Here we have our latest interview and this time its Marc Ericksen who is a free-lance illustrator. Throughout his career Marc wad commissioned to produce cover art and peripheral art for over 90 titles by every major software company involved in video gaming during the eighties and nineties. Games like Bad Dudes, Choplifter, Tetris, Afterburner, Megaman 2, Galaga, G-Loc, POW: Prisoner of War, Guerrilla War, Atomic Runner, Bermuda Triangle, and over ninety others.
Thank you for agreeing to our interview, please take a moment to tell us a little about you?
No worries, thanks for your interest.
I was raised in an Air Force family, moving every 3 years with my dad’s assignments. I lived on Guam, in Virginia, Missouri, Illinois, Virginia again, Germany, and California, where I completed High School.
In 1966 I was drafted into the Army at age 18, and served 6 years of active duty as a para, attending Artillery OCS, and receiving my Commission in 1967. I served two 12 month combat tours in Vietnam working in remote locations with 5 man advisory teams at village and hamlet level militias, as well as with Vietnamese Rangers. I left the service with the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, the Bronze Star, Air Medal with 2 clusters, and the Vietnamese Ranger Badge during my time in service. I left active duty with the commissioned rank of Captain in 1972 at age 24, having served a year each in Washington, Oklahoma, Arizona, Vietnam, North Carolina, and finally Vietnam again.
These experiences explain my facility in gaming art with particular regard to action scenes
After separation from the Army, and based on a portfolio of sketches from my tours in Asia, I was accepted for advanced study at Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles, California, where I was awarded a scholarship, and graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree with Honors in 1975.
My early career included working for 2 years as a staff illustrator for Jack O’grady Graphics, Chicago Illinois, and 2 years as a staff illustrator and designer for Artworks Inc., of San Francisco, Ca.
Marc at my North Beach drafting table circa 1980
How did you get started in the gaming industry and doing box cover art?
Due to the fact that I was working at that time out of my North Beach San Francisco studio at 1045 Sansome Street (my address for the next 35 years) I was well positioned to begin receiving calls from gaming companies. By 1978 I was quite busy doing a great deal of work for tech companies like Varian, Intel, Coherent Technologies, and Hewlett Packard. Much of this work was tech oriented.
Varian Autoclave array
Intel Manufacturing Print Poster
This appealed to a number of the burgeoning video game companies, and I received a call from Broderbund, one of the pioneer gaming companies. I created the cover for David’s Midnight Magic, a pin ball video game. (below)
Doug Carlston and his brother Gary, the creators of Broderbund worked out of a quonset hut on 4th Street, San Rafael, allowed me a lot of creative room. I sketched, watched beta gameplay, developed characters on the fly, and generally enjoyed the open idea environment encouraged by the Carlstons. This led to some memorable collaborations and illustrations for the very early Broderbund products: ‘David’s Midnight Magic’, ‘Track Attack’, ‘Choplifter’, ‘Drol’, ‘Spare Change’, ‘Stellar Shuttle’, ‘ Labyrinth’, and ‘Sky Blazer’ among others.
Which one that you designed is your favorite?
I believe my personal favorite was SNK’s Guerrilla War. It was just so over the top that it was hard not to enjoy. I mean who couldn’t love a derailing train, a Hind gunship, explosions, mountains, bullet ripped swamps, jungle, hostages, hordes of enemy soldiers, M-16s, Bazookas!?
We had a blast shooting reference at a nearby armory. My studio mate, wildlife artist Carl Buell was the stand in for the heroic rescuer, saving an injured scientist, dragging him through water, blasting away with his M-16. Robert Evans, another talented illustrator sharing space served as our wounded scientist hostage, seen in the shots below.
Art shot by SNK with color and grayscale printer’s guides at bottom.
Did you get to try out some of the games before they were released and get ideas for the cover?
It was always necessary for the client company to provide me a ‘player’ to go through the Beta version in order for me to see the graphics, so I could formulate the visual concept the kids needed. I was not a gamer. I was in my 30’s, married, and with 2 boys of our own. Gamers were all you and your readers…ie: school age years at that point in time. For what it’s worth, I always saw the games before release. I had to sign
NDAs (Non Disclosure Agreements) with the company teams with whom I was working. There were occasions when I was working as many as 3-4 game covers at a time. I created just a few short of a hundred video game box art illustrations, as well as 4 of the first 6, and the very first GamePro magazine cover, and 2 covers for PC Games magazine. I also illustrated
Where can people see your art these days?
