Developer Q&A: Philip Straub, Art Director
We here at Snowblind know that one of the most exciting challenges in making a game set in Middle-earth is doing justice to the epic landscapes and environments that J.R.R. Tolkien brought to life on the page. Philip Straub, our Art Director, knows this better than anyone and is prepared and excited to take on the challenge.
You’ll be hearing more from Philip as we continue to share more of the rich visuals from the world of War in the North, but for now we wanted to give him a chance to introduce himself and point out why he’s the perfect person for the job.
You have a long history of working on rich visual landscapes. What first drew you to creating fantasy worlds?
It probably all started with my interest in fantasy literature and art at an early age. I read all kinds of fantasy novels as a kid by such authors as Tolkien, CS Lewis, and many others. At the same time I became very interested in epic dramatic landscapes from the Hudson River School family of artists. The blending of the fantasy literature and cover art with the more traditional landscape paintings really formed the early foundation for my work and style.
As a young child I would go outside, in my parents’ backyard or wherever, and paint the landscapes around me. It wasn’t before long that I was adding or altering these landscapes to incorporate more fantastic elements including characters, strange flora, and fantastic color palettes. From there it was refining my style, which actually broke into two separate styles—one that is more whimsical and one that is closer to your standard fantasy fair.
Your artwork has a distinct style. How do you typically approach creating a new work?
It really varies on the project. If I’m working on a commissioned painting I tend to do a bunch of roughs for the client to try and find the best visual solution. The roughs are typically black and white value studies that focus on strong silhouettes, value structure, composition, and dramatic lighting. For my personal work, I’ve usually thought through the image in my head pretty well so I typically move right into color. For more matte painting type work, I sometimes create a base 3D mesh so that I can explore camera angles, composition, and scale. Either way, I always use a visualization technique that is called “thinking in the round,” where I try and imagine myself walking around the space I’m going to illustrate to try and find the most interesting camera position that tells the best story.
What are some of your personal favorite pieces?
I’m partial to a lot of the imagery I created for the Utherworlds illustrated novel and website I completed a year or so ago. It was a personal project that took nearly six years and a ton of sacrifice for me. I painted approximately 100 illustrations, two unique written languages, a spoken language, maps, and the whole world in which the story takes place. It was a chance for me to take all the on-the-job Art Direction training I’d had over the years and apply it to something of my own. It was also great training for my current role as Art Director on The Lord of the Rings: War in the North!
What other artists and/or creative works have provided inspiration for your own work?
There’s almost too many to mention.
From the illustration world, I’m a big fan of fantasy artist Michael Whelan—I grew up with his book covers. I love Roger Dean and the surreal worlds he created for bands album covers like Yes. Brom, Todd Lockwood, Kinuko Craft, Jeffrey Jones, and John Jude Palencar are just a few more.
In the fine art arena I love the Orientalists like Gerome’, Alma Tadema, and Bouguereau. As I mentioned above I’m very influenced by the Hudson River School painters like Church and Bierdstadt as well as some of the early film matte painters. Within the contemporary fine art surreal markets, I dig Daniel Merriam, Gi Bruvel, and Michael Parkes.
Within the entertainment and concept art scene I like Dusso, Dylan Cole, Ryan Church, Stephan Martinierre, Craig Mullins, and, well, the list could go on and on. Most importantly, I’m a student of my craft and am always looking at whatever art I can get my hands on for inspiration.
What excites you about the opportunity to work on War in the North?
The Lord of the Rings is probably my favorite fantasy universe—I grew up reading Tolkien. So for me, getting the opportunity to work on developing a game that truly represents the LOTR universe is a dream come true. Even cooler, WITN explores LOTR locations that have never been visualized by anyone, or if they have, the imagery is sparse. This means, as an Art Director and artist, I have the opportunity to be the first to visualize locations that are near and dear to the fans—me being one of them.
Tell us a bit about your time at Snowblind. What are some highlights and things that excite you about the team?
In a word, the team at Snowblind is awesome! Everyone is extremely dedicated to the cause of creating the best game and visual experience possible. There’s very little ego and the group understands that our goal is to create an outstanding gaming experience. We know we are servants to the game and are razor sharp focused on delivering the goods.
Honestly, I look forward to every day at the studio. Each day is filled with looking at the awesome art the team is making, painting, drawing, and discussing all kinds of cool creative stuff. This is the reason I first got into this industry and why I continue to be extremely passionate about what I do.
With a name like Snowblind and a penguin mascot, do you feel an uncomfortable amount of pressure to include ice levels in WITN?
Ha! Well, for me the name Snowblind is a reference to a Black Sabbath or Styx tune, depending on your inclination. Either way I think it’s a cool name and who doesn’t love penguins—I mean, they’re penguins. As for an ice level, everyone will have to wait and see if we do anything snow or ice based—my lips are sealed...
Fair enough. Well, thank you for your time and enthusiasm, Philip. We look forward to sharing more about you and your team’s awesome work with the world at WarInTheNorth.com.