Steve Purcell (Sam & Max creator/Pixar) – Interview

This guy is the real deal! The Sam & Max creator, LucasArts cover artist and Pixar legend Steve Purcell for some reason agreed to answer a lot of questions from little old us and we’re stoked! I guess there’s nothing else to say other than enjoy…


When did you first realise you wanted to become a cartoonist and do you remember the first ever comic book or characters you ever created?

My first documented drawings from when I was four were of Yogi Bear and Bozo. I spent a lot of my childhood watching Hanna Barbera and Warner Brothers cartoons and trying to draw all those guys. At some point I made Play-Doh figures of every cartoon character I could think of. I had my own random characters, one was call Thing, he was like a giant rat or bear smoking a cigar. The first full comic I remember drawing was called Super Stooge, a super hero that was basically a buck-toothed Jerry Lewis or Mortimer Snerd type but with muscles.


You are probably best known for creating the iconic and much-loved crime-fighting duo Sam & Max! Do you first remember how you first came up with these two characters and was what their initial inspiration?

Since my kid brother Dave and I were both drawing our own handmade comics, he also had a bunch of characters, one pair being Sam & Max, a dog and rabbit detective team. He would sometimes leave those comics laying around unfinished and I would draw into them in a mean parody of his style. I would draw them wrong on purpose and then have them comment on how badly they were drawn which was different in every panel (lol! – Ed). They would mix up their own names and they were horribly violent while maintaining their cluelessness and good cheer. He lost interest in the characters and gave them to me for my birthday and I started doing my own comics with Sam & Max, at some point settling on their designs more or less but still maintaining their odd self-conscious style of banter. When I was in art school I took the newspaper production class and ended up publishing the first real Sam & Max strips in the school paper.


How were you first approached by LucasFilm Games and did the company seem like a perfect fit for you and your art style from day one?

I was working at a company called Colossal Pictures in San Francisco drawing animation characters for clients like Disney, 7-Up and the Ed Grimley and Back To the Future TV shows. I got two calls from outside the studio, one was asking me to go and join the story team for Nightmare Before Christmas. The other was to come create game art for LucasFilm Games at Skywalker Ranch. The Nightmare Before Christmas job probably would have been the more natural fit, but I really wanted to work at Skywalker even though the actual work was less intuitive for me, creating game art on the computer with a very limited color palette. My ‘style’ was not really a factor for doing the game art. It was about trying to wrangle 16 colors into animation and environments for characters to walk around in. But it wasn’t long before I was asked to create cover illustrations for the games, where I was able to use my style to interpret how these tiny, simple game characters might actually look.



Is it true you were initially laid off from LucasFilm Games? And if so, what project were you working on at the time and can you describe your emotions at this at this tough time?

I was brought on to design avatars for a community game. I want to say Habitat but can’t be sure. It’s true that they decided I wasn’t needed for that project which was disheartening but they soon re-hired me to paint the cover for Zak McKraken which was a lot of fun and I was pleased with the result. Also I was asked to create a bunch of black and white illustrations in my comic style for the parody newspaper that was included with the game. Soon they brought me back to work on an anticipated pirate game, but that was also postponed so that we could turn out Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade on a short schedule.


You helped create some of the best ever artwork in video games during your time at LucasArts. I even have the Curse of Monkey Island box art framed in my hallway! How much freedom were you given when working on such classic covers as Maniac Mansion, the first Monkey Island covers and of course Sam and Max Hit the Road?

My first was Zak and then the first Monkey Island. I would submit three sketches and then was pretty much left to go off and paint. When I started sketching the Monkey Island cover I was drawing the as-yet unnamed hero like a big beefy doofus instead of the more sleight Guybrush we ended up with in the game. I guess we were still figuring out the characters as I was starting that piece. For the LeChuck’s Revenge cover, Ron Gilbert wanted something that looked like a classic book cover illustration. I decided to paint it in oils on a big 2 by 3 foot canvas. Head of the Art department, Collette Michaud was hired to do the graphic design for the package. I ended up shooting reference photos of her in costumes for both Guybrush and LeChuck and I spent a month doing the painting. I didn’t paint the Curse cover and Ken Macklin painted Maniac Mansion, though I did do an oil painting of the Edisons for the back of a reissue package. That one was fun because I was channeling the portraits from the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland. I painted it in a weekend. As far as Sam & Max, I was trying to capture the energy of a nutty road trip for the cover painting.


