The troublesome The Dig was another major project you worked on at LucasArts. What role did you play in the production of the game?
Ken Macklin had already done a whole bunch of very cool conceptual artwork for The Dig, and I was looking forward to finishing Fate of Atlantis so I could get on that project and work under Ken. But then the game went to pieces and Brian Moriarty took over as the game designer, and decided to completely start over. Ken Macklin said he was no longer interested, he had other personal artistic projects to get on to. When I got off Atlantis, Brian asked me if I would work with him as a kind of assistant on the design. He wanted to have the artistic vision and game design work hand-in-hand, the way I described the Atlantis door puzzle above. I thought it was a great idea, although I was disappointed that Ken's original vision was scapped. So I spent the next many months doing lots of drawings and brainstorming with Brian. But as programmers started coming on I was less and less included in the design stuff, which is how things work, I guess.
What ended up happening was that I'd do some drawings, landscapes let's say, Brian would see them and come back the next day with a whole set of ideas for the "world" based on his interpretation of my sketches. So in that sense it was actually kind of cool, especially early on. Naturally, there were a lot of cool things that never made it in. As an artist I'm supposed to moan and groan about that, by the way, the artistic temperament is part of the job. In general, I wanted something very dramatic in the use of light and atmosphere that would not be easily copied by other games. Based on that, I eventually did some concept paintings to show Spielberg that ultimately established the overall look of the place.
As a little aside to that, Spielberg liked the paintings and wanted to keep them. Six months later someone in his office was cleaning out the files and found these odd paintings that no one knew anything about. I had placed "return" stickers on the back with the LucasFilm logo, and my name. They figured the paintings were for some movie, I guess, and sent them back to me. So I still have them in the big Amblin Entertainment envelope, sort of like mementos, I guess.
The Dig was re-written after you left LucasArts. How much, if any, of your artwork and ideas ended up into the actual game?
I think all the backgrounds I painted, which were close to a hundred, were used, maybe with some alterations here and there. But there were also a lot of new ones added by Bill Tiller, who took over as art lead. The game was completely re-written, but it still had many of the basic themes of Brian's version. I believe Sean Clark (the new game designer) felt that it was crazy to scrap everything again, since there were some good ideas that he could build on. I played the game a little bit and it looks like although a lot was changed, the skeleton is still there (get it?). I'm sure Bill Tiller or Sean Clark could correct me on this. (Are there still a bunch of geometry puzzles in there? You know, that was my idea, even though Brian did it very differently than I wanted to.)
Any memories about The Dig project you'd like to share with us?
My favorite story I always tell about The Dig is when we went to see Spielberg the first time. We had a bunch of concept drawings and paintings, and a storyboard all wired together, and it was time to let him see it, so Brian, Lucy (who was one of the business people), and I, headed for LA. The problem was that we had an early flight down and we still had a few hours to kill before our meeting at Amblin, on the grounds within Universal Studios. So we decided to go into the Universal Studio theme park right next to the working studios. I forget what we actually did there, but when we left we got these little E.T. stamps on our hands and we had a good laugh about walking into Speilberg's office with little glow-in-the-dark E.T.'s on the backs of our hands.
When we got a taxi in front of the theme park and asked to go to the main entrance of the studios (it was a long walk), the driver told us we can't do that, that they don't let tourists into the studio grounds. We said that E.T. on the back of your hand does not automatically make you a tourist, and besides, we have an appointment with someone there. He saw Brian, who was sitting there with a large lap-top that looked like a suitcase, and the guy says, "yea, right," as politely as he could. Seriously, we kept telling him, we really do have an appointment with someone, still giggling about the damn E.T.'s. He reluctantly agreed, but made sure to inform us that they normally do not let taxis come up to the main gate. We told him to let us out as close as he could, and we'll just walk. He was shaking his head, thinking we'll learn soon enough, I guess.
At the gate the driver was very embarrassed, kind of held his head down. As a guard walked up Lucy rolled down the back window and said, "It's Brian Moriarty and Bill Eaken from Lucasfilm, they have an appointment with Steven Spielberg at 11:00." I was sitting in the middle of the back seat, between the other two, and I saw the driver's eyes pop out of his head as he quickly glanced in his mirror back at us. I just showed him the stamp on the back of my hand. The guard confirmed our appointment and told the driver to follow one of the colored lines all the way to the back of the studios where Amblin was. The driver got a big grin and said, "I think you guys just said the magic words," and drove us through the studio, right to Spielberg's door. It was probably the first time he'd ever been in there.
Spielberg is an interesting guy, or at least what we saw of him. Very eccentric in a whimsical way. But then, he is a computer game freak and his meeting with us was more like his hobby than like working. The coolest thing in his office was an original Norman Rockwell painting. One of the puzzles we had (back then) was where you had to cut the lens out of some monster's eye to use somewhere else. Spielberg dug the idea, but insisted that we have blood spew out and splatter all over the computer screen. All I remember is Brian sitting there laughing nervously saying, "That's cool, that's cool."
After our meeting we asked Spielberg if he knew what rides at the theme park are the best, since we had only a few hours before our return flight. He said the E.T. ride, since he had helped design it and was very proud of it (it was brand new at that time). He was so excited about us checking it out that he asked one of his assistants to drive us to it in an Amblin golf cart. The guy took us through the back way of the theme park and right to the entrance of E.T. in the golf cart, with a crowd watching, and Brian still carrying that damn "suitcase." I’m just worried now that that was my fifteen minutes of fame.
What other games did you work on at LucasArts?
