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Total Recall: A Chat With Stephan Martiniere

This is the latest in the series of articles about the art technology of games, in collaboration with the particularly handsome Dead End Thrills.

With the galaxy’s biggest sci-fi movies using ever more effects houses and artists, it can be hard to pinpoint today’s Ralph McQuarries and Ron Cobbs. They’re out there, though, often known more by work than name. At the top of the pile is Stephan Martiniere, one of those illustrators and art directors whose work is so envied by just about any sci-fi project going that’s he levelled up to ‘Visionary’. Put simply, people want the stuff in his head on their books, in their movies, at their theme parks, and, as luck would have it, in their games.

Examples? In movies, Martiniere’s applied his signature style (eye-popping ‘Golden Age’ snapshots of civilisations in overdrive) to the worlds of I, Robot, Tron: Legacy, Star Wars Episodes II and III, Star Trek, The Fifth Element, the Total Recall remake, 300: Rise Of An Empire, Guardians Of The Galaxy and The Avengers: Age Of Ultron. *and breathe…*

He’s drawn over 100 book covers, as well as comic book covers and magazine illustrations – again, all the big names. He left animation school to work on Inspector Gadget and ended up animation director for DIC Entertainment. He got into games via Cyan Worlds’ Uru and Myst V, and before long was living in Chicago building and directing Midway’s worldwide concept team. He was art director for the bulk of id Software’s Rage, and will soon start work on Rand ‘Myst’ Miller’s newly Kickstarted Obduction.

He even has a face:

I’m going to chime in quickly here, if only to pre-empt the comments section somewhat, in support of Martiniere’s two biggest game projects: Rage and Stranglehold. Shortly before I lost all my friends, I would sermonise about the latter being not just a uniquely ‘directorial’ action game – you’re kind of playing John Woo rather than Chow Yun-Fat, etc, which is super fun – but one that only truly kicks in on the frantic Hard Boiled difficulty level. I love what it was trying to do and very much like the results. Meanwhile yes, the texture fidelity in Rage makes me want to vomit full the entire chasm that exists between the art that was drawn and the assets shipped. But, with due thanks to my therapist, I’m over that now, able to sit back and appreciate one of the more remarkable game art endeavours of *arbitrary number of recent years*. About ten feet back is good.

What both games have in common is that their art was notably harmed by the cruelties of game production: the promises of engines and consoles; the odds and the bets; the inevitable betrayals. Indeed, in being drawn to projects that explicitly set out to close the gap between concept art and realtime, Martiniere’s work isn’t just beautiful, but one of the most vital fixtures of that struggle.

John Woo Presents Stranglehold. Casually. To gain access to nightclubs.

DET: A book cover gives you more complete control of a vision than most other areas you work in. How do games compare?

Stephan Martiniere: One of the reasons it took me so long to get into the game industry is because the technology was not to a level to artistically satisfy me. But that changed after Riven, and interestingly enough my first game was Uru: The Path Of The Shell for Cyan. I was involved at so many levels, the story was so complex and rich. That was half the excitement right there; I was participating in the story and creating the visuals not for just a world but for an entire civilisation.

Then I worked on Stranglehold, and Stranglehold was more of a challenge because it was a new technology, and there were a lot of expectations regarding the new [Unreal] engine and the upcoming new Xbox. A lot of gambles were made and, at the end of the day, it didn’t meet expectations. We had to make a lot of visual sacrifices. So while I was very pleased about what I created for that project, and the vision I was pushing for, it’s true that it never fully translated into the game.

Rage was a different story. I was very aware after Stranglehold, with the visuals having lost so much from concept to execution, that I wasn’t really excited about going back into a project that was going to have the same problems and limitations. But right away when I got into id Software and they showed me what the technology was capable of doing, that was phenomenal. The concepts I did were as intricate if not more than the ones I did for Stranglehold – intricate in a way you’d do them for movies – but in this particular project the technology was so powerful that the end result was beyond my expectations. I was ecstatic. Even at the end, with all the sacrifices to make the product happen, what we had was fabulous.

The cover for Ofir Touche Gafla’s ‘The World Of The End’. That naked man… that’s Martiniere, that is. Really.

DET: Book covers also tend to deal in grand concepts while games are consumed with details. Does your imagination have to shrink somewhat when moving from one to the other?

