We are honored to share this interview with one of the top art directors in the games industry, Marc Taro Holmes, who is joining us as an instructor for the upcoming workshop in the UK!.
1) Hey Marc we are excited to see you are participating at the International Art and Design
Symposium entitled “Imagination”, which will take place in London this May. We would be
honored if you would take a moment to introduce yourself.
Sure - Marc Taro Holmes, I’m an Art Director and Concept Artist, working freelance out of Montreal (Canada).
My credits include the classic RPGs Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights, and the MMO Lord of the Rings Online. I did a couple year side jaunt on Age of Empires 3 and Halo Wars. Spent a few years with Disney feature animation at ImageMovers. At the moment I’m back with Bioware/EA working on the Dragon Age series.
2) You have been an instructor at these ConceptArt.Org workshops on a few occasions around the
world, and are known for giving the straight dope when it comes to production and the truth
about the industry. What can we expect from you at the upcoming ConceptArt.Org workshop in London?
I can’t help but get excited at a CA.O workshop. All the talent packed into the room – everyone goes into a creative frenzy. So I hope to do plenty of demoing. I’ll paint as long as there’s a screen available.
Other than that, I’m there to serve. Ask me anything. Questions about art, the games and movie biz, crit your work - whatever.
Painting wise, I think I’m something of an outlier. My stuff is way less polished than most artists in this line of work. I certainly don’t try to go head to head on rendering. I do think I’m a good designer – a good thinker. When it comes to generating ideas, offering a range of design directions – that’s where I find my niche.
I’m not really concerned with eye dropping jaw popping works of art. My goal as a concept artist is to pitch as many ideas as possible in the shortest time. I want to get my ideas in early, before code gets written. Secretly, I feel I’m one of the game designers rather than one of the artists. That’s what gets me excited about a project. The world building and the gameplay.
So, I’ll just be doing what I do - speed-sketching, brainstorming characters and props, showing some ways to work fast and efficiently. How to make less into more. How to work larger to smaller. Big idea to selective detail.
3) After graduating with a BFA from Alberta College of Art and design in 1995 you started a long
journey as an Art Director and Concept Artist in the games industry. After 15 years in the field,
including art directing at Microsoft and as a concept artist for Bioware, it is obvious you love
what you do. What have you found to be most fulfilling and why?
I came out of school with a BFA in graphic design at a time when games were a pale shadow of what they are today. Back then, nobody in their right mind would earn a design degree and then waste it on a game job. The pay was laughable, relatively speaking, and the artistic opportunity looked a bit iffy. Everyone smart was going into commercials, annual reports, or the belly of the beast that was the advertising industry.
That’s pretty fulfilling thing right there – bailing out of a corporate job to try out at a little startup called Bioware, and being able to say, against all odds and expectations, I made the right decision.
You only get one life right? So you should be drawing the kind of stuff that amuses you, only working on the games you would actually play yourself, and constantly investing in your skills.
It felt pretty great to go from college into art directing – but the whole time, what I really wanted was to be drawing the concept art. So the *most* fulfilling thing , even though it took years, is that I leveled up on the job, promoted myself out from behind the AD desk, and now I make art all day.
4) The games industry is known to often be led by marketing and the marketplace, and this
affects how and why worlds are designed. How have you had to compromise your vision to
meet the needs of others, and do you have any input for those who are faced with the same
You know, I hear this all the time, and I never buy into it. You hear guys saying marketing controls everything, or people only want the same crap, you can’t do anything innovative, etc etc. Then I actually go look at games.
You can go way back to Planescape or Ico. Or right now with Minecraft and Dwarf Fortress and Bastion, and DayZ. Sure those are indy games, but there’s fine art games like Journey, there’s totally commercial games with no lack of soul – Bioshock?, Dishonored? And there’s triple A projects that I have no idea how they get made - Alan Wake? Watch Dogs? Who would have believed these things would happen. I am Alive? Mirror’s Edge? No shortage of creative games out there.
I just don’t think it’s the case, that creators are being held back. Sure, there’s better and worse projects. I’ve been on both kinds. *cough*Ironman*cough*. You might have to ride one out. Not everything ends up portfolio quality. But nothing succeeds like awesome. Make your stuff awesome, you’ll be fine. Do great work, be great to work with, and you’ll get tapped for the serious projects. Great artists don’t get left behind.
But – if the REAL problem is you just don’t like what other people like. If your ideas are truly socially unacceptable. (Many black-clad artists fall into this category). It might mean you have to make things for a smaller audience. Perhaps for yourself. Give yourself a personal outlet. Paint some fine art. Make some comics. Keep your really personal ideas pure and uncompromised, and use the energy you get from that the next Zombie or Super Soldier as awesome as possible.