We have been honoured to interview so many LucasArts legends in the past such as David Fox, Dave Grossman, Hal Barwood and Noah Falstein. Can you describe the atmosphere at LucasArts at the time and are you still in touch with any of your ex-coworkers?

Most of those guys I see on Facebook and I occasionally bump into one in the real world. Collette, I married, so I see her every day.

As far as the atmosphere, I often describe the ranch environment like some kind of creative summer camp. Our offices were at the back of the ranch in a shingled building with a courtyard called the Stable House. My shared office had doors that opened out to a hillside with a creek running through it. We’d often see deer and bobcats wandering through. I would practice my bullwhip behind the building. Working on the Indy game I became obsessed with the whip from the movie. They had one displayed in the main building. I asked the research librarians where those whips came from and I ordered a ten footer and spent the summer learning to clip off the tops of weeds. In the winter we would have a fire in the common area fireplace surrounded by original star wars paintings. There was a three course lunch in the main house and we would often hike the ranch in the middle of the day. There’d be frequent screenings in the huge art deco theater. It was pretty idyllic.



How did the idea of turning one of your past comics and characters in Sam & Max materialise into becoming one of the company’s most popular and well-respected games?

There was an opening in the studio schedule and Mike Stemmle and Sean Clark were teamed up as project leaders for a new game. The slot was pretty narrow to produce something – less than a year – so it had to be a game that could be approached quickly. The characters were already being used to train SCUMM scripters. I had been providing color ‘Sunday” strips of Sam & Max to The Adventurer, the LucasArts newsletter that went out to all their fans. Sam & Max were kind of like unofficial mascots within the company. Kelly Flock, the President at the time was a fan of Sam & Max and he asked me if I wanted to license Sam and Max to LEC for a game, which floored me. A George Lucas company wanted to license something from me! Mike and Sean knew the comics. We decided to base the game on the road trip theme which came from one of the comics, but the game story was completely original to the game.


Did you always envision Sam & Max becoming a successful video game and can you describe your exact role in Hit the Road?

I don’t think we envisioned any of the games we were making as huge successes or even considered that decades later they would be remembered at all. I didn’t have an exact job title but tried to be available for whatever was needed. I worked on the story and design with Mike, Sean and Collette. I did some writing, some animation including Sam & Max and some ancillary characters and special case sequences, background layouts which were beautifully painted by Peter Chan and Paul Mica. Created marketing images like the cover and got to design a floaty pen for a promo.


Did you have a lot of say and control over how the game was made or was there ever any clashes with creative differences?

I had a lot of say but since everyone knew the source material there was no ramp up to find the right sensibility. Mike and Sean nailed the tone of the characters. We clashed about a few things but overall it was a pretty smooth and quick production at about seven and a half months.


Sam & Max: Hit the Road was a huge success and many fans were desperate to see a sequel. How do you reflect back on this title or are any things you would now have done differently?

It’s hard to remember if we did much second guessing about how to do it differently. I think for the time we had and the content, which included the mini-games, it game together really well and was a great adaptation of the comics. I briefly worked on a sequel idea with Dave Grossman but the new president opted not to pursue it.


Were you involved in the Sam & Max sequel Freelance Police before it got cancelled? And do you feel this game would have been a success if it was ever completed?

I was involved. Mike Stemmle was leading it. I was at Pixar at the time but was checking in with Mike about story issues and the modular design of the game which was initially meant to be episodic. The team was sending me files continuously and I would I would design characters when I had the time. I wasn’t one to try and guess how successful anything would have been.


How much of Freelance Police was completed before it was cancelled and how do you reflect when looking back at this sad decision to cancel the game?

