Mike Dietz (Virgin Games) – Interview

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His work for Virgin in the early to mid nineties really opened up what the 16-bit machines could do and accounted for some of the most memorable games in our collection. It’s my pleasure to introduce Adrian’s chat with graphic supremo Mike Dietz, who is also far too modest a chap…

Readers, please check out Mike’s website here.

 

Did you always have a love for art and animation?

I think I’ve always considered myself as more of a cartoonist than an artist. Some of my first memories are of drawing characters from my favorite cartoons and comics. I used to draw characters on both sides of a piece of cardboard and cut them out to make my own action figures. I loved Looney Tunes, Tom and Jerry, Peanuts, Gigantor, Kimba and later on The Muppets. I was a big fan of Batman, and I remember watching a cartoon called Courageous Cat and Minute Mouse that was a spoof of Batman. I thought it was incredibly cool that there was a cartoon that was making fun of another cartoon. Later in life I discovered they were both created by Bob Kane.

 

 

How exactly did you get into the video game industry?

I guess I got into both video games and animation a little bit by accident. Back in the early 90’s I was working as a freelance illustrator when I answered a job post for a storyboard artist. It turned out the company was Virgin Games. They hired me, but for some reason when I showed up for my first day on the job they said there was no storyboard work. Instead, there was a bunch of animation that needed to be done and they asked if I could do that. I had never animated before, but I needed the job so I said yes and did the best I could.

 

Disney’s Aladdin really pushed the graphic capabilities of the Mega Drive to its limits and still looks awesome even today. How proud are you of your work on this game?

I tend to dislike most games I’ve worked on when they’re first completed, mostly because I’m so close to the process that all I see are the mistakes and the missed opportunities. It took me months before I could even play Aladdin without cringing, but over the years the game has grown on me. My favorite part of that game was the opportunity I received to work with the talented artists at Disney Feature Animation. I learned a lot from them and I think I was a better animator after the project was finished.

On the Mega Drive, a lot of the credit for the great animation graphics goes to Dave Perry’s game engine and Dave’s willingness to commit more resources than usual to character animation, giving us more frames of animation to work with. I should also mention that a lot of the R&D for our process of converting hand drawn cel animation to digital assets for the Sega was done by John Alvarado and Andy Luckey’s group for a game called Dynoblaze (or was it Dino Blaze? I can’t remember). We definitely stood on the shoulders of the work they did before us.

 

 

Cool Spot is again another beautiful gaming title. What are your memories when working on this one?

We were still pretty new to games at the time, figuring out both game development and animation at the same time. I had two great animators working with me on that game, Shawn McLean and Clark Sorenson. They did great work and really made the animation in that game shine.

 

You’re far too modest Mike! We’ll move on to one of my favourite ever video games ever made, Earthworm Jim. When you were working on it, did you know you were working on something special?

I didn’t necessarily think so at the time. We did feel however that we were finally getting to make the game we wanted to make without any interference from management. We were a bunch of guys in a little office just trying to make each other laugh. Doug TenNapel, Ed Schofield and I were all still learning how to animate with pencil on paper, hunched around the pencil test station trying to figure out what worked and what didn’t.

 

Out of all the video games you have helped create animation for what is your personal favourite and why?

Wow, that’s a tough call. I guess it would have to be either Earthworm Jim or the Neverhood. I learned a lot working on both of those games.

 

We have been lucky enough to interview both David Perry and Doug TenNapel for Arcade Attack. What was it (or even is it) like to work with two such important players in the video game industry?

Doug and Dave are both 6’ 8” tall charismatic leaders, but the similarities end there. Dave Perry’s superpower is his knack for PR and business development. Doug is a creative super-genius. Together they were a pretty powerful pair.

 

 

How has animation changed throughout your career in gaming?

The line has blurred more and more between game animation and feature film animation over the years, and now it’s less unusual for animators to work in both. When I first started there were a lot more technical limitations in games and as an animator you needed to know your way around those limitations in order to make your animation look as good as possible.

 

If you could travel back in time and work on any video game, which game would you have loved to be involved in?

Hmmm. It would have been fun to work on either Dragon’s Lair or Space Ace. The Bluth Studio at that time seemed a lot like our company Shiny Entertainment – they were a bunch of animators who struck out on their own, figuring it out as they went. Sure, the gameplay was limited, but they were the first ones to think about how to incorporate feature quality animation into a game.

I also would have liked to work on CupHead.

 

If you could give one piece of advice to anyone who wanted to work in video game animation – what would you say?

If you want to make video games, stop talking about it, stop dreaming about it, just start making games. With all the tools easily available today, there’s no excuse to not just jump right in. The more you make stuff, the more you learn, the better you get. And be willing to work hard, because animation and games are a lot of work. You can’t control how much talent you have, but you can control how hard you work.

 

If you could go for a drink with any video game character, who would you choose and why?

Evil Otto from Berserk. He seems so conflicted.

 

Adrian

 

 

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