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May 14, 2010 (Last Update)
 

EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH BILL EAKEN

ROMANTIC MEMORIES
By Santiago Mendez

Bill Eaken worked at LucasArts for 3 years, in such games as Indiana Jones and The Fate of Atlantis, The Secret of Monkey Island and Rebel Assault II among others. Graduated in the California State University, Fulleston, with a B.F.A. in illustration. He worked 2 years doing portraits at Disneyland. Right now he works as an illustrator, and is actually working on two adventure games, Exchange Student and Autumn Moon's A Vampyre Story. After working on Atlantis he joined Brian Moriarty and started working on The Dig.

Self portraitTell us a little bit about yourself and how did you get into drawing ?

I started drawing when I was a child, like most people. Except that most people forget how much they loved drawing and using their imagination. Those of us who became artists just didn't forget. Back then it was dinosaurs. I've always taken it for granted that I was an artist, so it was never, ever something I wanted to do when I grew up. I would be an artist, no matter what I did. I never even thought about it, just like I never thought about being a "breather" when I grew up. When I got older I wanted to be a special effects guy in Hollywood. Then I thought I would go to college and study literature because I wanted to be a writer. When I got to college I decided, once and for all, to stick with art when I saw how much reading I would have to do to major in literature. I'm now a professional artist, AND a writer (I'm currently writing and illustrating a book). I lost interest in special effects pretty fast when I saw how things are run in Hollywood. CG takes the fun out of the old special effects magic, too (although the effects are infinitely better!).

As an artist you could have worked on movies at art departments, or at comics, why did you choose video games?

Computer games happened by accident. I was contacted by a recruiter to work at Sierra Online as an
illustrator in their marketing department. (I never worked on any Sierra games, by the way.) I left Sierra Online and went to LucasArts after a short time. The plan was to use computer games as my "day job" while I worked at developing my illustration skills. I ultimately intended to paint book covers. However, I learned that I didn't like the illustration industry. When I was younger, before and during art school, I thought illustration was art. And for guys like Rockwell and Dore, and Frazetta, it was (although Frazetta had his share of disappointing experiences with the industry)! When you have so many other people who don't really care about the actual artwork, who are telling you what to do and ruining it, it stops being art and just craft. A great craft, sure,
but it just wasn't fun for me, so I never pursued it with much passion. If I stuck with it I would have done it only for the money, and that would be like working for Dracula. Hollywood was even worse. So I dabbled for several years at my day job (and had some wonderful adventures with it!) while working towards something that seemed like a higher calling to me.
The reason I stuck with computer games for a while was because it was probably the closest you could get to
bringing back the creative excitement, with a minimum of uncreative, pushy little geeks in suits ordering you around (not completely eliminated, though). We got to really have fun. Games are large projects with lots of creative opportunity. One of my favorite aspects of having worked on those games is remembering how they evolved over the course of a year, or two, and how much creative energy went into it. Fun stuff.


How did you got a job at LucasArts (or LucasFilm Games)?

I hated Sierra Online, as did everyone who worked for them back then. I met some cool guys that were
working at Lucas at the time and they helped me get a job there. It was mostly Ken Macklin, Brent Anderson,
and Bucky Cameron.

You worked on Brian Moriarty's The Dig, have you worked on Noah Falstein's version?In his words "An early, and silly, concept watercolor for The Dig"

I never actually worked on Noah's Dig version, but I did get to come up with the basic "zoology" of the place. In the very beginning, Noah asked everyone in the art pool to come up with concept ideas on their own time. Only a few of us jumped on it. It's never about the money, or the praise, or impressing the right people-it's the creative fun. I wish people would make offers like that more often! I drew goofy looking monster things that I thought seemed kind of terrestrial, but still alien. I wanted them to be consistent like our world is. Mammals all have certain features, and so do all birds, and so on. I thought of making a group of critters that seemed to be part of a "family," like mammals or birds, but with no features like anything we know on Earth. My things were sort of smooth, six-limbed, large eyes, no scales, etc. Iain McCaig (who worked on concept design for the Star Wars movies) also did some sketches, but his were even more alien than mine-like life on the bottom of the ocean. Terry Whitlatch (who also worked on Star Wars designing monsters) also did some designs. Hers were a lot more Earth-like. In the end, Noah liked my in-between idea. He thought it had a good balance of alien and the familiar. I also did one animation of one creature for a pre-production presentation to Steven Spielberg. I almost forgot about that. Try animating a six-limbed critter walking! I felt sorry for the animators who actually had to animate them when the game started production. It must have been a real pain.

