Interview with Scott Campbell of Double Fine Productions

Scott Campbell is the art director at Double Fine Productions, a video game development studio founded by Tim Schafer of Lucasarts adventure game fame. Campbell’s cartoony and light-hearted art style form the canvas of Double Fine’s critically acclaimed games Psychonauts and Brutal Legend. I spoke with Campbell at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival, after he spoke on a panel that discussed the convergence of video games and comic books. He has a webcomic of his own on Double Fine’s website, called Double Fine Action Comics.

Jonathan: Tell me about the games you worked on at Double Fine.

Scott Campbell: Psychonauts was the first game we did and I was art director on that, which meant that I helped establish the visual style of the game. I did a lot of designs for it, including the characters, and sort of kept the vision intact. Same thing with Brutal Legend, except by that time we had a bigger production team, so we had a pre-production phase as well.

Jonathan: You mentioned that with a project like Brutal Legend, you went through several stages of concepts, refining and editing. How long was the process?

Scott: Tim Schafer, the head guy at Double Fine, is a total perfectionist. I am a perfectionist too, so we always just want to iterate, iterate, iterate until it’s perfect. With that project it took about five years to make, and it’s pretty ongoing, as far as redesigning things to get them to work.

I would design something, and then I would bring it to Tim, and there are certain reactions you want to get out of him. So if you show him a drawing or a concept for something, and you’re pretty excited about it, but you’re not entirely sure, and Tim’s like “ah, that’s pretty cool,” then you know. You could stop there, but you have to keep on going until he’s like “Ah, heh heh!” laughing out loud and having a good time about it.

That’s what makes that environment so great; creatively everyone wants to make everyone else psyched, and to laugh at each other’s ideas – well, a good laugh – just really to inspire each other, and that environment creates some really interesting stuff. I think we all appreciate how Tim works to create that environment. In crunch time it gets crazy, but it’s still good to have someone making sure that everything is still top quality.

Psychonauts from Double Fine Productions

Jonathan: Any one artistic aspect you can point to in Brutal Legend or Psychonauts that is yours?

Scott: I started at Double Fine because Tim wanted me to establish their style, based kind of on my cartoony style, for Psychonauts. So I guess that entire game has my signature on it. I designed all the characters, and designed and hand-placed all of the figments in the game. There were these collectibles, sort of like hand-drawn memories in the game, and that was the one thing I did beside the concepts.

Brutal Legend was a different style, so it called for a different look. We wanted it to be powerful, to make it feel like it could be on the cover of a heavy metal album, so that a metal fan would like any image from the game. So we wanted to do that, but also give it some of that Double Fine style as well.

Jonathan: Brutal Legend featured characters based on real people, like Jack Black and Ozzy Osbourne. Were there any constraints on how far you were allowed to take their representations?

Scott: Dude, yeah. Those characters were the hardest ones for me to design. We didn’t have any constraints with them specifically; they didn’t tell us, ‘you have to make us look a certain way’ or anything. But just trying to work on the likeness of such recognizable people and have it work with the stylized look of the game, was really difficult. I was doing a lot of noodling to make sure it works. It’s very hard.

Jonathan: So you didn’t have any constraints from the celebrities or their agents/promoters at all?

Scott: No. Our guidelines came from Tim, because these were all his idols. So he had images in his mind that he grew up with and that he loved about him. You know, like having Ozzy with a bat body and a straitjacket. They’re like gods in a fantasy world. The game is basically Tim’s fantasy world. And we were all trying to realize his world, to bring it to life in different ways.

Brutal Legend art by Scott Campbell

Jonathan: Brutal Legend wasn’t as big a commercial success as some may have hoped. Did you get a sense that it didn’t reach its potential, or reach as many people as it could have?

Scott: That’s an area I don’t know much about. I think a lot of us just move on to the next thing. Because after working for five years on a project I rarely want to think about it. (laughs) You know? So it’s hard for me to gauge everyone’s reactions. But it seems good, far as I can tell.

Jonathan: Can you say what you’re working on now?