Online you will find a great deal of my work, and I have 2 sites. My professional site is at marcericksen.com, and my blog site is at retrogameart.com. I have to admit to being a bit lax about recent postings, but starting with the 2012 beginning there are many interesting posts about all sorts of my thoughts and processes of that era if one is willing to scroll back. I can also be found as a ‘developer’ at mobygames.com (They didn’t know what to call me…but it’s an amazing and a wonderful site to browse.)
Video game box art was not my only work. Throughout I continued to work for numerous other companies, doing art for labeling for companies like Clorox, Kingsford, technical cutaways, advertising, book covers, presentation art for museums like the Franklin institute, The Ford Aviation Museum in Dearborn Michigan, and the Chicago Field Museum.
Can you tell us about those early years?
It was certainly a great time to be in San Francisco when the technology groundswell hit.
In 1976 I was working at O’Grady graphics in Chicago after Art Center, when I made the decision to try to make my career in San Francisco. All my associates tried to talk me into New York instead. My mind was on Northern California though, and I decided I would try my best to scratch out a living in paradise, even if there wasn’t much going on there.
Instead, Tech happened.
My skills in drawing, adventure scenes, creating characters, abilities with technical renderings, my skill at cartooning, and my background in the military all came together to make that time, working with extremely creative teams, visualizing imagery, sketching together to bring these wonderful games alive a complete blast. I was conversant with troops, weapons, equipment, tactics, aircraft, vehicles, and at the same time could visualize space travel, mysterious and evocative locales, and had a love for authors like George Orwell, Phillip K. Dick, Jules Verne, Ray Bradbury, and Isaac Asimov, among so many others.
I can’t even begin to express how much I have loved illustrating during such a creative timeframe. And it has blossomed into so much more! CGI, amazing effects, wonderous film work, great graphic novels…In fact, it has left me in the dust, but with a happy smile on my face. At 70 I can wave goodby as it moves off into the future.
How long was the process to make the artwork for game for systems like the Atari 7800 or the Atari Lynx?
The normal time frame for any box art ran something like this: I would receive an actual phone call ( this was the eighties and nineties after all,) directly from the company (Atari, Capcom, 360 Pacific, SNK or whomever), or from a freelance graphic designer who had been contracted by a game company. An appointment would be made to meet at their location. The area we know as Silicon Valley lies south of San Francisco surrounding the city of San Jose, about 45 minutes by freeway. This first meeting would be a Beta play and sketch session wherein we would compare concepts, angles, features, characters, and gameplay and a rough series of perhaps 2-3 ideas would be laid out. The company team, or the contract designer would then take those possibilities to the game design team to verify the accuracy and take suggestions. They would then contact me, indicating the desired direction, and I would create a cleaner sketch. Once this was approved, I would create a color rough. Pre-1998 this would be made with pencil line, Xeroxed, then colored with dye ad markers (color magic markers) and paint, color pencil and whatever else was needed. These were small(+/- 8 ” by +/- maybe 12”.
Finished box for Ikari III ‘The Rescue’ That’s my son Richard posing as the little boy.
Here is a sketch for the IBM version sent by fax to SNK for approval. The lead designer’s comments can be seen:”Let’s go for it!”
Left image: Color rough for Atari Lynx system game ‘Xybots’. middle image: client comments on tissue overlay.
Right image: Final Box showing finished art
Following the review and approval of the color rough, I was released to create the airbrushed art, which in my own process, was generally on a 20”x30” piece of cold press (meaning it had ‘tooth’ ie.: paper ‘texture’). I mounted this illustration board on a piece of ¼ inch thick white foamcore board for rigidity. I would carefully draw down the agreed upon image lightly in pencil (4-5 H). Following that I would place friskit, a very thin, lightly tacky on one side, plastic sheet. This I would painstakingly cut along the drawn lines, so there was a series of given shapes that I could lift away from the surface , allowing me to airbrush the area only, with all the surrounding areas protected from the overspray. I continued in this vein until the entire piece was airbrushed, then I went in to clean up edges with various small pointed brushes. When the piece was complete, I would tape on a piece of very thin clear vinyl with a tissue slipsheet, so the a rt was not touched by the vinyl. The last step was to place a matching foamcore cover board attached at one side so the art opened like a book.
