During our time at the Dead Space Community Day every attendee was offered an exclusive interview with one of the leads behind the project. I lucked out and got a chance to interview Ian Milham, the art director for the fantastic-looking game. Ian’s already lent an exclusive blog to us (here) that did a great job of detailing a normal day for the man, but I wanted to know more about what an art director really does.
I chatted briefly with him in the middle of the day and we soon clicked over a relatively obscure game…
Alex: So, I googled you this morning and found your website, and was pretty excited when I saw that the first game you worked on was Shadow Madness.
Ian: You are killing me! No one has ever heard of Shadow Madness!
One of the most underappreciated RPGs on the Playstation. I mean the gameplay’s not that great but I loved the weird story and art in the game. I think I still own it…
Wow. God bless you. That’s great. That was my first game ever. 13 years ago… And yeah, we were all just sort of out of college and didn’t know what we were doing and some things worked out. I mean, the average background? We had a day to do everything. But yeah I did all the character concepts and a lot of the background paintings. Normally when I bring up Shadow Madness people go “Ehhh?” Alright well we’re best friends now!
From there you went right on to Lucasarts?
I did. Pretty much directly after that. At the time I was doing background paintings for that RPG, and things like Grim Fandango had just come out from Lucasarts and I was like “I want to go work on that!” So I moved out of here to go do that. Unfortunately Lucasarts went in a different direction not long after since point and click 2d adventure didn’t really take off, and we focused more on consoles. I was there for 5 years and eventually became art director on the game for Episode 3, and that was awesome.
Was that the first time you worked as art director?
No, I was an art director on Bounty Hunter before that, but I’d worked on a couple projects that were sort of in a lurch, sort of like a fire-fighting kind of deal. Episode 3 was the first one I got to really start and it was when games started to really elevate to the stature of the movies themselves. So I was there in Australia for filming, and we worked with the real actors on lightsaber training and all that kind of stuff, so that was pretty cool.
But then I came here 3 years ago and started Dead Space two and a half years ago.
This is probably your longest project, right?
This is the longest I’ve worked on anything, yeah. I’ve been working on this solid for two and a half years.
So what does being an art director for this game entail?
Basically I’m in charge of making the game look good. It doesn’t involve so much actual painting by me anymore, although I used to do a lot of paintings- it’s more making sure the art by these 80 people look like one person did it, like it’s this one cohesive world. I sort of establish what the artistic DNA of the game is. The director will go “I want it to feel like this” or “I want it to feel uncomfortable and not that safe” and I go ok, what are places that I don’t feel that safe in? How about the dentist’s office? And then I bring it to concept artists and tell them to make light fixtures that look like dentist’s lights. Then I bring it all together and as more artists come in it’s my job to train them in what the Dead Space look is. In the end, I’m the guy who’s responsible for how the game looks.
I like the kind of Gothic architecture you chose.
Right! We pulled together artistic influences from reference (real things from the world) or in some cases, casting concept artists not unlike casting an actor. If there’s some guy out there who draws really terrible, horrific monsters I go find him and hire him for a few months to draw some terrible monsters. Another guy that draws great technology – great gadgets and gizmos, I’ll hire him to do all the weapons and all that stuff and explain to him that I want them to look like power tools because they’re supposed to be power tools from the future. That kind of thing.
So are you a horror or scifi fan, that you’re working on this dark kind of game?
I haven’t had a chance to make anything horror-related before, most of my background was Scifi obviously, with the Star Wars stuff. But I’m definitely into the horror stuff. I tended as a gamer to be more of a Silent Hill guy than a Resident Evil guy because I liked the psychological thread. What I love about Silent Hill is that- wherever you had to go in that game was exactly where you didn’t want to go.
Like that school!
Yeah, and I thought that was really good! They made it really creepy. So yeah I’ve been a fan for a while.
It seems like in the game there’s a lot of influence from horror films, like The Thing-
The Thing, yeah! It was a big influence. I mean, there are millions of movies that you’ve seen with terrible aliens that come out and kill people, right? Aliens by themselves are not horrific, particularly, because they’re not very relatable. I mean, that Alien from Alien is pretty great but we knew that we wanted to do something relatable and horror-like, so that’s the thing that we took off on. They’re not zombies! They’re not just dead people. They’re sort of new forms that have been made out of the raw materials of people- all sort of broken and bent backwards and all that kind of stuff. The Thing definitely has that and we loved the feeling of the movie but The Thing is a little bit literal about it, like “Ahh! Now he’s got a big mouth in his stomach!” We were doing things on a little bit more of a biological level, where we sort of breaking stuff and turning it upside down and reconstituting things biologically as opposed to just gluing a second hand on or doing something like that.
