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BBI Interview

Blackbird Interactive
Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak

Cody Kenworthy

 

Cody Kenworthy was born and raised in Pratt Kansas. After receiving a BFA of Fine Arts in Illustration in 2004 from the Ringling College of Art and Design, he began his career working at Relic Entertainment on Company of Heroes, Dawn of War and the Homeworld series as a Cinematic artist, Concept Artist and eventually the Visual Development Director. After Relic he became one of the founders of Blackbird Interactive. There he has worked as Chief Visual Officer, Art Director, and a Concept/Storyboard Artist since BBI's earliest developmental garage days. 

Aside from commercial work in the game and film industry, Cody currently resides in Kansas City working as a freelance illustrator with multiple personal projects in the works.  He spends his time with his wife and family of 2 boys (and 2 cats) while in between, painting the prairie landscapes.

 

Aaron Kambeitz

Aaron Kambeitz was one of the founding members of Relic Entertainment and the acclaimed lead artist on the sci-fi classic Homeworld. Since leaving Relic in 2002, Aaron has been in high demand as an art director, concept artist and intellectual property developer. He has worked for many Vancouver game studios including EA and United Front Games on such titles as Homeworld 2, Need for Speed and Mod Nation Racers.

 

Brennan Massicotte

Brennan Massicotte has worked for 8 years in the Vancouver entertainment industry as a freelance artist and a concept artist in game development. He currently works as the Senior Concept Artist at Blackbird Interactive where he's contributed to the remastering of the Homeworld franchise, the development of Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak and the recent Project Eagle collaboration between BBI and NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab. Brennan is a huge fan of Sci-fi and a ship design enthusiast. When Brennan's not painting you can usually find him soaking up some sun or discussing politics over ramen.

 

 

Please give us your name, company, and position 

My name is Cody Kenworthy and I am a founder of Blackbird Interactive.  I have worked as the Chief Visual Officer, Art Director, and Concept Artist.  Currently I am working as a contract illustrator. 

My name is J. Aaron Kambeitz, and I'm Blackbird Interactive's 'Chief Creative Consultant'. I'm one of the founders of the company, but I do my work as the company's chief creative person as a consultant to the company rather than as an officer of the company. This slightly unorthodox relationship means that I also get a little time on side projects and other freelance gigs, and keeps things fresh. 

My name is Brennan Massicotte and I'm a Lead Artist at Blackbird Interactive. 

Tell us more about your winning Into the Pixel piece – what does it showcase? What was the inspiration behind it? 

Cody: First off, thanks again for selecting us to be added to your talented collection.  I think this piece showcases a bit of the collaborative nature we try to utilize within our process.  If a better idea is discovered and it makes sense for the project as a whole then it tends to be embraced.  Sometimes a long dormant inspiration resurfaces in the right place at the right time as was the case with this piece. One of the first inspirations was the concept of "islands in the desert" where the planet was harsh enough to where you wouldn't survive long if you were stranded in between outposts.  Man-made structures deteriorate quickly so digging into the rock away from the windward side works best 

Aaron: Firstly, the picture is what we call an 'animatic plate', which means that its really just a brushed up storyboard panel. That's why it's such a surprise and an honour to have it showcased among such other amazing pieces. I think what it showcases is 'flow'. The piece was painted under extreme conditions - as is sometimes the case in game development when unexpected changes occur. After a story rewrite, I had to produce a brand new and complete set of storyboard panels under an extremely tight deadline. The piece you chose evolved from one such panel. I chose the drastic dark silhouette in the foreground as an easy way to sell the concept of the panel - that a large 'land carrier' had pulled up outside of a remote desert shantytown. The end result showcases the flow state that comes from working with speed and not overthinking your visual choices, but letting them appear out of instinct. 

Brennan: Maximum effect, minimum stroke is one of the first things Aaron Kambeitz taught me, and I think that comes through in all of our work. "Say it slower, and with less" might be another way to say it. This piece in particular showcases a desert city in a brutally hot climate. I think the guys wanted it to look and feel like a crab shell with a cool place underneath to live in, or at least that was my interpretation.  

Three of you worked on this at various stages—how did the collaboration ultimately benefit the piece? 

Cody: I think a strength in benefiting a strong design is in being mindful in not becoming too beholden to certain aspects too soon.  An important first step was communicating a strong intent for our world logic and exploring those themes in a cohesive way that fit within the Homeworld IP. 

One of the pleasures of working collaboratively with Aaron and Brennan is in knowing that whoever you pass it off to you usually get a nice surprise when it comes back more finished.  The outcome tends to become greater than the sum of its parts. 