Example of a pencil-level finished art board ready for friskit. This was a never produced illustration for Sega’s early VR game called Nuclear Rush.
This process required perhaps a week, although in MANY cases the time frames were compressed, and I would need to create the above process within a few days following the meeting. Of course under those circumstances, everyone was lined up to respond instantly. In a rush scenario, I might then be given 2-3 days to deliver the finished art. Other times I might be given a week to create the finished art. Occasionally I would have longer.
Will you be attending PRGE this year?
I have hopes to attend. There are some family issues that may conflict and I won’t know that for a month or two, but they are holding a table for me in case I can make it.
How as the process for making box art changed through the years?
Sadly, in today’s market there is no longer a place for the free-lance illustrator, The vast majority of gamecovers are simply lifted from the gameplay, which of course have reached an exceptional level of realism. The gamer knows exactly what he or she will see on the screen. I believe the joy and excitement of the young child retrogamer has been lost forever, and many of the current shooter games are simply murderous interplay in a grittily-realistict gray-brown blasted environment that celebrates only the death of your opponent.
Are you still producing artwork for video games today?
No, My work since 2002 has been all in the market sector. I continue doing advertising and editorial art, and preliminary art such as Storyboards and Comprehensive sketches.
Copyright 2018 Crystal Cruise Lines Inc.
I very much enjoyed a series of 19 large watercolors commissioned by Crystal Cruise Lines, and especially have enjoyed recent presentation artwork created to raise funds for a large children’s Science Museum in Mexico City. I also had a great time rendering the logo art for Shocktop Beer for Annheuser Busch.
Copyright Annheuser Busch 2018
With the incredible imagery you have created for these classic games, how do you visualise the artwork that it is going to be in common with the game you’re creating it for if this makes sense?
The process for visualization is based on the first meeting when the client team shows the illustrator the gameplay. It occurs through a collaborative speak and draw session where the team explains to the illustrator the gameplay and their desires for emphasis, and the illustrator draws 2-3 rough sketches on the spot, for the team’s response. Once the team is satisfied with the given layout, the illustrator returns to their studio to create a cleaner rough, and following that, a color rough.
Again simply blown away by your work. do you have a favourite or worse piece you’d care to share with us here?
I’d have to say that I really am quite fond of the Red Square art I created for the ill-fated Tengen Tetris.
I have found that’s the one piece many wives will allow their retrogamer husbands hang in the living room
Worst piece? Spoiler Alert: It’s not Megaman 2.
Let me tell you what brought me back to retrogaming: After 2000, I had pretty much blown past gamebox art and had converted to digital art, as I was required to do by my clients. Videogames had reached a fantastic level of animated reality.
By 2012 I was totally loaded with plenty of advertising, editorial, and preliminary art, and hadn’t even thought about my past days of gaming art for 10 years.
One afternoon in 2012 I found myself in poking around the web and stumbled into a site that featured the ‘50 Worst pieces of Video Game Art EVER!’ I thought I’d take a look…That was when I first became aware that Megaman 2 was not correctly featured.
I had not known for 24 years that there was even an error in the art.
It was listed as the #1 Worst offender of retro folks everywhere across the globe. …And most of these posts blamed me…the illustrator. (and not in very nice language).
So let’s play a little game:
Let’s try to imagine a rogue illustrator, intent upon duping a major client,
(incidentally…why would anyone even DO that?)
He would have to be so amazingly Houdini-like as to put a pistol in the hand of Megaman and then sneak it through 3 tiers of approval, 4 sets of press proof checks, a global enterprise the size of Capcom, ….And actually get away with that?
…And 4 weeks later receive a check for the full amount agreed to, with a warm note of thanks from the corporation?
…C’mon man. To blame the illustrator is just not thinking clearly.
My instructions came directly from Capcom USA.
That’s what launched me to protect my legacy. I’ve been at it for 6 years now, and I think everyone by now has realized that you just cannot sneak something like that through. It takes a truly opaque person to even imagine it.
Megaman 2 is a great story, but it is not my personal whipping boy. I’ve learned how many people love the game, and in fact also love my art, and it remains my best seller as a print. And it remains one of my personal favorites.
