Artist Spotlight: Jeff Haynie, Art Director

Posted by Conor Murphy on November 26, 2008 in Game Development -- Share:
Jeff Haynie, Big Fish Games Senior Game Artist

With the release of Mystery Case Files: Return to Ravenhearst taking place tomorrow, we thought it would be fun to sit down and talk with Jeff Haynie, Big Fish Games Art Director. Jeff is the driving force behind the artistic direction of the Mystery Case Files brand.

A veteran of the entertainment industry, Jeff has been involved with gaming for over a decade. Having started with DreamWorks, Jeff moved to Big Fish Games two years ago.

Jeff was recently awarded the Big Fish Games Innovator of the Quarter Award not only for his amazing artwork, but also for the amazing influence he has on everyone he works with. Congratulations to Jeff!

At what point did you realize you could make a career out of art?

When I was drawing space ships, monsters, and creatures on the playground in elementary school. Instead of running around playing, I sat under a big oak tree and let my imagination run wild. That got me going. I also discovered artist Frank Frazetta. His work blew me away with his imagination and drama around this time. It made a big impression on me as a young person.

When I started junior high school I took my first art class. I remember the teacher putting a still life in the center of the room. I drew it and then walked around and looked at other student’s drawings. I couldn’t understand why it was so difficult for the other students to draw what they saw. At that point I realized I had a creative gift of being able to look at something and draw it. That was a big revelation.

It was at that point I knew what I wanted to do with my life and it hasn’t changed since. It’s only grown from there.

What do you enjoy most about being an artist?

I enjoy the idea of seeing something in my head and then breathing life into it by bringing it to a physical form on paper, canvas, clay or digital media. The idea of being able to create something from a blank sheet of paper…starting from nothing and this ‘thing’ emerges that has life, emotion, meaning, and concept.

Each time I create a piece of artwork it allows me to give people a glimpse into how I see the world. It’s like a lens into a fantasy world that you have created. That’s a great privilege as an artist.

Tell us about your first paid art gig.

Back in the late 70s / early 80s, airbrushed shirts were a big fad. My dad bought me an airbrush and paints and I started working in a t-shirt shop painting about anything on a t-shirt while the customer waited.

It was a very lucrative gig so I would take breaks and walk next door to the arcade and play computer games like asteroids, Pacman, Tailgunner, and Centipede. In fact, airbrushing t-shirts was so lucrative; I was able to pay my way through college!

Do you look back on that time with fond memories?

Yes, absolutely. It was a great time in my life of exploring how to paint for a customer and how to work with clients. When someone comes to you with something complex and wants it painted on a shirt in while they wait…it was a challenge, but I look back with great memories. It was great training to be an illustrator not to mention getting a lot of practice playing games.

What artists have influenced you most profoundly?

In no particular order…

  • American illustrators such as Norman Rockwell, Maxfield Parrish, Dean Cornwell, N.C Wyeth and Frank Frazetta, of course.
  • Don Ivan Punchatz, a mentor who is a dear friend of mine and considered one of the godfathers of fantasy art.
  • Alphonse Mucha, who started the Art Nuevo movement. He is a big influence on my work and also on the art in Mystery Case Files: Return to Ravenhearst.
  • The Pre Raphaelite Painters.
  • The Hudson School of Painters (Thomas Cole, Thomas Bierstadt, Frederick Church).

That is a good variety of artists who have influenced my career. There are many, many more I could mention. My wife has an art history degree so we study art together.

Where did your professional career begin?

My career began as a freelance illustrator working for advertising agencies, magazines and clients such as IBM, Xerox, American Airlines, Disney, Warner Brothers, Bic Pens, Bell, Boeing, Texas Instruments, etc.

After about 14 years of freelancing, my wife and I decided to reevaluate our long term goals. All of my illustrator friends were leaving freelancing as it started to die in the mid 80s – mainly because of the introduction of the desktop computer. It really changed the illustration business. Many of my illustration friends were going to gaming companies and learning to paint on the computer. One of my friends who was working in Los Angeles for DreamWorks talked me into submitting my work. I got my first job in games so my wife and I moved from Texas to Los Angeles and I went to work for DreamWorks and worked there for four years. We joke about ‘loading up the truck and moving to Beverly’ but it was a major milestone in my career as an artist.

