There’s one sentence that has shaped – and, in fact, launched – Keith Guerrette’s career. It’s just one word; a simple question.
Here’s a guy who’s contributed his digital artistry to some of the most popular and disruptive games of the decade, who was listed on Forbes’ 2014 list of 30 Under 30 (Games category), and who works deservedly alongside other esteemed professionals in his industry. And yet, his demeanor isn’t that of someone who’s “made it,” but rather one of a perpetual student. In conversations – not just about visual effects, but about anything, you name it – there’s a permanent inkling of curiosity perched at the edge of his voice. And that unofficial motto, “Why?,” is a question he’s just as eager to answer as he is to ask.
Knowing this, it’s no surprise that Keith’s particular area of expertise relies on a natural ability to delve. As an effects artist, he specializes in creating environmental elements that support story narratives – like fire, smoke, embers, water, and other particle effects. He also assists in determining and directing the movement of background objects that interact with those effects. And in The Last of Us, a game lauded for its subtlety and strong emotional elements, Keith’s team implemented a matte painted sky that reacted dynamically to changes in wind direction and speed.
“My job in games,” he explains, “is to bring a little bit of life to an otherwise completely static and dead world. Subtlety is a beautiful thing, but it’s only beautiful if you really add enough depth and detail to sell the world you’re in.”
And really selling a world, he explains, requires the cooperation of a close team. And lots of questions.
“If you want to make something better, you have to do it collectively,” he says, “which means everyone has to be on the same page. And asking questions is the best thing you can possibly do. That goes outside of just an individual project; it applies to the entire industry.”
When working in project-based environments, Keith strives to establish open lines of communication. “No one person makes a game. It’s a team of talented individuals who are working together for a common goal. The biggest thing I can encourage out of my team is a level of communication that makes sure everybody’s not only aware of the objectives, but also feels a part of the objectives, and believes in them. If I’m afraid to go to someone for information, then there’s no way that I’m going to be able to do work that’s in line with what they’re hoping to achieve.”
Central to open communication, he says, is maintaining a web of mutual mentorships. Although he displays unending respect for experience and proven wisdom, Keith dislikes the concept of hierarchies in creative workplaces. To him, knowledge is most effective when allowed to flow freely in any direction – not just downhill. “I have specific ways of thinking about things, but if I try to deliver that information to someone who understands it in a different way, I’m going to learn something.” He recalls an instance in which he attempted to explain a (seemingly) creative dilemma to a graphics programmer. “[The programmer] said, ‘Oh, that’s just trigonometry. And I’m like, ‘Wait, what did you just say?’ I was intrigued. All of the sudden the teacher/student relationship flip-flopped.”
Outside of individual projects, Keith serves as a teacher and guest speaker – but ever the inquisitor, he sees these as learning opportunities, too. “It’s refreshing. When I’m at work, I sit at my desk and then go home. But having a break to talk to students and learn from them, from the questions they ask, is amazing. ‘What’s the purpose of that? What if you did this instead of that? Why didn’t you do that?’”
“That question – why? – is a cool one to me because, most of the time, there’s not a valid answer. When you stop and consider it, the answer is usually just, ‘I guess that’s what I’ve always done in the past.’ But then you ask yourself, ‘Well what happens if I DON’T do that, and do this instead?’ It pushes you outside of your box, and gives you a whole different level of understanding and skills.”
He refers back to an early question from a student, one that turned out to be among the most course-shifting moments of his career. A recent graduate of Full Sail’s Computer Animation and Entertainment Business programs, Keith had set his sights on a path in film effects. “I was teaching at the time, and I had a student who asked me about working with games effects. I’d never touched a game engine, and so I told him I wasn’t sure, but that I’d look into it.”
That evening, Keith says, he went home and downloaded Quake and Unreal Engine 2 – “everything I could find after a quick Google search” – and started fiddling. He realized he liked it. He went back to the student, shared the information he’d learned, and then continued exploring independently. Soon after, he posted some of his work online. And after that, the job offers came.
“It was such a non-event to me at the time,” he says. “But looking back, it was a question that shaped a lot of my life.”
Today, Keith’s résumé includes positions like Lead FX Artist and Technical FX Artist for Naughty Dog, Playstation, and EA; plus a list of honors from organizations ranging from DigiWorld Summit and the Game Connection Paris to Full Sail University, where he’ll be recognized this year as an inductee in the school’s 7th Annual Hall of Fame.
He’s worked plenty of 100+ hour weeks, and during crunch time (the days leading up to a big release), has camped overnight at his desk more often than he cares to remember. And now, he’s in the final stages of launching an educational platform and community for real-time FX professionals, which will include supplementary content and a “choose your own adventure”-style learning experience for beginners.
Looking back, it’s a series of accomplishments and continuous dedication strung together by one common thread.
Simple question by simple question, Keith has embraced the outside-the-box, potential-filled, uncomfortable-but-intriguing world of “why” – and clearly, it’s served him well.