• Celebrating the release of Ballistic Publishing's 'The Art of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves', Art Director Robh Ruppel talks about his life before the game.

    CGSociety :: Artist Profile
    3 May 2010, by Paul Hellard

    Well before Robh Ruppel and his fellow artists stood up on the stage at the Moscone Center in San Francisco to collect the 'Game of the Year' Interactive Game Award for 'Uncharted 2', there were years of devising the characters, creating the environments and the game levels. Robh Ruppel's career was charted years before that, hunting down new adventures in creative endeavors.

    Robh Ruppel agrees. He had the same passion as all of us. His father was an architect and his mom was a teacher, so the seed was planted for a well-supported arts education. "They both would paint murals on the walls at home, all hand-done," explains Robh. "So there would be all these custom rooms, all different ideas, cartoon characters, stuff like that. They were both very creative and still are." Robh's own talent and enthusiasm wasn't ignored and he was sent to the 'High School of Performing and Visual Arts' in his home town of Houston Texas where he became a film major.

    Shambhala production Art. © SCEA.
    Sense of massive flight vehicle at the docking bay. © Robh Ruppel
    Woke up an hour early every morning to do more personal work. © Robh Ruppel

    "At this Magnet school, education was a great experience because I could do what I was really interested in, for three to four hours a day. 'Learning by doing and learning by failing.' You actually went to school longer in those days but I didn't care because I was doing what I loved." Ruppel made lots of Super 8 films, turning out live actions, cell animations, experimental special effects, everything from matte paintings to miniatures, rear projections and stop motion. "Anything we thought of to emulate what we were seeing in the theaters," adds Ruppel. "Of course, we were big fans of Willis O'Brien and Ray Harryhausen."

    Looking for a direction to make a living, Ruppel looked in all areas. At the time, he didn't know much about industrial design because there wasn't anything like that, to his mind, in existence. So, Robh went into electrical engineering for a year. "I realized right away, the world did not need another mediocre engineer," he says. He wasn't into math and he backed out of there pretty quick.


    Industrial Design
    Industrial design still attracted him and he chased it down to California, to the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. Here, he learned to draw anything and everything by constructing it. He had found another passion. Robh learned how to 'invent' shading onto surfaces, creating materials and designing shapes. "This school was really, really good for throwing us into the real industry," says Ruppel.

    Robh had been a big fan of the special effects industry for a long time and found work with Robert Short in a small shop that created the effects for 'E.T' and 'Cocoon'. The Art Center Alumni Board would publish an Annual showing what work the past students were doing. "Mark Stetson's name was in there and I knew he was the Head of Miniatures over at Boss Films. I wrote him a letter and knew there was a wave of movie work coming through for him, and the timing worked out. I was really into effects and I worked with Mark at Boss Films for the summer. There were models from 'Blade Runner' and 'Ghostbusters' down the back of the lot. Working there was amazing. There was a great mix of professionalism and creativity."

    © SCEA Artist: Robh Ruppel
    An exercise to mimic the natural effect. © Robh Ruppel
    Many years ago, I met John Berkey and more than any other influence, he was the reason I went into art as a professional.
    This image is an homage to him and his influence on me as an artist. © Robh Ruppel
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    (Detail) When we finished the Uncharted game, they gave us a month off. This combines two separate genres, sci-fi and historic, in the one image. A Scottish Highland village,  mixed with this massive spherical ship, anchored in the air above.. © Robh Ruppel

    Boss Films thrived and Robh also freelanced in Los Angeles, working on the movie 'Misery' with Rob Reiner and Norman Garwood. He also went back to the Art Center College, where he crossed over and did some teaching on their invitation. "They wanted an additional teacher for the landscape class and I taught that for several terms and then I said, 'Hey why don't we start doing this on laptops, because most of these students are going to be working digital anyway', and from then on we went out into the field and painted on our laptops, from life." Ruppel had turned his class into a digital landscape painting session.

    Robh also found figure drawing education at the California Art Institute, run by Fred Fixler. This is where he met Morgan Weistling, Greg Pro and Glen Orbik and others. Form and structure life drawing, half tones, light and shadow oozed from that class and both students gathered a great deal of knowledge.

    "I found influences all over the place, from Syd Mead, Joe Johnson, John Berkey. But then painters and illustrators like Richard Schmid, John Singer-Sargent and Ron Cobb," says Ruppel. "I spent several years as an illustrator, and back in the eighties I'd shoot all my own reference material. With my film background, I had my own kit of Mole-Richardson lights and did all my own lighting. I found that everything that I had learned was coming into play. Creatively, it was the start of an extremely exciting time for me."

    Disney work
    Robh Ruppel worked at Disney Feature Animation for 11 years. "I started off as an viz dev artist on 'Atlantis', 'Mulan', 'Tarzan' and 'The Emperor's New Groove'. I was Art Director on 'Brother Bear' and then later 'Meet the Robinsons'."