When Moriarty started working on The Dig you where in the final stages of Fate of the Atlantis, you wanted to work on The Dig, why was that?

I had planned on working on Noah's Dig when finished with Indiana Jones. Ken Macklin designed the background look of the game, and I was looking forward to helping Ken with backgrounds. I didn't want to art direct in any way. I was at the point where I just wanted a fun job while I worked on other things (Ken kind of had the same attitude). I used to collect Ken Macklin's Dr. Watchstop in Epic magazine when I was in high school. I met him and liked him, but I didn't know at first that it was the same guy. Only in the arts can you not only meet, but even work with, one of your heroes. (I suppose athletes can sometimes do that, but not very often.) Anyway, I was looking forward to the chance of working directly with Ken. I was disappointed when Brian decided to throw all the work out and start from scratch. So was Ken. He didn't need the job and was only doing it for fun. So
when it all fell apart he moved on. That's when Brian asked me to take Ken's place. At first I didn't want to, only because art directing is a lot of extra stress. And I thought it was a bummer to throw all that cool stuff out. I still think we should have tried to make it work and kept Ken around.

By the way, some of the guys, and I, tried to salvage all the art about a year later. Now that I think about it, it was Larry Ahern and Anson Jew, and I. We came up with a story that had a lot of the same elements as Noah's Dig, only we wanted to do it with Boba Fett (I know I'm spelling that wrong!) bounty hunting some alien, or aliens, on an alien world. We could have used most of the art and story elements. We even wrote a plot proposal. It was a brilliant concept, if I must say so, myself. But management said that few people know who Boba Fett is, and brushed the idea aside. George Lucas apparently thought Boba Fett was worth digging back up, as we now know.

Let's talk about Brian Moriarty's The Dig. How did you come up with the overall look and feel of this alien world?

I love to just draw and draw and draw. I let scribbles suggest things and mistakes send me in new and unexpected directions. I can't remember a lot of details, but I made dozens of sheets of large sketches every day and showed them to Brian. He would respond to something and send me back to the studio with more
of a focus for the next day's sketching. Early on, the sketches were of large rock towers like the kind in New Mexico and Arizona. I had caves and cavities in parts of the giant towers to give them character.
"A really bad scan of one of the paintings I did for Spielberg"In the cavities I drew moss of some alien sort hanging down. Then I drew strange birds nesting in the moss.
Brian took all that, mixed with the geometry theme, and came up with the idea to make five towers. The birds turned into the alien creatures, and so on. That's a good example of how it worked. I still have some very bad color copies of some of these early sketches that I painted out. We were going to meet with Spielberg so I painted several of the sketches. This was before Brian's idea of the geometric arrangement, so you can get a feel of how the game evolved. Unfortunately, they are all I have of the early stuff, and not very good. Spielberg wanted to keep the color copies. Years later, while they were moving from Amblin to Dreamworks, someone found the old art and sent them to the LucasArts address on the back, addressed to me. That's the only reason I still have them. The color and lighting came from my own personal affection for sunset, and just after. I thought a world that was in perpetual twilight was cool. You never are sure whether it's early morning or evening. That sort of tension is emotionally dynamic. Brian agreed.

How was like working with Brian?

I bet you're baiting me with that question. I liked Brian. Brian is a smart and creative guy. I still have good memories sitting in his office and just brainstorming. The sky was the limit. That's how it should be. Those were good times. But I think as time went on he had stars in his eyes. I think he wanted to show Spielberg what he could do and it became too much pressure on him. After a while he just seemed to bog down under the pressure. I've been accused of having an artist's temperament. But I liked working on The Dig, and with Brian, and just being creative for lots of money. When all the politics and Hollywood drama started to impede us,
when it wasn't even a Hollywood gig, I did get temperamental.

Is it true that you came up with the idea of the geometry puzzles?

