Part 5: Show Me, Don’t Tell Me

‘The key is knowing who to make happy first.’

Thus art director Rob Brown sums up both the craft of art design and the practicalities of collaborative art. Video games are the product of diverse hands. Oddworld has over a dozen artists toiling on Oddworld: Abe’s Exoddus. The single vision they must create begins and ends with art direction.

While the overall vision of Oddworld comes from head honcho Lorne Lanning, actually implementing this grand vision falls to art director Rob Brown and production designer Farzad Varahramyan. At first blush, they couldn’t be more dissimilar. Farzad is retiring (but not shy), more likely to listen than to speak. Rob (as anyone who has watched him hitch his trousers up to his chest and stagger through the office can attest) is animated and larger than life. In both men, appearances are deceiving. Both are intense, driven professionals dedicated to the pursuit of visually crafting worlds. Nothing is more important than their work. They are killers at heart.

Art design is a collaborative process. ‘Interfacing with the game designers and especially Lorne is at the core of what we do,’ says Varahramyan. ‘They’ll give me an idea, I’ll draw it and add something I thought of, they’ll see it, and it will trigger an idea in them, and so on and so forth.’

‘To communicate, we use scripts, storyboards, sketches, paintings, and plenty of hand waving,’ says Brown. ‘After a design issue is solved, it is handed off to the modeling or paint department. Then with some art wrangling magic it turns into a sprite or a background.’

Even when the chain of creation functions properly, things can go wrong. ‘What looks great on paper doesn’t always look great on the screen,’ says Varahramyan. Brown agrees: ‘It’s all readability. Knowing how to steer clear of pitfalls like compression, resolution, and frame rates always keeps us artists on our toes.’

How many iterations are required before a design is complete? ‘As many as time will allow,’ says Brown. ‘The vision is refined and revised until it makes everyone happy. The key is knowing who to make happy first.’

And here we hit on one of the things they don’t teach you in school. ‘Many of the art/design schools are great at preparing artistic skills for the industry,’ says Brown, himself a graduate of the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. ‘However, there seems to be general naiveté about communicating and working with people in a professional atmosphere.’

In other words, being a video game art director is only partly about pushing a pencil. It’s also about people skills, meetings, and management. Varahramyan, who also has an Art Center sheepskin on his wall, says the most important thing he learned in school was to ‘stay humble and be nice to everyone.’ It’s advice that has served Farzad well at Oddworld, where he is universally revered as a nice guy—even if we know he has the heart of a killer.

— Paul O’Connor, Oddworld Inhabitants, July 1998

NEXT: Making Sausage and Law