One of the Eragon video game artists opens up about his inspirations, experiences, and more

Yesterday we featured the incredible Eragon video game concept art by illustrator Michael “Rusty” Drake. Many fans were surprised to learn that the video game, released alongside the Eragon movie, was inspired by and based on the book rather than the movies, leading to a world more like the one we saw in the books. Much of Rusty’s artwork was inspired by the visuals provided in Eragon and the plot locations were driven by what was found in the film script.

More of Michael "Rusty" Drake's incredible Eragon video game concept art can be found in our gallery!

More of Michael “Rusty” Drake’s incredible Eragon video game concept art can be found in our gallery!

Our interview sheds some light on the unique process behind bringing the world of Alagaësia to life as a video game!

Tell us a bit about yourself! What did you start drawing? When did you realize you wanted to make a career out of it?

I’m a 42 year old artist living in Gainesville working as an Art Director for a video game company and I do coloring for the comic Danger Club on the side. I’m married and have 5 children… and one cat. When I was about six years old I started drawing these weird hair characters with feet that looked a lot like Captain Caveman from Saturday morning cartoons and some very boxy robot people. I would draw those over and over and over. Then in grade school I started doing more cartoony google eyed animal things and learned to do more humanoid characters and learned a little bit about perspective. It was all great fun and so was something that I pursued.

It wasn’t until High School that I started getting into comic books, fell in love with the artwork of Simon Bisley (Slain), and realized that it was something that I could actually do for a living. So that was my big thing. I wanted to become a comic book artist. My parents were insistent that I go to college, and it’s a good thing too because that’s where I took entertainment design classes and realized that THAT is where I really wanted to be. I wanted to do conceptual art for film, television, or video games! It was kind of a rough start though. I did costume fabrication and model work for Starship Troopers and some concept work for Star Trek the Ride and some other Vegas attraction. But what I consider to be my first REAL job in the industry is when I got hired on at 3DO. Ah… good times. And as a result I actually got to work with Simon Bisley! Nerd dreams really do come true!!

How did you get involved with the Eragon video game? What was your role?

I had just finished doing concept art for another game company (Crystal Dynamics) when Stormfront Studios called me up and wanted to know if I would be interested in working with them again as a full time employee. I had worked with them before as a contract artist on Demon Stone. I had a great time working with them before and made some good friends that I would love to work with again, plus the 3 hour commute to CD was killing me, so I agreed. I started off doing mostly environment concept art. I little bit for Daret but then a bunch for Gil’ead and Farthen Dur. I also did a bit of 3D. I modeled and textured the body of Durza (the head was done by somebody else) and all the armor on Saphira for the end levels, as well as some other odds and ends. I also put together a number of the cut scenes using proprietary software and Adobe After Effects. And a few UI screens as well. I was everywhere!

Can you walk us through how concept art goes from what you read in a book (or other sources) to the finished concept illustration, and what a game studio does with the concept art once it’s finished?

It starts with either lines from a book, or a script, or design requirements from a game design document. From there the artist will talk about it with either the Art Director, or other concept artists, or designers just to get some creative feedback bouncing around and get some good visual ideas flowing and get everybody on the same page of what to expect. Then we sketch out a bunch of thumbnail images very quick and rough to narrow down what works and what doesn’t. From there it goes to a color composition or rough draft of the final image and once any revisions are made and it gets approved it goes to final. Generally what happens after that is the environment team will call out the various elements of the image that will be built out as a specific item that needs to be modeled. Sometimes more specific images need to be concepted out to show what a particular item might look like from another, or multiple views. Once everything is built out they get compiled into the level and lit. Then it is on to a process called scripting where functionality is brought to it. Then with a ton of other programatical magic and days and days of testing and bug fixing, it is considered finished.