Holy cow! I'm impressed at how much you know about this stuff. You're bringing back things I have forgotten. Yes, I will say that the idea was originally mine, only in that I suggested it to Brian. But the puzzles themselves were all his. I came up with none of them. I have always been fascinated with things like imaginary numbers, pi, and the golden ratio. I thought it would be neat if we came up with something using geometries deeply Early painting of a paranoid Brink hiding from his fellow crew members.embedded in the cosmic fabric, kind of like how Carl Sagan did in "Contact." But I had no idea how to do it. Brian did it differently than I would have, but it was kind of the same idea. I'm not sure what I would have eventually come up with. I might have made it too complicated and mathematical, because that's more of what I was thinking when I suggested it.

How was regular day when you where working on The Dig?

I always came in late. Then I would deal with the creepy corporate politics most of the morning (yes, I do have an artist temperament, if that's what it's called). Then I would have lunch with the other artists somewhere. Lots of great restaurants in the San Rafael area. Those were good old days, sitting around and chatting about artists we liked, and so on.
I remember that Larry Ahern was the slowest eater I've ever known. I heard he's still that way. After lunch I would have a nap under my desk, or in a closet nearby. Then I would spend the rest of the day painting the backgrounds. [Judging from how much you know about all this, you probably know that I painted the backgrounds in black and white poster paint. I then scanned and colorized them in the computer to maximize the palette. We were working with only 256 colors, and quite a bit of them were used for interface and animations, and couldn't be used for the backgrounds. I hated how scanning color paintings looked. I came up with this crazy way of colorizing black and white. I think it went faster, and looked better.]
I was usually the last person leaving the building late at night. That was before my son was born. It all seems so romantic to me now. To be so free.


Ok, now it's the moment of truth, it's time to know the story about the big meeting. Lucy Bradshaw, Brian Moriarty and you had to meet Mr. Steven Spielberg. I had to admit I already know this story, but right now I feel like a young kid, sitting on the floor, and saying "Please, tell me the story of how did you met Steven Spielberg, one more time, pleeease."
So, for those who don't know the story and for my inner young kid, would you share that experience
again?

Man, you must have really talked to a lot of people. You remember more than I! Okay, I like telling the
story. I'll give you the long version and let you edit.
I got back a day, or so, late from Hawaii and found everyone going crazy wondering where I was. The very next day we were booked to fly down to see Spielberg at Amblin on the back lot of Universal. I didn't know about it-iit came up while I was away. I had to rush to get together some color copies (mentioned earlier) to show him. The next day we arrived early in L.A. and had nothing to do for a few hours, so we went through the Universal Studios theme park a bit. Brian had this old "portable" computer that looked more like a suitcase back then (I'm not exaggerating). He had to carry it on the Earthquake ride, and all that. I think he did, anyway. I can't remember using a locker. I don't think that piece of luggage would have fit. On the way out of the park we had our hands stamped, just in case we were to return. It was little glow-in-the-dark E.T.s. I don't know why, but that struck me as funny at the time.
When we got into the cab at the entrance to the theme park, and told the driver to take us to the studio entrance, he didn't want to do it. We were tourists, with a suitcase, and there's no way they would let us in. We told him that we had an appointment. He totally thought we were stupid tourists. He said they don't allow taxis at the front gate, but we insisted. He said he would do what he could, but said it was going to be ugly. We laughed all the way there about the stupid E.T's on our hands.

I was in the middle in the back seat, between Lucy and Brian, and Lucy was on the left. At the gate I could
see in the mirror that the taxi driver was embarrassed and worried about security getting mad, or something.
I guess the taxi drivers have standing orders not to bring tourists to the main gate. Lucy rolled down the
window and told the guard that it was Brian Moriarty and Bill Eaken from Lucasfilm, here to see Steven Spielberg. I saw the taxi driver's eyes pop as he suddenly looked into the mirror at me. He smiled and
said, "You just said the magic words!" The guard checked the clipboard and sure enough, we were let in.
He told the taxi driver to follow one of the colored lines and it would take us to Amblin. It was just like what you think a movie studio back-lot looks like. They were filming stuff everywhere as we drove through. Probably awful TV junk. The taxi driver was having as much fun by then as we were.

Spielberg's front office had cool Disney background art, by the way. In his office he had a lot of original illustration art, like Norman Rockwell. We showed our stuff to Spielberg and gave our spiel to the berg. He had a lot of suggestions. He didn't care about this project-it was just fun for him, no pressure like the films are. So he was in a good mood and having fun with the whole thing.