Scott: With Double Fine? Top secret! But it’s a very exciting place right now. My own stuff is working out. I’m just finishing a kid’s book about zombies. I’m going to be done about in June. It’s with Simon & Schuster. And various art shows and things.

Jonathan: You have a very distinctive art style. Can you tell me where that came from, and how you started drawing?

Scott: After art school, there were a few years where I was working with some others who were trying really hard to keep each other excited with art. All my artist friends had a reason to do it, like “Oh, I have to create art or I will die!” or “I have to paint or I’m going to lose my mind!” and I just didn’t feel like that.

I wanted to figure out what I was trying to say with my art, and that was the one thing I never learned in art school. What am I trying to say? What was my reason for creating? I felt like I always wanted to get that same kind of excitement that you got when you woke up as a kid in the morning; you were so excited to get back to drawing that battle, or that weird thing you were drawing the other day. It was less about drawing and more like you were on an adventure. That’s what I wanted to get, that same childlike excitement.

Once I started using the watercolours, because I was struggling to find a medium too, they were very non-committal for me. It’s not like with washes, or oil, or acrylic; those are very decadent and you can layer and whatever, but you’re very committed to these colours. Watercolours are very subtle and very pleasant. I could put a little bit of colour and then keep adding it, but you can go very slowly with each stroke. You don’t have to really commit to it, and I think it gives a certain kind of light-heartedness to it. It feels more in tune with the themes that I have – which are supposed to be light-hearted, and make you feel really good. I feel like my role is to make things that make others feel gleeful.

Jonathan: Double Fine Action Comics is a little more under the radar, and it has pretty much nothing to do with the major projects the studio is working on. How do you figure out what to do with these comics that have the studio’s name on it?

Scott: Well Tim’s always wanted an environment like that. So many things can happen, not just games. And we have the site act as a hub for everything. We have it for everyone at the studio to get their own ideas out there. It’s very encouraging to have everyone coming up for ideas for games, and for stories. That’s what he wants Double Fine to be: an exciting place where lots of things are happening. There are comics, and some mini-games as well on the site, some of which are based on the comics.

Also, it’s about putting things out there while in the middle of a five-year project just so people can see – oh, they’re still alive in there! They’re still creating things! Having everyone there working on “extra-curricular” things helps the main projects.

Great Showdowns by Scott Campbell
Great Showdowns by Scott Campbell

Jonathan: Do you feel added pressure from publishers, especially closer to release dates when you have to put all that aside and get the game ready in time for that date?

Scott: Oh, there are definitely times when we just don’t output as many comics. Most webcomics are very, very regular, which makes them very effective. You expect to get them every single day, or every week or whatever. And it does slip sometimes at Double Fine, when it gets really busy, which is a bummer. There were a few artists who did them for a while but then stopped, because once it starts feeling like a second part of your job, and then it’s not fun. It’s supposed to be a way to just release some pent-up stuff. Not necessarily releasing frustration, just so that you’re not all working on one thing.

Jonathan: Have you been playing any video game or reading any comics lately?

Scott: I haven’t had much time to play many games recently, which totally bums me out. But for webcomics, I like Kate Beaton’s Hark a Vagrant, and Ryan Pequin’s Three Word Phrase. Kate’s work is amazing. And they have a bent that I really like because they’re historical, the dialogue’s amazing, and the jokes are just so funny. And Ryan’s are just so simple, that every time it’s just a sort of mini-joke, but it’s always just so good. And there’s also Graham Annable’s Dunk at Telltale Games – which is another thing. They [Telltale] have the same thing with games as well as comics on their site.

Jonathan: What’s on your dork shelf?

Scott: I’m kind of addicted to buying books. I have this awesome book about knights that I found. I also got a Brutal Legend action figure on my shelf, it’s of Eddie [Riggs, Jack Black/the game’s main character] jumping down with his axe. It very much sticks out with the rest of the stuff. Oh, and my puppets are next to Eddie, which is an interesting combination. Oh, and an Elisabeth Ito plush cat-dude.

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