All through 2015, Anna
were quite happy with the progress we were making on our interactive fiction project, but one really big problem loomed: environment art. We had tried many, many times to find a third person for our team who could bring the world of the game to life, but the magic never happened. We went through literally hundreds of portfolios, and actually tried working with four different artists, but we always felt like it wasn’t coming together the way it needed to.
Until we found John Loren
Right from the start, we knew that John was our missing third, the Lennon
to our McCartney
(prior to dating Yoko
), the Joel
to our Ethan
, the creme to our Newman O
. Suddenly, working on the environment art went from being a dreaded chore to being a joy, and we’ve never looked back!
So before finally announcing our project, we wanted to give everyone a chance to meet John and get his perspective on things. I interviewed him on Friday and I’ve recorded our conversation below.
Let’s start at the beginning. Where did you grow up, and how did you first get interested in art?
I grew up in Southern Maine, outside of Portland. I’m trying to think of what got me into art. It was probably reading comics. My parents had all sorts of collections like Doonesbury
and Bloom County
. I was really into Calvin and Hobbes
Five or six!
Yeah, I’ve had no question my entire life that I would be drawing for a job. When I was younger, I was also into puppetry. I think of it as an “animation-adjacent” activity.
Puppetry is sort of like animation, but comics are more straight illustration — how did your relationship with those progress as you got older?
To be honest, I did not know enough about the industry to know those would be different pursuits. This was slightly before the internet was full of art and information, so I just sort of knew that I would be doing cartoons in some way. I wasn’t actually into painting yet, because I didn’t have the materials or know enough about it.
At the time, I was also really into the artwork of fantasy properties like Dungeons and Dragons
and that sort of thing. That turned me on to the fantastical side of illustrating. Even to this day the integration of illustration and humor is what started it for me.
Did you play pen-and-paper RPG games as a kid?
My brother was and still is a big pen-and-paper RPG gamer, so I was always around it. I played Magic the Gathering
a lot. It’s more or less the same stable of artists. That side of illustrating is something I’ve always been exposed to.
Did you decide to go to college for art?
Yes, no question. I went to Northeastern
, in their animation program.
So you chose animation as your primary discipline at that point?
Well, I toured a few schools and a few programs, and I decided to go with that one based on what I’d seen, the people I’d met, and what I could glean of their program. It was very focused on internships and on actual work experience, and that was the most interesting aspect to me. At the time I was 17, and I didn’t know what the steps were, what the pipeline was — I just knew there were these groups of people who made the things I liked. I didn’t think about it as, “If you go here, you’ll only learn illustration, if you go here, you’ll only learn animation.” To this day, I still think all these things are useful to each other and they all cross over. I think one person can be good at animation and
the other parts of the pipeline.
Actually, that’s one of the things that really bums me out: how much people compartmentalize the roles for artists. They don’t want people to be cross-disciplinary.
Interesting — so you think there’s too much rigidity?
Yes. Obviously, it depends on the company. I think some companies are really receptive to it. Like anything, it depends on the mix of people. As someone who has always been interested in multiple aspects of the projects I’ve worked on, I always like it when people are encouraged to grow their skill set and take bits and pieces from different pursuits.
I was an animator for three years, and absolutely you can apply many pieces of that process to illustration and vice versa. After you do animation, you’re much more comfortable with posing and thinking about characters in 3D. The same goes for 3D rendering and painting. Rendering breaks the process down into all these elements that you can apply step by step in painting the same way. You think about your base color, your light color, the ambient occlusion, the bounce light — even though I never actually enjoyed 3D rendering, being exposed to it got me thinking about those different elements of a scene.
So, back to your timeline, how did the program at Northeastern go?
I will say that that particular program was probably a little more VFX
and broadcast-oriented than would have been ideal for me. That said, it was a very self-directed program and I was able to do the things I wanted to do within that context. I wasn’t forced into doing much stuff I wasn’t interested in, and I took advantage of the internship part of it. I started work when I was 19.
Where did you go to work?
I worked at a small game studio in downtown Boston
which has since been bought out, so they’re no longer around. They were doing a lot of Flash
development for education — a little bit of board game stuff, and as the iPhone grew in popularity they started getting into app development. I was an all-around artist there, I did a little bit of everything. I feel like it gave me a head start on people who were coming out of school without any practical experience.
How long did you work there?
I actually never stopped working part time.
Yes, I worked at that company the whole time I was in college! Then I did a little freelance and then went to 38 Studios
How did you end up at 38?
Well, it was a local thing, so…
Were they recruiting at Northeastern?
They started up an apprenticeship employee program right around that time, and I think I came in with the first wave of those hires. I think like five or six of us started at once.
And what did you do there?
I was an animator.
For 3D rigged characters?
Yeah, this is Maya — at my part-time job I’d done Flash and all that, but in school I did a lot of work in the context of a Maya
to After Effects
pipeline. So I was doing Maya animation for 38.
Do you like that sort of thing?
I love doing character animation — it’s a blast!
I like ’em all, honestly. I probably got better at 3D, because I was doing it so much at the time. I love character animation. There are definitely elements of the 3D process that I don’t like and I don’t know how to do, so I think ultimately I’ve leaned more toward painting because I don’t enjoy the technical overhead involved in 3D. And I missed colors.
