Every Spacer Poops: an Interview with Concept Artist Jeff Zugale

Jeff Zugale is a concept artist best known for his work on video games like BioShock: The Collection and Evolve. He draws spaceships for a living, and I thought maybe we could talk about that. I figured you probably think that’s as cool as I do.

So  couple of weeks ago, the two of us sat down late at night to talk about art, politics, and science fiction over Skype, as well as his Spaceship-A-Day Patreon project. We had a great time because those things are fun and great.

Joshua A.C. Newman:

Jeff, your work has this density to it, a plausibility. It looks like someone built it, recognized the compromises of its manufacture, and accepted them. What’s your process to develop the fictional environment surrounding each piece?

Jeff Zugale:

When I’m doing a more what I’d call “serious” piece, I think about it like an industrial designer. What is this thing, what’s its purpose, what’s it made out of, what’s the power source, who built it, where when and why, the whole process. Even if it’s a fantastical, non-buildable thing that’s still where I start.

This postapocalyptic workbench is in way better shape than mine.

There’s usually only one or two things about a fictional object that are “non-existium”, stuff that isn’t likely to ever be real. The rest of it tends to be something understandable. Like, a flying car might be powered by some magical elf drive, but it still needs a door, some seats, a place to put your baggage.

Joshua:

Ha! Right. A Spinner needs to feel like a car.

Jeff:

Yes, exactly. I go all the way back to Roddenberry on this. Trek stuff needed to be believable, and look reasonable in the hands of the people using or operating it. There’s a great bit in The Making of Star Trek where Gene talks about how when you’re watching Dragnet, nobody’s explaining how a police .38 works, it’s just a revolver that the agent draws and points. They’re not discussing the workings of the thing. They applied that to the phasers and everything else on Trek.

Joshua:

In the original series, they often take apart a phaser just to use the hyperbatteries for something else. It’s curious that, in The Next Generation, problems were often solved with fictional particles. No one takes apart their tricorder or phaser to use the components. I suspect that’s the influence of a 20-years-on Roddenberry having a hard time coming to terms with solid state technologies and science that’s proving both weirder and more banal than what the earlier writers had been dealing with.

Jeff:

Sure yeah. I think we all got to eye-rolling about Tertiary Verteron Emitters after a few seasons of TNG 🙂

Joshua:

Nonetheless, Trek, including in that period, is really good at implying a culture in its artifacts. How often are you given a cultural basis for the technology, and how often does your art direction say something like, “Space fighter,” and your develop the influences as you draw?

Jeff:

It varies wildly. Sometimes I get a whole style bible and design documents that detail things out, sometimes it’s “we need a thing that looks like this other thing but not so much that we could get in trouble”, sometimes it’s “dude whatever just make it look cool”. And obviously not all my work is spaceships and sci-fi! You’d be amazed at how many kitchens I’ve drawn!

Joshua:

Yeah, your Envirovember project was neat because it showed the variations necessary for habitation. A spaceship is a tool. An environment needs a place to shit.

Jeff:

Hahaha well we rarely get to see the bathrooms, although there’s quite a few in BioShock!

A lived-in environment for BioShock: The Collection

Joshua:

I think it’s a weird squeamishness, frankly. Kitchens, bathrooms, all of that intimate, human stuff where we operate as animals on the biological and social level is what makes a place feel real. Deckard’s messy kitchen is one of the things that sells Blade Runner and it’s a rare moment when we get to see a bit of him as a person.

Jeff:

I will be trying to do Envirovember and actually get through the whole month again this year.

I love that this society has self-driving hovercars, and yet carries things by yoke.

Joshua:

It’s a whole lot of drawing, that you do! I struggle to do three finished pieces a month.

Jeff:

It’s a well-worn groove. I’ve been doing it since before I can even remember. I have spent a lot of time working hard on the technical end of it. Still, it’s just a thing my brain really likes to do.

Joshua:

You seem to have a close relationship with the Prismacolor… or is it a digital simulation of one?

Jeff:

Oh, it’s both. These sketch cards are all scribbled out with a 10% or 30% gray marker first. Very core, old school industrial design practice. Also advertising marker boards.

Joshua:

Yeah, that’s a technique I’ve always wanted to be able to do. Nilo Rodis-Jamero’s work on The Empire Strikes Back has never left the front of my brain.

Jeff:

Exactly. My dad gave me the original Star Wars Sketchbook for Xmas 1977 or 78, so my big influence there is Joe Johnston and Nilo. I didn’t actually start drawing that way until much later, but that was always my target.

Joshua:

I got the first sketchbook only later in life, but I still have my Empire one, deeply worn.

This book and its companions was a big deal to everyone who didn’t just want to see Star Wars, but wanted to make it.

Jeff:

I’ve managed to keep all three of mine in pretty good shape! Hope to get Joe and Nilo to sign them someday.

Joshua:

Move fast! We keep losing artists!

Jeff:

bite your tongue

Joshua:

When you’re doing a complete composition around an artifact, what’s your process for balancing the needs of the beauty shot and the needs of the composition to give context?

Jeff:

Well that’s always a tricky balancing act. When they say drawing/illustration is fucking hard, that’s one of the parts that’s really fucking hard. What I’ve learned is the idea of “reads” in the art – first read, second read, third read, the things the viewer is going to look at in that order. The job is to make sure those reads are clear and in the right order.

Joshua:

As in, visual hierarchy.

The cover for R.J. McCann’s Heavy Drop

Jeff:

Yes, right. There’s an infinite number of methods to use and combine to guide the viewer’s eye, so every piece is a combination of all of those. They all pretty much boil down to contrasting elements, though. The tried and true stuff like dark vs. light, size differences, heavier outlines.

