(This interview is a reprint from 2001; as such, it may feel a touch out of date, but we felt it was worth a read as a companion to our review of Myst III. Enjoy!)
An interview with Ron Lemen of the Myst III: Exile team
Recently, we were offered the chance to talk with Ron Lemen, artist, teacher, and designer for Presto Studio's soon to be released game Myst III: Exile. Of course, we jumped at the chance to provide our readers with a behind the scenes look at the production of a large-scale adventure game. Ron, who designed the Edanna Age (or veggie age), graciously answered all our questions even inviting us into his classroom. Providing you, our readers, with a step-by-step look at what went into creating not just the graphics for Exile, but the look and feel of the Edanna Age.
If you have ever been interested in entering the game industry Ron provides excellent insight into the skills and abilities he uses everyday to do his job. He also reveals his opinion on the most important lesson budding designers can learn. But most importantly he shares pictures—including an exclusive screenshot of Myst III: Exile—displaying the behind the scenes work that went into the production of the Edanna Age.
Can you tell us a little about your educational and work background?
I've been drawing since I can first remember. I have always been involved in art in some way. As a kid, my Mom used to take me to her art classes in college where I had the luxury of learning things about the rules and tools of art, before I really knew what I was doing.
I've been a professional since I was 14, and professional only in the fact that I was making money from the art I produced. I was a graphic/product designer and illustrator for the action sports industry (skateboarding, surfing, snowboarding) for ten years. I have worked in comics and continue to do so, a medium of art that I really love. I have done pre-production and conceptual work for a few television shows, and now more recently a few video games, including Myst III: Exile, a job that I have absolutely enjoyed doing.
My education is minimal. I have been taking art classes and workshops my whole life, but I never attended a formal art school. About ten years ago, I was introduced to a figure drawing technique at a small, private art school in San Diego. I have been involved with them ever since.
I understand you're a teacher, what is the most important lesson your students will learn from your class?
The most important lesson I could pass on to another fellow artisan would be to keep your mind open and flexible. Techniques can be taught, and learned, but these techniques don't necessarily make you a good artist. Without vision the end goal is difficult to reach, obtain, or even find. Most art students hang their imagination up to learn the ways of the arts, and most of these students forget to go back to that imagination once they get out of art school, diluted with false impressions that the techniques they have just learned are the true meaning of art. This produces many proficient technicians in the arts, but doesn't produce many quality artists. You have to rekindle that imaginative side of the brain. This is where you will find your most creative thoughts and ideas. Art techniques are only tools. They are not the end means to success in art or the only way to create art.
What is the biggest hurdle you have had to overcome as a professional artist/designer?
The biggest hurdle I've had to overcome is getting the confidence to speak my mind. The hardest thing for me to do is express a new idea to a committee or the rest of the staff I am going to work with. As the creator of the idea, it is up to me to translate this idea into words and thoughts, which means I have to talk to others about what is going on in my imagination. The pictures alone don't solely justify producing something I have created. This means that I have to speak in front of others. I have to act out characters, machines, creatures, etc. I have to become a riveting orator in hopes that I can sell the idea to others. I am not an actor, and I feel like someone just dropped three grand pianos on my back whenever I have to go through this process. Very nerve racking, to say the least.
You work in a number of different mediums, which do you feel helps you the most when crafting art for games?
I don't limit myself to any medium for anything. In Exile I was the designer of the Edanna [or Veggie] Age, a large inverted tree. This means that now I am not just dealing with horizontal walking planes, but a multitude of diverse organic paths that can't just be drawn or painted in 2D and then instantly translated into 3D. I produced a sculpture of the tree, and sculpted out many of the paths and branches in clay. Then these were translated into 3D by the modelers. This also allowed me to draw more accurate images for the modelers, something I was having difficulty doing on paper.
Many times to help the modelers see better what I envisioned, I would have them model primitive paths in 3D, then I'd import the models over to Photoshop and render images on top of the primitive foundation.
