Saturday, September 04, 2010

10 Years Ago, Right Now: My Pokémon Adventure

Ten years ago right now I was in the middle of drawing a huge series of Pokémon storybook illustrations. My Pokémon adventure had begun about a year earlier with a ton of black and white line drawings for Golden Books' colouring book division.

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Those of you who, like me, had young kids at the time ( or maybe were young kids at the time! ) will probably remember what a massive pop culture presence Pokémon had for a few years around the turn of the millennium. Starting with the cards ( which were quickly banned at my - and many others - kids' school), the weekday afternoon animated tv show and, in pretty short order, a feature length animated movie (and sequel).

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All of this meant that a huge amount of artwork had to be generated and Nintendo's animation studio, OLM, Inc., simply couldn't keep up with the demand from all the world-wide licensees. When Golden Books needed several hundred pages of b/w line art for their Pokémon colouring book series and wanted them tailored to their specific editorial directions, Nintendo relented and allowed (apparently for the first time) some outside artists to test for the project. Five of those tested were deemed acceptable. I was one of them.

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This is only a tiny fraction of the total number of pages I had to crank out - and I mean at speed! I think I did 40 pages over a weekend on one occasion...

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If I remember correctly, I think I got a hundred dollars a page, which was, at that point in my career, the cheapest I'd ever worked.

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But work is work and I figured I'd make it up on volume.

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Besides, my sons were at that age where Pokémon was HUGE in their lives... and who doesn't want their kids to be impressed with what they do for a living?

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It was a chance to be a "cool" dad... and for them to be able to say to their friends at school, "My dad draws Pokémon." This scored them a lot of cool points of their own, I don't mind telling you.

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After the colouring book series I guess I must have proved myself -- because another licensee was given my name by Nintendo as a reliable supplier. This time they wanted full colour art instead of just black and white line. But I was sort of disappointed to find out I wouldn't be drawing any character artwork. They would be picking up existing character images from OLM and dropping them on new backgrounds - mazes - created by me.

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I know some people will be interested in seeing the layouts so I've included a couple here.

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This way you can sort of see the 'before' and 'after'.

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I realize these are pretty hard to see here on the blog but if you click on them you'll be able to view a MUCH larger version.

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Frankly, this was not one of the most exciting projects I've ever worked on. I had to devise the mazes based on the client's directions... so for instance, for the sake of the story line, this one had to be constructed out of sleeping Beedrills. Its was tough as hell trying to make the maze work - make it look good as an image and make it logistically navigable. It was tedious and time consuming and there was enough editorial interference to make the whole thing thoroughly aggravating.

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Happily, some spreads where much more straightforward, however...

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... and I'm pretty happy to see them again after all these years. They work visually and I can see that the reader would understand where all the pathways are without any confusion.

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A very important component of landing this project: the client insisted I do my best to mimic as closely as possible the painting style of the animated tv show backgrounds. That challenge became a big part of what I found most satisfying about the work of doing these pieces. Luckily I was able to find a few untranslated full colour Pokémon manga paperbacks in Chinatown in Toronto. The art in each panel was essentially a frame grab shot very clearly from the animation art. I also spent a lot of time making and studying the backgrounds from screen captures I shot straight off the tv. Remember - this was ten years ago - no dvds yet! I had to freeze-frame VHS tapes of the show and shoot the tv screen with my digital camera! That was a long, tedious and often unsatisfactory process - but it was the only way to get semi-accurate reference.

Below, one of my favourites of the bunch.

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There are several more spreads... unfortunately (as mentioned in my previous post) a lot of my old artwork is lost forever; locked away on decade-old gradually deteriorating CDs. I was only able to get my computer to read about half of the files on the disc I stored these images on.

Next, I think, was the spiral bound "Worlds of Adventure" story/activity book from Reader's Digest Children's Publishing.

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When my U.S. rep called to tell me I'd been offered this assignment I was pretty stoked. At last I was going to get to do some full colour Pokémon art, including characters.

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This is again some of the stuff that I can't recover from the back-up CD... so I scanned a few pages out of the printed book.

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I can't tell you how happy I was to finally be doing what I consider some 'real' illustration for Pokémon...

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... unfortunately, the timing of the project was less than ideal ( isn't it always? ) and I ended up having to juggle several deadlines at once. Thank goodness I had, at that time, my buddies Ben Shannon and Steve Murray were working for me in my studio. Ben and Steve were just fresh-faced kids, recently graduated from my old amla mater, Sheridan College, and had become a fixture in my Toronto studio, assisting me on all kinds of commercial art projects.

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These two pieces, above and below, are from a bunch that Ben and Steve did when they took over the project half-way through. They did a fantastic job on these illustrations - and saved my butt on the deadline!

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And then came the assignment I'd been waiting for: Pokémon was at that time so wildly popular that Reader's Digest Children's Publishing soon came back with an assignment for two full colour storybooks! Each one would contain about a dozen large, elaborate double page spread illustrations and spots. They would be published world-wide in a bunch of different languages.

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The pay was not too bad: around $800 per spread, if I remember correctly. The catch: the deadline was horrendously short. I'd have to produce all of the art for both books in just a couple of months. Based on my calculations, I'd have to work from the moment I woke up in the morning until I went to sleep at night, seven days a week, to get everything done on time.

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To make matters even more trying, we had just bought a new house and were in the middle of moving. Two second floor bedrooms were being renovated into a studio for me, as I had recently given up my space in Toronto.

