Story is the most important ingredient. An image is a tool, a means of telling a story […]
It’s not every day that I get to meet an artist who has worked for a developer for more than a decade, but as it turns out, Matt Rhodes was already working as an intern for BioWare in the latter half of the 2000s, toiling away to bring Jade Empire to your Xbox. The then intern was given the opportunity to work on the first installment in the Mass Effect trilogy, paving the way for him to continue on and ship six AAA productions with the Canadian developer. Matt is now an Art Director, so it’s clear that his years’ worth of experience paid off, in the interview, he writes, “My role is to support and defend the art team, cultivate and promote the visual direction of the project, and to foster a culture of critique.” Adding that at the time of this writing, he’s just starting with his Art Director role, but that this explanation encapsulates the methodology of other art directors who he hopes to approximate. And I sincerely believe in his ability to do just that.
You’ve heard enough about Matt’s professional career for now, so why don’t we take a quick look at his personal project? Sharing its name with the charming clocks that depict the movement of earth and its moon, Tellurion is a stylized series, bound to impress you with the expressive cast and pleasant colour palettes on display. The first artwork appeared on ArtStation a year ago, but the story has progressed quickly and you can now find 158 pieces! Matt told us that he knows how the story ends, but isn’t sure how far off said ending actually is. Still, we’re happy that he also shared this: “when it’s getting closer to completion, I’ll really start exploring my options for publishing.” It’s definitely something to look forward to. Maybe try going through the pieces on ArtStation in order, you’ll start feeling like you’ve met all of the characters he’s drawn up in no time!
The RVG team hopes that you enjoy reading this exclusive interview with Matt Rhodes. We can’t say whether you’re here to learn about visual storytelling or just want to know what it’s like to work on Mass Effect, but we did our best to make it an enjoyable read either way!
What sparked your interest in digital art?
My parents were always very supportive of our interests. My dad wanted to make sure we were computer literate, and he also saw what early painting programs could do, so he tried to make sure we had access to them. A family friend gave us their pen tablet, and I started messing with Corel Paint. During this time, the internet was becoming more and more of a household thing, and I was finding the work of artists like Dhabih Eng and Craig Mullins. That eventually led me to the early art forums like Sijun, where we would share techniques and receive critiques, and take part in a real community of fellow hungry young upstarts. That was like throwing gasoline on the fire.
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I love the art style you picked for Tellurion. What made you choose it?
The art style for Tellurion is “story first”. One of the factors that inspired me to finally start Tellurion was the ILM challenge that ArtStation put on. It was an art contest, working with actual ILM art directors, and I decided at the beginning that I would draw how I wanted to draw. I wouldn’t modify my work to be more “star warsy”, I would just feed myself into the machine and see what happened. I ended up as one of the runners up, which given the quality of the winners was an absolute thrill. I got to have a phone call with ILM, and while they were very encouraging they also confirmed a hypothesis: story is the most important ingredient. An image is a tool, a means of telling a story. People have a tendency to confuse them an ends unto themselves. An image without a story is a pretty boring thing.
Tellurion – 158
Aside from the wonderful art style, Tellurion is also brimming with expressive characters and storytelling elements that have, in my opinion, been developed really well. I had a chance to go through all 154 pieces and I almost feel like I know some of these guys! How are you doing it? Do you have any advanced visual storytelling tips for our readers?
I firmly believe that if you know the story you’re trying to tell, all the heavy lifting of design is already done. With Tellurion, because it’s my own story and I know how it ends, and what I’m trying to say with it, it’s just a matter of putting it on paper. It’s almost scary sometimes, because I’m used to a studio where some designs take months and months of iterations, reviews, negotiations and compromises. With Tellurion, a lot of settings or characters were designed in under 5 minutes. In fact, I let my kids design the crew of the ship (see 109) because I knew what they represented, so I could give them very simple constraints and they did the rest.
As for tips, I think a great way to exercise the visual storytelling muscle is to write down a simple description, then try to draw it. Take that drawing to people, and ask them to describe it back to you without any hints. Repeat. It really starts to show you how people interpret visuals, what’s important and what can be left out, and how much influence your designs can have.
You’re working as an AD at BioWare. What are the ins and outs of your role?
At the time of this writing, I’m just starting my Art Director role, so this is more of a “statement of intent” based on the art directors I’d like to emulate. My role is to support and defend the art team, cultivate and promote the visual direction of the project, and to foster a culture of critique.
