Jason badgered Anson Jew with some questions about Indiana Jones and the Iron Phoenix in preparing for his big retrospective on the game. The Q&A is presented here in its raw form for posterity.
When did you arrive at LucasArts, how did you land the gig, and what was your first project?
I was living in Sacramento at the time and was a member of the Sacramento Regional Illustrators Guild. One of the other members, Martin Cameron, used to commute from Sacramento to San Rafael to work at LucasFilm Games (as LucasArts was known at the time). He reached out to me and my roommate Larry Ahern, and told us the company was looking for new blood. I was already familiar with the area, as my brother, Benton Jew worked across the parking lot at ILM. Larry and I drove out there, interviewed, and were both hired. This was around the end of 1990 I believe. The first project I worked on was Noah Falstein's version of The Dig.
Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis ended with a tease about The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. According to artist Bill Eaken, there was a short-lived attempt at a Young Indy tie-in game headed by Brian Moriarty, but the project largely remains a mystery. Do you know anything about it?
I did work on a Young Indiana Jones project. My memories are fuzzy about it, but the story involved the invention of the machine gun synchronization gear for World War 1 biplanes. I seem to remember Joe Pinney as the lead on that project as well. The lead may have changed hands a few times. Those two projects kind of blur together in my mind a bit.
How did Indiana Jones and the Iron Phoenix originate, and how did you get involved?
I was assigned to that project. I had a lot of Indy experience, having worked on the Young Indy game and Fate of Atlantis. I don't know the details of how the project got started.
I know the high-level story line was that the Nazis were seeking out the philosopher’s stone to resurrect Hitler. Do you remember any other story details, like the locations Indy traveled to?
The final destination of the story was in South America as I remember. There was a sequence that took place in a submarine or a ship. There was a little bit of moving around on a plane as well. There were scenes in a train station and in a bar as well, as I remember.
Do you recall Spielberg or Lucas being consulted about the story, or spoken to at all?
There may have been some talk about that, but if it happened, it was before I came on board.
Fate of Atlantis was known for its unique "Three Paths" design element, which remains impressive but which I understand bloated the development schedule significantly. Did Iron Phoenix have anything planned along those ambitious lines, or was it more linear?
I don't recall Iron Phoenix being mulitpath, though I could be wrong.
Editor's note: The release of Aric's Wilmunder's design document confirms that there was no reprisal of something like the Three Paths, although an early section where Indy must retrieve three pieces of the philsopher's stone was non-linear.
Can you talk about some of the characters the game would have featured besides Indy and Hitler? Allies, nemeses, love interests?
The main heavy was named Jaeger, who was kind of similar to Major Toht from Raiders of the Lost Ark, although probably a little tougher. I can't remember any of the other characters.
The game was supposedly in development for a period of fifteen months between 1993-1995. Does that sound accurate?
There was probably a lot of development going on before I was brought on, so I'm not sure. I doubt if it was that long, though.
When the project leader shake-up happened, was Aric/Bill picking up where Joe left off, or was the design re-thought?
When I came on, there was a rough story outline and some background art had been painted. I don't know how much was Joe and how much was Aric and Bill.
So were you assigned to the game only after the project leader swap, and do you know how the project had been underway by that point? Was it the same team otherwise?
Now that you mention it, I remember some work done with Joe that had to do with Tibetian koans, but I can't remember much. There was probably a transitional period where I moved on to other projects temporarily while they transitioned before coming back to the project. But I don't know. Can't remember much. Team was small, with more people added as the project got further into development.
As an artist, were you invited to give input on the game design?
Aric Wilmunder and Bill Stoneham were co-leads on this project, and I was the lead animator, so most of the final decisions were made by them. But we had meetings--lots of meetings trying to figure this thing out. I remember there was a part of the story where Indy was locked up in a supply room in a ship or submarine. He had to escape but could only use the few items that were in the room. I recalled a story my high school shop teacher had relayed about a student who somehow knocked the valve off of a pressurized tank, and how the tank shot off like a torpedo and went through a few walls. So I suggested we have Indy knock the valve off a pressurized tank and have it blow through the door. That was the puzzle for a short while. Later, the puzzle was changed to Indy using the tank to melt out the rivets around the door.
What was the distribution of labor amongst the art team?
I may be getting mixed up with the Young Indy project, but I think Leonard Robel may have worked under me on this project. In any case, like most of the projects there, the lead animator would design and animate the major characters with their walk cycles at various angles as well as reaches reaches and idling movements. As the puzzles came in, I would assign more puzzle specific animations to myself and the other animators.
I understand that the game was being made during a transitional period where characters were moving from miniature sprites to bigger designs that would take up more of the screen real estate. What challenges did this pose for you on this particular project?
