I’ve been sitting on this one for a while now ( To the point where its kinda dated in terms of showing my technical skills, I can render better quality/way faster nowadays… ), but after seeing Ken Wong (Art Director on Alice:Madness Returns) at this years Animex, I finally asked for permission to shove ‘er up. Hit the jump for the juicy details.
In 2010 I was approached to do a Concept Art test for Spicy Horse, with the intention of being brought in for Alice:Madness Returns. I wont go into details of what happened (Other than to say, I totally passed the test) and why I didn’t end up going over to China in the end, but I will show the process of the test, because damn was it ever fun.
“The Queen of Hearts sits on a throne, in a gothic castle. Without drawing the Queen, please design her throne. It must be magnificent, an indication of her status in Wonderland. […] It needs to look terrifying, grotesque, and majestic.”
I was provided with some ref images and a short description of what was wanted from me, mostly describing the history of the throne and the kind of reaction a player should have to seeing it. I then had 2 days to draw up 5 possible thrones, and loosely render one out, with a focus on providing information for 3D modellers over producing a carefully rendered illustration. ( Take note, students who have probably been sent here by Gabby Kent!)
I guess at the time that seemed like an insane task, 2 years down the line I’m scratching my head at why I didn’t use any texture brush passes to grit her up a bit and show the materials a little better, cuz come on, that’s obvious, and it takes no time at all!
The first thing I do when approaching any concept is devour a bunch of internet, and save all the cool stuff to a big ol’ ref folder. I then go through my ref folder and pick out the most inspiring stuff for a mood board, which becomes my desktop wallpaper until I’m done with that particular concept. This basically means that its super easy to find the ref, without having to flit through windows or accidentally closing folders, because its right there at all times. It also helps keep things focussed, because otherwise I’d be distracted by a random landscape, or Mario, or whatever the heck else I have as my usual wallpaper that week.
Once I’ve sorted my ref, I do a little sketching study to get familiar with the shapes in play – Alice:Madness Returns has heavy gothic themes going on, so I mostly tried to get to grips with how those patterns presented themselves here. There’s a heck of a lot of Gothic art and architecture out there, so basically, if I was to try and fit things into Alice’s world, I’d need to familiarise myself with the rules rather than trying to invent my own.
I actually started my thumbnails mixed among the shape studies, but I was struggling to get anywhere on such a small scale, so I grabbed some old wallpaper, pinned it to my wall and started to make big broad strokes and scribbles with a marker, to try and put myself in the place of a little Alice looking up at this massively imposing structure.
I took these base scribbles and brought them into PS, where I sketched over the photos on another layer and played around with mirroring and scale to see how many variations I could get out of them. The test asked for at least 5, so I did 7, because I’m cool like that ( also because this was SO much fun.)
The actual process I used for these images is a little different to how I’d approach solving it nowadays, mostly because my drawing skills weren’t as sharp back then. There was a lot of stabbing around in the dark trying to find interesting shapes, and the end result is kinda abstract – not that there’s anything wrong with that, I just didn’t have the end product (As in, the in-game 3D asset, not the pretty picture) in mind as much as I would nowadays.
In the end I went for the most conservative of the throne designs, partly to save myself some time ( The rendering/finalising took all of the second day, something that could’ve been avoided if my original thumbs were a little less crazy!) , and partly because it seemed to be the one which would scale the best, bearing in mind I had no idea whether this throne would be set in a grand hall, amongst mountains of rubble and ruins, or somewhere really small ( e.g inside a dollhouse, etc).
I’ve kinda skipped a stage here, ideally I should’ve taken the one I wanted to bring to final and defined it more clearly across another round of iterations ( As the thumbs were just a tad too abstract, and the final chair/ribcagey bit could be more well defined), but at the time I didn’t really know that I should’ve done that, and went in there tweaking the image until I was happy with it, kinda like an illustration. But thats bad! Slap wrists! Concept art is kinda like maths exams, you gotta show your working out.
Its been a while since I did this, so I cant remember the specific feedback, mostly that I should’ve shown a little more detail about how the footprint of this thing would work, as the slimy red bit is kinda obscured on the top view . I think I also had a couple of problems with my labels, which weren’t really clear/concise enough ( bearing in mind that this would be sent to an outsource studio where English would not be the first language ) though I cant remember if that’s something I fixed for this version or not. I’m also guessing that I didn’t give enough photo ref for the materials of the slimy bits, or the chair back, or the cobwebs, etc, because looking at it now I sure as heck don’t get that information.
In all, this was probably the most fun I’ve ever had in an art test, mostly because I love gothic horrorey stuff, and there’s just something about the juxtaposition of super tight architectural shapes and the morbid chaos of rotting flesh. Ideally, perhaps I’d have wanted to make this throne even more gruesome, its kinda tame, it could have been straining, it could have been in pain, creaking and dripping with fleshy evil. In the end my version was supposed to evoke the idea that the queen had sat here and basically melted into the chair, or that the chair was kinda alive and had been scarred after a battle of some sort, but I don’t think I really got either of those across as well as I could have.
If you haven’t checked out Alice:Madness Returns yet, I recommend it, its ridiculously pretty in a horrifying gross and bleak sorta way, and my jaw actually hurt after a while from spending most of its time lying on the ground in awe at the visuals.
And of course, if you want to see more of the actual concepts for the actual game, the art book is frigging amazing , check it.
Images © Spicy Horse/EA