At Pictoplasma earlier this year, Serbian collective Dis-Patch were lucky enough to interview a selection of speaking artists & designers. Inkygoodness has been granted exclusive rights to publish these interviews in English for the first time. In the first interview of the series, Saša Arsić speaks to character designer & illustrator Nathan Jurevicius about his inspirations, ideas and latest project ‘Peleda’; a re-imagined 3D version of his Scarygirl online game – a worldwide phenomen described as possibly “the best indie browser game ever created”.
Interview: Saša Arsić
SA: What was there before Scarygirl?
NJ: When I went to University I studied design and illustration, so during that period of time I was lucky enough to be given a chance to do a couple of projects. That helped a lot when I graduated, as soon after I went straight into doing editorial illustration, which actually at the time I really thought is what I should do the most. I did a lot of magazines, did stuff with Wall Street Journal and stuff. I didn’t know how to use the computer at the time, as illustration students were not being given enough access at the time, so I was doing a lot of hand-drawn things. Then I was given a free copy of some of the Adobe programs and started playing around, learning how to use them. I entered a competition in which I won full legal copies of all related programs – Freehand, Flash, Illustrator… I started creating really basic interactive pieces, and was approached in the late 90s by a Croatian company to do a series of animated spots for a story by a famous folk author, whose name I cannot remember exactly. Like an equivalent of Lord of the Rings in Croatia… Might be something like Brilić.
That one of the first forays into doing some animated spots, basing flash games. During that period I was also doing editorial illustration and got the idea for Scarygirl concept. I thought of it as a very basic game initially. but then it got put on hold. As that happened, I was approached by a guy from Hong Kong, who had a company called Flying Cat, and the name apparently was based on a character I had done before. He asked if I wanted to collaborate on doing toys with him. At that point, Scarygirl moved from this conceptual idea to this whole world of toys, and later one games and all sorts of stuff.
How do you start building an entire world of character and scenery? What is your working process? Does it evolve with your personal life at the time when you are doing it, does real life have an influence? Is it a huge flash you get and then build from that, or something that evolves over time, step by step?
I see everything I do as a series of milestones I look at towards a final goal. Each of those milestones leads me into a new direction, it guides me to what I eventually wanna do. With Scarygirl there was a series of comics I was doing, comic pages I was creating while doing the toys. The comics were done every week, not so planned out aside from a general idea. But I still had to think about what was going to happen each week. So it evolved over time and essentially I saw that as a milestone which led me to think what I want to do next. The we got approached by Passion Pictures asking me what I wanted to do with it, a series, a film… So that was the next milestone, how it organically moved to film, and the graphic novel followed, then the game. The story kept building up, and as the world grew the characters did as well. I love the notion of a journey, roadmovies, stories that evolve over time, I am into epics. That is how I also view the Scarygirl story, it can go into any direction but there is a final result at the end. You don’t get bored, because you can go into various directions.
A lot of artists who have one, two or three recognizable works or characters might develop a kind of love/hate relationship to them, as clients or audience always wants them to do and present those same works, or in that style. Have you had an issue like that with Scarygirl, or you got around it by changing it all the time?
That was the issue with me. But it was not the character I was getting frustrated with, it was more the technic, it started to bother me. I started using a certain look and style with that character, and everyone wanted to keep it, that sort of look. I thought that I don’t want to be locked down by any medium or any sort of style. For art shows now I do a very different style, and for other mediums I try to do as diverse things as possible. That keeps it interesting for me. If I kept doing the same thing, I would start to resent it. And I do get a bit on edge occasionally when I need to try something new. That is why I have the Plaeda project which is not tied up with anyone else, it is my own project and I can develop it into any direction I desire. There is a lot of freedom in that. Scarygirl was tied up to the producers who were working on it, it required me to do certain things for the brand as well. It is restrictive, but I also have means of getting around that.
Scarygirl, in particular as a character is scary and cute at the same time. Is that ambiguity something essential, for characters? How do people react to the characters, how do they hook up? And in particular Scarygirl in relation to young children?
My approach to the Scarygirl character initially was not for her to be scary and cute. What has happened is that a lot of people viewed her that way. My idea around it is that we all have flaws, and I like them actually. Any person you look at, whether emotionally or physically, has a flaw. There was no intention to juxtapose the scary and cute thing. I just wanted a character that wasn’t whole, but yet could overcome these certain lacks. She is lacking one arm, but not in order to be scary but to show that you can overcome things when you don’t have the same things that everybody else has, and that you can even be better.
If you look at all characters in Scarygirl you will see that they all have a very particular flaw. For instance, the Bunny Guru has a piece of ear missing, Blister the Octopus is actually missing one arm, you’ve got Dr. Maybe who cannot use his legs very well. That is purposely put in, not to make them look grotesque but to show that everyone, good or bad, has some sort of thing that is holding them back in life, and the whole idea is to overcome those things. I think it has been misinterpreted over the years, because of this happy-looking graphic style, but there is a lot more going on there.
Moving on to the new game you are developing. You are again doing it on an indie level, is that your rational choice? Did you have offers from larger productions but you want to keep it indie in order to perceive the artistic freedom? How many people are involved when you work like this, and what is the workflow like?