How did you first get involved in designing game graphics? Was it a natural progression for you?
Presto Studios is what I would call my legitimate beginning with game graphics, although I did some really funky stuff for a few independent companies prior to Presto. I was introduced to Presto by a good friend and great comic artist, Scott Benefiel. He was involved with Presto at the time, working on costume and character design for The Journeyman Project 3. They needed more designers for a new game they were building and I joined the crew. The transition into games was very natural. Designing to me is just drawing a lot of pictures, at least on the surface it is. It's actually deeper than that, but bottom line for me is, am I happy? Drawing pictures makes me happy. The transition was very easy.
What things inspire you? Where did you find the inspiration for the Age you created for Myst III?
Everything inspires me. I've been called eclectic by many and I believe it to be true. The only thing I am all-consumed by is creativity. Beyond that, anything can give me inspiration. I think if I had to narrow it down to a tangible answer, it would be safe to say that music is a very big influence on me. In order for me to see something in my mind, I also have to entertain my other senses to a certain degree. Filling my ears with sound helps me depart to that creative plane. Jimmy Hendrix is a big influence, as well as John Singer Sargent.
For the Age of Edanna specifically, I was inspired by the rainforests of Borneo and the South Pacific. I haven't seen nature portrayed very well in many visual creative endeavors, and I really wanted to try and tackle this from a unique direction. I am enamored by big plants that can consume you, not literally but physically; large palm leaves, ferns that grow 20 feet into the air. This stuff, to me, is a video game just waiting to happen; and I wanted to make it happen. Our team pulled it off very well.
Could you describe the process you go through to develop a game's look?
The first thing I need for this process is some foundation. It could be one word or an entire paragraph, but I need some type of direction. I could just start drawing, but at that point it is just too random, and I would gravitate toward the things I am most familiar drawing. Once I have an idea of where to start, I blast out as many drawings as I possibly can. I also gather reference at this stage, looking for things to get my mind working on the problem.
These drawings are scrutinized, the best pieces of them moving on to the second drawing phase, which is the readdressing of the problem. Here, I take my time to carefully figure out what I want, what I like and want to leave out. Sometimes I will scrap an idea altogether because what little there was to begin with has now flourished into something bigger and better.
I give the early phase drawings to the modeler. He will come up with rough shapes, and from there we can better see what is going to work and what is not from an aesthetic and technical stand point. From the primitive, I then make tighter, more complete drawings, this time including color and texture. Finally, the more refined model is moved on to the texture artist who uses the color drawing as a basis to start from to design the textures. I usually give the texture artist plenty of freedom to redefine the textures if they see the need for it. We all look at the finished product together and determine if there are any other changes that need to be made.
From a design point of view, what is the most challenging part of your job?
Coming up with ideas is the most challenging thing for me. Especially when we are under such a tight deadline. I really would like to have had another year on the pre-production side of things. I think I began a lot of really solid ideas, but I didn't get a chance to go through a serious ideation phase with them. To me, these concepts are only half of what they could have been. But, as a designer, one thing I have to become battle hardened with is the fact that not everything produced is going to be the absolute best in my mind. I used to let things dwell with me, but I've been doing a good job of letting that go. Time… please give me the gift of more time, and I would be a happy camper.
When you work on a big project like Myst III: Exile how many people work on the graphics for each age? How is work broken up and assigned?
For Exile we had five Ages—one designer to each Age. Each Age was then assigned one modeler, one texture artist and one animator. In the case of Edanna though, I had two modelers to get everything underway. Two things that were a challenge to my team: organic modeling, and lots of diverse terrain moving you in every possible direction, not just horizontally. My modelers are very thankful this game is almost complete.
Now that you are in the final stage of development with Myst III: Exile, what are your plans for the future?
The future? Another game. We have a title in the works right now for Microsoft's X-Box that is going to be great fun. I am also interested in getting back to illustrating a bit more again.