Bill Tiller (LucasArts) – Interview

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It’s our pleasure to introduce LucasArts art wizard Bill Tiller! He’s brought to life some of the best games LucasArts have ever made, including The Curse of Monkey Island and The Dig! He’s also now a successful freelancer, so if you want him to bring life to your creations please feel free to drop him a line at bill.tiller@gmail.com

Adrian found out more from the legend himself…

 

Bill, thanks so much for stopping by Arcade Attack! What are your earliest memories of gaming and art and when did you realise these two amazing worlds could be combined?

I loved illustration and stories from age 3. I was always either drawing or playing with my toys making up stories and adventures. I wanted to grow up and be a Disney background artist because I loved Disney movies so much, especially Peter Pan, The Rescuers and the Jungle Book. Then I got into Tolkien and Dungeons and Dragons around age thirteen and I was inspired by the TSR and Tolkien artists. In 1982 my folks got me a computer and that is when I changed my mind and wanted to make computer games. It was an Apple II+, and I played Ultimate, Bilestoad, Choplifter, Swashbuckler and Load Runner all the time after school. I even made my own games: a Battlestar Galactica Star Fighter Combat game, and a fantasy arcade game where the player ran to get treasure from a wizards treasure vault while the wizard shit fire balls at you, and a few others. They were done in BASIC so they were kind of slow.

I still adored Disney animation and that motivated me to go to the Character Animation Program at the California Institute of the Arts where I studied under Disney animators and directors, and went to school with future Disney, and Pixar Directors. I learned a lot about visual story telling there.

The Head of LucasArts’ art department came down from San Rafael to look for an animator for Steven Spielberg’s “The Dig” and she showed me a video from the unreleased Indian Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, I was excited by the art and what computers nowadays could do. We had Amigas in our computer lab, but we didn’t play games on them, just did animation and art, so I had no clue what the game industry was doing during those years. I was mightily impressed.

 

How did you first get the opportunity to enter the video game industry and do you remember the first game you ever worked on?

Back then some companies wanted you to do an art test to make sure your portfolio was legit, and LucasArts was one of them. Odd thing was that it was an animation test, but the man who administered the test just had me trace over a live action man (Brian Moriarty it turns out) walking on a treadmill. Now that wasn’t going to show off my animation skills and I wasn’t sure about the job anymore if it was just going to be a rotoscope job or not. I was confused, so I went ahead and did the rotoscoping, and did a good job I think because I noticed a hitch in his walk and I was able to fix it so it was a smooth walk. It was a two-day test and I had finished early so I spent the rest of my time working on an animation idea I had at Cal Arts, a small fat dragon who ate too much trying to run and flap his wings so he could fly. It was rough, but I think I got the motion and emotion correct. When the LucasArts animators reviewed my work they weren’t impressed with the rotoscoping because it didn’t show my character animation abilities, but they all liked my fat dragon trying to take off. And that is how I got the job.

The first game I worked then was Brian Moriarty’s version of Steven Spielberg’s The Dig. I started off animating the astronauts walking around, and floating out in space. Then I had a fun scene where the scientist named Toshi fell into a pit of acid and climbed out before dying. That was a big hit among the Lucas employees who were often walked by my desk. My desk was by a busy walkway so people going back and forth saw my animation all the time. Word spread about this really gross and shocking animation. I’d get to show it to people all the time.

 

 

 

We’ve had the ultimate pleasure of interviewing so many LucasArts legends in the past. What was it like for you personally working at the company and are you still in touch with any of its former employees?

It was a bunch of things: exhilarating, nerve-racking, even mundane at times, fun at others. What I really liked while working there was the people and the culture. Everybody was friendly, helpful, talented, and interesting. Plus, we all had similar interests so we all became good friends pretty quickly. Normally I am pretty shy and it takes me a while to warm to people, but at LucasArts I made lifelong friends right away. The other thing that was interesting was hearing about the history of the company, seeing and playing all the new games that were still in production, and getting to go to Skywalker Ranch for lunch and for softball games. The Christmas and Independence Day parties were fantastic. Every now and again I would get to see what was going on at our sister company, Industrial Light and Magic just next door.

 

You worked on a number of amazing 3D Star Wars games and classic point-and-click titles. Is it very different creating art for these two different genres and art styles and do you have a preference over creating 2D and 3D art?

I personally do not do any 3D modeling because I am just not that good at it. I was always terrible at sculpting too. But I loved doing textures and lighting in 3D. I prefer doing 2d art because I have a lot of control over the final image and its faster than 3D modeling. Plus I can give it an unique illustrative style that isn’t photorealistic, or 3d rendered looking – it is just more creative and flexible for me.