I love the different kind of body horror it brings out. Definitely agree that it’s more of a psychological mind-fuck when you realize what’s going on.
Yeah when you realize what this thing is and sort of decode where the form came from. There’s a repulsion there that isn’t there if you just see a monster.
Did do any of the art personally for this project?
Well, in the beginning of the production. There was a lot of phases. When I started on the team there were 5 people and then it grew to over 100 people and now it’s back down a little bit as people move to other projects. So in the beginning, yeah, I’ll do some drawing and painting if that helps me communicate, if I need to draw something to get it across. But for the most part we’ve got plenty of people who can draw and paint and while I’m very tempted to paint it myself, it’s more my job to get that group of artists pointed in the same direction. There are things in the game that I made personally- lots of the signage in the world, a lot of the posters and things that I could do without interrupting the work flow and wasn’t too dependent on other people, I would do things myself.
Especially if I was trying to set a specific style that other people would later follow. There was the first door that ever got put in the game and I was very conscious that “Hey, doors are important, you spend a lot of time opening doors, you see them really up close.” So the first door in the game I modeled and painted and textured myself to establish what the doors would look like. But there’s something like 20 doors in the game and I only did one! The other 19 were made stylistically downstream from that.
But that’s the tradeoff of being an art director! The good news is that you’ve got a lot more artistic control and freedom and people listen to what you have to say. The bad news is that you don’t get to do as much of what you got in the business to do which is drawing and painting.
So would you ever go back to a role as an artist?
You know, I might. It depends on what the projects about and how it turns my crank. Some of my happiest days are when things die down a bit and I can spend a day painting an asset or making something again, there’s no question that it’s fun to stretch the old muscles. Especially if I thought that a new project was right up another artist’s alley- if it fit them perfectly to be an art director. Being an art director is not unlike being a regular director- every one has a certain style, and certain projects and movies naturally fit with that director’s style. I would much rather let an art director who’s just a total natural for what that game is do that job and I’ll just take the back seat. But on this one it worked out pretty good.
So were you involved with the Dead Space comic or movie as well?
That stuff turned out awesome! The idea with the animated movie and comic book from the start was that they are their own entity and we purposefully went for artists that had a strong visual style of their own. So, Ben Templesmith with the comic book, right? We talked to him about getting involved- this was no EA running the show, this was Image Comics and we helped them with that. But were excited for someone with a strong and very different style like that would get involved. You would think that EA would do a Marvel Comics style, super tight and rendered, colored in photoshop kind of thing, but instead we just let Ben run with it. So that was basically it! I mean, I’m not going to art direct that guy! And I don’t want to!
But you must’ve laid down the framework for him?
Yeah, we met up a few times and showed him our monster designs and talked with him about the feelings behind things and the decisions and the color palates. How it’s supposed to feel and live and what the world’s rules were, but beyond that we were like “Hey man, do your thing!” Every once in a while he would check in and deliver stuff and if there was some inconsistency in a weapon or something that doesn’t make sense in our world we’d point it out, or he would ask what something looked like and we’d give him reference- but for the most part we wanted him to just do his thing.
And the same thing for the film?
Same thing for the animated movie, they were definitely involved. Because they were a little bit closer stylistically we did work with them a little more closely. They came up, they got a full look at the whole game, they even used some of our environments as backgrounds in an adapted way. But they had their own art director, their own vibe and their own look and they’re a separate visual entity that was related but I love that they’re making their own statement. So we keep in touch, but I try to have a light hand.
So are you done with the project now?
Almost. It’s very, very close. Just a few more things to make sure that everything’s as good as we can make it and super duper polished. It’s been a long, long time. Now I am making sure that everything that go along with Dead Space feel right, like the box art or the posters or the really great concept art book that the people who pre-order will get. It’s a real nice little hardcover. (editor’s note- the book really is fantastic… you should definitely pre-order the game to get this sucker.)
It’s just making sure that everything comes out as good as it can and then hopefully I’ll get a couple of months off. Cause I’m tired.
I love that box art, by the way.
The hand? I like the idea a lot, but because that box can be seen by everyone- man, you should have seen the first version. We had zero-g floating blood and bones and sinew coming out of the arm. They wouldn’t let us do that.
Not even with a slipcover or something?
I wish, right! No, but it kind of got brought back from what it could have been, but I’ll still take it.
So anything planned for the future yet?
We’re just trying to get this one done. We’ve got plenty of ideas and things we’ve like to do with Dead Space, but right now I can’t see past next week.
I’d like to thank Ian for taking the time to meet with me, and really do wish the best of luck for everyone involved with Dead Space. I absolutely can’t wait to get my hands on the final product- you guys are going to love this thing.
Also, turns out I do still own Shadow Madness.
Proof that I never get rid of a good game!