Tuesday, March 20, 2012

For the Reminder by Omer Ben David

For The Remainder from Omer Ben David on Vimeo.

I thought that this film was quite unique in it's style, mood and subject matter. The overall feeling is quite serene and peaceful, particularly with the addition of ambient naturalistic sound effects, yet one can't help but be struck by the sparse, impressionistic style. The cat appears more as a skeleton, it's organic form and heartbeat emphasised do express the narrative.

"An atmospheric and vague, painterly animated short that envisions a view upon an old house cat who bids farewell to his home in his final moments. Done as my graduation film from Bezalel Art Academy."

"Creating a unique look of brush strokes that breathe and flow and operate as guides for the expression of the most inner feelings one might have in a situation of the sort."

For me this film accentuates how animation can be a very effective way of exploring and expressing a specific mood or emotion in a given situation, whether it's in an obvious or more atmospheric way. Manipulating shapes and forms so that they move akin to a moving painting helps add to the serene quality.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

House silhouettes

Here are some silhouettes I've drawn on Photoshop for my gingerbread house. I've decided that I'd like the house to be in two parts: the house-shaped section, which will be made of various types of crumbling/melting sweets and candy, and also a part at the back, which is essentially a crude, metallic chimney where the old lady burned all the bodies. This idea came to me whilst drawing, and on some level I was reminded of the old Dexter's Laboratory cartoon where Dexter and his rival Mandark's houses had comically-sized sci-fi laboratories stuck in their back gardens, even though they were meant to be secretive.

Of course I do need to keep in mind my skill level, and my structures won't be as complex in geometry-form as they are in my drawings. In the end the concept art will be to reflect the overall atmosphere I would like to create, and I'll have to express this to the best of my current ability without expecting too much. I'm planning on making a very rough 3D draft of the house to get an idea of how I'd go about modelling.

Tim Shafer and Scott Campbell on Psychonauts

I've recently been playing Psychonauts which is highly praised for it's offbeat cartoon visual style. It led me to look further into it's development, which is by Tim Shafer who is widely known for his humorous and stylised games, such as the Monkey Island series, Grim Fandango and Brutal Legend. The art director behind Psychonauts was Scott Campbell, who studied illustration the Academy of Art in San Francisco and now works within a variety of mediums including painting, illustration, comics and concept art.

I found an interview where Campbell goes into detail of why he chooses to work in the style he does. 

JO: Any one artistic aspect you can point to in Brutal Legend or Psychonauts that is yours?
SC: I started at Double Fine because Tim wanted me to establish their style, based kind of on my cartoony style, for Psychonauts. So I guess that entire game has my signature on it. I designed all the characters, and designed and hand-placed all of the figments in the game. There were these collectibles, sort of like hand-drawn memories in the game, and that was the one thing I did beside the concepts.

Brutal Legend was a different style, so it called for a different look. We wanted it to be powerful, to make it feel like it could be on the cover of a heavy metal album, so that a metal fan would like any image from the game. So we wanted to do that, but also give it some of that Double Fine style as well....

JO: You have a very distinctive art style. Can you tell me where that came from and how you started drawing?

SC: After art school, there were a few years where I was working with some others who were trying really hard to keep each other excited with art. All my artist friends had a reason to do it, like, “Oh, I have to create art or I will die!” or, “I have to paint or I’m going to lose my mind!” and I just didn’t feel like that.

I wanted to figure out what I was trying to say with my art, and that was the one thing I never learned in art school. What am I trying to say? What was my reason for creating? I felt like I always wanted to get that same kind of excitement that you got when you woke up as a kid in the morning; you were so excited to get back to drawing that battle, or that weird thing you were drawing the other day. It was less about drawing and more like you were on an adventure. That’s what I wanted to get, that same childlike excitement.

Campbell is more concerned with the reason behind his work - exactly what it is he's trying to communicate, a key point to keep in mind for all illustrators and concept artists. Technical mastery of a medium can really only take one so far in terms of concept design. By likening the process of drawing to being "on an adventure", it opens up the artist's mind to explore all possible aspects of a project and thoroughly be immersed. This way, the final product has an underlying emotional quality which will draw in the players further into the virtual reality and make their experience feel almost more organic.