What is the breakdown process of producing a piece, were there expected deadlines from software houses to have commissioned work done by if so did you ever miss them?
On average I probably had around a week to create a 20” x 30” piece of airbrushed art once the sketches and direction were decided.. Some deadlines were shorter, and some could be longer.
I never missed a deadline, but I would on occasion prevail upon a longtime client to allow me an extra day or two if I knew it would help the art.
Have you or will you ever consider producing a book of your classic video game artwork, as it truly deserves to be marvelled by those who did live through those golden years?
Once my freelance work slows, which it is bound to do now that I am 70 years in age, I will be actively writing a book about my 20 years of experiences in creating videogame box art.
Who do you feel was the best video game company who commisioned you for their projects?
Once I had created a body of samples of game art, I feel that all the companies I worked for gave me a great deal of respect and latitude to explore numerous concept options. It is difficult therefore to single out a given client company that stood out from the rest. They were all open to ideas, and were excellent clients. I can say I had the most gratitude to The Carlston brothers and Broderbund, given that they took a chance with me when I had no gamebox art samples to show, and they had me do a number of their sleeve and box cover art scenes early in the history of the gaming industry. As far as a range of titles I would have to say Sega, Atari, Capcom, 360 Pacific, EA, and SNK were my favorite clients.
In total I created box art for Atari, Atari Lynx, Activision, Accolade, Berkely Systems, Brittannica, Broderbund, Capcom, Data Age, Data East, Designware, EA, Fox Videogames, Hesware, Hudson Software, Softsmith, Infogrames, InTV, Koei, The Learning Company, LucasArts, Maxis, Miles Computing, Play Station, Sega Genesis, Sega Gamegear, SNK, Software Toolworks, SSI, Tengen, Three Sixty Pacific, Tronix, Twentieth Century Fox Games, Virgin Interactive, Wordsworth Publishing, as well as art for Palmtex liquid crystal display hand-held games.
Who do you most admire as a fellow artist you would care to talk about, whom you feel compares to your standards?
There were many artists engaged in creating art for these packages. I know now the fine work done by European artists like Bob Wakelin, Roger Dean, and Celal Kandemi, to name just three whose works were far and away superior to my own art.
Here in the States there were fantastic artists at work as well: Hiro Kimura, Cliff Spohn, Chris Kenyon, and numerous others, with many of whom I was personally acquainted. I was however, so locked in to deadlines, I rarely interacted with them, beyond meetings at the San Francisco Society of Illustrators, for which I served as president for 2 years during the nineties.
The illustrator who most inspired me was an instructor at Art Center: a gentleman named Jack Leynnwood, a veteran WWII pilot, and the illustrator responsible for the cover art on the boxes of scores of Revell plastic aircraft kits which I admired and built as a young boy.
My studio mates were my main support group: Robert Evans, Carl Buell, Michael Sanchez, and Gloria Baker. All extremely talented, well balanced, and fun.
Do you have any antidotes or secrets you’d care to share with us here about any of your previous works?
There is no secret to successfully working as a free-lance Illustrator. It is hard work.
Your life schedule must be twisted to match the deadline commitments you make. If you are fortunate enough to come to be in demand, you must strive to meet all the deadlines you commit to with excellent pieces every outing. There were times during those 20 years that I had as many as 6-8 pieces in progress at any given time: some in sketch, some in color rough, and some in finish. I regularly worked in my North Beach studio in San Francisco until 2 to 3 AM, before driving 20 miles to my home in Orinda, then rising at 6AM to drive 40 miles to Santa Clara for meetings with various gaming clients, then completing the same loop back up to the studio, and repeating the same hours. I have to say that I loved the pressure, as well as the work. It’s the only reason I was able to make it work. The clients were all creative, intelligent, and savvy, and came to trust my ideas and concepts. They learned to trust me over time, which led always to more commissions.
Is there anything you would have changed with your style or form with your previous video game art or your fantasy pieces?