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On top of those stresses was the worry of taking myself out of the loop for a couple of months. I wouldn't be able to do work for any other clients who called. When you're a freelancer you always worry about that: if you're not available for a client's project and they have to go elsewhere, they may not be back!

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In the end, I decided it was just too good a project to pass up. Thus began my real Pokémon adventure - one where I literally ate, breathed and slept nothing but Pokémon 7 days a week for all of September and October of 2000. It was the weirdest form of sensory deprivation I've ever experienced.

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And because I needed every waking moment to get all this artwork done, not only did I not leave the house for two months... I didn't even live in my house.

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You see, when we bought our new house, the closing dates hadn't lined up with when we would have to vacate our old house - there was a three month gap between the two closings. So that summer my wife and kids and I had been living with my amazing, generous in-laws.

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They own a very large house, and with their own kids all long grown up and moved away, they were able to accommodate all of us PLUS allow me to use a spare bedroom as a working studio. So when Wendy and the boys moved into our new house at the beginning of that September, and while my new studio was still being renovated, I stayed back on the other side of town in my in-laws' spare bedroom and slaved away at these drawings!

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I'll tell you... it was very odd. Wendy and the boys living across town in our new house and me living at my in-laws so I would be able to spend all of every day working on Pokémon. On the weekends my wife and kids would come over and hang out so we could at least be near each other... while I continued to slave away on Pokémon!

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It was a bit like being in jail -- albeit the most comfortable jail you could ever hope for (my mother-in-law is an excellent cook).

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When I finally finished "Ash's Battle" I had to dive right back in and get started on "Orange Island Adventures".

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I felt like I imagine one feels half way through a marathon. You're half way done... but there's a tough slog ahead and you're no longer fresh and energized. You know the second half will be even harder.

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So my routine continued. Get up, eat a bite for breakfast, shower and get to work. Lunch in front of the computer... a quick break for dinner, then work until ten or so at night. Half an hour of television with the in-laws, then off to bed so you can do it again the next day.

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And the next day...

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... and the next day.

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(I was only able to rescue a partially completed file from the CD for this illustration)

I'll always remember this one incident as I neared the end of completing the illos for the second book: Wendy had come over with the kids as usual for Sunday dinner... and I felt confident enough that I was going to make the deadline that I agreed to go with her and the boys for a nice afternoon drive in the country. This was the first time I'd left the house in nearly two months. I remember riding in the car and thinking, "something seems different." The world looked... not quite right.

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Then I realized it was that I hadn't seen anything far off in the distance in nearly two months. I'd been so intensely focused on getting the job done, keeping such absurdly long work hours, that I'd literally not seen anything beyond my four walls for most of the previous eight weeks! Its like I'd been living in a cave...

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And then it was over, and I moved myself and my studio home - to the newly renovated studio space on the second floor of our new house. Things seemed to quiet down in Pokémon country. With the move to the new house I moved on to other clients again.

This last batch was from another colouring book , done a year or so later and featuring a bunch of second generation Pokémon characters. By this point my kids had sorta lost interest in Pokémon so I wasn't being as well informed about who this new owl-like protagonist was.

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My kids were always a good barometer of kid kulture in those days and I think they accurately reflected what was a waning interest in Pokémon in general.

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I never heard from Golden Books or any other licensee about doing any more Pokémon artwork.

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Its too bad the Pokémon gravy train had to come to a stop... but that's how these pop culture phenomenons go.

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One thing that working on Pokémon taught me was an appreciation the limitless potential for creating interesting character designs. Not that I designed any of what I was working on, but I still marvel at how the designers at Nintendo/Creatures/Game Freak had to come up with hundreds of new characters at a time. Some of them were really neat!

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And that was the end of my Pokémon adventure. The journey lasted about three years all together, I guess. There were some pretty big bumps in the road. But looking back at it, ten years ago from right now, it really was quite a big adventure and I'm glad I took it.

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I've never really told anyone about it all. I hope you enjoyed the story and, of course, the art!

* My Pokémon art set on Flickr

8 comments:

Jordie Bellaire said...

That was all sorts of awesome! I never would have imagined you had done so much work for them. Seeing the process on that stuff was excellent-thanks for further opening my eyes to how great you are.

Leif Peng said...

Hah... you are TOO kind, Jordie - but thanks a million - you have put a smile on my face that will last all day :^)

Betsy Bauer said...

Wow... that's so awesome! Thanks for sharing! I think I still have some of those coloring books up in a closet somewhere. You were definitely a piece of what made my childhood so great. :)

Cullen Cox said...

That's an amazing amount of work! Definitely a great read. Kinda scary that most of your backup CDs didn't last.

Leif Peng said...

Betsy and Cullen; Thanks so much for your comments - I'm glad you enjoyed it! :^)

Cullen, you're right - it really bums me out that so much of my artwork is lost forever. I managed to rescue quite a bit and now have it backed up on two externals, so if one fails I have a second back up. I guess I should count my blessings that at least I have the printed books and the original pencils and inks. I hadn't yet gone completely digital at that time - I still started with real media and only coloured in Photoshop. So the only loss is the full colour versions of the original PSDs.

Mickey Quinn said...

Wow, I actually colored in those books when I was a little kid! Crazy.

Paul Scott said...

Wow, that's really cool Leif. I'm a big fan of the Pokémon video games.

Esteban Ratti said...

Great job Leif!
Reminds me of something I did back in 1999, colouring some Digimon books. Crushing deadlines are a classic, and a constant!