It's Baaaack!!! That's right, the A.P. Sculpture Studio Blog is back from hiatus. Thanks for being patient while I was getting past a very crazy month. Things are still going a hundred miles an hour around here, but I wanted to bring you guys more interviews, articles and discussions about art.
I'm very pleased that for this first interview, I'll be sharing the work of a long time friend, Mr Greg Baldwin. An amazing character designer, working for Insomniac games, Greg has been a source of inspiration for hundreds (if not thousands) of people. His style and creativity are the kind that we all dream of. So settle in, strap your jaw to your face (cuz it will be dropping otherwise), and enjoy yet another great interview.
AP: Although I know your history, why don’t you give the readers a brief description of your history and where you are now.
GB: Well, I grew up south of Boston, MA and moved out to CA to go to college at the Laguna College of Art and Design. I dropped out of the program a semester early to start working freelance, which isn’t something I recommend, but at the time it seemed like the right idea. I really wanted to get out and start working. I took on any and all commercial art projects I could get my hands on. I had some really strange gigs around that time. At the tail end of one project working as a sculptor on one stop-motion animated short, I realized I needed to get something more reliable and I ended up through a chance series of events getting a position as a concept artist and modeler at a small gaming studio that was local. After a couple of tough production years, I applied at Insomniac Games in Burbank, CA. I was hired on by Dave Guertin to do modeling and texture work. After a smidge over 8 years, I am now a Principle Artist for the studio. Dave and I have worked together on designing and building the characters at Insomniac together since that day and so in the Spring of 2007, we started CreatureBox.com together as a joint venture to explore character design, comics and other random ideas. Between that, Insomniac and my young family, I’m happily very busy and have just enough time to eat most days!
AP: As long as I’ve known you, you’ve always loved Robots and Creatures, but where did that all start for you?
GB: I was a child of the 80’s in a relatively small working class town. I grew up watching Transformers, Thunder Cats, G.I.Joe and the entire animated lineup with my brother after school each day. We spent a lot of time running around in the woods with sticks imagining we were various characters battling for some unknown reason. Slowly, our inventiveness became more and more elaborate. My father had an extensive workshop in our basement and was always very willing to let us have free reign over it. Unfortunately for him, I was also the kid who took everything apart to try to figure them out or appropriate them into some necessary accoutrement for that day’s battle.
I was never intentionally someone who wanted to draw, it just came with the territory as someone whose imagination had gotten a tad out of hand and required multiple outlets to explore. Drawing quickly became a way of translating the most elaborate ideas into something more tangible. After years of battling imaginary creatures and robots in the woods with my brother and our friends, I very quickly began developing them in my drawings as well.
AP: How has it been, designing characters for Insomniac over the years? Is it still fun?
GB: Insomniac is a blast. It’s also the toughest job I’ve ever had; and that’s coming from a guy who worked 6 years on a fishing boat. There are days where I don’t want to do it anymore, but those days quickly diminish whenever I walk around the office and see what the other team members are creating. Being an artist is usually a solo journey, and I felt that way for a long time. But when I started collaborating with other talented artists, animators and designers, the results were so much more fulfilling. Every day I go to work, I am surrounded by talent and inspiration. It’s a really rewarding position and I am very lucky to be a part of it all.
AP: Is it tough to design really imaginative characters and have them read well in 3 Dimensions inside a video game?
GB: It’s ridiculously hard. Some of the best designs I’ve created work horribly in a 3D space, and some of the worst designs I’ve made work great in that space. Over time, as I’ve gotten more accustomed to the problem, it has certainly become easier. Having a long running franchise like Ratchet and Clank to work on has allowed us to have a long list of successes and failures to use as lessons on any future design we might work on. Often, the failures are our best friends in those situations. But it’s also really hard to look back on them and know that millions of people have seen them…ugh.
AP: I’m sure that part of your job description has included working in different departments. Have you ever had to create a 3D model of one of your own characters? And has that affected the way you design them now?