Making it indie was pretty important to me. What I have discovered with Scarygirl over the years is that in the way it evolved there is a certain lack of control. Not that I am a control freak, but some things in my life, I like to think that I can manage them better. So to keep it small and independent seems the right way to go. There was an opportunity with the same people who are dong the Scarygirl game to potentially partner up, but they are a bugger machine than this needs to be, although they are also still independent. Keeping things small, with the idea that it could go big later on is generally where I like to take things. The team at the moment is me and my brother, we are co-producing it. Also there are three guys who will be actually making the game. There will be a few more involved in the TV series we are doing, but that is separate to the game in some ways.
In terms of the thematic scope of the game, could you tell us where does the fascination with owls come from?
I have a sort of a Lithuanian heritage. My dad was born in a displaced people’s camp in Germany and his parents were Lithuanian-Latvian. Folk art and mythology was something he brought to me, I was given books that really influenced me. I cannot read Lithuanian, but this was a sort of “Lord of the Ring”-ish style, more folkish and it featured a lot of owls and that sort of stuff. Owls are sort of important in Lithuania, but there is also a fascination throughout the world, and they can be both good and bad. I like that duality in them, I like things which are not defined as black or white, that is something that is important about them as well. As an object, they are very iconic. Something to do with eyes and the way they turn their heads, and their flight patterns – it is all very very different to a lot of birds. It makes a great aesthetic shape, and at the same time a great concept for gaming and pushing it further into other media. If you just draw the eye of an owl, you instantly know it is an owl. With other creatures is a bit more tricky to get that.
And they are probably the only creature that can overtake the domination of cats on the Internet. Or maybe also sloths…
Yes, I’ve heard slots are getting big on the Internet (laughs).
Does your inspiration come from dreams, or a practice to put your mind in a place where you can just develop these images? A lot of the things you showed in your lecture are super visually dense. How many hours a day do you draw? It was impressive to see all of your sketches and working models, I suppose you do them all by yourself?
All the sketches I do myself, and the 3D modeling is mostly developed by my brother… My take on drawing is that I let it flow, and i am not too concerned whether it is good or bad. One thing i tend not to have a problem with is ideas. Ideas seem to come out easily for me, but the twist is that most of the ideas are bad. So is it better to have just two really good ideas, or a thousand bad ideas and only one good one…? I can keep drawing and it flows easily. If I wanna have a universe of Plaedo or Scarygirl, and I want to focus on the “city”, I just let that come out from me. All your influences in life tend to be stored up somehow and they somehow subconsciously come out on paper. I don’t tend to wait for inspiration to hit me. I begin, and inspiration comes. That would be my philosophy, if we wait around on things you never get anything done. Procrastination is a bit like that – I’m gonna get a cup of tea and the entire days passes by. We all do it, but then you think “what if I started drawing despite the fact that I don’t feel like it”. And that is what makes it work.
Could you briefly describe the plot of “Plaedo”?
Essentially, many years ago there was this queen who born to the owls, she’s been deemed as the Lord of Owls, in a sense. But she is corrupted, there is the whole power issue. She deems that she will take upon all the owls, corrupt this environment and take over this world of Plaeda. The trouble is that she is destroyed over time by brother and sister, and when you play the game you are actually playing about 20 years into the future, where the world is now destroyed and the spirit of the Queen is still around. Your job is to reclaim that world back from the Queen to the owls. The game is generally about rejuvenation and exploration of this world as well. The little TV series we are doing with it is the story what it was like before the world was corrupted, and the game is about the period after it was corrupted. Both give clues to each other about what to do next in the game and what will happen. It is very unique for the broadcaster we are working with, ABC Australia, they have never tried anything similar. If it does well it is great for our game and the world of games, and if it doesn’t the division they have set up will close down, So there is also quite some pressure on us.
Talking about your work moving into the 3rd dimension, how do you develop the models, the textures are very peculiar, vintage-like. Not the kind of imagery that is too common, specially in the gaming industry, it is very “plastic” in a way.
Yes, it is tactile. In order to fit in with the folk tale element I felt it needed to be very tactile, as a feeling of looking at an old puppet show, or marionettes. That was my initial inspiration, I wanted to make it look like it is filmed with a Super-8 camera with marionette puppets. It will be, of course, harder to achieve that, but as far as modeling goes that is the direction we have been taking. My brother has a small animation studio and we have one guy helping to texture it and make it look very wood-like. There is no squash and stretch at all, it is all about joints in the characters, it will not have any elongations of the characters at all unless it is designed to work that way. That is very exciting for me, to have these limitations within the characters. The spirits, for example, are all made of wood and can move only in certain ways. I think it will give a unique style to the game as well.
Have you been thinking about doing things on an even larger scale with the 3D stuff. We had a chance to see Florentijn Hofman at Pictoplasma whose work is all about (large) scale. So have you done it, and if not how would you like to do it, and which charachter?
I played around with that when I was younger, painting outdoors for fun and stuff. But it is something I always thought would be amazing to do, like a large public space installation. The thing is that if I’d like to do it I would like to have some ability for it to be interactive. One idea would be not just character but an environment, which on the example of Scarygirl could be her treehouse, a space that people could play in. With Plaedo, it could be a giant owl that you step inside, and then it is a world inside a world. That would be pretty incredible.
Interview series by Dis-patch Collective from Belgrade, Serbia. www.dis-patch.org
First published on Design Portal: www.designed.rs
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