Martiniere: No, not at all, actually, because the process and also what I have to think about is so different from a book cover to a game. It’s almost like two sides of my brain are firing just as creatively, so it’s not really a loss; I don’t have to think less about one or the other. When I do a book cover it’s really about storytelling, and about selling an entire context with one image; it’s also about trying to convey emotion so I can draw the viewer into that image and incidentally have him buy the book, which is what these images are for. I also have the choice between being literal or figurative when I have to execute that image, and it makes the process very creative.

The World Of The End is a good example of mixing literal and figurative: it’s very simple, very graphic, but carries a lot of symbolism and ideas. I could have done something that was a lot more complex with lots of details and action, but It wouldn’t have had the same depth. That’s very creative to me because it fires the side of my brain that makes me think not necessarily about what’s obvious within the context of that story, but the key words, the main ideas. That’s why sometimes, the idea being so strong, doing the image figuratively might be better than doing it the other way. Once I’m clear with the art director about one approach versus the other, and once I understand what that story is supposed to be and what’s supposed to be given to the reader, the process becomes very easy.

A game is a very complex process because it’s not just about a story, it’s about creating all the elements such as environments, characters and props that are going to populate the game. I could be an art director or a concept artist, or I could be both. Every time I art direct I also drive the visual by doing key concepts. A game is much more similar to how I work when I work on a film. These details, these objects, they also have to be very functional because they have to work in order to be built and played.

Another of Martiniere’s Uru landscapes to go with the one in the title image.

DET: Just about all of the games on your CV have at one point been promoted as ‘concept art in realtime’ – even Stranglehold. Is that what you look for in a project?

Martiniere: Yeah, absolutely. To me it’s all about the creative process, and having the opportunity to create a vision that’s really going to make the game a tremendous experience. Film has the same feel, the same drive to me, but being mainly a concept artist I’m less involved and entrenched. When I work on a game as an art director and concept artist, I really have that opportunity to go more in-depth. That’s the excitement right there: not only to create interesting and compelling images, but to think broadly and create an entire vision that, if it’s done well, can really enhance the experience. To have players walk around a world where they say ‘wow’ around every corner.

DET: Is it quite frustrating knowing that games can’t achieve that signature visual overload from many of your sci-fi pieces?

Martiniere: Well, yes and no. Interestingly, when I started on Stranglehold, because there was so much hope for the engine and the Xbox, I didn’t limit myself visually. That wasn’t just us as a company, it was the entire industry. That being said, I knew realistically that there would be things you cannot do even when they say that you can. But what that does is it makes you think smartly. You don’t necessarily have to cram every corner of an environment with detail, you can place things where they’re needed and where they matter. Film has the same approach: even though the technology has fewer limitations and can go beyond what a game can do, there still are limitations so you have to be careful about that.

I can only go so far in terms of extrapolation on a film because, in the end, I’m delivering an image without really knowing how that image is going ot be used. Not even the production designer necessarily has that control. But in some films, like Total Recall, I was extremely satisfied because pretty much everything I did was on the screen. I, Robot is a good example of where we went crazy conceptually, at the very beginning of the project, then had to step back and tone down more and more as we found out there was excessive cost involved in the way we wanted to build that city.

Total Recall 2012’s concept art provides rare scenes in which none of the people, buildings or vehicles is played by Kate Beckinsale.

DET: Does having characters in a game enhance its landscape beyond what a more desolate environment can achieve?

Martiniere: They both serve a purpose. I’ve seen games where the environment is the character, and as powerful as any character can be. Myst is really a game where the environment invites the player to fire their imagination, so that’s everything. You don’t always need characters. But then that’s Myst. On the flipside you have a game like Rage where the characters are very important. It’s a world full of personalities and creatures – but it’s also a shooter so gameplay is important. The environment in that context becomes more of a visual support, enhancing the experience the player will have when interacting with all these characters. That’s just as powerful.

DET: Many of your games feature tribes of characters who make and are made by their environments. When you visit a new place to work or to live, do you naturally focus on that connection?

