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Bill Eaken Interview Page One

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Bill Eaken worked at LucasArts as an illustrator for years. He was the lead conceptual designer on Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis plus had a huge impact on the art of The Dig. Bill is currently working for Autumn Moon Entertainment, on A Vampyre Story (2007). His web-site is Eaken.net.

Hi Bill! Could you briefly introduce yourself and what you do?

My name is Bill Eaken, and I worked for LucasArts for 3 years as an illustrator, which, to me, is an artist who loves telling stories with pictures. At LucasArts this meant designing and generating artwork mostly for adventure games, everything from backgrounds, to character and effects animations, to advertising art.

What sort of educational and work background do you have?/

I graduated from California State University, Fullerton, with a B.F.A. in illustration. I worked for two years at Disneyland doing portraits, which opened my eyes to a lot. But most of my art education came from the many artists I've had the privilege of knowing over the years. The only thing I really learned in school was the appreciation of art history, which I still enjoy.

I understand you worked for Sierra On-line for some time before joining LucasArts. What did you do at Sierra and what games did you work on? Any funny memories from your Sierra times?

I was originally contacted by Sierra On-line to work on computer games. But after receiving slides of my work they decided to put me in the marketing department doing box covers and ads. I thought it would be really cool to live in the mountains right outside Yosemite and have a cushy in-house illustration job. However, I don't have very many nice things to say about my time at Sierra. I only worked there eleven months and hated every second of it. If your readers like to hear a little dirt once in a while, let me just say that Sierra On-line is what I've heard called a "dysfunctional" organization. I'm told it hasn't changed much over the years, either.

The only funny thing related to Sierra happened at "Lucasland" when I did the evil ghost animation at the end of Fate of Atlantis, where it swirls around and comes right up to you and speaks. I made it say, "F*ck Sierra." (I'm not sure if you can print that, but it's true.)

When and how did you end up working at LucasArts?

Some of the people I worked with at Sierra On-line attended science fiction and fantasy conventions and invited me along to one (where I won a first place award in the art show, bye the way). It was through them that I met a whole cast of characters working at LucasArts at that time. Guys like Ken Machlin, Brent Anderson, and Mark Ferrari, to name a few. They were mostly comic book guys applying their skills to the "new" digital medium. Several of them liked my work and put in a good word for me. So I quickly jumped ship to "LucasLand".

Lets talk about Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis for a moment. You worked on the game as the lead conceptual designer - could you tell us about the process of creating the art of Fate of Atlantis? Did you design all those wonderful Atlantean artifacts and devices and the Atlantis architecture?

Yes, as far as I can remember, I designed every single Atlantean artifact, and probably all the architecture, too. It was cool because Hal Barwood wanted things to look Minoan, yet alien (please look up Minoan civilization if you're not yet familiar with it, it's worth the trouble). One of his favorite words was, "spooky." Minoan art and design isn't spooky at all, it's cool, so I really loved studying Minoan art and trying to adapt it to Hal's crazy, half-felt idea of Atlantis. He wanted things to seem as if they operated on principles of physics not known to us, rather than by magic.

Well, it was a computer game and not a film, so we didn't have the luxury of endless concept designing and rendering. I usually did some sketches, discussed them with Hal, re-worked or re-did the sketches, and went to digital art when they were approved.

Who else were on the art team on Fate of Atlantis? How much did Hal Barwood cooperate with the art team, ie. did he have any specific ideas what he wanted to see on the screen or were you able to use your own creativity?

I like Hal a lot, but as I'm sure you've heard, he can be a pain in the neck - but in a good way! The main artists on that project were really the three of us doing the backgrounds; James Dollar, Avril Harrison, and myself. Mike Ebert started out on the project and started some of the backgrounds that we finished. But it was really the three of us.

I could tell you stories about that year! I have very good memories of it, though. The game was huge and went on forever. And we were in "crunch-mode" indefinitely, since the project was way over budget AND schedule! If you recall, there were three paths you could take, so we had to do lots of unique artwork to accommodate it. The backgrounds, in many cases, had dozens of things that change in them for each path! This added levels of programming and artistic complexity that were mind boggling. Just keeping track of all the latest versions of the art was a nightmare. Hal is a creative guy, which means he likes to change his mind a lot. So there were, in some cases, 20 or 30 slight variations of a background. It really got crazy when he changed his mind back to something earlier! We were so busy that we didn't have time to keep track of who worked on what, so we all ended up working on each other's art, often on an earlier, wrong, version, because we didn't know it had been changed by one of the other artists. I would say that every background in that game was worked on by all three of us at different times. It's sometimes difficult to say who did this background or that, because it was such a team effort.