Joshua:

…Plus location on the page and what’s pointing to what.

Jeff:

Absolutely. It can be done in gross or subtle ways. A lot of it depends on the deadline.

Joshua:

Ha!

Jeff:

Subtle stuff requires more time!

Sometimes I’m very conscious of how I’m working on that, sometimes it’s more freewheeling.

Joshua:

My challenge to myself right now is to make complete pieces, and allow mistakes through in the interest of making more work as a route to better work.

Jeff:

Oh yeah, only way to go.

Jeff:

As is said incessantly, there’s no secret to this, only mileage.

Joshua:

This is a weird thing to say, but I respect the fuck out of your Envirovember pieces where you changed your mind about perspective partway through… but it’s in pen, so you just keep rolling.

Hauling my luggage up that ramp would be worth it to fly around in that spaceplane.

Jeff:

Heh yeah, I see what’s confusing – the roof on the pyramidal building shape. That’s what we call in the business a “mistake”.

…Although technically it could be a roof sloping away downwards

Joshua:

Hell of a walk up with your luggage!

Jeff:

Oh, yeah! That does look like a tunnel and ramp. OOPS. So there you go, errors like that are kind of inevitable on stuff that’s done very quickly.

Joshua:

But see, this is what I mean: you’re drawing what you’re imagining, and getting the ideas down despite not being able to represent them in a Euclidean space. And that means that the sketch is a success as a sketch. You’re not getting hung up on the wall-eyed vanishing points because fixing it is going to interfere with the flow of the ideas.

Jeff:

Hey as long as the client’s happy with it, we’re all good!
Sketches like these are really quick, not even 20 minutes most of the time. Riffing out ideas fast is part and parcel of concept design

You of course polish that stuff away in the final, but it’s an experiment with the ideas, not with vanishing points.

I am really trying to get the perspective right, though.

Joshua:

A raku cup, repaired with kintsukuroi. By Dosai, 19th c. From the Smithsonian collection

If you weren’t trying, it wouldn’t be interesting, nor would it stand out. It’s kintsukuroi, repaired with gold. It’s a tradition in Japanese ceramics: when a beautiful piece breaks, you grind gold into the lacquer that you use to repair it, highlighting the breakage.

 

Jeff:

Ah, neato.

Joshua:

If they worked hard enough, the artist could make the imperfection unnoticeable. But perhaps it’s more revealing of the nature of the thing to allow an imperfection to show. Similarly, the 20 minute sketch is a lot like the process of shodō, where hesitation ruins the piece.

Jeff:

Precisely. It’s better to have 15 or 20 cool ideas that aren’t perfectly drawn than to have just one well-drawn idea.

Joshua:

When you’re building an environmental composition, how do you do your 15-20 preparatory sketches? What are you experimenting with?

Jeff:

I don’t normally do quite that many sketches for an environment. I’d say I do 4 or 5 sketches similar to the Envirovember ones, or even smaller, to try to work things out. Again it depends on the brief. if it’s something like “an interior transit station featuring this hero vehicle that’s already been designed plus our main character” then things are sort of cut and dried. If it’s more like “let’s see some ideas on a futuristic looking bus station with some cool buses and taxis” I’ll do a lot more sketching. Also it depends on if it’s a defined story moment or key frame. If yes, there’s a lot of stuff that needs to go in.

Joshua:

What will vary between the sketches?

Jeff:

Camera angle, overall design language, materials indication. Lighting, too. Size and shape of the space, I’ll vary it from small and close to vast and echoing. If I’m asked for, say, a tower in the mountains, there’s endless variation to do on that, there’s all different shape and size mountains, all kinds of tower architectural styles, daytime, nighttime, overcast, weather, you name it.
“Give us a futuristic cop car”, I could draw on that for weeks

Joshua:

Ha ha! That sounds like a good client.
“Draw futuristic cop cars all week. $60k/yr. Must like space stuff.”

Jeff:

LOL Yeah right? If only! But I’d need more money!

Joshua:

“Part time.”

Jeff:

That’d work. I’d probably get bored though 🙂

Joshua:

“Dinosaur/robot enthusiasm a plus for future projects.”

Jeff:

hehehe

Joshua:

I think this job description might be a trap.

Do you think it terms of camera lens? Different focal lengths, for instance?

Jeff:

I’ve learned to do that way more recently, in the last 5 years or so

Joshua:

Imagine your Patreon takes off to the degree that you need to work on it full time. What would you be drawing?

Jeff:

Boy wouldn’t that be great! Well, it wouldn’t just be drawing, it isn’t just drawing now. I’m doing the monthly wallpaper paintings, and I’m working hard on making physical models of some of my ships.

I would certainly be able to do more elaborate artwork. More books, too.

Jeff oldschool casts spaceship parts

Joshua:

Do you have plans for more self-directed projects?

Jeff:

Always. I have so many. I’ve got stuff I’m building in the shop, 3D modeling and printing, music, too much. I’ve put a lot of it down, and a lot of it on “slow mode” for a while as I focus on the Starshipwright stuff.

Ultimately, Jeff makes art so he can make John Lithgow blow a gasket.

Joshua:

I look forward to seeing what you make! I love watching your stuff come into existence.

Jeff:

I just wish I could do it all faster,

Joshua:

Existence is suffering.

Jeff:

For now it’s the daily sketches, monthly wallpapers, and a collection book of the first run of SpaceshipADay that I’m trying to get done for July, but probably will be done for the holiday season

Joshua:

It’s truly amazing how much work it takes to make a thing, every. Single. Time.

Jeff:

You got that right!
Nevertheless, we persist.

Jeff can be found on Twitter and at his Artstation site. He’s entertaining contracts, if you need some spaces designed, or ships to occupy them, check out his prodigious portfolio!

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