Matijos Gebreselassie: Art in Board Games #49
Editors Note: I first noticed Matijos name on the Dinosaur Tea Party artwork and also happened to be one of the backers of Chronicles of Crime on Kickstarter. I knew I wanted to find out more about his particular style and of course that photo realistic work on Chronicles. Enjoy!
Hi Matijos, thanks for joining me! For our readers who aren't aware of your work could you tell us a bit about yourself and what you do?
Hi Ross, thank you for reaching out to me. Yes, I always wonder where to start with introducing myself- I'm a Pole, mulatto with Ethiopian Roots that was born in Sankt Petersburg, Russia. It usually works on job interviews as from the start everyone is curious about the combination.
I got my education in Poland and lived there from my early years. I've always been very passionate about drawing and expressing myself through illustrations. With the right mix of my other loves, cinematography and comics, I guess I figured out a characteristic art style for myself; cartoony and atmospheric with heavy outline. I also started experimenting with bringing my artwork to life and that led me to graduate from Polish National Film School in Łódź.
This was a great place that gave me the skills to execute animation in a professional way. While still studying I moved to the capital city and started working on animated movies, then later on, mobile games. Then I traveled to Kraków and that happened to create many opportunities for me. As an Art Director there I guided teams and was creating slot games. But by night I continued on delivering freelance passion projects - like board games.
Right now, I'm quite fresh after a relocation to Malta where I continue to work on slot games, this time with some additions in game design along with the art.
So how did you first get involved in making board games?
While moving to Krakow I was already in contact with Lucky Duck Games. Everything started with that company. Earlier I saw an ad that they were looking for a supportive artist for their new title Master of Elements, an expansion of the successful ‘Vikings Gone Wild’. I was attracted by the fantasy theme and cartoony art style that this game had and I knew it wouldn't be a problem for me to deliver something similar after hours. I drew a couple of cards for a start but soon the Kickstarter campaign turned out to be such a huge hit that fans started reaching almost every stretch goal planned within a day or even a few hours. New artwork for cards was needed to be done extremely quickly in order to update the campaign. It was a very pleasant time full of challenges and late night emails: 'We need 3 more!'.
When the dust has settled the CEO and Founder of Lucky Duck Games, Vincent Vergonejeanne invited me to the office with an offer of a wider collaboration. He showed me the prototype of Chronicles of Crime invented by David Cicurel with only placeholders on a print. Everything was yet to be filled with proper art and I was absolutely blown away by the whole gameplay concept and innovation.
Once again full artistic freedom was given to me by Vince with lots of trust and professionalism. In my previous experience that wasn't very common. So board games with LDG became my true passion!
Your work spans quite a number of fields, from animation, film, concept and game art. How do you think this experience changes how you approach each new project? What key lessons do you think you've learned that you can apply throughout your work?
At the beginning I tried to grab almost every job opportunity in the industry there was. As they joke:
“So why do you want this job?”
”Well, I've always been passionate about not starving to death, sir”
My girlfriend at the time, now wife, supported me all the way in order to stay focused and on track no matter the obstacles. So I was always doing art. Art in different forms that each time brought me joy. My goal is to use cinematic eye wherever I can, to leave a characteristic mark on everything I do. Now I've got this privilege to get involved in new projects only because I'd like to, not because of necessity and board games are a perfect example of this.
I realized that in every job I have I use the same skill set package that is learned once. No matter if it's VFX for the film, costume or scenery design for a theater, mobile, slot or board game. It's always sketching, storyboards, polishing in different art styles and animating. Each field somehow needs to use those tools.
I loved to work on my own but as an Art Director I guess I've learned to focus on teamwork more and I like the different chemistry that it brings. Everyone learns from each other and push projects forward at a pace that you'd never achieve on your own.
I first came across your work in ‘Dinosaur Tea Party’. It’s characters are larger than life, so how did you create them?
Thank you, glad to hear that. At first I was given the theme and a core idea: 'Let's imagine dinosaurs wearing Downton Abbey clothes having a tea party'. With my character design I aimed for something family friendly and witty. I suggested my take on a single outlined sketch, it depicted a dino wearing a bow-tie, a hat and a monocle holding a bubble pipe. Then Restoration Games were kind enough to leave the entire art approach to me afterwards.
I was provided with a list of Dinosaurs names, not species types, actual names like Betty or Bob, which were gathered in Excel. This list contained visual characteristics required for the game play, assets like hats, glasses, flowers, patterns on the skin etc. Then I did some research on the different dinosaurs looks for inspiration. In the end some of them are based on real species, but with some mix of features as my imagination dictated. I just tried not to repeat myself visually. For the polishing part I used a technique in Photoshop that was new to me at the time, grey-scale maps. It was worth taking a shot at using it, as it's an extremely time saving technique, good for tight deadlines and it helped to keep everything consistent in style.
