Homeland Talent: An Interview With Naughty Dog Art Director Erick Pangilinan

Santa Monica, California’s Naughty Dog Inc., developer of famed video game titles such as the Crash Bandicoot series, the Uncharted series, and The Last of Us, is arguably the crown jewel in Sony’s Worldwide Studios – a group of renowned studios dedicated to developing games exclusive to PlayStation hardware.

The Worldwide Studios group also includes Sony Santa Monica (God of War series), Sony Japan Studio (Gravity Rush, Shadow of Colossus, The Last Guardian),  Polyphony Digital (Gran Turismo series), Guerrilla Games (Killzone series, Horizon: Zero Dawn), and Sucker Punch Productions (Sly Cooper series, inFamous series).

Among the key personnel in Naughty Dog is Filipino Erick Pangilinan, who serves as one of the studio’s two art directors. Pangilinan is a game development veteran whose career spans two decades (almost exclusively with Naughty Dog). With the help of Naughty Dog communications director Arne Meyer and PlayStation Southeast Asia PR, I was able to do an email interview with Mr. Pangilinan.

Erick prepares to talk to local game developers during an information sharing session in Malaysia held this past March (Photo from the Independent Game Developers Association - Malaysia Facebook page)

Erick prepares to talk to local game developers during an information sharing session in Malaysia held this past March (Photo from the Independent Game Developers Association – Malaysia Facebook page)

Buhay Digital: What city/province in the Philippines does your family hail from? What led to you/your family leaving the country?

Erick Pangilinan: I was born and raised in Quezon City. My father moved to California in the early 1980s for a job offer in computer programming, and in 1987, the rest of my family joined him.

Buhay Digital: Based on your Linkedin profile, you studied at the University of the Philippines (UP) for some time. What course were you taking up during your time in UP, and how did it contribute to your game development career?

Pangilinan: I was part of the UP integrated school (UPIS) program (K-10) and I left during my 9th grade. I took summer classes at the UP College of Fine Arts, even when I was in Junior high school. UPIS had many art contests and classes that helped me get exposure to good teachers and peers. Figuring out how your work compares to the art community and learning to be critical at an early age was very helpful. Constant exposure to art gave me a good foundation and realize how much work I need to do to get better.

UP integrated school

Buhay Digital: Once you were in the United States, how did you get your start in game development, and in Naughty Dog in particular?

Pangilinan: During my time, Visual effects houses and big film studio campuses were the dominant figures in the industry. The games industry was still working on 2D consoles like the Genesis and Super NES. It was very hard (and expensive) to get any education on 3D modelling and animation. There were no mainstream books you could buy and the internet was not very accessible to this kind of information. So I tried to find ways to learn the fundamentals from cheaper software that were similar, and geared my portfolio to emphasize 3D work. I was constantly applying for a job and getting rejected but learning and improving as I go. I was not really clear what i wanted to do, but i knew i had to get in first and figure it out.

By the time I graduated, I got very lucky that the games industry switched to 3D with the introduction of the Playstation and Sega Saturn. That made my 3D portfolio and knowledge more relevant and in-demand because most people in the game industry were still catching up to learn 3D software and most artists in the visual effects industry or film did not want to work on low polygon games. This created an opportunity and being ahead of the curve scored me a job at SEGA. A year later, I got hired to Naughty dog and I stayed there for the next 19 years.

Buhay Digital: What are some of the most memorable games you have worked on (could be while in Sega, Naughty Dog, etc.) and why?

Pangilinan: The Crash Bandicoot series were the most memorable years at ND because the team back then was so small. We were only 13 people when I got hired, now we are over 200. It was a very tight group and when things go right or wrong, everyone felt it, so it was important to always do your best. When your team is that small, you are responsible for a bigger part of the game, and there was constant pressure to not let your teammates down. we spent a lot of overtime at work and saw a lot of sunrises. But it was worth it. Crash Bandicoot series was a classic hit that established this studio as one of the top and paved the way to greater things.

Crash Bandicoot

Buhay Digital: How would you summarize the experience of working with local game development studios (such as Secret 6, Ladyluck digital) for art outsourcing? How did Naughty Dog end up working with studios in the Philippines?

Pangilinan: I was introduced to Ladyluck around the time we finished Uncharted 1…we were looking for studios to work with, and they were one of the few selected. We tested all our studios, Ladyluck and Secret 6 passed the test. Philippine studios have a lot of talent and are very hardworking. I remember right before our critical gold master deadline, the artists would not go home because they wanted to make sure their work was done right…so they would stay up all night at the office and wait for me to wake up the next day to approve their submission. I don’t know any other studio that would do that for me. I wish there were more studios in Manila that can do AAA outsourcing work, it’s a good way to build a talent pool and grow a community. I think they can get better if they continue working with other top shelf clients that will bring AAA work. Hopefully, their experience with ND will help spread the knowledge to other artists and bring more work for the Philippine gaming community.

Buhay Digital: What do you appreciate most about working in Naughty Dog?

Pangilinan: I appreciate the culture here and the collection of people that make up the Naughty dog DNA. People here are driven and push each other every day. We challenge everything and anyone in the studio to do better. We try to be very direct with each other so we don’t waste time beating around the bush. We get things done by having a lot of conflicts, but it’s all about getting to the best ideas and methods to achieve a common goal. To make the game better. Keeping the hierarchy flat, we minimize politics and let people focus on the work. It seems harsh, but everyone appreciates the transparency and feedback. Freedom is another thing that i appreciate here…the management team is very light, because we fill the ranks with very senior and talented people that can operate and drive themselves. This freedom and driven culture promotes a lot of ownership to their work, which ultimately is the secret sauce to the success of this team.

Erick Pangilinan working at Naughty Dog

Buhay Digital: The art direction in Naughty Dog games has evolved from a cartoony style during Crash Bandicoot and Jak and Daxter, to a more realistic or hyper realistic style in Uncharted and The Last of Us. What direction do you see the artwork taking in future Naughty Dog games?

Pangilinan: It really depends on the story and genre. I believe we will always be about telling a compelling story to our viewers. Whatever the story is about, we will build the right art direction, music direction, animation direction and game direction that matches with it.  Like for example,  Uncharted and The Last of us were from the same platform and were both realistic games, but the art direction on both were very different. Future naughty dog games I assume will be bigger, and wider-linear, and will try to push the console hardware to the maximum.  The art we do here is very stylized or directed but rendered to a realistic level.

Uncharted 4 jump

The Uncharted series is the very definition of playable action blockbuster (image from Vulture.com)

Buhay Digital: Any message to Filipino fans of Naughty Dog and games such as Uncharted and the Last of Us?

Pangilinan: Thank you very much for supporting our games since Crash Bandicoot. I was very surprised how many people in the Philippines enjoyed that game and remember it. Hopefully, more people will have access to Playstation 4 and enjoy our games and the experiences we bring. For the talented artists, designers and programmers out there…I hope you can find inspiration in these games, and can someday create a Filipino original game to AAA level. I would love to see that but for the meantime, just know Naughty dog hires from around the world. 🙂  Keep on practicing your skills, and follow your dreams.