We admit to often using the phrase, "You probably haven't heard of this company, but you've likely seen their work." It is true, most of the time, though it is often dependent on whether you read magazines or watch TV. Rare is it when we can say that, if you've been looking at games over the past several years, you HAVE seen this company's work…and PicturePlane is such a company.
Call of Duty 3, Quake IV, Star Wars Battlefront II…all of these titles bear cover artwork created by PicturePlane. More notable still is how all of these pieces of art vary in style, from frenetic montages of action to simpler images with singular focal points. They also catch the eye, and succeed in promoting a purchase, whether impromptu or long thought out.
We talked with Mathew Katz , Business Development Director for PicturePlane, and discussed commercial art for games at length.
Getting games in the frame
PicturePlane started out doing commercial artwork for a variety of clients, as is reflected in their portfolio. This includes pictures of animals and food (hey, DelMonte Quality vegetables need too look good too). After some starter jobs, it was artwork for Blizzard titles like StarCraft and Diablo that really opened doors in the gaming industry.
"In the mid-90s, our studio was creating a lot of youth and preschool art for packaging and advertising," described Katz. "We worked for a lot of toy companies and educational entities. Some of the first meaningful video game work we did was for Havas' line of Knowledge Adventure educational software, which evolved into Jump Start. It became a great extension of our business, and opened the owners' eyes to the potential of the industry.
"When I came on in 2001, we had a few more gaming clients that we did key art and advertising work for. We decided to make a more concerted effort to pursue interactive software work and it was like the perfect storm of luck, work, and talent, which allowed us to grow our business as quickly as we did in the gaming industry."
"We usually pursue our clients," he continued. "Occasionally we get a referral, but we mostly have our steady clients, who will hopefully think of us when they need to develop artwork for a title. They will bring us on at varying stages of the development process. Sometimes they will need us to start at the beginning with 5 to 7 pencil concepts, other times their internal creative staff may have a fully fleshed out layout, and may ask us to take it the remaining 40% to final art.
"Usually when they come to us, they have a pretty good idea of where they want to go. If they were dealing with an agency, they'd come to them very early on and might get 30 to 40 concepts. When it gets to us, when we're generally doing the final art for an ad, we're taking their brief and putting it through the minds of our artists and creating an image—we approach every new project as unique. The most important thing for us is to deliver a powerful image, which is unique to that title."
Photo quality, but not artistic
One might think that this sort of commissioned art for boxes and magazines would be going the way of the dinosaur with the quality of graphics in current games. It isn't quite that simple, though, and even if something looks excellent in-game, the image might not be that compelling when it is printed and motionless. Besides, the best of box art is typically notable in and of themselves, be they poetic in their simplicity (like the Katamari Damacy titles) or a dynamic montage (see Star Wars Battlefront II).
"It depends completely on the message our client is trying to communicate through the art," explained Katz. "For a large amount of the packaging art we execute, it helps tremendously if our client provides us with 3D models. Here is what we've found: Despite in-game models and environments being more amazing than ever on the new consoles, the models and screens often are not suitable to stand alone on the cover of a package.
It is important to create a brand new scene from a pencil sketch, and to determine the process we will employ to achieve final art. We often will combine several disciplines to achieve the final image—starting with a drawing, and then employing photography of live models, 3D, and Photoshop illustration. For example, for the World War II covers we have executed for the Call of Duty and Medal of Honor series, it was extremely important to quickly communicate a story through the art. The detail and photo-realism of a lot of the art we create cannot be achieved with in-game 3D models alone."
So what about those times when internal assets actually are used as cover art? Katz ventured, "When that happens…it usually has to deal with an [internal mandate] like someone wanting to have the assets on the front of the package. For some of our clients the approval process is very easy; we're in constant communication with them, and in a week we're done. There are also times when there's a case of more chefs spoiling the soup…and that often happens when we're contacted WAY before ship date."
We were also curious just how different doing art for games was from other mediums. Katz explained, "It's way different because of the end user we're trying to attract. The urgency of the passionate gamer dictates that not only do we have to create amazing art, but that it absolutely must be something that he hasn't seen before—that is our challenge with every title. Every image we create has to engage the consumer who is looking at a shelf with hundreds of games on it. We take our role in the industry very seriously. The artwork on the package is the last thing the serious gamer will see before he decides to pull the trigger and buy the game."
The PicturePlane Process
While apparently large for a studio its size, PicturePlane still only employs 12 artists. As such, while everyone has his or her specialties, the work gets spread around. While not an artist himself, Katz describes the artistic machinations as "more involved than I can communicate."
"We have 12 artists on staff, in our studio. That includes artists who draw, paint, and work in 3D," mentions Katz. "While each individual artist brings his own proficiencies to a project, our real strength is in how our process entails several artists collaborating to create a final piece of art. And then every image is reviewed and/or adjusted by our Creative Director before it is seen by our client."
"We try to empower everyone to all work in different disciplines and give everyone a shot at doing different things; our sketch guys paint and vice versa, but everyone has their individual strengths. Our four areas that we specialize in as a studio is video games, character art, toy packaging and food/beverage. A lot of people are touching many a variety of things across our staff."
"Jobs sort of pass around…for instance, we have someone on staff who's always the art director for Disney projects. If we get requested to do 50 pieces of Disney art, he's in charge because he's been doing it for 30 years. For video games, it always goes back through one or two artists that specialize in it really well. I think the artists appreciate working in the studio rather than freelancing because I think they learn from each other and they're better than when they got here. In any industry, if you have peers you bounce your work off of, you grow a lot faster."
"I've been in studios where the business side and the art side were separated. The way our creative director works, there's very little ego and it's all about achieving our client's vision. Speaking of which, our gaming clients are usually very reasonable concerning deadlines. Very rarely do they call with their hair on fire. That's what I appreciate about gaming; even though we're working on something fun like video gaming, everyone is extremely professional on the creative and business side. Rarely do I encounter some prima donna who thinks the world revolves around them."
Sometimes PicturePlane reaches out to a publisher that may already have an internal art staff. If that's the case, PicturePlane fulfills a slightly different role. Katz explained, "We always respect the creative vision our clients have for a project. We try to work as an extension of their team, a resource to be used if they are unable to dedicate enough time or personnel to creating the level of art they need to sell their product. Many of our publisher clients may have extremely talented designers on staff. But they may find that one or two in-house illustrators may not be able to physically handle the number of titles they are marketing, and may limit the range of styles they need to create for all of their titles. The artists are always happy too, since we can make their jobs easier."
"We've found a niche in video games. It's fun to work on and is something I enjoy and the industry is great to work with. I'll tell you what, I get such a kick out of showing my kids what we've done on Toys 'R' Us shelves. It's really good to see our work out there," he concluded.