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Interview with Nathan Jurevicius, Touch My Pixel and Renmotion

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Best known for creating the quirky world of Scarygirl, Nathan Jurevicius is one of the industry's hardest working illustrators. Not only is he the creative force behind a swag of collectible figures, various mini comics, solo exhibitions in both Australia and overseas, a graphic novel (due to be released October '09) and a proposed feature film. He is also responsible for the lavish styling of the newly released Scarygirl online game.

This was not achieved by one person alone. With the help of Sophie Byrne (Passion Pictures Australia) and financial assistance from the Film Victoria Digital Media Fund - Nathan, and a team of dedicated professionals have brought the world of Scarygirl to life.

In this interview, developers Tony Polinelli and Tarwin Stroh-Spijer from Touch My Pixel, ‘in game’ Flash animator Suren Perera from Renmotion and Nathan Jurevicius share their professional viewpoints on the production of this ground breaking project.

Nathan Jurevicius

First of all, congratulations on completing the Scarygirl game! I was lucky enough to play the beta version and I have to say it's absolutely amazing. Whose idea was it to make the story of Scarygirl into a game?

This was something I'd always wanted to do since she was first conceived. In fact, her original concept back in 2000 was a mini online game where a homeless girl and her cat would put on puppet shows out of garbage to win the affection of a hardcore audience.

Scarygirl started life as an Illustration, then she was made into a vinyl toy, and now she's an animated game character. What are the challenges of each form and has Scarygirl changed appearance over the years?

Scarygirl has diversified in look dramatically. When she first came to being she was more realistic and kind of looked like a blue homeless girl. In vinyl toy form she's morphed about 5 times. In the graphic novel coming out later this year she's getting much closer to how we will see her in film.

What program(s) do you use when producing illustrations for flash, and what process did you use to get from concept to completed level design?

Usually it all begins with pencil and paper, I feel the traditional way is the most satisfying. I use Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop to create the artwork...I would have preferred to use more Photoshop, but apparently there were some size restrictions.

How much work is involved in making a Flash game and is there anything you would do differently in the future?

There's tons of work if the levels are really extensive. I think there was more than I'd originally thought. If I was to do it all again on this game, I'd have gotten an assistant to help me color up some levels and trace over my detailed pencil sketches.

I imagine producing a game is very different to the often solitary practise of drawing. Do you like, love or loath the collaborative process?

I tend to be a bit of a control freak and like things to be 'tight' and to a certain standard. Sometimes I find it hard to see a project, or product, lose some of its charm or quality level when
it's taken over by others....though on the flip side people can elevate my work beyond what I could personally do, which makes me very pleased.

I've read that you have a solo show at Outré Gallery (Australia) this year. It will be your fourth exhibition at Outré. What's in store for us this time? Will there be any game art on show?

I'm still trying to work out details for that and whether it will actually happen this year. If it does, it will likely be a smaller show and tie in with the graphic novel launch. I'm trying to focus on the film and personal projects this year so possibly bigger shows will occur in 2010.

3D artist Ray Caesar has mentioned being turned down by a gallery because his work was digital. Have you had similar experiences with your artworks?

The last three years I've tried to only present original works to galleries so have not had any issues with galleries. My show at Magic Pony last year was all ink/watercolour on paper except for one digital print...this will likely be something I do for all my shows. It's a pity Ray had this problem because his work is so beautiful - they are usually one-offs and the work that goes into them is insane!

You have - by far - the cleanest drawings I've ever seen. How do you achieve this?

I'm fairly anal about these things...I enlarge the work and redo paths as much as possible. I use a mouse for everything. It also helps that when I draw the rough my line work is quite similar.

Do you have any final words of advice - or warning - for people wanting to become a professional illustrator?

Don't give up - it's a fun but tough profession and can lead to some amazing opportunities.

Animation: Renmotion - Suren Perera.

What's the story behind Renmotion?

Well, I did multimedia design at Monash University and dropped out of honours to be a web designer. I hated that job and quit, then I started working on my first animated short, which got some success and attention. From there I took on more and more contract work. A few of my jobs got into international animation festivals and things have taken off from there.

How did you first get involved in the Scarygirl Game?

I first met Nathan J while traveling in Canada and then met Scarygirls producer Sophie (Passion Pictures Australia) at an exhibition of Nathan's in Melbourne. Basically from there I was asked if I wanted to work on the animation for his online game.

Who directed the movements for each character and what process did you use to animate them?

Me, Sophie, and Chris Hauge from Halo Pictures. My part was mostly Flash, with a mixture of tweening and frame by frame animation.

What are the challenges of working with an established style such as Nathan's?

The biggest problem when working with Nathan's art is that it doesn't always translate into 3D. Sometimes the characters are very flat. Added to this was that some characters were highly detailed, and to do frame by frame animation for these characters would've blown out the time budget.

You worked fairly closely with the games developers Touch My Pixel? Do you like, love or loath the collaborative process?

All of the above!!

What was the hardest character to animate and why?

I'm not sure, all the characters had different challenges. It's hard to say.

Many people dream of being animators, what's the best and worst part of your job?