GB: I’m fortunate to do a lot of modeling of the characters too for our games. Seeing what translates well in 3D is really helpful when going back to create a new character in 2D. A lot of what we learn in life drawing and sculpture classes has become imperative to a good design. It’s not always about understanding anatomy, but being confident with proportions, how forms turn in space and functionality. We are essentially trying to sell our fans something that doesn’t exist in reality. Inventing new characters and forms always has to have a sense of believability to it, or people won’t buy it.
AP: Being a very busy designer for the game industry, do you ever indulge in video games? If so, which have been some of your favorites (past or present)?
GB: Haha…uh oh. No not really. I play funny little games on my Iphone like Plants VS Zombies and Cut the Rope. But I see games all day long and don’t really have the extra time to indulge in them. I play demos if I can. I still think back on games like Ico and the games from Oddworld as great game experiences. Much like comics, I tend to enjoy games for their visuals more than the game itself. There are some really talented teams out there!
AP: How do you approach a new character design? And how many variations will you typically go through before getting to the final design?
GB: The approach is usually the same every time. Again, I work with a lot of talented people, and working with Dave Guertin on the characters, it’s a very collaborative verbal process at the beginning. We “toss” ideas around, and the rule is usually to try to get all the initial ideas out so we can get past them. We find that our early ideas tend to be derivative of ideas from other things we’ve seen or heard. So the sooner we can get those ideas out, the better.
As far as the number of variations when I actually put pen to paper (or pen to Cintiq as it is now), is really different with every new design. Sometimes I hit it first try. Sometimes I draw a number of designs, or have Dave draw all over my design to try to fix whatever monstrosity I came up with. You just never know, but it’s important to not stop until you know that the design is as good as it can be. That said, we are also under tight deadlines always, so we have to be timely with our work or the rest of the team will suffer for it.
AP: In your opinion, what are some of the most important parts of character design?
GB: Clarity and believability. If a character can tell you 90% of what it is about just by looking at it, you’ve done a good design. No matter if a character is a very terrestrial being or something nobody has ever seen before, we are making characters for people who live in the same world we do. People naturally understand emotion, demeanor, posture and any number of historical and modern references. If you can play to their inherent knowledge and deliver them a character that they understand and can relate to, then you won’t have to spend all kinds of time developing the history behind them.
Often just understanding the goal of a character can lead to a lot of the answers a design might have to encompass. A classic underdog is only and underdog if what that character is up against is apparently superior to them in some way. And that formula can be applied to any scenario a character might find themselves in.
AP: What comes first for you when designing a new character? The story, the character, or does it develop at the same time?
GB: I would say that typically that is a reciprocating aspect to a design. The story develops the character and the character develops the story. Certainly one comes first, but I don’t think it really matters which one so long as they become married to each other in the end.
AP: Do you ever draw a character that doesn’t have a story behind it (be it simple or complex)? Just something cool for cool’s sake? Or do they always end up with a little story?
GB: I certainly like to come up with characters just out of the blue. CreatureBox was founded around simply exploring the concept of character design. Very often a story will develop as I draw a new character. But hearing a great story or making one up can really help guide a good design just as easily. It tends to be a pretty organic process in that respect.
AP: Do you have a plethora of characters floating around in your head, waiting for their turn to end up on the page (or screen)? Or do they just show up when the pencil hits the paper?
GB: Both again. I have a number of characters that I can’t wait to spend time drawing and tuning. I also very much enjoy just winging it and seeing what will come out of the ether. I think it’s fair to say that every character evolves on the page though. Even the clearest ideas I’ve had always show their ugly little problems once they show up on a piece of paper or on a monitor. That’s the funnest part! Fixing the problem, that’s what character design really is, a great big problem in need of a really clean solution.
AP: You and your friend (and creative partner) Dave started CreatureBox as a way to get out all the other crazy creations you guys have floating around your brain. It’s been a big hit and has gained quite a following. How does it feel to have so many people following what you do? And what’s in store for the future of CreatureBox?