 

 

You became the Lead Artist and Art Director for The Dig. Why did this game take so long to be released and were you working on this project from day one?

Because three project leaders each made their own versions of it. The first one I have no clue why it didn’t cross the finish line. You’d have to ask Noah Falstein about it.

The second one was not completed because there wasn’t enough time to complete the engine and write all the dialog for the game, so Brian was concerned it would not be as good as he needed it to be and I think he felt he had no options or solutions to fix the production, and so decided to take a job offer at another company, Rocket Science I think. It was too much to ask to make a game up to the standards of Steven Spielberg and make a brand-new adventure game engine and write the dialog for four different characters, and manage a production that was much bigger than he had worked with before. It was all too overwhelming.

So two years on, Noah’s The Dig went down the drain, and two years on Brian’s Dig went down the drain.

Sean Clark, having just come off Sam N Max Hit the Road took over and made a few basic changes to the plot to make production easier and the story more streamlined, and we just switched back to SCUMM instead of trying to fix the new engine. We reused as much of the art from Brian’s Dig, which at the time seemed like a good idea, but in hindsight I would say we should not have because by the time the game came out two years later the graphics looked old due to the size of the characters. But I understand the decision. Then we added a bunch of new animated cinematics because the tech allowed us to, and made a huge game with lots of puzzles. So that is why it took so long. Trust me, everyone was sick of that game and were thrilled when we finally got it out the door and it did well and got good reviews. It is not perfect by far, but I thought it was a fun game and with lots of cool things in it.

 

 

The Dig was quite a mature adventure game for LucasArts. What is your personal opinion about this game and did the mood of the game influence the artwork?

Trust me, everyone was sick of that game and were thrilled when we finally got it out the door and that it did well and got good reviews. It is not perfect by far, but I thought it was a fun game and with lots of cool things in it.

The art style wasn’t developed by me. It was developed by Bill Eaken when he and Brian Moriarty were working together early on. I think it was based on Bill’s early paintings of some caves. Spielberg wanted the world to be at constant twilight, with lots of meteorites shooting across the sky. Brian wanted very few plants because I was told Noah’s Dig had lots of plant life and he wanted it to be different from that version. Bill was concerned the rocky world would be too boring so the best way to make a mundane location look nice is to light it with colorful and dramatic lighting. Bill wanted to use paint to render the backgrounds because drawing with the mouse using Dpaint was difficult and not the best tool. So he painted the backgrounds in black and white then scanned the paintings into a computer, colored them in Dpaint and another proprietary software called Decay. So when Brian left so did Bill Eaken and so I learned Bill’s technique and took over, even modifying it quite a bit, but instead of painting the image with paint I just painted them in black and white in Photoshop. So the final look of the game is a combination of mine and Bill’s art style.

On the character side we had two types of characters: the in-game characters and the cut cinematic characters. The in-game characters couldn’t be enlarged to look as big as Ben Throttle in Full Throttle which was about 40% of the screen height. We were stuck with about 25% of the screen height in order to get the characters to fit within the old backgrounds. These were designed for smaller characters due to the memory limitations back in ‘92. So they tended to look a bit too blocky. But they were at least clear and readable.

 

Would you ever like to see The Dig rebooted with new graphics or even turned into a movie?

Yes, yes and yes. The Dig to me is a bit like the TV shows The Land of the Lost and Lost, where people are dumped on to a mysterious island under strange circumstances, the place is in ruins and is not functioning well and hides a dramatic secret. So obviously it would make a good movie because it fits that genre. Yes the graphics were 320×200 so they were too low and it would be nice to fix them, and redesign the animated characters because I wasn’t thrilled with their final design or the style of the animation. If we could have done 3D animation for the characters at the time I would have pushed for that.

 

How excited were you to work on The Curse of Monkey Island and are you fan of the previous games in the series?

I was very excited and had been pushing to do more Monkey island games for a while, just like I wanted us to do more Indy games. But many at the company didn’t think it would be wise since Ron Gilbert left. I didn’t agree. I thought a new take was what the franchise need to become relevant again. I had faith that two very smart and funny guys, Larry Ahern and Jonathan Ackley, were going to make a great Monkey Island game. I knew it would be a lot different than Ron’s versions for sure, but just Like Star Wars and Marvel, sometimes new blood can revitalize a franchise and bring it to a new generation. I had supreme faith it would be a good game, plus we had a very talented writing and scripting team in Chuck Jordan and Chris Purvis, and we had a crew of young and talented animators an artists working on it too.