It's interesting reading about Tim Shafer's games. The industry's increasing production costs mean that companies are less and less willing to take risks, and so less widespread genres such as adventure and point-and-click (for which Shafer is known) have become niche, although still holding considerable dedicated fanbases. It's inspiring and admirable that a designer has stuck firmly to his own passions and genre-bending ideas, without influence from the demands of the industry. There seems to be a constant drive to create games that are serious and "tough", but why must it be that the majority of games are modelled to follow this? Why is there a lack of games which implement humour or unusual visual styles?

"Sometimes it feels like people are trying to be as scary and threatening as possible with their games, because they're worried about appealing to a certain hardcore young male demographic. What do young males want? They want to be tough and edgy and scary and the coolest. But I think actually that crowd loves to laugh, likes comedy and likes crazy, ridiculous things to happen - it is an appealing thing. And in fact, I think comedy is a way to appeal to a much broader audience than ever play games now. What's better than laughing, and why can't that happen interactively?"

The cartoon style of his games fits his use of humour, focus on character interaction and the bizarre situations his characters often find themselves in, and makes the experience much more enjoyable and immersive than it would if it were striving for realism. Shafer feels that games are wish fulfilment, and aim to fulfil some sort of fantasy of the player. Psychonauts experiments with the possibility of exploring one's mind and facing inner demons, something which is physically unfeasible and therefore opens up many, many possibilities in terms of art style.

I'm going to add this here because I found it very amusing:

"Very early on [Psychonauts] was actually about an ostrich, it always feels so funny to say that, the idea was that it was an ostrich with multiple personality disorder and his different powers were his different personalities, so he would become this kind of tough ostrich or really smart ostrich or an ostrich with a gun and you’d switch between them.

Then I was giving a speech at GDC about character design and I was like, “all games are wish fulfillment and so no matter what, all your games are fulfilling some sort of fantasy of the player” and then I was in my head at the podium, I just got really quiet as I got lost in thought about whether the game I was designing actually followed this rule that I was telling everybody about. Like, does anyone really fantasize about being a mentally insane ostrich?"


After having this very brief glimpse into the minds of two people who are at the forefront of stylistically-led games, I'm feeling more and more interested in exploring more abstract concept art design in my own project. If we were creating a fully-fledged game, I could imagine taking the Hansel and Gretel theme and implementing it into different level ideas which take the tale's aspects of parental abandonment, mental instability and hunger and allow the player to explore these through the eyes of Hansel or Gretel. Being associated with childhood, I think it would be fitted to the cartoon style I'm currently aiming for. 

My next step is to start creating concepts on a grander scale and to start defining it, so I can begin thinking about how to model it. 

Monday, March 12, 2012

Breaking into the Game Industry

Invaluable advice from professional practitioners for anyone hoping to work in the game industry.

Although mainly aimed at those hoping to work as game designers, articles like this make me increasingly aware of how much I need to broaden my view, knowledge and experience outside of drawing and painting, a key quote perhaps being: "Instead of being an expert on one thing or a few things, be somewhat knowledgeable and interested in everything."


The surreal world of Alice: Madness Returns

One of the first games that came to mind when I decided to design a fairytale game was American McGhee's Alice and Alice: Madness Returns. Set years after the events of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass, it follows Alice who's mind has become twisted following the deaths of her family, and this has been reflected onto Wonderland, which has become similarly warped. She becomes increasingly insane as the game progresses.

Although the idea of taking a fairytale and subverting it into a horror-filled alternative isn't entirely original - here's an interesting page from TVTropes to give a detailed view on how widespread the theme is used - I'm still very much intrigued by this idea and the sorts of visuals that can be created. Admittedly I do believe that many fairytales tend to be disturbing enough without any over-the-top "scary" embellishment...

But back to Alice, I haven't played it but the concept art is beautiful. Familiar elements of the story have been emphasised to surreal and fantastic proportions, as seen here where the tea party has grown to become a vast floating array of ornaments, tea plates and tea pots. The fact that the whimsical sides of the story have been inflated and given a nightmarish quality offer a unique opportunity to explore a twisted, insane and unpredictable world, which is something I'm always interested to try.

There is the possibility of taking my environment down a completely unrealistic route. The fact that sweets, biscuits, chocolate are the dominant material would give the possibility of creating some gruesome, surreal candy world. This would be much more in-depth modelling-wise and involve animation to bring these fantasy elements to life. I'll have to explore different levels of this in my concept art.