Aaron: Having other artists you can 'Vulcan Mind Meld' with is an obvious benefit. In fact, after the piece was chosen, there was a bit of a scramble to figure out who actually painted it! The other benefit is that collaborators re-use, recycle and otherwise carry pieces farther than you can take them on your own. A piece that one of us might have felt was a dead end might get resurrected later by another artist who felt it might still be made to work. That's exactly what happened here. I painted the black and white underpainting, but after the story moved on so did I and the piece sat in our archive for a while. I didn't think much of the piece to be honest, because my memory of it was that it was dashed together in a hurry. But Cody and Brennan, under the gun later on and combing the archives for pieces they could adapt to the current need, saw something in the stark composition and gave it some much needed love - colourizing and overpainting it to bring it to life. 

Brennan: I was just starting to do freelance work for Blackbird when I worked on this piece so I actually knew very little about the project and fiction. I believe the brief was to show the heroic land aircraft carrier approaching a hostile desert base full of baddies. I love lots of colour in my work - but knew the guys wanted a more vérité and a Lawrence of Arabia look so I tried to blend those styles. The guys had already laid out the piece so I could just focus on colour and polish. 

Lawrence of Arabia 

What/who are some of the biggest influences on your art? Whether it be from games/TV/movies/books? 

Cody: Too many to fully list...but I would say it started with painting with my grandmother and going through her large library of magazine clippings of classic illustrators and painters that she had been saving over the years.  I was introduced to many influences such as Remington, Rockwell, Leyendecker, Maxfield Parrish, Howard Pyle, Andrew Loomis, Albert Hirshfeld and Chelsey Bonestell having a profound impact from the start.  Later after discovering sci-fi and fantasy greats such as John Harris, Frazetta, John Berkey, Alan Lee, Craig Mullins, and of course Ralph McQuarrie and Syd Mead I realized this could become a career path.  I also love the work of cinematographers such as Roger Deakins and Conrad Hall. 

Terran Trade Authority

Aaron: My original heroes were the UK cover artists of the 70s, as showcased in the venerable Terran Trade Authority Handbook series of books by Stewart Cowley. Peter Elson was a particular favourite, but among them were Chris Foss (not actually a TTA artist) Tony Roberts, Bob Layzell, Angus McKie and the others of the era. Add to that, of course, the Star Wars and Alien teams. But now...wow.. it's raining amazing concept art. I'm figuratively drowning in it. Even pieces that, when I look at them today and think 'meh', had I seen that same piece back in '77 as a kid I would have venerated it as the best picture in the whole world. The only problem with 'bad' concept art today is that it's not 1977. The volume of amazing work is overwhelming. But I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the great Craig Mullins. He really single handedly defined the modern era of concept art, and led that era with unsurpassed awesomeness. He has also been a very generous teacher. I was literally hand inking detailed line drawings, scanning them in, and colouring them like comic book panels with my mouse one week, and doing actual digital painting the next week after seeing Mullins' work for the first time. It was a complete sea-change. Thanks Craig! 

Brennan: Cody and Aaron! Seriously though, the team here is something else. Some of my other favourite artists are Mathias Verhasselt, Jaime Jones and our CEO Rob Cunningham. We spend a lot of time sitting around complaining about how good Alberto Mielgo is.  

While working on this piece especially we were talking a lot about the stark, bold qualities of Lawrence of Arabia and the concepts of Dune. I love stories like His Dark Materials and The Fountain about multiple universes and looping timelines. Star Wars will always be the gold standard and soft spot in my heart though. 

Could you tell us more about your journey becoming a game artist and your current position at BBI? 

Cody: One of the first times I remember thinking about working as an artist in the entertainment industry was early on after watching a short narrated by Walt Disney about the hand animated film process.  I focused on animation and did lots of short films and stop-motion animation tests with my brothers on our parents’ old camera.  After taking a summer computer animation workshop at the Denver Art Institute my freshman summer in High School I found myself gravitating towards more traditional illustration.  I ended up receiving by BFA in Illustration at the Ringling College of Art and Design in 2004.  The path to becoming a game concept artist was still fairly new then, so I started posting on conceptart.org and went to a workshop in San Francisco where I showed off my portfolio and ended up landing in the game industry in Vancouver.  My real education post art school was in working with Rob Cunningham and Aaron Kambeitz along with the other talented folks at Relic Entertainment.  Working with them on a number of projects and eventually founding Blackbird Interactive has been an inspiration.  Currently I am working as a freelance concept artist and have been dividing my time in developing a few personal projects as well. 