There was lots of art direction, but lots of freedom, too. Hal was just too busy most of the time himself to dictate specific points. However (I got to rip on you a bit here, Hal) it was sometimes very frustrating to have to re-work something dozens of times. It sometimes felt as if we weren't making improvements, just changes. But I feel that Hal knew that and was mostly sympathetic. I think the final results show a massive amount of effort and attention to detail, so, as I said, I have very good memories of those days. It was an adventure, in and of, itself. Maybe someone should make an adventure game about making an adventure game.

What was the process of creating the stunning poster / box cover picture for Fate of Atlantis like?

I've always loved Drew Struzan's artwork, and especially the stuff he did for the Indiana Jones movie posters. I was in art school in Southern California when he was King down there. I met him once and he remains one of those illustrators I truly admire. So, naturally, I was itching for the opportunity to try my hand at imitating him.

I had some very clear ideas what would work since I knew the game so well, and I was a huge fan of Drew's, and of modern movie posters in general. We were to meet with the marketing department about something, so one weekend I did a portrait of Harrison Ford/Indiana Jones, with an action scene in it from the third film, to show them. They liked it and gave me the job to do the cover. The art director, who was an out-of-house freelance designer, had her own ideas on what to do with the cover that were completely wrong. It's that simple, they were wrong. They looked nothing like movie poster design, nor showed much sensitivity to the game story. (Sorry if I'm being a bit cynical, but this is one area where I know what I'm talking about.) So all I could do is paint the color studies of her two or three dumb ideas, and the one of mine, which she and the marketers grudgingly allowed me to do. This is how it works in the real world of "grown up" commercial art.

Fortunately, even though they didn't care for my idea at all (big surprise), they ran a test market group who unanimously pointed to my design. So that's the one that got made. By the time they got through running focus groups, test markets, and making decisions, I only had three days to paint it! I'm not at all unhappy with it, but it it's hanging right here over my left shoulder, and I still see all the little mess-ups I could have fixed if I had more time. It's more like politics than art, but sometimes decent laws, and decent illustrations, do make it through the maze of bureaucratic egos.

Do you have any special memories or behind-the-scenes information about the Fate of Atlantis project?

I have one funny memory/story that captures for me a lot of the frenzied creative energy that went on in those days. There's a puzzle where you have to put this broken Atlantean "robot" back together in such a way that you open a door. Hal wanted the puzzle to be a "Rube Goldberg" contraption like that old Mouse Trap game, where the bowling ball roles down the shoot and knocks over a hammer, that releases a spring, that spins a fan, that blows a kite, that pops a balloon... that ultimately makes toast. It's a neat idea, but neither he, nor anyone else, had a clue how to do that. I spent all day sitting and trying to think stuff up. It was made worse by the idea that we had to see the inside of the robot, with all it's weird Atlantean technology that could be put together in many ways so it wouldn't give away the answer.

My brain finally shut down, so James Dollar and I went for a walk in downtown San Rafael, looking for clues. I started looking in all the windows of the shops for ideas. I'd see a lamp shade and start thinking how that lamp shade could be the motor for a "spooky" Atlantean robot that works off Oricalcum (am I spelling that right, Hal?) beads. Then I'd see a hose connected to a vacuum cleaner, or a clock with all the gears showing. In about an hour of doing that we figured it out. That entire puzzle, which I think is pretty weird, yet sort of makes sense, was figured out like that. When I think of the Fate of Atlantis, with all its weird technology that does, but doesn’t, make sense, I always remember coming up with that one puzzle, then going and "making it so." You couldn't design that puzzle without designing the artifacts and the artwork at the same time. And I got paid to do this! What a great job! It's neat creative problems like this that made me enjoy working, for a time, on adventure games.

The funniest thing that ever happened on that project, though, was coming up with the title, "Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis." We used to sit around in team meetings for hours trying to come up with a title that would sound dramatic, follow in the footsteps of the films, yet fit the concept of the game. We went on for months like that at the weekly meetings, each time degenerating into stupid things because our brains would get tired. Silly things like "Indiana Jones Does Atlantis," and "Indiana Jones in Search of the Red Fez," (there's a fez puzzle in the game), and even worse ones which I no longer remember. We'd come out of the meetings laughing with tears in our eyes, feeling like silly little kids. But seriously, try coming up with a title for that game yourself and see what I mean. It was a lot of fun in those days. I think the final idea, incidentally, was Hal's favorite all along, but he was hoping to come up with something a little better.

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