Martiniere: Yes, I do. By nature, because of how I design and think, I always look at everything as a whole. I don’t separate people from their environments; I can never disassociate them. Rage is a very good example of that, where environments and characters complement each other. Each of the Bandits has their own behaviour, look and personality that transpires completely into the environment, so that when you enter their lairs and haven’t even seen anyone yet, you’re already getting a visual sense of what’s coming. That’s the appeal: to integrate very strongly everything that’s part of the environment in the characters, and vice-versa.

When you look at all the different Bandits in Rage, each one is very unique. That was very important to me, more so than anything else, because when you have to sustain 8-10 hours of gameplay that’s very repetitive, you have to create surprises in that process. How can I surprise the player knowing that he’s going to have to fight the same way? How can I do that every time? That was the fun of it.

Prior to cuts, Jackal Canyon was supposed to be the gateway to an arid former coastal region and a drastic shift in dwellings, characters and tone.

DET: Game worlds change a lot during development, of course. Do characters have to change with them? Did Rage’s?

Martiniere: Yeah, they did, actually. For me, once I was very clear about the stories and complexity of the world and its people – and I worked the same way on Stranglehold where there were a lot of clans in both Hong Kong and Chicago – I went with the large brush strokes approach first. Understand what each of these groups is supposed to be and then start polishing and detailing. As long as you keep a big idea there at the top, to me you can’t miss, you can only enhance it.

Take the bandits in Rage. When you define a group in terms of personalities, deciding what that group is about – what makes it unique – enables you to always say yes or no on everything you might have an idea on. The weapons they would use, the costumes, the markings, tattoos… All these details that make the character what he is – if you keep in mind the personality they have to fit then you’re in good shape. We knew some people would never have tattoos versus others, for instance. Some people would use very specific weapons. You always have to make sure it fits the gameplay, especially in terms of weapons, but when you define those personalities and how they’re going to influence gameplay, that’s when things become interesting. Designers start thinking: ‘Wow, they could also be moving in this kind of way, fighting in that kind of way, approaching or attacking in a way that would be relevant to that personality.’

DET: It always seemed to be a project where much was in flux. Were a lot of the game’s ideas quite spontaneous?

Martiniere: The conversation was always about getting a sense of how much could be crammed into that world. ‘How much can we achieve and at what level?’ And you never quite knew. Things were always on the table until, at one time or another, you saw something and suddenly it made sense for it to be in or be out. One interesting example is the giant mutant in Dead City. That’s an idea that didn’t exist for a long time. One day we’re talking, everyone’s very excited and someone says, ‘Wouldn’t be cool if, instead of our mutants always being dependent on the same skeleton and size, suddenly we break the mould?’

The first response to this is always going to be obvious: the designer’s going to say, ‘We can’t, we don’t have the gameplay.’ The practical aspect has to step in, all these parameters. But when someone is really passionate about it, some people take it on as their own mission to prove it could really work. So there were people going off left and right to show the team how cool things could be. You do some concepts, you show some basic ideas for models, and slowly it catches on. Things that were impossible become a challenge, and a challenge becomes, ‘We have to have it.’ Then it’s suddenly a major focal point of the whole story. That’s what’s so cool to me about working on games that have this kind of scale.

When marketing heard about the giant mutant they went crazy. ‘We have to have it,’ they said. We weren’t prepared to deal with that but, at the same time, everybody wanted it. We had to make it work: a fight with a 30ft monster where no one would have thought we would have it. Because so much was in flux, there were possibilities we could just put on the table, and maybe ten out of 100 would see the light of day. That’s how Rage happened: crazy ideas and the momentum that they generate.

DET: Was there a lot of anticipation for Rage 2 throughout the first game, what with the acute awareness that the engine was being developed alongside the game?

Martiniere: That’s correct. But because the technology was strong from the start, there was never a big worry about how we were going to get what we were hoping for. Obviously we didn’t get everything we wanted. There was a wish-list: I had one, the designers had theirs… everyone had one. And obviously John Carmack is only one man and has to have priorities, so there was point throughout that process where it became really clear what we’d have at our disposal, and what would be projected into Rage 2. Knowing that helps because it gives you the tools to think properly when you design. But the technology was always so great that having to wait for Rage 2 to get more wasn’t really a sacrifice. It wasn’t painful. We already had so much.

DET: What was the biggest example of something left over for the sequel?