You mentioned you’ve learned to change how you work now that you’re an art director. What do you think are some of the most important aspects of this role?
To me it would be overall vision of the entire project and consistent art guidance towards the final product, plus creating a friendly atmosphere for the team because only then you can outperform the project in every aspect. For a long time in my artistic education I was very self-centered and tried to be self-sufficient in everything I did. The role of an art director (AD) opened different doors for my workflow model.
The first thing is to know your team members; their strong fields of profession, even their attitudes toward different tasks. Only then you can assign the right one and control the development. The second very important aspect for me is the final composition. The AD should be in charge of the final stitching of art components so they come together as one. You should try to avoid the effect of a Frankenstein being put together from lots of different elements. It doesn't mean that only your art style goes on top of the last edit, it could be anyone's from the team, it's just a matter of keeping it all consistent at the end.
Chronicles of Crime ties it's narrative into real locations. How do you go about creating these art assets with the real world in mind?
At the beginning of the project I just needed to find the right style. I started with the character design of our victims/suspects cards, where with the studio we've chosen black comic book outline and a slight exaggeration of some features as a guideline for the entire game. It's actually something in which I feel the most comfortable.
Then I aimed in translating this to the location cards and 360 VR panoramas, which was a bit different because this time I wasn't designing from my imagination. The locations are based on the real London districts so I needed to stick to the right look. I began with photo research, and I created a library of references. Sometimes it takes half an hour, but with more complex views it may even take a couple of days.
Then comes the most engaging and important part of the entire process, compositing photos together. After this there's a time for the outline, which basically does major part in compositing because it blends everything nicely. Then a couple of Photoshop filters and lots of brush over-painting, that simplifies the shadings and gradients which gets away from the realistic feel and brings in more of an illustrated effect. The best part is this last stage where you already see everything in its place and the only aspect left is playing with the light, rim lights, reflections and gentle touches of brush stroke.
I learned this technique at the beginning of my freelance path where I was designing Hidden Object Games using photobashing.
Photobashing is the technique of combining photographs or images, using painting and editing to create larger pictures. Although it's a common technique in digital art some have accused it as being "cheating". What would you say to people with this opinion and how does photobashing help illustrators work?
Photobashing is for sure an excellent technique for concept art and the mood board stage. In many fields in the industry it helps artists deliver multiple high quality illustrations in a short time. It works similarly to story boarding in a sense, in that it clarifies visually where you’re aiming with the style and overall look. But when doing your final renderings it's of course all about being smart and having in mind intellectual rights, with heavy editing a must. This means cuts and edits, with strong over-painting that will change the basic look. It's just another technique you can reach for if you decide to achieve a photo realistic effect, it goes along with over-painting 3D models and pasting photo textures which is absolutely fine with me. If you manage to do it right, you can have unique and fresh visuals out of pre-made materials.
You mention looking to leave a charismatic mark on everything you do, so in a practical sense how do you approach each piece of art to ensure you do this?
When working on different projects that vary from each other I want to find the right technique that supports the core vision and a story, but my relatives always mention that they can spot my style in everything I do, so I guess I'm not that elastic after all and fail with each trial!
Of course, cartoon looks and black lines comes naturally as I sketch at the beginning of everything. Even when I decide to skip the outline in polishing I usually go for very strong rim lights (that does almost the same job but with opposite, bright colors) and that was the case of Dinosaur Tea Party made for Restoration Games for instance.
But aside from the technique, I guess I always go for a certain look of a human or monster body that is taken from the pop culture that I value. I push with a specific character design that I developed naturally through my learning process. So it doesn't matter if it's a scary and realistic horror project (concepts for a theme park attraction with VR technology) or concepts for more friendly Fireball Island board game - you'll always find my way of drawing muscles, eyes or hands. Even, or only, those small details.
How do you keep the balance between your work as a freelancer? Do you have any advice?
Actually I don't think I keep the balance at all. I should be the last person to give advice on that matter, but if I have to:
”Kids, if you'd like to follow my footsteps I suggest unhealthy little amount of sleep, late chocolate snacks and a good playlist in your ears”.
Night is perfect for art challenges, it's like winning an extra day.
What are some non-game related creations (books, music, movies, etc) that you’re currently enjoying?
I'll refer to something that I enjoy listening to while working on my projects. My playlist is always very strange because it mixes Rammstein with Vivaldi and Max Richter, but as a polish, patriotic move I'll recommend to all amazing bands like Bass Astral x Igo and Kwiat Jabłoni. I also look for interviews with writers and people of cinema, recently the Hollywood Reporter gave nice insight releasing on Youtube 'the Roundtable', a series of discussion panels. I think that cinema is something that I’ve had in my blood from birth, but while working I limit myself to audio only. I think almost every stand-up on Netflix I've got checked as 'watched'.
(All images supplied by Matijos Gebreselassie)
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