Brian brought an expansion disk for one of the aerial battle games Larry Holland was making. Spielberg was a big computer game geek! He was waiting for this upgrade/mission expansion thing. He called his assistant in and just mentioned what it was. She immediately knew what he meant and said she'd send it home and tell someone to have it installed and running for him when he arrived. I decided at that moment I would have an assistant like that someday.

Anyway, when we were through we told him we had a few hours to kill and wondered what rides we should get on back at the theme park. He said the E.T. ride, since he helped design it. It was brand new at the time.
His people said that he was really crazy about it and wants to show it off to everyone. One of his assistants took us there on a back-lot Amblin golf cart. We didn't have to get another taxi. We didn't even have to stand in line! They took us straight to the ride and cut us in the line in front of everyone, like real V.I.P.s. Everyone had to stand back and watch, probably trying to figure out who we were. All I remember is Brian with the stupid giant suitcase going through the ride.

But the best part of the whole thing for me was his enthusiasm. He really likes games. This wasn't work to him to have to hear us go on about The Dig.

What kind of things did Spielberg wanted to emphasize on The Dig?

The only thing I remember very well is that there was a part where you had to remove the lens of some
monster's eye. Was that in the final version of the game? I don't remember. Spielberg thought it would be cool if blood shot out and splattered all over the "inside of the computer monitor." I remember Brian laughing nervously about that one. Spielberg also wanted to stress the idea that it was a dig, that there was digging, and that it was a little like Indiana Jones in space. I can't remember much else, except that he had on a NYPD baseball cap, jeans, and a T-shirt.

Do you remember if Spielberg wanted shooting stars on The Dig?

I don't remember Spielberg wanting the shooting stars.
My first, and really only, memory about shootingstars was when Brian told us that we had to have some in the game because Spielberg has them in all his movies.

I've seen a couple of early paintings you made for Brian Moriarty's The Dig, and when I first saw them it
reminded me of Loom (even before knowing about Moriarty). Did you had some inspiration from there?

There was no inspiration at all, and I'm not just saying that. I've always preferred evening lighting, which is what may have reminded you of Loom. It creates a dreamlike quality which seemed to fit. It's far more fun to paint, and much easier to create a sense of drama and mystery than if the sun is right over your head. The colors just fit the light scheme I was after. The most beautiful range of tones for me is gold to purple, with everything in between. That was my sole inspiration.

Could you explain us a little bit further about the technichal process of making backgrounds?

Ealry design for the crystal pyramidWhen we first started The Dig we wanted to scan images to get that organic look that was difficult to get by
doing art directly in the computer with 256 colors (Using Deluxe Paint). At least half the 256 colors had to be used for the animation, so that left me with less than 200 colors. We did not have the full palette in those days, or high resolution. I can't remember the pixel dimensions, but it was very low--like 200 to 300, something like that. Bucky Cameron used to say that the pixels were as big as your head. I did several paintings and scanned them and I thought they sucked when we crunched the colors down.
They looked organic all right, but they had none of the color purity of the stuff I could do on the computer, like the way we did Indiana Jones. I tried tweaking the colors but that made it worse.

In the end I figured out that I could do a quick image in Deluxe Paint just to get the palette and color worked out, and know how it would/should look on the computer. Then I painted it in black and white with poster paint (cheap and easy to work with). I could paint three a day like that. When it was scanned I could paste the color palette right on top of the gray scale palette in Deluxe Paint. I would do this for each part of the image that used a different range of palette. It was easy because I already did a rough version of the art on the computer and already had the palettes ready.
It took some confusing cutting and pasting and remapping, but the idea is simple. I had to make sure the gray scale for the sky was in one row, and the gray scale for the distant hills in the next, and so on. So when I Snapshot from Brian Moriarty's version of The Digpasted the palette for the sky, only the sky turned the right color range, while everything else stayed gray or unchanged. Maybe it's another reason I kept the palette simple.
Indiana Jones would have been a little trickier, but not a lot. Many people thought I was working in higher res
even though it wasn't. It allowed me to create a smooth color set without all the creepy dithering and patchiness that scanning color caused with super low resolution and VGA colors.