GB: CreatureBox is the best! Most days, Dave and I feel like we’re just going along for the ride. It’s really been a great experience all around. We learn something new every day. When we started it up, we had no idea how it would be received and weren’t sure what we were even going to do. As the site grew and people started stopping in to check it out, we started meeting all kinds of talented people with similar interests. Being an artist can feel very lonesome at times, especially when you are in sort of a niche part of the art world like we are. But seeing all the great feedback and knowing now that there are thousands of people out there who like a good creature or spaceman just as much as we do makes CreatureBox a vital and rewarding part of growing as a character designer.
The future for CreatureBox is going to be organic. Dave and I want to always use it to pursue what we are interested in at any given time. That tends to change on an hourly basis. So we like to refer to it as a playground, and we’ll continue to use it to learn, grow and talk about ideas with each other and whoever else feels like stopping by.
AP: I know that you’re both a traditional media artist as well as a digital artist. How do you feel the digital has helped your design work, and have there been any negatives?
GB: Digital is a tricky media. Working in games, we both understood that being able to quickly iterate on an idea was imperative to making good designs that worked well for the game. Digital has allowed us to explore new ideas much faster even in our own work. It’s really valuable as a tool. But that’s all it is, another tool. We still draw from life and draw in sketchbooks as often as humanly possible. I think it’s safe to say that tangible media will always feel better than digital, but it’s just too hard to make adjustments quickly. It all comes down to what’s best for the design.
AP: You wrote and illustrated your own Comic Book, which was very well received (I know it’s one of my favorites for sure). I also know it was a labor of love for you that spanned many years. So do you have any other comics in the works?
GB: When I finished Path, I knew I would do more comics, I just had no interest in standing at the starting line of a project like that again. Lately, on CreatureBox, we’ve started some web-comics to help get back into it. Much like the characters I haven’t gotten to yet, there are a slew of ideas floating around for comics, but geez do they take a long time to make!
AP: You’re a father to 2 very beautiful kids, a husband to a super talented and renowned artist, you work as a lead character designer for a major video game company and you run your own site (with the help of Dave) and update it quite regularly with amazing new creations. How do you manage to schedule your time across so many things and still be creative and interested in what you’re doing? What advice would you give to other artists that might be struggling with juggling life, career and creativity?
GB: Family and friends come first. My wife Alia and I have always made it a point to never let our art take away from our family. We both like similar things and our kids put up with us, so we tend to have a lot of art in our lives. She is also my harshest critic. HA! Dave and I always make sure our work is divided 50/50 and we work very hard to help each other through the inevitable battles of whatever work load is looming over us. Not everyone is comfortable working with other people or has someone they can bounce ideas off of, but I believe having someone you can trust to help you is the most important part of growing as an artist.
AP: For other artists (myself included) who wish to design and create their own characters, but are maybe stuck; Do you have any advice or exercises to uncork that bottle of creativity juice?
GB: Here is my exercise; think of an idea you are toying around with or just absolutely fed up with. Now think of something that has absolutely nothing to do with it. I mean like “a space explorer crash landed on a desolate planet and peanut butter and jelly”. Jam (pun intended) those two things together. I bet not a lot of people have done that one before! But seriously, take two or three different things and see how you can incorporate them together. It is not a guaranteed success, that’s the point. You need to see what isn’t working to see what will work, and you need to get as far away from your normal train of thought as possible so you can see a new idea with fresh eyes. I like to jam 3 things together, makes for some wild ideas.
AP: We all have our lists of artists who we admire, respect or are simply in awe of. What’s your short list of artists who make you stop and stare at their work and neglect your own for a couple hours?
GB: The list is possibly endless, but if you want to look at some great work check out anything any of these artists did: Claire Wendling, Sergio Toppi, Enrique Fernandez, Chuck Jones, Ollie Johnston, Frank Thomas, Milt Kahl, Alphonse Mucha, Egon Schiele, Brad Bird, Adam Hughes, Bill Watterson, Jamie Hewlett, Mike Mignola, Chris Sanders, Nico Marlet, argh…I could go on forever.
AP: Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. I hope that we can get you back here again sometime (maybe even collaborate on something). I wish you continued success and creativity, and I look forward to the next time we can see each other face-to-face.