My very first assignment was to turn the first 16 color Monkey Island into 256 colors. They had this small budget for it, so three of us had one month to do it all, which we did. After that, it was on to Atlantis.
Tell us your best LucasArts 'war story'?
Oh my god, a war story. I better not tell the best one. I'm known for my cynical nature so I should hold back a little.
Okay, I have one that I think is good, only because it indirectly involved me. When they were working on Day of the Tentacle, the art designer, Larry Ahern, mentioned that the marketing department was complaining that they didn't know how to market it. It was just so strange. I guess they were having difficulty coming up with ideas for ads, and things like that. "Positioning," they call it.
Well, I was impressed at how the art team had done such a neat job at getting the look of animated cartoons. It was a fully animated game, in a truly professional sense. I've worked a little in book publishing and one of the things they do is let important people read a book, then give statements about it. If the statements are good they put them somewhere on the book, with really good ones on the front. I suggested they get some famous person from the world of animation to look at the game, give some comments for the cover, and "position" the whole thing like that. Larry thought the idea was good and passed it along, which, oddly enough, the marketing department followed, although a bit incompetently.
They managed to get some quotes from none other than Chuck Jones, the master of Bugs Bunny and Daffy, and the creator of Coyote and Roadrunner. He's a god - many consider him to be the greatest animation director of all time. They get these quotes from him, but then at the last minute decided not to use them because, in their words, "Nobody knows who Chuck Jones is." Even if that was true, it's still a quote, and in small type under his name you tell them WHO HE IS. Look at most books and you'll see quotes by people you've never heard of, but then find new respect for them when you read who they are, or what they did, under their name. Best example I can give of the marketing department mind. You wanted a war story. Trust me when I say I'm being very tactful right now.
What have you done since leaving LucasArts, and what are you up to in the future?
I originally left to illustrate a role playing game book. After that I goofed around on other projects for other companies, mostly educational software for children. I've done many covers. Did you know I painted the cover for The Dig? I also did the cover for Rebel Assault II. I did the cover for Star Trek: The Next Generation for Spectrum, and a few Sega covers that I honestly have to think about to remember. I think I did five backgrounds on the Curse of Monkey Island that I'm told are still in the game. (Man, there's a whole story behind that. That would have to be my BEST 'war story.') But the main thing is that I'm retired from commercial work now, and paint only for galleries. I'm in a couple galleries over in Hawaii and I'm enjoying that very much. No more groomed and perfumed little corporate poodles telling me how, and what, to paint. You don't know joy until you've been truly free.
Have you played any recent LucasArts games, such as The Curse of Monkey Island or Grim Fandango? If yes, did you like them, especially from an artist's point of view?
My son and I played The Curse of Monkey Island, although I have to admit I haven't gotten all the way through it. I'm stuck, damn it. And I'm just too busy painting to worry about it. I really like what I've seen so far. It's a great game! With lots of fun characters. I highly recommend it to people who love adventure games. But does anybody know how to get the squat little pirate in the barber shop to go on the ship with you?
I've heard nothing but cool stuff about Fandango. I'll call Bill Tiller, maybe he can get me a free copy of it!
Do you have any inspirations or mentors you'd like to thank for helping you get where you are now?
Frank Frazetta. Actually, maybe I shouldn't thank him, he's the reason I decided to become an artist. That's not necessarily something to thank anyone for. I actually cried when I heard he'd had a stroke and couldn't paint anymore. Drew Struzan, who has greatly inspired me on many levels. I have known many artists over the years, and one of the joys of being an artist is that you learn something from everyone you know, the list has to include nearly every artist I've ever been friends with. And I'm now meeting new ones in the fine art field. What an adventure life is!
Any parting message for the people of Earth, and all the gamers who marvel at your art in LucasArts games? You're free to say anything!
Well, one thing I should probably be honest about is that I don't play games too much. Not that I don't have fun when the game is good. I'm presently kicking my 7-year-old son's butt in a computer golf game. It's just that for me, drawing and painting is like the ultimate game. Paintings all have puzzles to solve, they all require hand-eye coordination, you have to think, and you get better and better every time you play. Best of all is that it's your own unique adventure and you have a record of your amazing travels when you're done.
But in a way everyone has something that is to them what painting is to me. If I was going to say anything to young people, I would say to them, find what YOU do that's wonderful, so wonderful that you can't get enough of it. Don't get caught up spending all your time "consuming" wonderful things that others have created. There's a place for that in life, and it's a necessary place. Get inspired by your heroes. And for God's sake, get yourself some heroes! But find what you do, whether writing, or drawing, or playing basketball, the point is to create, make, give-out; instead of always taking-in the things other people create FOR you. Turn that TV off, get away from that computer once in a while. Life is all about enjoying the wonderful creations of others, but also about creating wonderful things for them, too.
Get out and beyond the handful of things that the marketing departments of the world have led you to think is all there is. Learn all about music (I no longer listen to the radio, but follow the young bands in my area who don't have record deals, yet), and literature, and painting, and dance, and science (nature), the list goes on. Challenge yourself to discover cool authors you didn't know about, or composers, or whole art forms. Start with a book on the Minoans. I had a wise old teacher in art school tell me this, and now that I have experienced it's truth in my life, I believe it's one of the greatest lessons I can pass on.
I still watch TV now and then, and play on the computer. But they are only two of the many things I find fulfilling in this adventure of life. I can only tell you what works for me, hoping that from it someone out there might learn a little about themselves. Good luck on your journey, and check out The Curse of Monkey Island.
Thank you very much for taking the time to answer these questions, Bill Eaken!
Thanks to you, Joonas.