Aram Granger (97) is a visual effects (VFX) artist at Respawn Entertainment, the acclaimed video game developer behind Apex Legends, the Titanfall series, and Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order. Granger has contributed to major video game franchises like Battlefield, Medal of Honor, and Star Wars Jedi: Survivor.

Granger explained that VFX are animated effects that are added to enhance what’s going on on-screen to add excitement and believability. Separate from environmental designers and character artists, who create concrete models for the game, VFX artists create dynamic effects of all shapes and sizes.

“Smoke and explosions are my bread and butter,” Granger said. “I [create] anything in the game that’s not hard surface — a lot of waterfalls, fire, smoke, but no static objects.”

“Smoke and explosions are my bread and butter. I create anything in the game that’s not hard surface — a lot of waterfalls, fire, smoke, but no static objects.”

Granger was still figuring out his calling when entered PLNU as a freshman at 21. His younger sister went to PLNU before he did. While visiting campus, Granger saw PLNU’s Concert Choir perform their spring concert and wanted to be a part of it.

“I’d been bumming around after high school for three years and didn’t really know what to do,” Granger said. “I watched the choir, and I said, ‘That looks like fun; I could do that.’”

Granger chose to study music theory and composition. He finished his degree in 1997, save for one final paper that would’ve completed the program. Although he walked at graduation, he actually didn’t receive his degree until he went back to turn in his capstone paper in 2017. Bill Clemmons, Ph.D., professor of music theory, enthusiastically worked with him to help him finish the project.

“Dr. Clemmons from the music department still remembered me and helped me do my paper 20 years later, which was just incredible,” Granger said. “I got such valuable support from the professors, and that’s still there.”

Aram with his wife, Bonnie, a fellow PLNU alum
Aram with his wife, Bonnie, a fellow PLNU alum

In 1996, a PLNU classmate who would later become Granger’s wife connected him with one of her salon clients. The client happened to be the CFO of Vision Scape Interactive, a small VFX company that animated video game cutscenes—in-game animated video cutaways that narrate important story points or exciting moments. Although it wasn’t related to music, Granger was excited to get involved with art and video games animation. He had been familiar with computers and had been interested in digital illustration from a young age.

“Vision Scape just needed people to do [clerical] stuff, but in return, they taught me the software they were using,” Granger said. “Not only were they a studio, but they were a school in San Diego.”

After Granger’s six-month internship was over, Vision Scape hired him. Artists at Vision Scape would work during the day and teach classes in the evening. This created a great opportunity for people wanting to learn the programs since there were so few instructors that were familiar with the software.

“We didn’t have nearly the amount of tools that [students] have now,” Granger said. “When I started, there wasn’t anybody else teaching it — just the artists who were doing it all day.”

After Vision Scape, Granger worked for Foundation Imaging in Valencia, California. They had done VFX for the sci-fi shows Babylon 5 and Star Trek and were hiring as many people as possible who had experience with Lightwave, the software they were using at the time. Granger explained that Babylon 5 was one of the first TV shows with high quality digital special effects.

“They did spaceships flying around, novas, explosions, and all sorts of cool stuff,” Granger said. “It turned out you could now do these movie-style effects with a desktop PC, which had previously needed a $10,000 SGI [Silicon Graphics International] workstation.”

Jedi: Survivor hero Cal Kestis squares off with Jedi hunter Rayvis.
Star Wars Jedi: Survivor hero Cal Kestis (left) and Rayvis (right). In his role, Granger designed the effects of Rayvis.
(Photo credit: Electronic Arts via Windows Central)

Granger’s team won an Emmy for outstanding visual effects in Star Trek: Enterprise. He went on to work for Zoic Studios, where he won two more Emmys for the television series Firefly and Battlestar Galactica.

Despite their critical success, television VFX studios had slim profit margins at the time. To help support his growing family, Granger began to pursue a more promising corner of the VFX industry — video games. Granger connected with Electronic Arts (EA) in 2008 via an art director he had previously worked with on Firefly. He was hired to work on Medal of Honor and has been with EA — and its Los Angeles-based subsidiaries, DICE and Respawn Entertainment — ever since.

“The studios kind of rotate underneath me,” he said. “The same building was home to Electronic Arts, then DICE Los Angeles, and then in 2019, Respawn was bought by EA.”

After working on several Battlefield games for DICE, Granger was brought over to Respawn Entertainment to help them finish a project. EA’s purchase of Respawn meant they needed more personnel to finish the game on schedule.

“I was actually still working for DICE but was on loan to Respawn, since they were both EA studios,” Granger said. “After Respawn’s project was delivered, I stayed on with them — the environment was [great].”

Granger has had his first full production with Respawn in Jedi: Survivor, sequel to the successful 2019 game Jedi: Fallen Order. Survivor continues the adventures of young Jedi Cal Kestis as he endeavors to find his place in the universe while on the run from the Galactic Empire.

“My work included all of Rayvis’ missiles, all his weapons, hit effects, and footstep effects. Although you don’t always notice those effects, you’d definitely miss them if they’re not there.”

Granger worked on environmental effects for the game, like water, clouds, smoke, and insects. These little details make the in-game environments feel lively and more believable, even on the fantastical alien planets of the Star Wars universe.

“I do all the stuff that requires simulation and isn’t static, like rocks or trees,” he said. “But if you were to blow up the tree, I would animate the dust, splinters, and stuff like that.”

Granger described that he also designed the effects of Rayvis, a fearsome Jedi hunter who the player will have to battle during the game. Granger ensured that every detail he animated would remind the player how intimidating Rayvis is, even if they’re not consciously realizing it.

Rayvis from Jedi: Survivor video game.
Granger played a large role in helping the fearsome character Rayvis come to life for Star Wars Jedi: Survivor players.
(Photo credit: Electronic Arts via GamesRadar)

“My work included all of Rayvis’ missiles, all his weapons, hit effects, and footstep effects,” he said. “Although you don’t always notice those effects, you’d definitely miss them if they’re not there.”

After playing a pre-release build of the game, Granger said that Jedi: Survivor is more fun than the first installment. He also said that the support and inspiration that came from working with Respawn— as well as Star Wars’ rich universe of characters, aliens, and locations — had made Survivor his favorite game he’s worked on yet.

“The combat is really satisfying, the environment is beautiful, and the puzzles are fun to solve,” he said. “I’m excited for everyone to play it.”

Alongside his career in VFX, Granger still embraces his passion for music. Granger said he’s glad he majored in music, especially since there weren’t any programs for VFX and computer animation when he was a student. He plays piano at home and occasionally helps lead worship at church. Granger said he was thankful to have reconnected with the music department two decades after finishing college to finalize his music composition degree.

“I don’t have any regrets or second guesses about music,” Granger said. “The human connections you make at Point Loma with the students and professors are really, really valuable.”

Toby Franklin is the copy editor for PLNU’s Marketing team. He is a reader and writer of speculative fiction and comic books.