Part 14: Paint—​By The Numbers

Oddworld: Abe’s Exoddus is big. Very big. Whereas the original game had a ‘mere’ 450‐odd background screens, Exoddus has over a thousand of them… and no two are alike. The job occupies a full‐time department of five digital paint artists. ‘I like to think of the paint department as sous‐chefs, cutting and prepping vegetables for the chef,’ says lead digital artist Cathy Johnson. ‘We are the supporting actors. Yet without the paint department, there would be no game.’

While no formal schooling is required, ‘an understanding of composition, lighting, perspective, and design is a must,’ says Johnson. The best place to learn those tools is probably art school (Cathy is a graduate of the Art Center College of Design, as are two of her painters), but one of Oddworld’s painters came from another company, while another was hired straight out of high school.

Guiding the paint artists in their pursuit of perfection is the ‘Oddworld Signature,’ a series of six artistic commandments created by production designer Farzad Varahramyan and director Lorne Lanning.

All images must:
1) Be realistic.
2) Have solidity.
3) Be original.
4) Be cool.
5) Evoke emotion.
6) Look ALIVE!

Lofty goals, but what happens when the rubber meets the road?

Working from ‘blueprints’ provided by the game designers and with an overall vision supplied by the art directors, the paint artists create each unique gamescreen by first choosing a foundation of prerendered 3D images to ‘dress the set.’ Each 3D object is painstakingly built to exact specifications by Oddworld’s world‐class CG department and then networked into a virtual ‘prop house’ for the paint department’s use. By compositing these 3D elements with traditional paint techniques, the Oddworld Signature becomes achievable— but not easy.

‘The first phase is to assemble and place the fundamental structures that the characters interact with while maintaining the signature architecture of the particular level, including the overall lighting design— the all‐important composition phase,’ says digital artist Raymond Swanland. ‘The second phase involves embellishing the scene with finer detail, enhancing the mood, and creating depth of environment with a vista— the fun refinement phase.’

Raymond has a strange sense of fun. The ‘refinement’ phase can see cameras go through dozens of painstaking revisions… not to mention the changes introduced by evolving game design. For example, the FeeCo Depot Lobby was overhauled late in the design process. ‘It required building a dozen or so new cameras from scratch and tossing the old ones,’ says digital artist Mark Ahlin. ‘A most difficult thing to do for a proud and over‐inflated artist.’

Like monks copying illuminated manuscripts, the paint artists slave over each and every screen. Consider that each of the one thousand cameras in the game took (on average) six to eight hours to complete, and the amount of labor is staggering. ‘At the end we were doing four cameras per day and working 16‐hour days, seven days a week,’ confirms Johnson, with only a hint of weariness. But even with the game complete and awaiting manufacture, the paint department remains busy. That’s because they’re responsible for all the advertising imagery, promotional pieces, magazine covers, and other appearances of Abe and his pals, worldwide. It’s all part of Oddworld’s master plan to maintain the highest possible quality in every aspect of production.

— Paul O’Connor, Oddworld Inhabitants, 2 November 1998

NEXT: The Rock