 

The Curse of Monkey Island is often regarded as the best looking game in the series. As the Lead Background Artist for the game, how does it feel that your work is still so highly commended today and you have such a major role in the overall look and feel of the game?

I think I was the right person at the right place and at the right time. The art I do now for games is ten times better but I never hear anyone say anything about my art on Duke or Ghost Pirates, because they weren’t published by LucasArts and didn’t sell as many units. So I have to take all the rave reviews with a grain of salt, LucasArts had a lot to do with having people see and appreciate my art. But I am thrilled by it of course, but I was even happier working on it, and happy that a lot of people enjoyed playing the game. What blows me away is seeing how it had so much influence even to this day in other games, movies and the like. Like I said, the game hit at the right time and influenced a whole generation of directors and artists today. So that is pretty amazing to me.

 

Do you have a personal favorite background in the game and can you explain why?

There are quite a few. I guess it would be easier to say which ones I don’t like. But then again, I look at them now and I cringe because I know I can do a lot better now, just take a look at Duke Grabowski. But I guess the long shots where you can see a lot of things in the distance are my favorite because then I can show how the whole island is connected. I like to hint at other locations in the current one on the screen to help lure you on with the promise of more to explore.

 

 

 

Do you think you would get along with Guybrush Threepwood in real life and do you have a personal favourite character within the Monkey Island universe?

He’d be fun to hang out with because of his sense of humor, but I’d probably get annoyed with his Pollyanna naiveite and how much he cheats! So I’d like him in small doses. Elaine is who I’d really like to hang out with because I respect her leadership, her bravery and her cleverness.

 

Hal Barwood created one of my favorite games of all time in Fate of Atlantis. How did you get the opportunity to work with this legend on Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine and what was your exact role on this title?

Love that game by the way – Indy and the Fate of Atlantis. I was the art director on Infernal Machine and that was my first game in real time 3D, though I had worked on Rebel Assault which was a pre rendered 3D game.

I was a huge Raiders of the Lost Ark fan and of the whole Indy franchise, though a few of the movies were not that good. But I love history, ancient architecture, myths, and exotic locations, so I was thrilled to work on it. I was pushing for us to do a 3D Indy game ever since we did Dark Forces. It took Tomb Raider to get Lucas management to finally do it. I just talked to Hal about the job and my boss, and then I got the job. Plus Larry Ahern and Jonathan Ackley gave me a great recommendation.

I jumped in and started doing black and white sketches of the main areas in the levels and started doing texture work and art directing the level designers. We had a blast on that game, and even though our tech was a bit outdated Jedi Knight tech, I am proud of the game and really enjoyed working on it, and it was fun to add The Curse of Monkey Island Easter Egg in.

 

Did you have a nickname while working at LucasArts and what was your happiest memory working at this amazing company?

No, no nickname… that I am aware of….

My happiest memory was probably just after I gave my Games Developer Conference speech about Curse of Monkey Island Art. I was super nervous, but it went over very well and I was happy we had made a great game and that so many people packed the room that it showed how much people liked the game. Plus I was so relieved that I didn’t have to talk in front of a thousand people anymore.

 

 

Can you run us through a typical day working as an artist at LucasArts and the skills needed to be successful in this role?

Well the typical worked day changed depending on the project and the era of LucasArts we were in. I kind of split the eras in three: Kerner era, Los Gamos era, and Prequel era. During the Kerner era the company was located in the Canal District at Kerner Boulevard and split into 3 buildings: A building; B Building and Z building. A building had the programmers, testers and management. B Building had the artists, and Z building had two production teams combined together in one space for Sean Clark’s The Dig and Hal Barwood’s Big Sky Troopers.

The days working at B Building was great because they were pretty cool offices with great lighting and with a interesting open air design. I liked this period because we were all together in one space and we could all see each others’ work-  just great art everywhere. It was very inspiring, and it was just a more intimate work space.

When we moved to a big office building on Los Gamos Boulevard, the offices were still cool, but everyone was so spread out and there were cubicles everywhere! It became too divided, and more like a regular office, a nice open one but still an office. But that was the era where we made Curse of Monkey Island and Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine, so that was fun. But then the prequel era came and it was non stop Jar Jar and goofy battle droids, and bad dialog. Though I will admit I did love Darth Maul.

In the morning of the Kerner era I got my tea, sat down and worked, and did that till noon, mostly animating on Brian’s The Dig. At lunch the artists and project leaders and I would break up into groups and go find a local place to eat, more often than not at Marin Brewing Company. Choosing a place to eat was annoying until a project leader Vince Lee created a dial that you would spin with all the popular restaurants in the area on it and that is how decided where to go sometimes. About 3 in the afternoon we’d go out in the parking lot and play hacky sack for 15 minutes to keep our blood flowing. After work we’d play games in the conference room like the new X-Wing game, or Street Fighter 2, or play D&D sometimes or do a cartoon jam where we doodle silly cartoons. Occasionally on a Friday I’d stay till 2 am playing Sim City 2000 or X-Wing.

