Interview: Double Fine artist shrinks huge movie moments into art
Film is a collection of great moments, and we all have our favorites. For some of us, it’s that scene where Darth Vader reveals the truth to Luke Skywalker, and for others, it’s when Ripley takes on the Alien Queen.
Scott Campbell — who served as art director on Psychonauts and Brütal Legend and a concept artist for Lucas Learning — has turned his attention from video game heroes and villains to the ones found on the big screen. His new book, The Great Showdowns, captures the best of the movies in single-page, painted illustrations. They’re charming and funny, and even though the subject matter differs for each, they’re all fun. The characters in them smile, knowing the impact they’ve made on countless lovers of film.
We spoke with Campbell about his book, life at Double Fine and LucasArts, his friendship with Neil Patrick Harris (who wrote the book’s foreword), and what it’s like going from video games to movies without ever truly leaving the former behind.
GameZone: So you’ve had an interesting career in illustration. Looking back, how do you see yourself then versus now? What kind of artist are you? Do you identify more with comics or games or children’s illustrations — or are you happy to jump back and forth between them all?
Scott Campbell: I suppose I would call myself an illustrator. I remember leaving university without much of an idea of what I wanted to do with my art. I felt like I wanted to make X-Men comics mostly but also maybe children's books. I had mixed up ideas. The video game career was a surprise, but I learned quite a lot from it. The comics and gallery shows were a side thing that eventually took front seat. I have been regularly attending comic festivals, and that community is just my favorite community of artists making amazing things.
I love to jump back and forth amongst all these realms because it keeps me feeling fresh. Children's books are a relatively new venture for me, so it is super exciting to have a completely new world to learn about — the picture-book world.
GZ: How did you get into working on games? What was it like working at LucasArts and Double Fine? What did you learn from those experiences?
Campbell: I sort of fell into video games as a career through a friend at LucasArts. It was never my intention really, but I sure am happy I did! I learned a lot about the design process at Lucas Learning and then a whole lot more with Tim [Schafer] at Double Fine. I learned the depth that one can go in creating a new world from scratch. Character and story are incredibly important in Tim's games, so working with someone like that is incredibly enlightening. I worked long hours on Psychonauts because I genuinely cared for it very, very much.
I started working at Lucas Learning as a background painter. I hated backgrounds at the time, but eventually I learned to love the potential for telling a good story even with the backgrounds that players can experience. I have applied what I have learned at Double Fine to my comics, paintings, and picture-book illustrations. Discovery is something I want to make very enjoyable for viewers of my work.
GZ: What games did you work on at LucasArts? You [said you] helped with the Lucas Learning line, right?
Campbell: Yeah, Lucas Learning games were the "edutainment" kind of games. I art-directed the smash hits Yoda's Challenge and Jabba's Math Galaxy. You learned all kinds of things, like how to play Holocheckers and play drums on the forests on Endor.
GZ: Do you keep an eye on the game world still — especially with LucasArts and Double Fine? Their Kickstarter for Double Fine Adventure was one of the most successful in video games. How does it feel to have been a part of that group of people?
Campbell: I am still super inspired by what I see happening in games these days. Especially indie games and the things that Brandon Boyer [the chairman of the Independent Games Festival] sheds light upon with his Venus Patrol blog. I still help Double Fine out with projects here and there. I just finished my stint on that Kickstarter project, actually. We were all incredibly happy to see the reaction to that Kickstarter project. The documentary they are making about the process is turning out super sweet as well as the game itself. I am in episodes four and six, I think, if you want to go watch those episodes. [Editor’s note: The episodes are available to backers only.] Double Fine is a family of very talented and clever people, and I love that I have been a part of it. I love that family over there.
GZ: Do you ever think about returning to games? You do gaming tributes for art shows and the like — such as the Press Start show in Seattle. And do you still do the Double Fine Action Comics? The last one I saw was posted in July.
Campbell: I will always do things with games probably. I may return and make a full on Scott C. game sometime. Who knows. I haven't done any Double Fine Action Comics for a while, but I hope to start back into them soon. Oni Press is putting out a second collection of those comics next spring in fact. The Great Showdowns have captured much of my time in recent years.