That whole period was like living in the Twightlight Zone. Growing up watching movies like ET, Star Wars, Jaws, etc. and now I’m in Hollywood working for Steven Spielberg! It didn’t seem real. I learned so much in those four years about creating art for gaming and movie making. It changed my career and how I looked at creating artwork. I worked around people who had amazing creative vision. Artists, animators, writers, directors who have helped shape and mold the entertainment industry. It was a fast paced time with a steep learning curve. I was working around artists half my age that could do things with computer software that I didn’t even know was possible.

The first time I walked the halls of the concept art department at the DreamWorks animation building I was blown away at how the art direction for each film was broken down into concept development. At the time Prince of Egypt was in production. There were breathtaking concept paintings describing the look and feel of the movie. There were mood charts that showed how color and story elements would guide the audience to feel emotions. These ideas were all new concepts for me at the time but are now an integral part to how I approach making games.

Can you tell our audience what it means to work as an illustrator?

An illustrator is an artist whose work supports a commercial product – advertisements, book covers, the product itself. The position is better known as a commercial artist. A great example is Norman Rockwell who illustrated the cover of Saturday Evening Post.

How did you come to Big Fish Games?

After working 10 years in the core gaming industry as an art director and concept artist, I was tired of all the violent, explicit content. My career at that point was much more about managing a large art team on next generation titles than it was about doing much art.

My wife was surfing the internet one night and looking at job boards. She kept running across ads for Big Fish Games. Because I am a big fisherman, they caught her eye. She said, “Any company with a name like Big Fish Games must be fun to work for. You should submit your work.” So I did. That was about two years ago.

Let’s talk about the Mystery Case Files games. Where do you get ideas for the artwork?

The ideas come from a variety of places as we do extensive research gathering. The story and locations help drive a lot of those ideas as do the game play and the puzzles. Most of our stories are set in the past where we can bring a sense of nostalgia and history to the look of the game. There is a lot of attention to research and details to stay authentic to the time period. Even then, we don’t lose focus that we are making a game and that our first priority is to provide a great game play experience for our customers. As a team we all contribute to building upon the story by adding details that help add depth to the characters and locations. I work a lot with the art teams to focus on the foundational art elements to make a scene that will make the player want to be there. We talk a lot about mood, dynamics, color and perspective.

There is an amazing collection of Mystery Case Files: Madame Fate concept art on the Official Jeff Haynie Website. Talk about being a part of developing these games.

The exciting thing for me in developing Mystery Case Files games is working with a team of artists to create a world that is compelling, immersive and beautiful to look at. I feel very blessed to be working with such a talent group. Adrian Woods, our lead designer, is the best I’ve worked with in the industry. The Mystery Case File is an established brand with a faithful fan following.

The story is deep, the characters are strong, and the game mechanics are fun to play. Our leadership team gives us all the freedom and support we need to develop the best game possible. I feel the success of a game is in direct proportion to how many roadblocks you confront – whether you put them there or someone else puts them there. As an art director I enjoy removing roadblocks so the artists can create their best work.

Let’s talk about the Madame Fate image shown below. Can you walk us through the process you used to create it?

This is a concept art piece of the character Madame Fate who is the central character in Mystery Case Files: Madame Fate. In the concept, I wanted to explore the overall mood surrounding this main character. I wanted to explore Madame Fate’s age…is she younger, is she older? Is she a gypsy, is she a carnival fortune teller? Exploring her personality and the type of character we wanted her to be.

Another thing I wanted to explore was the setting in which we were going to tell the story both inside the gypsy cart and inside the crystal ball. I chose to present a claustrophobic gypsy cart with an old lady that has a gypsy background. Her cat is on her right side, her incense are burning on her left. The moon is quietly in the background and the clock is at midnight – both of which are symbolic of her death at midnight. I tried to weave as much symbolism into the concept piece as I could. I also decided to shroud her face to hide her identity. The player would have to discover the character. Can she be trusted? Who is she?

If you look close up, you’ll also notice the contrast between the scarf and garb and her wrinkled, menacing face. The artwork becomes more of a story driven painting where the elements support the story that is being told with mood, symbolism and color. Even more so in Mystery Case Files: Return to Ravenhearst!

