Into The Pixel: The Artists Speak

By Bryan Ochalla

“When people think of video games, their first thought is of how they play,” says Ryan Stevenson, a concept artist at Rare Ltd. “The art and artist are often forgotten.

“Concept artists are even more shadowy,” adds the artist who has worked on It’s Mr. Pants, Banjo-Kazooie: Grunty's Revenge and Viva Pinata since joining the UK-based developer (now part of Microsoft Game Studios) in 2001. “There aren’t many of us around and we’re specialists, so it’s not surprising we’re one of the least known professions in the games world.”

Lionhead Studios’ Mike McCarthy has come to a similar conclusion in the nearly eight years he has been in the industry.

“It’s common for people outside of the digital industry to be completely unaware of what exactly a games artist does,” says the concept artist who has worked on Black and White 2, The Movies: Stunts and Effects and Fable 2 since he joined the UK developer (also part of Microsoft Game Studios) three and a half years ago. “Ironically, I think people are under the impression that the computer does it all. The average reaction I get when I talk to people about being a games artist is, ‘Oh, do you actually have to draw, then?’”

Even some of McCarthy’s family and friends aren’t sure what he does as part of his 9-to-5. “I most commonly get referred to as ‘a computer game designer’ by my family if they’re asked what I do,” he says.


Mike McCarthy's 2007 Into the Pixel submission, "Lab" from Fable 2

“It’s easy to forget that everything computer generated on a screen has been designed by someone,” McCarthy adds. “Very few people are aware of it, but it’s massively important. The look and feel of the world you are immersed in is very much at the forefront of the experience, even if it’s ultimately the gameplay that decides whether or not it’s enjoyable. I suppose art is one of those things that is only ever noticed when it’s done stunningly well or, unfortunately, when it’s done badly.”

Cheol Joo Lee, a concept artist at Vancouver-based Relic Entertainment, goes a step further by suggesting games artists bring more to the table than the superficial bells and whistles consumers see when they boot up the final product.

“Artists are important for games in general, not just for game graphics,” says Lee, who has worked on Company of Heroes and Warhammer 40000: Dawn of War since joining Relic in 2003. “Not all artists are creative, but most artists are trained to develop creative ways of forming art, so their creative minds can be helpful for all aspects of game development.”


On Exhibit

Concept artists may currently exist in the shadowy areas of the games industry, but they won’t be hidden away much longer if the people behind the Into the Pixel art exhibition have anything to say about it.

The annual exhibition, now in its fourth year, boasts of being the world’s only juried exhibition that combines fine art and interactive entertainment. This year’s collection, announced in late June and unveiled at the recent E3 Media & Business Summit, includes 16 pieces of game art chosen from a field of more than 260 submissions. The popular exhibition will make an appearance at the E for All Expo, Oct. 18-21 in Los Angeles.

The creations of Lee, McCarthy and Stevenson will be among the 16 pieces unveiled at the October event, and available to view online now—in particular, Lee’s “In the Rain” from Dawn of War, McCarthy’s “Gravekeeper’s Lab” from Fable 2 and Stevenson’s “Pinata Cascade” from Viva Pinata.

There’s a story behind each of those works, of course.

“Sometimes (when the process begins) there is a story already in place and other times there is just a tiny bit of gameplay, which was the case with Viva Piñata,” Stevenson says. “I was given free rein to create the world, so I dug deep, absorbed myself into my drawing and came up with the Piñata idea, which really fueled the project.

“As the only concept artist working on the game, it turned into an obsession and I designed every visual aspect of the Piñata universe—down to the pebbles and twigs,” he adds. “Normally I would create the style, design the elements for a game and, once that was completed, would move on. With Piñata, though, I stayed to end to get the coherent look” seen in the final product.

Stevenson says players are “walking through a world that exists in my head” when they play Viva Piñata, a common result of his efforts, it seems. “As a concept artist I get the fun job of being involved right at the start to shape the world,” he says. “I get to imagine creations that would be impossible to produce in the real world, but in the unique medium of games people can walk through them and experience a universe that lives in my head.”

A similar process occurs at Lionhead before McCarthy’s creative juices are flowing freely, the lifelong artist says. For starters, McCarthy receives “a brief outline of what is needed, be it characters or environment, from either the designers or our lead artists.”

The team “will have a chat and throw around some basic ideas, then I go off and sketch out some rough images,” he adds. “Once we have a few down, we have another chat to decide what everyone likes or dislikes, and from there I produce a couple of finished images.”

In the case of “Gravekeeper’s Lab,” the piece “grew out of a character idea that was being talked about for the game,” McCarthy shares. “As is the nature of things, the idea soon morphed into something else entirely, but I found I was left with this dark little image of a strange guy working away by lamplight.

“I worked on it over a few spare hours I had, but really couldn’t seem to finish it satisfactorily,” he adds. That’s when McCarthy saw the piece from a different perspective. “He seemed to be gaping straight at the viewer, like he had been interrupted, so I put in the window frame and it somehow gave the image a little more cohesion.”

The tale behind Lee’s Dawn of War artwork has a similar storybook ring to it. The game was finished around the holidays, Lee remembers, and while wrapping up his part of the project he was “encouraged to add my personal ideas and atmosphere” to one of his final drawings.

“I only had three days left to be finished with all of my work for the year,” Lee recalls. As he started working on the piece that eventually was chosen for the Into the Pixel exhibition, he “thought about the company and the great achievements of the past year.”

He also thought about his colleagues, some of whom had left for vacation and some of whom had left seeking new opportunities. “Suddenly, I came up with an image that was dedicated to all of them,” Lee shares. “On behalf of all of my team members, I created an image of a warrior who just completed his mission at war. He won, but it was more like survival than victory. His heart was broken because of people who were lost and sacrificed.”



Commercial Art, Or Just Art?

Their sketches may have been created for use in video games, but they’ll soon be touring the world as part of a juried exhibition. Does that make the works produced by Lee, McCarthy and Stevenson glorified marketing materials or bona fide pieces of art?

The age-old question prompts McCarthy to reply with a question of his own. “I think anything that involves creating a finished product which other people enjoy is a kind of artform in its own way, isn’t it?”

Whether or not video games already have reached the level of “art,” however, McCarthy hopes artists, writers and programmers continue to strive for that status. “I hope that the ever improving technology in consoles is used by companies to push the boundaries stylistically, rather than making all games look as close to real life as possible,” he says. “Then you really will see artists used to their full potential, giving each game a very individual look and feel.”

Lee also believes his creations—and the creations of his colleagues in the gaming industry—should receive the same respect as any other artform. And that includes the classics.


Cheol Joo Lee's 2007 Into the Pixel submission, "In the Rain" from Dawn of War

“I think games are the highest form of developed art, in terms of art and technology, in human history,” he says, adding that in hundreds of years, some video games will be remembered as art while others will be forgotten completely, just as many artists from the past are ignored while art history books wax poetic about the works of van Gogh. “We will remember the ones created by talented artists,” Lee adds.

Answering the question isn’t quite as easy for Stevenson. “I think some games are art and some are just entertainment, just like in the film industry,” he says. “There are action movies that don’t really say anything but entertain you, while there are films that can move you, make you laugh and cry, change your life.

“Maybe we've become too obsessed with the question ‘are games art?’ and should just appreciate it as a medium like no other,” Stevenson suggests. “The industry is always changing, so it’s going to be interesting to see what happens once people see past the technology we use to produce the game and see the care and love we put into the art.”

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