At 38, I started out doing monster animations. That was a blast because every monster had a different number of legs and all that, so there was a ton of variety. After a while I switched over to doing player animations, which was more of a technical challenge, because when you get into things like button responsiveness it takes on a whole new level of complexity. We were doing blended animation on transition networks, and that was a whole different set of challenges.
So between 38 and Molly
, was that basically freelance, or?
I did half and half. I worked for a few years with a company called CloudKid
, both full time and freelance on a few different projects. I did storyboarding, animation, writing, series development — a little bit of everything. We did a few shorts for Nickelodeon Digital
. I did a lot of fun different stuff.
During that same time I also worked on the webcomic The Dawngate Chronicles
with my buddy Nick
. That one was a pretty big project.
So how have you found working on stuff for Molly?
Other than the requirement of darkness, it’s been great. (Editor’s note: when John says “requirement of darkness”, he’s talking about the fact that he’s found working with the color style for our game requires eliminating all direct sunlight from his studio due to it changing the apparent on-screen contrast.)
You guys are fantastically prepared in ways I never expected.
That’s actually quite surprising to me because I feel like we’re always struggling to find enough time to spend on our environment specs!
Nope, they’re great… I have put together things based on so much less than the information you guys give me. The specs are great because if you didn’t have the specs I’d be calling you every ten minutes and driving you insane!
Speaking of your work at Molly, you seem to have a really outstanding color sense — probably some of the best I’ve ever seen. Where does that come from?
You know, actually, I would say that I’ve been working very hard on my color for the past few years. When I first started taking on pure illustration jobs, I think I actually needed work on my color, and I knew it. So it’s something that I’ve been acutely aware of, much moreso than my value work, if that makes sense. I guess because I’ve been drawing for long enough and been into it for long enough, I felt like I had a stronger grasp on controlling contrast and values vs. color. So it’s definitely something that I’ve been paying a lot of attention to, both when I’m working and when I’m looking at other people’s work.
Another thing that really helped was working with talented people. Working at 38, I was on this floor of incredible artists. I would go over and watch them draw and ask them how to do things. Especially working with my friend Nick, who is a tremendous colorist and has a fantastic sense of color — I would say working with him a lot, both having him critique my stuff and actually working with him on projects, has brought my ability to work with color up by quite a bit.
So, there’s always room to improve, but I’m definitely a lot more confident than I used to be for sure.
So it took a lot of work to get as good as you are, then?
Yes, definitely. Practice is incredibly important.
When you’re working on a picture, you only have so long before your concentration is exhausted and you can’t do anything else to fix it. So the more you build up these observational skills, and you can take more and more of aspects of the process for granted, the less you have to worry about that and the more you can worry about the next thing, and the next thing, and the next thing. In a sense, you build up these layers of tolerance for staring at a picture.
When you look at people who are fantastic, they’re taking a ton of things for granted that a beginning artist has to constantly worry about. Great artists are only worrying about the picture successfully communicating what they wanted it to. How did they know to do this? How did they think to do that? All of those things that you might still think of as specific decisions are, for them, just part of trying to get across the point of the illustration. So all these things that you would labor over and think are excruciating decision points are just byproducts of the goal for them.
So that’s the process I’ve been going through with color, trying to make it be second nature. Honestly, these days I’m obsessed with color everywhere I see it. I’ll be out with my wife and I’ll point at clouds and she’ll ask, “What are you doing?” And it’s just that I’m fascinated by the color. At this point she even knows what kinds of clouds I’ll like — things with multiple lights hitting them and defined volumes. She’s started pointing out clouds to me that she thinks I’ll like!
That is awesome! I imagine a lot of what you just said would be very valuable for younger folks, so I suppose I should ask: any specific tips for budding artists out there?
Oh my gosh — I have thousands of them…
I guess we’ll need another blog post! For now, I guess just pick the top one?
Practice! No, seriously I would say, other than the tips that everyone gives you, which are true — be open to critiques, practice a lot, those obvious ones — I guess I have two specific tips.
My first tip would be, challenge yourself to produce some finished pieces. Because that’s something that I didn’t do when I was younger, and I was drawing a lot, but not necessarily for an audience or for a product or on a deadline. I would do a lot of drawings and I would hit that point where I was out of my comfort zone, and I would just let it go, and move on to another drawing.
When you want to start drawing on a deadline or in the professional sphere, it’s super important to be able to confidently take on things that you don’t necessarily know how to do already, or aren’t sure about the best approach. I think a lot of young artists will draw up to the point where they like it, and when they don’t like it, they’ll stop. But if you want to be at the point where you can take on challenges, getting past that point is important skill set to develop. It’s important to know how to finish, how to confront perfectionism, and how to find middle ground.
My other one, which may seem contradictory but it’s not, would be to draw what you want to draw. By that I mean, I think a lot of people end up in a place where they don’t want to draw anymore because they got burnt out in art school or at a bad job. If you want to get far down this road, you have to make sure you’re enjoying enough of the process that you want to continue. Leaning into your own style, embracing the things you like to do and finding a way you can do them within the constraints of your assignment or your job is really important because you’re not going to get anywhere if you’re not motivated at each step of the process.
Well John, it’s been wonderful talking with you. Thanks for taking the time to talk with me for our blog!
It was my absolute pleasure!