5) Documenting the visual world seems to be a great source of inspiration to you. You clearly
show a fascination with how a few lines and sublime splashes of color can suggest location,
time of day, mood or even the human figure. How important is working from life in developing
your skills you need as a concept artist and art director?
Some of this is what I was saying up above. I love fantastic subject matter, give me an orc, or demon any day. But after a while, I have to go draw something real. That’s a personal outlet for me. A way to deal with the repetition inherent in the job. I have designed a lot of swords my friend. A lot of swords. You need fresh influences to keep the ideas flowing.
But also, painting on location, just like drawing from the live model, is the best possible training. Its super hard! You never have enough time, with changing light, and weather, and trucks parking in your face. It’s immensely frustrating at first, but it’s worth it for the reward. Working outdoors is like going to the gym. It will tune your drawing up. You’ll be faster, leaner, and full of energy.
Traveling just doubles the benefit. When you’re in a truly foreign place, drawing in the gritty streets of Havana or in the ruins of Angkor Wat, your brain is in over-drive. Trying to take in everything in the limited time you have. It’s super motivating. You find you can draw all day, from sun up to sundown. It’s a tremendous way to teach yourself to draw environments. Just like 5 minute poses are the proving ground for character design, filling a sketchbook someplace exotic will teach you more than any classroom.
6) If you had to go back in time to tell the young Marc Taro Holmes two truths which would
change his career and life for the better, what would they be?
Does future me look like Bruce Wills?
1 - Listen kid. It’s going to take you five solid years to learn to draw. No way around it. Sorry. That’s a fact. The sooner you start the better.
2 - And it’s going to work. If you give it five solid years you’re going to be good enough to work anywhere. So stop covering your ass. Forget learning 3D or what kerning is, or how to make a project schedule. You know you want to paint. So Paint. You don’t need anything else.
7) After speaking at the International Art and Design Symposium in the past, what do you think
the biggest benefit, or some of the benefits, that attendees will take home from the event?
Hmmm – it’s close, but #1 has to be the people you’re going to meet (or finally meet F2F). The relationships you build with the people learning alongside you are going to be what gets you on the team in the future. Every project I’ve been on started with a friend calling me. At first it was people I went to school with, later people I’d worked with. The best place to be is surrounded by artists just a little bit ahead of you. They pull you up with them.
A close second, you can’t underestimate how great it is to see the work happen first hand. You don’t really realize how much goes into it until you see some guy make it look easy. I saw Mark English make a formless mass of wax encaustic look exactly like a foreshortened knee with a swipe of a two inch putty knife. It was like – wait – what? How did he do that? It happened so fast. That’s when you remember the quote “what one man can do, another can do”, and you go home and get to work.
8) Art Director, Concept Artist and Instructor. What is next for Marc Taro Holmes?
That is a very good question. I feel like I’ve only just made it to self-supporting artist. But I do have some plans.
This is the best time in history to be a content creator. We have small-scale gaming (iOS, etc) and self-publishing (ebooks/apps), and online communities of people in every area of interest. I’m going to be continuing the path I’ve been on, building the skills to make my stuff, and getting it out there. That’s all I’m gonna say right now.
9) If you had one message to share with the ConceptArt.Org community what would that be?
I think an artist is best served indulging their obsessions. Don’t try to be Jack-of-all-Trades. Don’t try to be ‘useful’. Just figure out what gets you excited and do that thing.
I realize this is tough. There’s lots of distractions. Like making rent. Other peoples success. Or the problem, ‘I like a lot of stuff, how do I pick one?’. It’s in your best interest to figure out what it is and focus. Sure, you can be open to changing direction if your interests shift. But it’s going to cost you a few years each time.
Don’t worry about the lack of jobs in your area, or how huge someone else’s project is going to be. Just invest the time into your thing and you’ll be rewarded by getting to do it. Nothing sucks more than successfully winning a spot on a project you’re not really into. It feels like such a waste of energy. You don’t want to end up in that position. Stay on target. Keep focused. Find your thing.
10) Thank you for your time Marc and now at the end of our interview I would like to ask where
can people go and find more about your work?
I blog figurative and digital work at tarosan.wordpress.com and field sketching and watercolor at citizensketcher.wordpress.com. Or you can skip all the talk and go to the pictures at flickr.com/photos/marctaro/. You’re not going to see a lot of gaming work up these places though. I prefer to blog about my personal work, and let games promote themselves.
Interview by Daniel Rizea and Jason Manley for ConceptArt.Org
Check out some more work by Mr. Holmes below!
Enjoy, and we will see you in London!