So largely I try to make sure we know what we’re trying to build, we build it in a way that’s actually feasible given the time/budget we have to work with, and that the team has everything it needs to work. An AD also articulates the guidelines and visual rules that will help keep the visuals consistent when the whole art team is working at the same time. Finally, regular reviews and critiques are a must, and making sure that we can talk about the art honestly so we can make it the best it can be.
Whenever I feel like I’m lacking inspiration, that so called “art block,” when going to work becomes a struggle, and the last thing I want to do is paint, I now know that I actually just need to take a break. So I just do so by getting away from work. Taking a trip is the best but it can also just be doing something different for a while.
It actually feeds your brain and gets your inspiration back. I find that I usually come back with better skills. It’s a never ending cycle. For me anyway.
Could you walk us through your creative process for your favourite Tellurion piece?
I’ll use 090 because it has some 3D elements as well. To start, I think about what has happened, what should happen next, and what is happening soon. I’ll put on some music and think about it, watch the movie in my head, play it back and forth a few times until I think I know what I want. I’ll take that idea to the thumbnail stage, where I draw it at about an inch tall. It’s easy to try and fail at an image ten times at that size. At this scale the storytelling has to come through gesture, and if it works there, I feel like it’s ready to start. I’ll pull the thumbnail into Photoshop, blow it up, then try to draw a higher resolution sketch over it. At this stage, I want to preserve the overall gestures and shapes. It’s all too easy to lose the energy of the thumbnail at this stage. In the case of 090, I also had some architecture.
At the pencil stage, if there’s some more complex 3D elements, I’ll build a rough model in Google SketchUp and paste it into the pencil layer. It saves hours of perspective drawing. After the pencils are done, I’ll ink the image. Then I’ll add my flat color. I’ll duplicate the flats a couple times, adjusting the values and colors to make a “shadow” layer and a “light” layer. I can then mask one layer out, effectively painting the light or shadows into the image. Add some atmospheric haze to help the silhouettes read better and increase the sense of depth. At this point, when just about everything is done, I’ll open “curves” in Photoshop to make overall corrections to the image, either adding contrast, or changing the temperature of certain colors to get the right feel. That step is the most like balancing stones, just moving it around until you feel it. Then it’s done!
Tellurion – 158 (Asset)
Describe some of the challenges you’ve had to face when working on AAA games at BioWare.
There are always forces beyond your control that you have to account for. The nature of games is that you can plan until your fingers bleed, but eventually, during production you’ll discover big problems you have to solve. Sometimes that’s something as huge as the overall story structure, and you realize you’re going to have to break a major bone to reset it properly. Sometimes it’s technology that you built whole systems on that suddenly can’t be used. Sometimes it’s human, and a talented person leaves with their talented brain. There are always major bumps, but in many ways that’s where it gets exhilarating. You do the best you can with what you have, re-purposing assets, switching things around, creating new designs you never would have created otherwise.
What are your thoughts on the current state of art in the game industry? Are you happy with where it’s currently heading?
I’ve described video games this way for years, but I think it’s still relevant: it is a young industry. If you loosely compare it on the timeline to the next youngest medium, film, it’s like we’re still figuring out how to use color. The guidelines we’ve learned over the centuries, from traditional art to film making, are all still important, but what if you could look under Van Gogh’s bed? Or walk behind the Mona Lisa to see what she’s looking at? What if you could steal the ring from Frodo and give to Boromir to see how that plays out? Interactivity is a huge shift. Video games have already proven to be a powerful storytelling medium, but I can’t wait to see what’s coming as we learn more and more about how to wield the medium with more confidence.
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What’s next for Matt Rhodes and Tellurion?
Tellurion is a big project. At the time of this writing I’ve finished image 158, and while I know how the story ends, I can’t say how far away that is. I’ll continue to plug away at it, a few hours a night, a few nights a week, until it’s done. Some day, when it’s getting closer to completion, I’ll really start exploring my options for publishing. I’d love to be able to hold it all in my hands some day. In the meantime, I love working with creative teams, and I love the challenge that video games still present, so I’ll continue with the day job.
By Vox Groovy staff writer;
All images used with permission by the artist
© Matt Rhodes or respective copyright holders
Reading by Emily Safko
Article in Slovak language