64. Mario 64, Golden Eye, StarFox.

Those games and that console was just defining. All the while I had been playing PC games. Back then Sierra “Quest” games were really popular. Games like King’s Quest, Police Quest, Space Quest, Leisure Suit Larry…etc. I have amazing memories of those games. It’s pretty incredible how much of an impact games had on my childhood. We used to have these lunch sessions at Naughty Dog where we would sit and chat about how playing those games shaped us.

Growing up, I had never really thought about it as a career option. I fell upon 3D Studio Max from one of my LAN friends when I was about 16. He showed me some 3D rendering and I thought it was the coolest thing ever, so I asked for the software and started playing around with it. Within a couple months I was building all kinds of cool things; then I saw Chris Landreth’s Bingo short. Something about characters appealed to me and I heard that it was made with Maya (which also happened to be what all the big film studios were using). I got my hands on a copy of Maya, begged my parents to buy me a book on it from Amazon, and the rest is pretty much history. At the time I was actually pushing for a career playing basketball, so my first stint in the States was for that, but once that didn’t work out it was a pretty straightforward transition to my love affair with 3D.

Q: Do you think games will ever have the same respect as films in terms of artistic and creative merit?

A: That will probably happen at some point down the line, but to be honest I really couldn’t care less about that. The games industry is such a thriving industry. We haven’t even touched on E-Sports which is a whole other amazing aspect to games. The bottom line to me is that more and more people are playing games every year and the industry is in a more stable place than any of the VFX or feature animation houses. When you hear about places like Dreamworks closing down PDI, and Rhythm and Hues shutting down right after winning an Oscar for Life of Pi, it really puts things in perspective in terms of what’s actually important. I’ll take passion, sustainability and a love for what I do over respect and creative merit any day. Game developers are generally down to earth people who want to create an interactive experience that other people can enjoy. If they achieve that, they’re set.

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“Joel” from Naughty Dog title THE LAST OF US

Judd has since worked on game-changing titles like The Last of Us, and now makes his living internationally while living in sunny Joburg. It’s possible folks… just be very, very, very good. 

Interview by Chris Wheeler