A Hansel and Gretel 3D Animation Project

I was shown the blog of an animation artist who is currently working on a 3D animated Hansel and Gretel project. She's similarly taken a dark route in terms of design, and has designed the gingerbread house so that it appears run-down and eaten by children previous to Hansel and Gretel. This is a very helpful source of information on how a professional would progress through a project such as this. Relevant to what I'm currently working on, here are some of the silhouettes she designed for the house. It's clear to see that she experimented with a wide variety of shapes and structures before finally settling.

Gingerbread house - initial silhouette sketches

Earlier I wrote some valuable lessons I learnt following reading The Skillful Huntsman. A lot of importance was placed on experimenting with silhouettes before getting involved with the intricate details of a design. So, whilst I was brainstorming the ideas I've written about below, I also sketched a tea party and some houses, incorporating the distorted proportions and impossible architecture that I thought fitted the mood I'm trying to create.

A sketch of some "dark" tea party ideas, before I decided to abandon this idea.

Looking at different heights, ranging from a tall, tower-like building to a short house on a tall hill.

Building the house so that it resembles the character that lives inside, like is often seen in less realistic children's animations. In this case the roof resembles a witch's hat.

Beginning to think of what textures/sweets are being used to create the building.


I've begun an in-depth exploration of a variety of ideas and approaches to this module. I started off debating whether to do the alien spaceship crash site or fairy tale environment design. I thought that the UFO crash site would offer more of a challenge as I generally prefer to work in an unrealistic, cartoon style so it would be an opportunity to practice a different method. Here were my initial brainstorms:

After working through various ideas I certainly felt more inspired and intrigued by what I could achieve with the fairytale setting, and I thought there were still plenty of interesting potential challenges, so in the end I've decided to work with that.

I was particularly drawn to the idea of doing some sort of Alice in Wonderland-inspired tea party, so I pulled together some images to help broaden my view on how to approach that. One of the main questions to keep in mind in the design process is what is the age of the target audience? It's possible to take an idea and either distort it so it falls under a gothic or horror theme/genre which fits a mature audience, or keep it colourful, bright and happy for a family-friendly audience.

But I didn't want to pinpoint an idea so soon in the process, and I was also debating on whether or not Alice in Wonderland is considered a fairytale. Technically 'fairytales' are considered as stories which originated orally long, long ago, and have come to be recognised as tales of folklore that are constantly reinvented and told in new fashions. Although originating relatively recently as a novel, Alice in Wonderland features many of the typical elements of a fairytale - talking animals, fantastic events, an evil Queen, and characters which could be recognised today as folklore such as the Cheshire cat. Lewis Carroll himself considered his story a fairytale, as is clear in letters that he wrote: "P.S. I should be very glad if you could help me in fixing on a name for my fairy-tale, which Mr. Tenniel (in consequence of your kind introduction) is now illustrating for me..."

But even so I had a look at other possibilites, including general fairytale cottage ideas. I really like how the proportions of the buildings in these images are contorted in a quirky, cartoon fashion. It hints at a world the design of which is grounded in what feels familiar and real, but is taken to a new level of eccentric fantasy.

I was drawn to the gingerbread house idea, and thought of the different ways I could go about that. The gingerbread images on my moodboard are typically colourful and child-friendly, but I thought I could incorporate the darker mood and design of the other houses for a contrasting effect. The tale of Hansel and Gretel, which is what the gingerbread house is most commonly associated with, is, like so many other fairytales, actually very sinister in nature, and I'd like to explore this.

I looked at some more gingerbread houses and created two final moodboards.

Here I desaturated the entire board in Photoshop to get an idea of how gloomy colours might look with the candy textures, and I quite like the effect. But there's a couple of ways to do this: It's possible to take the creepy/spooky theme and use a dark colour palette with moments of bright, neon colours like in Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas, which although is clearly in a gothic, macabre art style, still appeals to very young audiences with it's vibrant characters, colours and contrasting of Halloween Town and Christmas Town. 

So again I need to figure out the target audience and overall impression I wish to make with my design.

Whilst researching Hansel and Gretel I also came across the opera by Engelbirt Humperdinck, which since 2007 has been performed in a new production directed by Richard Jones for the Metropolitan Opera company. The production is characterised by a darkly comic style and offered a valuable insight into how the menace and unsettling nature of the story itself can be made apparent in it's design.

I'm hoping to watch this opera and take note of the elements that are used, and investigate other aspects of the Hansel and Gretel tale.