Mike Stemmle would be the one to know but I would guess about 2/3rds. I remember the production seemed to be churning along so it was a big blow to hear that it had been cancelled. Still I was working as a consultant so I certainly wasn’t in the building when the decision came down. I was concerned that the team was going to get blamed for the cancellation so I put out a public statement to clarify how well the project had been going and my disappointment in the company’s decision.



Sam & Max have had numerous cameos and guest appearances in other LucasArts titles. Do you have a personal favourite Sam & Max Easter egg in another game?

Offhand, I’d say I like the appearance in Mike Stemmle’s ‘Afterlife’ there’s a rampaging giant Max that’s triggered after a specific series of circumstances. Also I believe it was in Star Wars: Jedi Knight: Dark Forces ll that an actual Max is a character in the game and he ended up on the Star Wars Wookieepedia page in an entry considering whether he is Star Wars canon.


Sam & Max Save the World again proved a huge hit! How did you get the opportunity to bring your characters back to life in video games?

Telltale was founded by Dan Connors and Kevin Bruner to create a new generation of adventure games. When the LucasArts’ license for Sam & Max Freelance Police expired, Telltale was free to make a deal with me to start developing a new series of episodic games.


Was working at Telltale Games really different from working at LucasArts and which company gave you the fondest memories?

Early Telltale had the vibe of the old LucasArts. For my part I would meet with the team at the start of the project. We’d go to a restaurant and drink beer and brainstorm the scope and subject matter for a season of games. One time our laughter offended a drunk guy at another table and he started circling us, sticking his chest out, convinced that we were mocking him. I think Dan bought him a pitcher to fend him off.


Why do you think Telltale Games closed down and how did you feel after this great company closed down?

I can’t say since I was never privy to the workings of the company. To me it was a huge surprise. I guess not so much to people in the middle of it.


Out of all the video games you have been involved in, which one are you most proud of and why?

Of course I love Sam & Max Hit the Road though I’m pleased with all the Sam & Max’s. I’m proud of any of the early LucasArts catalog I worked on, especially Monkey One and Two. It’s amazing to me that people still play them.


If you met Sam & Max in real life, do you think you get along and if so, would you ver be tempted to join them on an adventure?

We would have to get along since they are my brain blathering away. The letterer of my comics, Lois Buhalis would receive my scripts and comment that, ‘It sounds like you talking to yourself.’


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

I haven’t thought much about games I wish I had worked on. I suppose it would have been fun to work on one of Tim’s solo games. I guess I was out the door by that time.


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?

I’d have to say Sam & Max Hit the Road since it’s a world full of things that amuse me.


What is it like working for the amazing Pixar and what film are you most proud of working on?

I sometimes tell people that everything I was good at when I was a 7 year-old comes into play at my Pixar job. Making up stories, drawing pictures, doing funny voices. I’m proud of Brave because that was where I first had a chance to help lead a team, write the story and help create an actual Disney character. I was also able to voice a bit part and write song lyrics. I ended up with four credits on that film. On Toy Story That Time Forgot, I was able to write, direct, voice the villain and again, work on a song. It’s the closest to a Sam & Max type of story I can imagine doing for Pixar.



Apart from Sam & Max, have you ever created a character or story you think would be perfect for a video game, and if so, could you explain your idea?

Yes, I created a cast of characters in a couple of stories titled, ‘Toybox’. The main character is Suda, a doll, her friend is Ernie the Rat and they live in an illustrated book type of seaport town where everyone seems to be some kind of strange toy or misguided advertising icon. It could be a fun environment to explore through Ernie, the one outsider to this colorful, random world.


Your amazing artwork has been used in so many forms of media, from comics to films and video games. Do you have a preferred method of showing your artwork to the world?

I still like to paint on paper because it’s tactile and at the end I can hold the result in my hand. Comics, though I haven’t done them in a long time, provide a perfect stage for autonomous storytelling, like having a movie studio at the end of your pen point. Making actual movies is a totally different experience where you get to work with a team who’s skills are all very different from your own and the challenge is to learn how to communicate clearly with artists and technicians of all those different disciplines to get to a common goal. Watching the end result with an audience is amazing.


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

I guess it would have to be Sinistar, since he’s such a dynamic personality and great conversationalist.




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