I worked in airbrush, using gouache, which is an opaque water color. Most of my contemporaries worked in acrylic, which required patience, and many layers of paint to create a piece. Once finished an acrylic painting is pretty bullet proof. You could eat off of an illustration and it wouldn’t be affected. Gouache, however, would cover opaquely in a single sweep of the brush, so it gave me the luxury of saving a great deal of time. The downside was that the art surface was very delicate. All my clients knew this, and treated the art with great care. I never had a piece damaged. Direct light will degrade the colors of both types of paintings, so I keep the fifteen or so original paintings still in my possession safe and away from light, with protective tissue under foamcore covers in priotective flat files. They look as rich today as the day they were painted.
How was the artwork for the game boxes made? Was it paintings on canvas or something different? How did this get translated into something ready for printing?
I worked on medium weight, cold press illustration board, mounted on a foam core base with double stick tape. When finished, the art was scanned on a drum scanner, so the art sheet surface had to be carefully removed from the illustration board backing by the separator (a trained technician) in order to conform it to the drum. This was then scanned in 4 different exposures: C, M,Y and K. ‘C’ was for Cyan (blue), ‘M’ was for Magenta (Pink),
‘Y’ was for Yellow, and ‘K’ which is the universal printing designation for Black.
You may recognize the CMYK designation from photoshop, when indicating printed material as opposed to RGB: (Red, Green, Blue)
Indicating screen lit imagery.
These 4 colors were then broken into tiny dots and arranged together in various densities to fool the eye of the viewer, in order to convince them of a full spectrum of color.
When you first started did you ever think that the video game industry would become as big as it has and still be going strong all these years later?
It was clear the impact was having on my own family that gaming was here to stay. My two sons became avid game players, and my five grandchildren are just as mesmerized with games today.
What wasn’t quite as obvious was the rapidity of the progress that would make games more visually realistic, and no longer require hand illustrated covers.
Still in all, the magical era of illustrated covers did cover 20 years of my career, through many iterations of platforms, from 1982 all the way to 2002.
What was the first game art you ever created?
I believe it was Broderbund’s David’s Midnight Madness.
Do you use any special programs to help you create your graphics? Any tools you created yourself for this task?
Not really, I draw on paper with a yellow Ticonderoga secretary pencil (2.5), and scan my drawings into Photoshop for rendering. I generally work about 3 times up from reproduction size at 300 DPI. This is all current remember. When doing the game art, I was actually painting.
Are you surprised with the resurgence in retro gaming?
I was certainly surprised by my reception by retrogamers. First, they displayed disbelief, then shock, then the best part: when they tell me how grateful they were as kids for the art I created.
Are you a gamer yourself? Do you own any retro systems? Modern systems?
Hopefully you won’t be disappointed, but no., no,…and no. …sorry.
I’m not a gamer. I guess I’m more of a dreamer.
But please think about this for a moment: Are your fathers gamers? I suspect not.
When you’re not working what hobbies do you have?
As a boy I built model aircraft. Today, I still built models. They are large plank on frame wooden ship models of sailing ships of the 1600’s. Having Jack Leynnwood of Revell fame as an instructor was a thrill. And I am pleased to be in similar good graces by retrogamers.
How different has it been to work in the gaming industry throughout the years?
Things certainly changed a lot over my two decades of doing videogame art, but the men and women I worked with at the companies themselves never altered: They were always sharp, creative, innovative, and a joy with which to work. Even at Capcom, despite their confusion regarding Megaman 2, were a pleasure, and I did several projects with that crew, including their Strider cover, and a poster for U.N. Squadron.
What company back in the day did you most admire and why?
It would be hard to vote against Sega, which contracted me for so many great games, from Harrier II for their Gamegear, to Thunderforce II, Herzog Zwei , G-LOC, and Steel Empire, (including the Title block,) for Sega Genesis.
Was you involved with Megaman 2 release in any way?
I don’t have any interaction with anyone about the release of Megaman 2, but I must admit that I am incredibly pleased to have my original art used on the cover and the cartridge. That is the final validation of the worth of my art to the game.
If you were stuck on an island and could choose 3 of your designs to look at forever, which ones would you choose?
I would probably choose only one: the art I did for Activision as a point of purchase display for Pitfall Harry, reminding me that if one looks hard enough, even when marooned on a desert island, there may be treasure to be found!
A massive thanks to Marc for taking the time to chat with us and supply some amazing replies to our questions and for going that extra mile to supply us all the images.
Please note all the images are copyright Marc Ericksen, and not for reproduction without permission.
Retro head and key holder of RVG.