Madame Fate Concept, Step by Step

Madame Fate Step by Step Development

Madame Fate Final, Close Up

Madame Fate Close Up

Speaking of Mystery Case Files: Return to Ravenhearst, the game will be released tomorrow. What can you tell us about it?

I will say it is the most fun game I have ever worked on in my career as an artist. It has also been creatively the most rewarding team I have ever worked with – an incredibly talented group! Our designer is a brilliant designer. The only way I can describe our collaboration is electric.

Return to Ravenhearst is an interactive story driven hidden object / adventure game centered on a cool spooky English manor, a Victorian Gothic love romance with lots of ghosts set in a turn of the century era. The art style has been heavily influenced by Art Nouveau and English art and crafts. I’ve introduced a strong cinematic style that has been influenced by old black and white Orson Well’s films such as Citizen Kane and The Third Man. There are lots of shadows, tilted horizon lines and cinematic moments. The artistic goals were focused on creating an immersive romantic Victorian world that has a Gothic haunting feel with a steam punk twist. We combined all of these art influences with sound design and with themed game play.

What inspires you to create art and how do you keep motivated when things get tough?

I always keep the end in mind. It helps me reach the target. Over time, moods change, emotions go up and down, and creative inspiration changes, but, if I keep my focus on the goal, it keeps me motivated. I draw a lot and allow myself to make lots of mistakes.

I keep my heart on learning as much as I can. A focal point of my life is to study as much as I can from a variety of forms of art.

On an individual level, what keeps me motivated is the challenge of taking something that people see as very simple and presenting it as fresh and exciting. It goes back to the lens I mentioned earlier. The challenge that keeps me motivated is of taking a simple subject and making it compelling.

There is a quote I like to use – especially if I am working with young artists, “My growth as an artist has been about learning to have the eyes of a child and seeing the world as though I am seeing it for the first time with a sense of wonder.”

What is your favorite medium to work on?

Wow, that’s tough. As a classically trained painter I love oil painting. As a modern digital artist I love painting in Photoshop. If I have to narrow it down to just one, it would have to be traditional painting. It’s tangible. You can feel it, smell it, and touch it. It’s just more tangible and I’m drawn to that. I purposely work in different mediums to keep my eye and hands fresh. In my home studios, I have areas to work with a variety of materials from sculpture, mosaics, printmaking, oil painting and digital painting.

What are the tools of the trade you use most for your work at Big Fish Games?

Adobe PS, Maya, Adobe After Effects.

What advice do you have for an artist who wants to work in the computer gaming industry?

The first thing I would suggest is to start with learning the main software used in the industry like Photoshop and a 3d modeling software such as Maya or 3d Studio Max. It takes more then playing games. A good way to get exposed to the concept of game production is to use the Unreal or Quake game editor and build some levels or characters to understand the pipeline of game production.

Also, take yourself and your career seriously. In an interview such as this, I can’t even begin to describe the sacrifices I’ve made to be where I am. Being a successful artist is not a casual thing. It takes late nights, staying home when you would rather be out, passing on breaks when you know you should be working, etc. It’s not an easy road, but if I had to do it over again, I would – in a heartbeat. It’s a lifestyle and long term commitment. If you aren’t willing to make those sacrifices, you might want to reconsider your career choice.

I would also recommend you surround yourself with the best artists you can find to give yourself a perspective of ‘reach’. Their work and talent will give you goals to shoot for.

Draw…A LOT! If you are an artist reading this and you don’t carry around a sketchbook, bad artist! All of the really successful artist I know carry sketchbooks and draw all the time. Your sketchbook becomes your playground of ideas and personal workout area.

Last second thoughts…

I’m very thankful and appreciative of our fans. Their passion for our games means a lot to me personally and to our team. We take your emails and posts on the Big Fish Games Forums to heart and really appreciate the support.

Thanks, Jeff!

My pleasure.

Written by

Conor is a Marketing Manager with Big Fish, working out of the Seattle office. In his spare time he enjoys watching science documentaries and playing old school adventure games. Get in touch with him on Twitter! or Google+