“Over the years, I was drawn more and more into the conceptual work. We developed mechanisms and stage-tools to more effectively scare the living hell out of the visitors”
By 2D Artists
From learning FX make-up at the annual “Halloween-Festival”, to being the Director of Visual Development for DMPA, we chat with matte painter Sven Sauer about how he got into art, and his latest work on the adventure game Perry Rhodan.
Hi Sven, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and also how you got into art?
I can’t really pick out one certain point in my life when I got interested in design. I guess it’s just
personal interests that drive you in a certain direction; what really interests us - that’s what
we’re good at. And what we are good at - that’s what’s easy for us. So, to a certain degree, I
owe my decisions to the fact that I just wanted to take the easy way out ... [Laughs].
You’ve covered a lot in the early stages of you career, from FX make-up, through interactive design to matte painting. So having “dipped your toe” into all these different areas, do you feel you’ve grown as an artist?
I grew up with the works of Tom Savini (makeup artist on From Dusk till Dawn etc.). It was pure coincidence though, that brought me to the annual “Halloween-Festival” at the “real” Frankenstein Castle (yes, Mary Shelly’s novel was named after this site!) At this horror event I learned the basics of FX make-up. What an exciting time it was! Over the years, I was drawn more and more into the conceptual work. We developed mechanisms and stage-tools to more effectively scare the living hell out of the visitors.
Eventually, the dramaturgy of the event lead me to films. And from there, it was just a short step to becoming a matte painting artist. You see, the multitude of things I’ve done so far are not that different from each other really. What it all comes down to is the conceptual staging - no matter if for events, films or computer games.
So have you attended any “Halloween-Festivals” recently?
The season begins again soon. Even in Europe, Halloween has become a fixed part of the festival season. Every year new events spring up, all trying to come up with innovative and creative ways to scare people. It’s cool to see
that the borders between computer games and live events are vanishing bit by bit, thanks to the playful multimedia elements that are being integrated into events. For example: we’re working on a tracking system that monitors the
movements of visitors and has them followed by digitally projected spiders. Many of the ideas like that derive from the gaming industry, but are slowly becoming separate from the screen and finding their ways into our real environment. I
can’t wait to see what surprises will be waiting for us out there this year...
In the “about” section of your website (http://www.mattepainting-studio.com) it states that you’re a member of 3D-IO. For the readers out there that are unfamiliar with this, could you fill us in on what it is and what you do?
3D-IO and Ambivalenz are two firms that perfectly complement each other, thanks to their different core competencies. 3D-IO has ten years of experience in game development; Ambivalenz is focused on interactive design and movie postproduction. Both markets have grown closer together over the years and therefore 3D-IO and Ambivalenz have developed a strong partnership, which has resulted in a group of 2D and 3D artists working hand in hand.
You have currently done a lot of matte paintings for an adventure game called Perry Rhodan.
Could you tell us a bit about the brief that your where given in order to create this images? And how long did you spend on the project?
The production stage of the Perry Rhodan game took about two years. I got to know 3D-IO’s owner Igor Posavec during the pre-production phase, which turned out to take up way more time than expected. The whole Perry Rhodan series has been around since 1961, and is made up of more than 2000 novels, which makes it the biggest sci-fi series in the world. So
as you can imagine, we were presented with this mass of information in our briefing, which we then had to try and sort through. And the later development of any given element was closely supervised by the thousands of eyes of a large
I didn’t actually start out with the formal production of matte paintings. Teamed up with Igor, I developed the game’s visual concept - the guidelines to ensure that each artwork derived from the same visual scheme and perfectly fitted
the plot. I had to answer questions like:
- How does colour influence the mood of the player?
- Which colour is “treason”?
- Which visual analogies will announce a change
in the plot?
At that point, I strongly benefited from my Halloween-Festival experiences!
While I’m not too familiar with the Perry Rhodan universe, the visuals that you created certainly make it look very interesting. Do you feel that the work that you’ve done on the game does this sci-fi series justice, and what has the feedback from the fans been like?
We’ve been working closely together with the fan community, and the references from the first graphic developments of the 1960s, which feature a Buck Rogers kind of charm. While this material was great, it really needed rejuvenating to bring it more up-to-date. This turned out to be somewhat of a tightrope walk, as we aimed to please the old-school Perry fans as much as the newer, younger gamers. Space gliders had to be fitted with different transmission shafts halfway through the development process, after the fans showed their concern about the basic technical requirements. Almost every single
element of the game universe had already been documented in quite detailed sketches over the last 50 years, and we had to respect that.
Our own vision for the project was strictly shaped by these existing requirements. Igor was right when he compared the Perry Rhodan universe to “Open-Source” developments: you may bring in your own ideas - as long as you play by the rules. Working with the fans often resulted in time-consuming discussions, but at the same time, it got the community really
hyped up for the release date. Fortunately, the feedback from the first tests showed that we’d managed to get things right!
So now that you’re the Director of Visual Development for DMPA, where do you see your career heading, and what would you like to be doing in five years time?
Again, it’s my personal interests that drive me on. Visual development becomes more and more the focus of our work each day.
We consult with directors and production companies, where picture-language will contribute to a given storyline. Psychology is certainly a big factor. Certain images, past experiences - they all trigger hidden emotions
in every one of us, e.g. “smoke towering above NYC” or “tanks on Tiananmen Square”. To find and unravel these layers of analogies and to recombine them in new ways - that’s fascinating.
Waking, going to the cinema or relaxing with family, these are some of the ways that the artists we have interviewed like to spend the time away from the computer screen. So what are the key things that you look forward to doing
when you get the chance?
“Thrill junkie” - maybe that’s a good term to describe me in my spare time. There are so many sports to take part in, film festivals to attend and so on. One major advantage of my job is that we create the footage for our matte
paintings ourselves. Travelling to the places you have in mind for your next project - couldn’t miss
out on that, could I? [Laughs].
Your latest pieces of work entitled “Sundust Particles” depicts the remains of a futuristic city. Could you tell us a bit about this project and your involvement in it?
Sundust is an apocalyptic love story. After a plane carrying biological weapons crashed
close to a little village on the coastline, most of its inhabitants died and the few survivors were evacuated. The director Patrick Fröhlich consulted with us early on in the production to develop an emotional opener for the film. I was inspired by the big blackout in Canada and the US in 2004. I happened to witness the incident by chance, as I was visiting Toronto at the time.
The entire city was pitch-black, except for a few single headlights; I felt surrounded by a ghost city. Based on that experience, for Sundust we created a “dying city”, withering like a plant. The
upper floors of the skyscrapers have already faded; only the lower parts are still filled with life.
The colour range and lighting of the shots are more real than they might appear at first sight.
The reference material came from a photo shoot in Shanghai. There are a lot of bizarre places
in the world - you just have to put them into a new context. Shanghai for me is “cyberpunk”
come real, making it the perfect raw material for
showing a fading city.
Well it has been a real pleasure talking with you Sven, and I wish you all the best for the
future. One last question before we wrap things up: what one film would you have like to have
produced matte-paintings for and why?
I’m still waiting for a filmmaker daring enough to produce William Gipson’s Newromancer. That
would definitely be very exciting. The same is true for China Miévilles’ Perdido Street Station.
Two books that really make me dream...