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Exclusive Interview with Borderlands 3 VFX Artist, Ashley Lyons

I got the chance to interview Ash from Gearbox Software, he is a VFX artist and worked on Borderlands 3. So as Mr. Torgue would say; EXPLOSIONS?!
Borderlands 3 VFX Interview With Ash
Borderlands 3 VFX Interview With Ash

Who are you and what do you do?

I am Ashley “Ash” Lyons, VFX artist at Gearbox Software

What differentiates the senior VFX artist from a “regular” VFX artist?

This one is kind of a running joke on the fx team. Being a “senior” artist doesn’t really hold much significance generally. I only consider myself senior because I’ve been at Gearbox for awhile. For our team, we have our FX Director, Nick Wilson, and then the rest of the team, we are all pretty much on equal footing. I could call myself VFX Lord Commander, Father of Dragons, all of us are still on the same level.

Every hero has an origin story, so how did you get started in the games industry?

I graduated with an MFA in Visual Effects and got my first job rendering office furniture and doing animations on occasion. I decided to get into game development after that and got my start in the industry doing VFX for Neverwinter Online and after that Gearbox hired me to do fx for Battleborn.

We know the hand-inked art style of Borderlands but what defines the Borderlands VFX?

I would consider the fx for Borderlands more hyper-realistic, or “Verhoeven,” as in the director of “Robocop” and “Total Recall”. For Borderlands 1, the team was watching those movies for inspiration. For Borderlands 3, I pulled inspiration from “Ash vs The Evil Dead.” We stuck more with a realistic look but added in those cartoony elements like squash and stretch, timing, anime lines, etc.

Drawing back from Battleborn, we saw that each faction had its own tone that defined their VFX. Does this also apply to Borderlands, for example, does each of the weapon manufacturers have their own style pallet?

They do. It’s more apparent with the Maliwan weapons and enemies. Those are more in line with something you would see in anime. With the characters, fx were able to lean more universal with their general skills and unique within specific skills that represented their characters. If you look at the Siren and Beastmaster, their fx lean more towards magical and digital, respectively.

Which VFX’s did you do and which one are you most proud of?

I did fx for Zane, the gore and blood stuff, the skags and each of their elements, some of the Jabbermons, each of the goliath types, the different psycho enemies, and some random environment stuff like pipe sprays, porta-potties, and fires.

I’m most proud of the Zane and blood/gore stuff especially. Getting those effects took the longest to get right with the most amount of R&D.

Zane the Operative - Borderlands 3 Screenshot01
Zane the Operative – Borderlands 3 Screenshot

What are some of the biggest problems you encountered and how did you handle them as an artist?

The biggest problems for me is creating an effect that also works with gameplay. An artist can spend hours or days making something that looks amazing, but once it goes in the game, if it doesn’t work or impedes the player’s view, it’s a bad effect. So it’s a challenge to find that balance of something looking awesome vs not stopping the flow of the game.

For example, with Zane’s shield, we realized that it was hard to see through during gameplay. I put in a small window mask around the crosshair that sets the visibility of the shield to zero at that point, so the player’s vision isn’t blocked when using a pistol or sniper rifle. It’s a good quality-of-life implementation and something that I’m sure the player won’t even notice.

You mentioned that you worked on Zane’s decoy VFX. First of all, It looks awesome and a step up from previous holograms in the series. What went into making such an effect?

Thanks, btw. That decoy took me around 6-7 months to land on a version that I was happy with amongst numerous alterations and design changes. There’s a bunch of little subtleties that I threw in there that’s noticeable when the player looks closely at it, if they ever get the chance, like some offset reds and blues reminiscent of the old-style 3d movies from the 80s. The type of films that were blurry if you took off the glasses.

At first, it was your typical holographic looking type effect, a digital light blue, fuzzy edges because I had no idea where I was going with it. The look as it is now didn’t start to take shape until I saw Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. There’s a scene where the main character is a hologram, and that inspired me to go in its current direction.

How did the insane increase in weaponry in Borderlands 3 affect the VFX department?

More artist hours went into working on them basically. A few of us focused on the weapon fx with the team as a whole contributing a few fx here and there.

How do you go about designing a VFX, do you get a weapon part assignment ‘Hey this barrel has 3 holes so make a muzzle flash with 3 flames’ or does it work both ways ‘Hey guys I got this cool VFX can you make a part for it’?

We usually get a task where something needs some fx, then we make said effect with some typical iterations along the way. It’s pretty straight forward.

Who do you admire the most in the special effects industry?

For me, my admiration tends to lean more towards games and the teams that worked on them more than specific people, but I will say that one person I will give much credit to is Bill Kladis, whos currently at Epic Games. He used to have a tutorial series that helped me get started with learning realtime VFX.

Also, Michel Gagne. Michel is the man and a super nice guy. We worked together on Battleborn.

Do you have any advice for the next generation of VFX artists that want to break into the industry?

Be familiar with as much software as you can. Many studios use different programs to do the same thing, so it helps to at least understand whatever it is that they’re using. Also, asking questions and opinions of other artists is ok. I do it all of the time. Also, be friendly to everyone. This is a small industry and a bad reputation can spread quickly.

Who is your favorite playable Vault Hunter in Borderlands 3?

I didn’t think it would be. Id have to say that Zane is my favorite for obvious reasons. Plus I like the ability to have two action skills available.

Are there things my readers should know that I didn’t ask?

None of us know what we are doing lol

Where can people find you and your work?

Twitter: @fxbl4ckout
Artstation: ashlyons.artstation.com (I swear ill update this more eventually)
Vimeo: vimeo.com/ashlyons

Zane the Operative with his Drone, SNTNL, on the planet Promethea
Zane the Operative with his Drone, SNTNL, on the planet Promethea

Community Questions

@Dan_vogt asks: What effects were stupid easy to implement but always impress? And what effects were stupid hard to implement but no one really notices?

Explosions. I love doing explosions and they can go so many places.

A really hard effect, that took me some time, was the digi-clone material. There are some subtle things in that material that I know most people are going to miss unless they take the time to look at it. I put them in there mostly as a challenge to myself to see if I could pull it off or not.

Also, damage numbers. Those are fx based and a difficult thing to get right.

@WalkingThomas asks: Are there certain effects that are more difficult to develop? Are transitional effects (i.e. Maliwan element-switching or elemental-identifiers) a difficult effect to make visually-effective and memorable?

Transitional effects are typically more challenging because you have to be able to convincingly cover up whatever is needed to be covered. So the artist will throw in flashy fx, bright glows, or whatever smoke and mirrors are needed to pull it off.

@WalkingThomas asks: Are there effects that you wish you could add but don’t fit with the series? Has tech advancement allowed for more/better effects?

Id like to add some better liquid type fx. With tech advancements now, its much easier to pull it off and implement those type of fx, but it still requires a good amount of R&D to get it looking good.

@WalkingThomas asks: With such a variety in weaponry in the Borderlands franchise, how difficult is it to develop effects that make everything stand out and be different?

It gets challenging at times, but luckily we have color pallets and design docs for fx types in order to keep things consistent.

@lowlines aks: I want to know EVERYTHING!!….

Dude, just drop me a DM lol

Written by
I'm a Content Creator by day and a BattleBread Baker at night. I'll provide you with your recommended slice of entertainment! I'm a Gearbox Community Badass and a proud member of the official Borderlands & Tiny Tina's Wonderlands Creator Team (2K Games / NextMakers).

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