When creating the concept art for Eragon, did you work solely off of the book or other sources as well? How much did the movie’s interpretation of the book factor into what you were creating

It all started with the actual movie script and a few concept images from the film studio. Most of the illustrations that I did, like the throne room and the stuff for Daret and Gil’ead were derived from that. I didn’t actually read and then finish the book until over half way into the project. So the film studio’s interpretation was the driving force behind much of what we did. The Art Director John Kleber and Lead Concept Artist Matt Gaser actually went on location to some of the sets in Hungary to take photos of the props and scenery

Do you have a favorite piece of Eragon concept art? Was there a piece you wish you could have drawn that you didn’t get the chance to create?

My favorite piece would have to be the sheet of thumbnail compositions that I did for Galbatorix’ throne room. More specifically the second image down on the left. I feel it really captures the mood of that area well. There are a lot of images that I wish I could have done. The send off of the egg, Saphira’s initial nest in the woods that Eragon creates for her, Angela’s shop, the dark church, and more. But there was only so much that we could put into the game and those didn’t make the cut. Those and many many more are on my list of things that I would like to concept out in my free time… if ever there was such a thing.

What projects have you worked on since Eragon? Which are you most proud of?

Since Eragon there were a number of projects at Stormfront that didn’t quite make it off the ground that were pretty cool. There was a virtual environment (a lot like Second Life) at a place called Virtual Space Entertainment, a game that never made it out the door of Ignition Studios, an iOS game that I created, and my current project Dungeon Defenders 2 at Trendy Entertainment. But the thing I am most proud of is the work I did for Escape Plan that eventually made it to the PlayStation Vita. I came up with the concept and created the styleguide for the game while at Stormfront. It later got bought up and completed by Fun Bits Interactive. I designed a whole sheet of characters that I absolutely love and I hope that they eventually make use of. Lil and Large hold a place in my heart and I still have the maquette of Bakooki.

If there was a video game you wish you could have worked on, what would it have been? Why?

I would have loved to have worked on the Darksiders series. It is just so over the top with it’s heavy comic book influence in all the best ways. It’s the type of stuff that is in my head all the time, all that dark and twisted and truly epic stuff. It would have also been amazing to work with Joe Madureira and Paul Richards.

Who are your personal inspirations? Whose work have you been influenced by?

That’s a tough one, because there are TONS of them. I have a very large “miscellaneous concept art” reference folder that is a continual inspiration for me. But the big ones are Simon Bisley, Paul Richards, Brom, Craig Mullins, Nicolas “Sparth” Bouvier, Frazetta, Justin Sweet, Kenneth Rocafort, Feng Zhu, LD Austin, Leyendecker, Matt Gaser, Travis Charest, Arthur Gimaldinov, Luke “Mr–Jack” Mancini, and so many more.

How would you advise and encourage other artists who may be looking to better their skills and get into the world of illustrating concept art?

A while back I would have put my snob hat on and told them that they would have to go to college. Get and education!! But really that doesn’t matter anymore and you just wind up completely crippling yourself financially. Today, I say get out and paint something. And by that I mean get off your butt and drive somewhere, bike somewhere, or walk somewhere, find something interesting and PAINT IT!! You can take an online course on perspective, you can get a book on anatomy and copy, copy, copy and you can study the current artistic trends on the internet like a madman. But I have never seen more growth in people’s careers like when they get out and paint from real life. You will very quickly learn how to mix colors, find palettes that work well, and learn from life what color theory really is. You will learn how far you can push perspective before things start looking….. weird. You will learn what compositions are interesting, and which ones are boring. It really is a crash course on understanding “Art”. And the more you understand, the more you will be able to bend it to your will to create successful fantastic creatures and places that don’t exist. But always have your eyes open, because as an artist you will never EVER stop learning. As for getting into the business, you just need a good portfolio and the ability to check your ego at the door. If you have talent and can say, “yes sir, I will get that done right away” you will be an Art Director’s dream! I would gladly take someone that shows potential and has a good attitude over somebody that is more talented and is full of themselves.