GZ: OK, on to your new book: the collection The Great Showdowns. What inspired you to do this series of illustrations about some of the greatest moments in movie history?
Campbell: The Great Showdowns began with 10 bite-sized paintings for the annual Crazy 4 Cult show at Gallery 1988 a few years back. They were just little moments from films that I enjoyed a whole lot — just moments of tension, all standing [and] looking at one another, super pleased. Each year, I did 10 more of them for shows, and eventually I started the Great Showdowns Tumblr site so that I could motivate myself to make them on a regular basis. It has worked super well, and the reaction has gotten me super pumped to keep making more of them!
GZ: Did you watch a lot of movies you hadn’t seen before while making these? What was the process like?
Campbell: I have a master list that I keep adding to and modifying. Some films I have seen, and some I need to see while others I need to rewatch in order to remember what the heck happens in them. I love going back and watching these films that I grew up with.Even just watching clips brings me back to those times of my life. Choosing the right moment is very enjoyable and sometimes super difficult. I make it hard on myself maybe. They need to be relatively iconic, but they are not often just the main protagonist versus antagonist. Sometimes they are just a character versus a situation — such as the Die Hard showdown of Bruce Willis versus the little happy glass chards. Sometimes they are even just objects versus objects, like the smiling Titanic versus the winking iceberg.
GZ: Are any of the moments in the book from your favorite movies? What are your favorites, anyway?
Campbell: Well, there are showdowns from some of my favorite films like Raiders of the Lost Ark, 2001 [A Space Odyssey], and Royal Tenenbaums, but my favorite showdowns are quite often from films that are not necessarily my favorites. Ghost, for example, is one of my favorite showdowns — Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore versus the little smiling clay pottery dude. Just a real sexy/silly moment.
GZ: Neil Patrick Harris is a big fan of your work, and he provided the foreword for the book. He mentions three pieces that you’ve done for him in the foreword. Are there any others, and of what?
Campbell: I painted a showdown for him in exchange for that amazing foreword he wrote. He chose his favorite film and worked with me on the perfect showdown from it. His favorite film is the one they call Clue. It was incredibly flattering for me to have him enjoy my work because i sort of idolize that dude. He is the best.
GZ: What was the first piece you did in this series?
Campbell: It is more the first 10 that Idid all at the same time: Raiders of the Lost Ark (Indy versus the sword guy), Ghostbusters versus Slimer, the 2001 apes versus the monolith, and Clint Eastwood at the end of Fistful of Dollars. Those are a few of them.
GZ: Even though these are showdowns, everyone for the most part looks happy! Just chilling. Why did you choose to draw them like this — which is awesome — instead of suspended in action or in the middle of violence?
Campbell: I guess seeing a depiction of the scene would just be that — a depiction of the scene. Having the characters all just standing there, smiling at each other, brings them all to the same enjoyable level where we can just smile and get nostalgic for the moments and the films. Plus, I like to think of all of these characters as hanging out at a party together, excited to have been invited and enjoying one another's company.
GZ: You made these with watercolors? What’s your creative process like? Any other tools that you prefer to work with outside of this series?
Campbell: I use watercolors for most all of my paintings right now, but that could change. I usually surround myself with reference, submerge myself in these films, and just doodle all over sheets of paper. I scan all those doodles into the computer and compose the pieces in Photoshop. I then print those out and trace them onto watercolor paper. I like to do them in groups of like 20 at a time, conveyor-belt style, and I often use the very first doodles in order to keep the looseness of the drawings. I like the life in loose drawings, and it is sometimes hard to maintain that when you are redrawing and painting an image in a finished piece.
GZ: I was surprised to see you didn’t title each painting with what movie it was from. Any particular reason for that?
Campbell: That would be taking away the fun of it! It is a kind of game to figure out the answers, and I like to encourage people talking to each other about it — showing one another the ones that they know and the ones that they cannot figure out. It feels good to solve these puzzles, I think! I just lay out the bits for them to piece together themselves.
GZ: What’s next for you?
Campbell: Well, I just finished illustrating a children's picture book by Bob Dylan and am starting on one that I write and illustrate myself. That's the main thing. I'll be participating in more art shows in the future and making more comics! And more game and film stuff probably. I enjoy all of these things.
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