The best thing is directing your own animation. The worst thing is following direction that you know is not right.

Do you have any final words of advice - or warnings - for people wanting to become animators.

I believe if you want to get into animation, then its just a simple matter of doing it. It can be very time consuming so its best to start off learning little tips and tricks to save time with your animations. Then - as your projects get bigger and bigger - get into the more
heavy handed animation. Always be aware of your time! I think that's the most important bit.

Programmers: Touch My Pixel - Tony Pollinelli and Tarwin Stroh-Spijer

What's the story behind Touch My Pixel?

Tony: Before the project Tarwin and I had been working as freelancers and sometimes together on various projects. The Scarygirl project - in its mammoth commitment, forced us to sit in a room together long enough that we thought it would be a good idea to start a business.

How did you first get involved in the Scarygirl Game?

The project had been in planning stages for a while by Nathan and his producer Sophie at Passion Pictures Australia, who organised funding and worked out what was going to be produced. They asked a friend of ours, Suren at Renmotion (who did all the in-game animations) if he knew anyone who could make Flash games and he suggested us. It sometimes really does come down to who you know!

For a programmer - How much work is put into making a flash game and is there anything you would do differently in the future?

The programming on the game took a looooong time. As the game has so much diversity in level mechanics and game-play, we found that each level often needed to be treated individually.

In the future, it'd probably be a good idea to do more thorough planning and be more realistic about what we can achieve given a certain amount of time. This is what you have to learn, sometimes trial by fire is the best way.

You obviously used flash, was there any other programs you used and what for?

We developed everything in FlashDevelop (an opensource script editor), the "console" games (in game bonus) and web site were developed using haxe (the opensource flash compiler). We also used Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator and SoundBooth, but not as our main tools.

What process did you use to get from concept to a playable level?

We sketched the levels out on paper, then scanned them in and drew hittable regions over the top in Flash. We used Flash as the level editor (often laying out place holders not actual items). This is one of the technologies or techniques we developed as we went, a good way to use Flash as an editor for a game.

A lot of games are made using programs specifically for making that game, but we didn't really have time to do that development first. Flash has a lot of quirks which we had to learn to work around. Once we had what we thought was a playable level, we then exported one-to-one scale bitmaps of the levels which Nathan could then use to illustrate over. Then there was LOADS of testing - changing - testing. There were also quite a few levels which did not follow the platform level mechanics. These were first sketched out on paper but developed in different ways.

What are the challenges of working with an established character such as Scarygirl?

Big expectations, which I hope we can live up to. For a long time we were really worried that we were going to make something that didn't reflect what the Scarygirl World was, the story and it's characters. We had many discussions with Nathan about our ideas which helped. We might just be some of the only qualified SG experts in the world at the moment.

With Nathan living in Canada and Touch My Pixel based in Australia were there any difficulties working together? Do you like, love or loath the collaborative process?

The collaborative process was fairly difficult, as communication was sometimes lacking. There was miscommunication and delays, but in the end it all worked out. It would have been easier at a lot of points through the project if we'd been in the same office, or even the same time zone. To be able to walk over and explain the problems we were having with a specific piece of artwork or such would have been nice. Maybe some kind of shared desktop (online) would have been a good idea at points.

What was the hardest level to create and why?

Hardest level would have been the first level. It is really challenging to teach people how the mechanics of the game will work, (how to interact with items, etc.) without it becoming a painful or confusing experience.

This level took a lot of work, trying to balance its special needs, and every time we thought it was complete we'd find a thousand other small problems. About a month before release we completely changed the layout of the level, having to hack up the artwork and move all the levels around. It was worth it, even if it was very frustrating.

What is your favourite level and why?

Tony: I personally like the Rocket Bike Riding level - as its one of the more action packed, straight out fun, kind of levels.

Tarwin: I've got to agree. It's the only level that works well by itself , and can be replayed over and over. There are other ones that I'm more proud of, but as Tony said, that's the one that's just out and out fun.

I was surprised at how challenging the game is, do you have any tips or tricks?

Tips, hmm. Its hard to say - we find the levels all really easy- thats what a year and a half of practice will give you... maybe play it every day for a year and a half? We actually put in a super hard mode just for ourselves so it would be fun while testing, otherwise everything just seemed to easy.

Here's one tip though, jump and attack at the same time, you get higher. Oh, and you can slide by pressing down, and you can kill Pantones (the enemy that's all over the place) this way!

Many people dream of being games producers, what's the best and worst part of your job and what's next for Touch My Pixel?

The best part is playing and experimenting with ideas and technologies. The worst - testing and polishing a final product. What's next - a stiff drink. I think that we'd love to take on some smaller projects over the next few months, just so we can get that feeling of completion and accomplishment. Makes things so much easier!

Do you have any final words of advice - or warning - for people wanting to become games developers.

Tony: Its definitely not what you thought when you were 12.

Tarwin: Even if you enjoy it make sure you don't work yourself too hard. It's still a "job" and you can still burn yourselves out. Start small, experiment. Learn to program, learn to draw and generally surround yourself with creativity and creative people.

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