 

Why did you leave LucasArts and what inspired you to start Autumn Moon Entertainment?

I was not thrilled with Randy Breen’s management of the projects basically, though I did really like President Simon Jefferies a lot – plus the only new games being made were Star Wars prequel games and I was not a fan of the prequels. And I wanted to do my own games.

I wanted to do my own adventure games and I had this fake company name way back in college, so I brought it back and used it for my new company. I wanted to gather as many old coworkers as possible and see if we could make games like the old days but with new characters, stories and new genres. If the game hadn’t come out during the great recession I think we would have done alright. Bad timing I guess. It ultimately made money but it took longer than we hoped.

 

 

How did you first get the idea to create A Vampyre Story and how do you reflect back on this game?

It was back in 1995 I came up with the basic idea, female vampire stuck in castle with a bat sidekick. I was a fan of Edward Gorey and was sketching an idea I had for a vampire woman done in a similar style. Then I added a few monsters to the sketch, including a bat sidekick named Froderick. And that is when I thought it would make a good game.

My only two regrets on A Vampyre Story is not hiring a better programmer for our engine and for not making a smaller game that encompassed the whole quest. And I’d probably would have remove about 50% of the puns too. Other than that I am happy with how it came out and glad so many people liked it.

 

Do you think you will ever work on a new Vampyre Story game?

No, I have given up. I can’t raise enough money to do it and I don’t own the computer game rights, though I own all other rights. But I will do A Vampyre Story graphic novel next year. I am bummed we never got to do the sequel, so I’ll tell the whole story of Mona and Froderick through that medium instead.

 

You are still creating classic point-and-click games to this very day (including Duke Grabowski: Mighty Swashbuckler!) while many game developers have moved on from this genre. Why do you think these type of games are not as popular as back in the 90s?

Well they evolved in to Tell Tale story games with less puzzles. Plus, the competition for game customers is tough now with all the varieties of game play and genres out there.

 

Out all of the games you have worked on, which one are you most proud of and why?

Hard to say. I liked all of them pretty much. Curse of Monkey Island was the project I think I had the most fun creating art for and the talent on that game was great. It got rave reviews and won a lot of awards. But so did EA’s The Lord of the Rings The Two Towers, so I’m proud of that one too, and Skylanders: Imaginators, that got great reviews and was the last one in the series. I even got to design one of the toy figures! I don’t think there is game out there that I worked on where I am proud of my work at least.

 

Are there any games you started work on but were never released, and if so, which unreleased game do you think would have been the most successful?

A Vampyre Story 2 would be because the first one was so popular. Full Throttle: Payback would have been great too because Larry Ahern, a contributing designer to the first game, was project leading it, and Peter Chan was advising me on the visual style. Duke Grabowski Chapters 2-5 would have been great too. But the first one didn’t sell well enough.

 

What projects and games are you currently working on?

I was just working on a side scrolling game based on an idea I came up with called Miskantoic Mary, but I couldn’t devote enough time to it, so we cancelled it. I’ll make that into a kids book I think. Now I am looking for a full-time job and freelance work. I think I am done making my own games. They just didn’t make enough money and were very stressful to make. I’m off to do kids books, comic books and to work full time at a reliable game company.

 

If you could be transported into any one of your video games, and live there for a day, which game would you choose and why?

Probably Curse of Monkey Island and A Vampyre Story. CMI because I love tropical locations and Spanish colonial architecture, pirate ships, magic, gold and undead pirates. A Vampyre Story because I love monsters, Halloween and the creepy Draxsylvania setting.

 

If you could share a few drinks with a video game character, who would you choose and why?

This is kind of cheating because he is a movie character too but Indiana Jones, for obvious reasons – he has great adventure stories, and he knows a lot about history, archeology, artefacts, myths and legends. Plus while we were drinking some screaming Thuggee warriors would fly in and kidnap us both and we’d have to execute a daring escape before they pulled our hearts out, and then we’d have to save the world from an unholy artefact of pure insensate evil. That would be fun!

 

Er, rather you than us Bill! Thanks for sharing all these amazing stories, we wish you all the best for the future. Readers, if you wish to utilise some of Bill’s extraordinary talents please drop him a line at bill.tiller@gmail.com

 

Adrian

 

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