In his work life, Stefan Ivanov is a Lead Level Artist at Ubisoft, but he’s been making a name for himself thanks to the work he does in his spare time, particularly since the start of the lockdown. Having shared his time and experience online over the years to help aspiring artists, Stefan has lately made the transition to YouTube, where he creates in-depth tutorial videos, gives his insights into the industry, or simply shares his passion and nostalgia for gaming.
We recently sat down with Stefan to discuss his love of gaming and design, how to start a successful YouTube channel, and why he’s so eager to help other people learn and get ahead.
First of all, what sparked your interest in video games, and how did you get your start in the industry?
I began as a gamer. I was a huge fan of a few different games back in the day, in particular Blizzard’s Diablo series. The first Diablo made me very curious about games, and by the time Diablo II came out, I was hooked. I knew this is what I wanted to do. I was a teenager then, in the middle of high school, and soon after I persuaded my parents to get me my first PC so that I could experiment and learn. I started with Photoshop and Illustrator and Flash, making short animations.
I was hired right after high school by Gameloft, doing level design, and at that time I was very new to 3D software and modelling in general; I had only been doing it for a year or so. But they seemed to like my work, and getting that job and meeting people who shared my passion while I was that young was a huge boost to me and my career.
That was in 2009, so I’ve now been at it for 11 years, and in that time I’ve worked on level design, animations, and environment stuff, and in the last couple of years I’ve transitioned into more leadership and managerial roles. It’s been a long journey.
For many people, CG and game development is just a job, but you have an entire YouTube channel dedicated to it. Why?
First of all, I really love what I do. I find myself sharing my passion with every new person that I meet, and that means I have to repeat myself often. I would never change what I’m doing. In the future, I may do some other CG work or transition to cinema, but this is my passion. I love the art of creating environments, of telling stories and developing games. When you’re that passionate about something, you want to share it and inspire other people to discover what you love.
But there’s also a practical aspect to it. When I first started, it was very hard to find any tutorials or instruction guides. I actually had only one book, which was for 3ds Max 7, that I could learn from. There’s a real need for guided instruction.
A few years ago, I returned to my hometown, and there were a lot of different seminars and game jams and events around graphic design, and I took part in as many as I could. And I discovered that I really liked helping other people succeed and sharing my own experiences and insights. I was doing that for a long time on, for example, the Unreal Engine forums, or on ArtStation, where so many people are looking for feedback, but ultimately I decided on using YouTube, since it’s the platform that offers you access to the widest possible audience.
I actually had the idea to do this a few years ago, and even got a start on it back then, but it wasn’t until the pandemic and the lockdown that I’ve really been able to dedicate any serious time to it. I used the quarantine and being stuck at home as an excuse to create more content.
Why is it so important for you to do these kinds of things? You keep saying you want to give back – why is that so important?
I think the answer has to do with supporting the general development of the industry. I believe that by actively helping other people, especially when there are so many other people climbing the same ladders and facing the same obstacles – at some point, those people that I helped could turn around and help me, or we might become colleagues and face the same challenges together. I actually have a story like that.
Solving problems is a big source of motivation for me, and a huge part of the appeal of this industry, and what greater way to problem solve than to have more and more people on board?
One of your most popular videos is about why you were switching to Max 2021. What inspired you to make that one?
Well, to tell you the truth, it was a very pleasant surprise for me to see the 2021 update, because I’ve always been skeptical when it comes to adopting new versions – usually because I rely on a few plugins or scripts of my own, and when new versions are released I often have to rework them or wait for an update to get them to work again.
But once I saw some of the features included in Max 2021, and started reading the update notes on your page, I thought to myself, “Okay, this seems to be the version you’ve been waiting for.” I downloaded it as soon as I could and started tinkering with it, exploring the new tools and options, and I definitely think it’s going in the right direction.
3ds Max feels comfortable to me. I’m already so familiar with it, so invested in it, and I still see a lot of benefits and production value from it compared to other software.
What’s your end goal with your YouTube channel?
The end goal is to get a bigger audience and be able to inspire more people to get into game development or the CG industry more broadly. Eventually I’d like to be able to do this full time. I’d also like to branch out into shorter cinematics, whether photorealistic or more cartoony, because telling stories is a hobby of mine, especially since I became a father. I think having kids brought out my inner child, and so I’ve been writing short stories and want, one day, to add visuals to them, to help convey a certain emotion to people and bring them a few moments of happiness in their day.
What advice do you have for people thinking of starting a YouTube channel within this industry?
Listen to the comments and feedback you receive, take to heart what people are saying, and try to be helpful. At the same time, don’t compromise your creative vision. This is a collaborative industry, but artists each have their own unique vision of the world, and that can easily get twisted or manipulated.
For me, at least, one of the major differences between working on my YouTube channel and game production is the level of control. In game design, the whole pipeline is for production, and there are so many people involved, so your opinion is never the most important, and you often have to make compromises for the good of the group. But on YouTube, you have complete artistic freedom, and this is very important for artists.