    Into Games
    As he kept an eye on the latest projects, more and more concept work Robh saw in magazines, on TV and in galleries seemed to be from games. 'Gears of War' concept art from John Wallin, Craig Mullins and others. "I was teaching at the Art Center College and at same time working at Disney. My students and I were browsing through some of these amazing images of work coming out from this industry when one of them mentioned that the guys he knew at Naughty Dog were looking for a new Art Director. It wasn't all that quick: it actually took quite a while. They saw my web site and I went in and saw them a few times. I looked at working at a lot of other places, but Naughty Dog just worked out."

    © Robh Ruppel
    © SCEA Artist: Robh Ruppel

    Naughty Dog
    "It broadened my horizons, that’s for sure," says Ruppel. "It made me a better artist by making me so aware of believable and appropriate detail. I was never a fan of detail for detail’s sake but having to invent a 'forgotten' culture and have it integrated with existing ones is not for the faint of heart. The amount of research and understanding that went into this game was something I had not experienced before, and I’ve worked on a variety of assignments from publishing to feature film design."

    "In the democracy that is Naughty Dog you’re held accountable by the group mind, and it’s pretty unflinching. It's flat hierarchy though. There's no managers, no producers. You need to stay interested in what you're doing. It is a very different template to the usual workflow at a film studio. Disney and Naughty Dog are polar opposites but still the work gets done and the discipline is there at all times. Art is the beginning. Through drawing, painting and sculpture the world is slowly defined, stair by stair, handrail by handrail, and pile of rubble by pile of rubble."

    © SCEA Artist: Robh Ruppel

    In the first Uncharted, we pretty quickly thrust Nathan Drake into circumstances where he had to assume the role of the hero, and help those around him to survive. I came in close to the end of the original Uncharted production: I did the last six months. It was a good introduction to Drake as a character, but we had subtly suggested that there were more layers to him, that in his 'real life' as a modern-day treasure hunter, he probably associated with some dodgy characters, and might be a little shady himself. So while we intended Drake to be essentially a decent guy—charismatic, charming, with a good moral compass when the chips were down—we always wanted to portray him as a bit more complicated than that.

    He operates within a questionable fraternity of international fortune hunters—really just a euphemism for smugglers, con-men and thieves—so from the beginning of development, this seemed like a compelling aspect of his character to explore: the tension between his 'light and dark sides,' and how the various people in his life would pull him in different moral directions. Drake came out of hundreds of designs, and came out as a believable real, grounded character. There was a definite drive to reflect what was happening to him into the character in the game, indeed a little darker than the original.

    © SCEA Artist: Shaddy Safadi
    © SCEA Artist: Robh Ruppel

    We deliberately developed the supporting characters as kind of emotional satellites for Drake—mirrors that we could hold up to show these other sides of him. So we’ve put a lot of emphasis on telling a character-driven story, rather than just pushing the story forward with visceral action, plot devices and set-pieces.

    One of our main goals with Uncharted 2: Among Thieves was to approach the design as a union of narrative and gameplay, and to tell a character-driven story. Watching the production from within, gave a very isolated view of it because we were seeing it from the drama of production."

    Following the creation of the Borneo level in 'Uncharted 2' was kind of surprising for Ruppel because it came together so well. Frank Frazetta's jungles were referenced and the way he draws his jungles with the same sensuality and fluidity that he uses when he paints human figures. So for the Borneo level, the artists started by making it a wet, swampy jungle with thick vines and trunks and heavy moss everywhere. That’s when it really evolved and became its own distinct jungle. "We set the time of day for early morning, and moved away from an all-green environment," said Robh. "We looked for anything that would distinguish it from the first game, because we wanted to avoid Uncharted 2 being labeled another jungle game. Overseeing the look of the Train level was pretty gratifying too. The artists working on it really followed the designs so well and concepts so closely, even down to how the ground looked."

    Career opportunities are wider, more diverse now than when, say Syd Mead or Joe Johnson started out. In fact, they have never been more expansive than right now. "There was no entertainment major at college, or concept art positions, but now the field is so active," says Ruppel. "The key to staying fresh is to see each day as a challenge; to question your progress. There's still plenty of room to grow at Naughty Dog. The whole challenge is to keep mastering my skillset. The assignment itself is almost secondary to, 'what am I learning today,' 'how am I making my shapes look more real?' Robh is finding himself drilling into learning how light behaves as a fluid in an image, but also working to really understand how it fills a room. Always studying future trends and research, Ruppel is clearly someone who loves what he does.


    It was a few months after the game was close to release. The reviews were out on the look and game-play of 'Uncharted 2: Among Thieves' and the whole crew came to realize they had something big on their hands. Going up onto the podium at San Francisco to collect the big award, Robh Ruppel realized completely that, yes, the company of artists had done an amazing job. As he said on the podium on the night, "It's one thing to have an idea, but it takes a whole team to make a game."

    Related links:
    Robh Ruppel
    The Art of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves
    Uncharted 2: Among Thieves
    Naughty Dog
    CGSociety 'Uncharted 2' feature
    Robh Ruppel SketchUp article

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