Aaron: I'm in year 21 of my game industry career, so far. When I started in the industry, there was no such job as concept illustrator. The visual designs of the various assets in the game were done by the production artists assigned also to model, texture and animate them. It was very vertical. Any additional visual design was done by the team's art director, if any, or lead artist, if any, as a matter of privilege. Getting to do visual design as a job generally meant paying your dues as a production artist for many years before getting the necessary promotion. My own rise was hastened by my friend Alex Garden, who invited me to become one of the founders of Relic Entertainment. So after only a year and a half in the industry, I got an immediate promotion to a level where it was my job to design things. I was joined in this endeavour by my friend Rob Cunningham, also a fairly raw recruit but an actual trained illustrator (I studied animation, not illustration). Together we taught each other what we could and sort of stumbled along blindly, really. We managed to ship a game called Homeworld, too. I enjoyed the experience of building a new project and a new company immensely so that's what I've been doing since then - I alternate stints as a freelance illustrator with stints starting up new projects and new companies here in Vancouver. Blackbird Interactive is my fourth studio so far, and once again I've joined my great friend Rob Cunningham, who is BBI's CEO. My job here at BBI as CCC (Chief Creative Consultant) is to work with our team of experienced creative and strategic staff to develop new projects for BBI and to help usher them into production.  

Homeworld

Brennan: I'd say it was my love of sci-fi that got me into drawing in the first place. I used to fill sketchbooks with endless doodles of tie fighters until one day my dad did an isometric blueprint drawing of an AT-AT walker for me; I was in awe and primed for sci-fi art awesomeness. Like a lot of people who work at BBI you have to go back to the first time I cracked open a PC game called Homeworld. The art designed by BBI’s Aaron Kambeitz and Rob Cunningham blended romanticism and super serious sci-fi in a way that grabbed me immediately and wouldn’t let go. Around that time DeviantArt had this incredible, thriving space art community which fostered my passion for celestial scenes and learning the digital medium. When I learned that there were artists that made a career in doing design illustrations for games like Homeworld I thought “that’s it, that’s what I’ve got to do.” I took the game design course at Vancouver Film School so I could pick up industry skills and get noticed with the art I’d been teaching myself. Years later I was freelancing in Vancouver and Blackbird and Gearbox Software were ready to revive the franchise with Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak and a re-release of the original games. So they brought me in to help remaster the originals – talk about a dream come true. I decided working with this group was the right place to settle in and the rest is history. 

What tips would you give to students/aspiring artists that want to enter the gaming industry? 

Cody: Expose yourself to as much as possible, know your art history, learn the fundamentals and experiment with different processes and mediums.  Sometimes having a grab bag of different approaches helps keep fresh energy in your work.  Be honest with what the industry standard of quality is.  Push to reach it and hope to exceed it.  Complacency kills creativity.  Know the structure of things...art is a science of its own yet requires a factual understanding of how nature works if you want to achieve certain effects.

If you can show another person that you love what you do through your work then you are off to a good start.  Finally, surround yourself with people that are better than you and learn all you can from them. 

Aaron: My own experience makes me hesitant to offer much in the way of advice. The Game Development industry is known for its rapid changes, so any advice I do offer is sure to be here on this page in its obsolete form for much, much longer that it will be here in its useful form. Hence I will do more harm than good. However, I will say this - I regret much of the technique that I have learned. I feel that I spent a lot of my time preparing myself to take on difficult assignments. Assignments from other people. And of course, I felt that I could never possibly be prepared enough, so like so many young artists I drilled myself mercilessly. Surely you can see how this is a waste of young creative talent, that they should spend their time preparing themselves to take their marching orders from others? So I say this - if you have an artistic temperament and you have a thing you want to make or a story you want to tell, go do that. Don't prepare to do it, just do it.  

Brennan: If you love your art you will nurture your craft. I think that's really what matters. Don’t get too sucked into the competition or pressure to make toil out of what you enjoy. Keep trying new things and embrace the things that you like instead of trying to look like someone else. If you’re looking for work you’ll generally get a job because you do something different than the 10 other folks down the hall, and you want the clients that dig what you do anyways. If you have the opportunity to do your own thing and that's your cup of tea then all the better. 

Where can fans follow your work online or via social media? 

Cody: You can find some of my work on my blog at:

http://swiftstroke.blogspot.com/ 

Aaron: I'm actually pretty shy, and I don't have much of an online presence. (Although the Homeworld fan community seems to have decided that my first name is Jon. It's not.) I do have a kind of a hodge-podge of pictures up on Behance. https://www.behance.net/-JAK- 

Brennan: www.brennanmassicotte.com

@brennanpierre (twitter/IG/tumblr)

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