Taking a cue from Day of the Tentacle, we wanted to work with larger characters. The norm before DOTT in the industry was to have tiny little cartoon characters running around in these vast environments. We wanted to have Indiana Jones in realistic (non-cartoony) proportions, since Indy is an action/adventure character and not a comical one. I was asked to design a realistically proportioned, fully rendered Indy more than twice the height of most of the characters in previous games, but was only allowed to use the same amount of color slots per character as the smaller characters in previous games. Unfortunately, when you double the size of a character in a fully rendered drawing, you also need twice as many colors. If you don't, you get very visible color banding--resulting in a blocky and/or faceted look to the characters. I had a hell of a time trying to communicate this to the (non-artist) project leaders, since this would mean more color slots would need to allocated to animation. And since we were working with a fixed-size color palette, any new slots allocated to animation would have to be taken away from the background art. So there was a bit of tension over how many color slots get allocated to animation and how many to backgrounds. I would have loved to have had more shades of color to work with in order to render Indy properly.
I even heard rotoscoping for character animations was considered at one point, with tests taking place at ILM involving live actors. Any recollection of that?
I've heard this, too. If true, it was done without my knowledge.
Is there a specific scene or puzzle from the game that sticks out as a favorite?
As the project was being developed by the leads, there wasn't really anything for me to animate, so I took it upon myself to do some animation and puzzle tests. One thing I wanted the game to do was break out of the idea that every scene had to be a single locked-off environment at a wide, flat angle with a character walking around in it. I wanted to do a few puzzles that played more like Dragon's Lair or Space Ace--that cut from shot to shot--with insert reaction shots and whatnot. So I devised this puzzle of Indy inside the cockpit a small plane getting battered by a huge Nazi on top of him. You would punch and punch this guy, and barely feeling it, he would simply return your punches. You could try to do different things to defeat this Nazi--trying to hit him with various objects in the plane. But in the end, the solution was to grab the wheel and turn the plane upside down. Then, suddenly Indy is on top of the Nazi and can defeat him.
The story goes that the game’s death knell came when LucasArts showcased it at European Computer Game show and learned that it couldn’t be sold in Germany. How do you remember the cancellation happening?
It was announced in company and team meetings. I understand it was just one of many problems with the project, but don't know all the details.
Usually, games get cancelled much earlier in the process than Iron Phoenix did. How close to completion was the game? Do any screenshots exist? Do you imagine a playable build exists in a dank Lucasfilm vault somewhere?
There was a walkthru demo. I don't know if any screenshots or builds still exist from the actual game, but who knows? I've posted some concept art and animation tests on my blog before. I'm sure some of Bill Stoneham's backgrounds are on the net.
I'm pretty sure I've posted this on the internet before, but here's a concept sketch:
Bill Eaken painted memorable cover art for the Fate of Atlantis box in the style of Drew Struzan. Did you guys ever get to the point of discussing the Iron Phoenix cover?
Not likely, at the level of finish we were at.
There was a rumor that after the game’s cancellation, another Indy graphic adventure called Indiana Jones and the Spear of Destiny (also a comic) was very briefly considered. Any truth to this as far as you’re aware?
Editor's Note: Based on this and responses from other team members, it seems Spear of Destiny was always just a comic.
What was your next project after the game got axed?
I don't remember exactly. Timeline's fuzzy for me. I think it may have been Full Throttle.
It seems adventure games have enjoyed a bit of a comeback, with a number of successful crowdsourcing campaigns allowing developers to connect with that audience more directly. Do you think there’s room for another Indiana Jones graphic adventure in the modern space?
Absolutely. Adventure games rule. All those shooter games out there--why aren't people bored with all that yet?
A fifth Indiana Jones movie with Harrison Ford has been announced. What are your thoughts on that?
If Spielberg and Ford were going to make another Indy movie after Last Crusade, I wish they would have started sooner--Ford is a little too old for this kind of story right now IMHO, and it showed in Crystal Skull. Upon release of Indy 5, Ford will only be a few years younger than George Hall was when he played Old Indy in The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. Maybe we'll get to see how he gets his eye patch.
What are you up to these days?
Ever since leaving LucasArts at the end of 1999, I've been a freelance artist, doing storyboards and concept art for movies, TV, commercials, games, internet and attractions. Recently, I worked on an episode of Agents of SHIELD, an episode of NCIS: New Orleans, the Fantastic Four movie (not my fault!), and the upcoming Warcraft and Max Steel movies, as well as a few other upcoming blockbusters I'm not at liberty to mention.
We thank Anson for digging out these twenty-plus year memories for us. Be sure to check out his blog, A Goy Named Jew.