After I left the project and Bill Tiller took over they had higher color space tools like Photoshop. So Bill did everything in millions of colors in Photoshop, which produced the nice color gradations, and then crunched the color down to less than 200 colors. Much easier and better, but I bet my old, clunky black and white poster paint was quicker. What I did was a desperate attempt to force the primitive technology to do what I wanted. It sounds a little complex, but it wasn't. I thought it was an elegant solution at the time.

You designed the PenUltimate, how did you come up with the idea for this communication device?

Actually, I didn't design the PenUltimate. I think, for the most part, that was all Brian's idea. I'm not sure where he got the idea, except that it had to do certain things for game play. I think it was just a simple interface for game play that also worked as a cool piece of technology.

Have you been in any of the Pizza Orgies?

Oh yeah. They used to do pizza orgies for all the games. I don't recall ever attending a pizza orgy for The Dig because I think they stopped doing them by then. Maybe they did them some more after I left, but I doubt it. I did attend one for Noah's version, though. I'm not sure if you want me to describe it. You probably already know all about them from some of the other guys so I won't bore you with details.

Have you played The Dig?

You're this is odd when I tell you this, but I can't remember. Well, I know I played it, but I can't remember if I ever got through it. Many things were changed or added after I left so it gets fuzzy in my memory. I can't tell anymore what I'm remembering from playing it, or from working on it.

Any final thought about your overall experience of having worked in The Dig?

It surprises me now that people still remember it.
When I was working on those games I thought of them as really fun projects that allowed me to be creative and
make good money doing it. Meanwhile, I was painting on the weekends in my own studio, sometimes for
Early concept for the asteroid tunnelsillustrations, sometimes for myself, hoping that I would refine my skills and move on to what I really wanted to do as an artist. I assumed computer games would become either live action, or computer generated models, with artists fading away, like every other field.
The "suits" always need to find ways of replacing natural talent with reliable systems in order to compete in the market place. Next year's "model" is far more important to the money machine than stimulation of the spirit. [Sorry for the un-poetic commentary.] I thought, at best, it would become a little version of Hollywood movies where you have a giant team and no single individual has the creative freedom and joy we had on those adventure games. For the most part, my predictions were correct. So I used to tell people like Brian, when he
got all excited about what people would think of our creation, that in ten years no one will even remember
The Dig. I used to say that people will still remember a movie, and maybe own it, in 50 years (I love my collection of Ray Harryhausen movies!). But not computer games. I can't even play The Dig on my machine-it won't work in Windows XP! So this all surprises me that people still do remember and even care about it. Maybe it's like the nostalgia for old toys.

As for working on The Dig specifically: Lots of fun memories. I liked sitting in a room, or building, filled with people all being creative on one project that took all our skills and inventiveness to pull off. It's even more fun when there are other similar projects in varying degrees of finish. They were working on Day of the Tentacle when we were on The Dig. Peter Chan had a cubicle next to me and was just starting on the fun-silly backgrounds for it just as I was finishing the dramatic Dig-scapes.
I fondly remember how people went crazy for the artwork I was doing on The Dig, even though I thought it was boring and mundane. Recently, I went back to the restaurant I was sitting in when I suddenly figured out how to use color cycling in the VGA card to make water rippling in the breeze. It was very exciting for me at the time. Much later, long after I'd forgotten any of those feelings, I get a call on the phone from a convention in Las Vegas telling me that people are reacting with excitement to our demo. (After I left Lucasland, I spent a few years just doing color cycling for other companies because of what I came up with in The Dig.) I can remember sitting in Brian's office, when it was still only the two of us on the project, closing the door and brainstorming like nerdy little kids who've read too much science fiction.
It's all a part of a big whole that was a blast. And we were getting paid to do this!

If I had it all to do now I would make the concept art more vibrant, and keep it archived for myself somewhere, now that I know people will someday want to look at it. It often bugs the s#*t out of me that most of it is stuck in a drawer somewhere. Nobody there cares about that stuff. It's just a matter of soul-less "business as usual" to stuff it away and forget about it, even though there are people out here with a soul who would get a little spiritual pleasure out of seeing it. If I had any idea back then I would have grabbed a bunch of it because the robots running things wouldn't have a clue and would never have missed it. I should have scanned it and put it on disk, but we didn't even have CD Roms yet! (They existed but no one was really using them just yet, so I was only vaguely aware of them.)
Oh well. It brings a lot of it back having folks want to know about it, after all these years.

.

August, 2005
Copyright © 2006 Santiago Méndez.

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