Martiniere: When you reach ‘Wasteland Two’, I’d created a portion of the landscape that was going to be a visual rethink of ‘Wasteland One’. I was concerned at the beginning of the project that there could be a visual fatigue after playing the first half of the game, so I came up with a whole visual shift – not just by changing the color palette, the sky and rock formations but also by substituting a big portion of the canyons that were so prevalent in Wasteland One. I wanted to completely open the landscape, but because we had to have some occlusion in some way, I had to find a way to replace these canyons. My solution was to create a graveyard of tankers. That would be a huge portion of the landscape. These tankers would be acting as canyon walls, solving the technical requirements but offering a completely different visual, gameplay and driving experience.

We had to sacrifice that entire area because we did not have enough memory at the end to accommodate such an expensive place. We kept pieces here and there – everything we could – but that entire graveyard, a quarter of Wasteland Two, had to be slashed. That’s the kind of thing that happens towards the end of a project, and I totally understand that we had no choice. And I thought, ‘Hey, no problem because Rage 2 will bring it back.’ I was already approaching Rage 2 with the idea that if we couldn’t put that here, where could we put it there? But Rage 2 never happened, as you know.

Now I’m presenting Stranglehold in the form of this jpeg. How the tables have turned.

DET: Midway had a very strong artistic culture while you were there, culminating in a fantastic art book. All very surprising at the time. How did it come about?

Martiniere: When I was asked to work on Stranglehold­, one of the things I was told very clearly by the producer was that Midway was not visually driven. This was a company that was strong in its technology but never had an art department, and never worked in such a way as to integrate a whole concept pipeline in the process. The visual happened whenever it needed to happen, which was fine to an extent. But when Stranglehold started they realised they needed a cinematic feel and a strong visual signature. They’d never done anything like it. And because new technology was just around the corner in Unreal Engine 3, they were very aware that they needed to shift their thinking process and pipeline to be successful.

Because of my experience in animation, film and game – being a concept artist, storyboard artist, art director as well as director – they believed I could be the right person. They told me: ‘With Stranglehold we’re putting all our eggs in one basket. It’s really important that we don’t fail. Are you up for the challenge?’ It’s interesting to me because I’m much more of a fantasy/sci-fi artist so I had to seriously think about how to approach such a project and what I could contribute to it. I was thinking about how similar projects had been approached in the film industry. One of the directors I always admired was Ridley Scott because he’s very artistically driven. He made Black Rain, part of which was in Japan. Every shot is almost a painting, infused with something very powerful and unexpected. So I decided to approach Stranglehold the same way. I took the job.

If it was going to be successful, I told them, I needed a team of concept artists right away. I needed a team that was going to be ahead of the production pipeline fleshing out that vision, getting the whole team excited before everything starts. That’s especially important for the modelers and designers who are going to be figuring out what they can do and getting ideas for gameplay. I didn’t want to be ‘behind’ because I’d seen that happen, and people complaining about the concept happening the moment it was needed and creating huge problems: delays, costs, things like that. So I said, ‘If we want to be real smart, the concept needs to be at least six months ahead. Then we can produce what needs to be done without having to rush and massacre the thing.’ They’d never worked like that. The introduction of new ideas such as adding a paint-over stage before final polish, or creating character concepts with photorealistic qualities, thus bypassing part of the texturing process, proved to be a huge help. The whole idea was very successful.

After Stranglehold I was asked to head a concept department that was going to be at the service of the whole company worldwide. It was a fabulous experience. – but you know the story. Midway didn’t make it, but not for lack of trying. There was some smart thinking there about how to turn the company around. It was a big sadness for me to have to leave it.

DET: Now you’ve signed on for Obduction, Cyan’s spiritual successor to Myst and Riven. Excited?

Martiniere: Yes, I’m excited. I can’t wait! Rand contacted me and said they wanted to recreate the Myst magic, and I just said, ‘Sign me up, I’m in.’

DET: Have you considered doing more PC exclusives in the future? Games where you didn’t have to worry so much about hardware?

Martiniere: I wouldn’t so much be worried about PC versus console, I would look at the technology being used and see what the game can be at the end. These days, with what’s going on in terms of technology, you can get some fabulous results on console.

Stephan Martiniere’s blog and portfolio can be found here. The art book he wrote to “validate” the sublime work of Midway’s artists is still sort of available through Amazon. An excellent CG Society feature on the art of Stranglehold lives here.

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