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| ||Philip Straub may not have intended to shake things up at Electronic Arts when he joined the company’s “Tiburon” division in Maitland, Florida, but he has. |
“When I first came here as a senior concept artist, I was assigned to a game team,” he says. Nothing unusual about that. And that’s exactly what bothered him.
“There were five or six texture artists on the team, all working together, plus-ing each other,” he says. “But, I was by myself.” Unlike the texture artists, the concept artists worked solo. Moreover, because each game project typically had only one concept artist, the artist needed to be an all-round expert.
Two years ago, Straub convinced the company to create a centralized concept art team that he now leads. “Everyone learns from each other and we round each other out,” he says. “We created a center of excellence. All the game teams here use concept for a number of different things, and we’ve even done a little work for other EA studios.”
Indeed, the seven-member concept art team that Straub directs designs user interfaces, paints concept art for environments, vehicles and characters, draws storyboards, prototypes games, designs cinematics, creates matte paintings, handles graphic design and motion graphics, and creates “memorable moments” (action shots), and visual targets.
Concomitantly, the artists’ backgrounds include industrial design, computer animation, layout, and graphic design. Few had any experience in game development before joining EA.
Straub and senior development manager Daryl Holt divide the work among the artists and manage the ever-changing schedule. “The artists could be working on three projects in a day or one or two a week,” Straub says. “Usually, an art director will come to the team – to me – and say, ‘I have this idea,’ or ‘we want to do this. Sometimes they have a definitive idea; sometimes they’re only beginning. Sometimes we work with a single idea; sometimes a whole product plan.”
Although the team has six projects underway now with a few more in development, they have handled as many as 10 projects at one time. Straub singled out three current projects that he thinks are most interesting from a concept artist’s point of view: Superman Returns: The Videogame, Nascar 07, and NFL Street 3.
| ||Key to Team photo|
1. Jay Epperson
2. Craig Sellars
3. Jason Bennett
4. Philip Straub
5. Daryl Holt
6. Tae-Sik Yang
7. Kevin Proctor
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The artists worked on the environmental concept art and characters with Superman’s art director Mathias Lorenz. From an overall design, they created paintings for each of the 10 Metropolis districts – street level, 50 stories up, and looking down.
“They all came out of our imagination, but we researched the history of architecture and we had information from the Superman mythology,” Straub says. “We would write a story that made sense for the way each district was populated.” For example, the “Suicide Slum” was the oldest
area, settled by fishermen who had immigrated from Europe. For “downtown,” they used Art Deco. Midtown’s classic architecture looks like a European city. And, they filled the Hyper Sector with high tech architecture.
For each district, the concept artists did call outs, singling out individual buildings from the 10,000 as reference for the environment modelers on the game team The number of buildings made it impossible to do a time of day shift; it’s always the same time of day in Metropolis: the golden hour. However, in the Hyper Sector, it’s very dark at street level.
As they worked on the designs, the artists kept game play in mind. For example, the main mechanism in this game is flight, but they didn’t want Superman flying down bowling alleys.
So, they thought of ways to justify details in the environments within the roles the districts played; ways to use the negative space. Bridges and webs of walkways gave Superman something to fly under, over and weave through, and the artists also created things that come close to the player to give a sense of speed.
| || ||One environment – of a twister – illustrated what the team calls a “memorable moment.” “When we talk about moments, it’s staging a certain event or a certain type of game play – the action shots,” says Straub. “The illustrations showed how the big twister would look like when it comes down, when it’s far away, in the city, and from inside the twister. When the twister comes in, the lighting changes, the color palette changes. It creates a pea green effect.”|
To illustrate another memorable moment, a battle between Superman and Metallo, the artists created a drawing of the metal villain reaching for Superman who is stretching up out of Metallo’s grasp. The illustration encapsulated palette, lighting, and even the surface texture that would be rendered; it was a memorable moment and also a visual target.”
The artists created that image in Photoshop by painting over 3D geometry built in Maya. For other images they sometimes use Corel’s Painter. Some find Painter best for character work and Photoshop best for environments because of the layers. They find that working in the computer makes iterations quicker – it’s easier to change the lighting and shift the color palette.
Character design for Superman began with ideas and descriptions from Lorenz, the art director, and the games’ producer. Because the artists were working with a licensed property, they had to re-imagine the mythology to keep it fresh and dynamic without upsetting the license holder. All told, they sketched hundreds of characters, preexisting characters from the Superman mythology, and new villains.
| ||Even though game engines may put limitations on visual complexity, the artists’ try not to limit their creativity – initially, anyway. All the characters didn’t make it into the game, though – nor did all 30 vehicles and of those that did, some of the designs were simplified.|
“The big mantra I have for the concept team is that in the initial stages we want the great idea first,” he says. “Then, we can drill down to what’s possible. We need to be aware of the technology and its limitations – we don’t do this blindly – but if we start with the limitations immediately, the ideas will be watered down.”
And often, things change – as they did in the “War World” environment where Mongul lives. Within that environment, the team created several mechanical designs showing how the villain would be revealed. But what they once thought was possible and achievable changed and they had to redesign the way the environment changed when the villains arrived. Similarly, a design for Parasite initially gave this villain large tentacles that later became technically impossible.
In addition to environments, characters and vehicles, the concept artists also created a special logo for EA and Superman. For this, they worked in Photoshop and Painter, moved the images into AfterEffects, turned the design into a 3D image, animated it and added effects.For the UI, they designed transitions using Superman’s cape, provided concept art that showed fluid effects integrated into the look of the pause screen, and created matte paintings. Each painting was designed to be reused; a large sky matte painting might be used in 14 or 15 shots.
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