Ambrosia Times: Well, howdy there? Who are you?
John Sledd: I am the artist currently known as John Sledd.
AT: That's right, you're the artist that has been helping out with recent Ambrosia games of late! Well, what's shaking?
JS: Yep. I did a good bit of artwork for Harry the Handsome Executive and also did a number of the sprites for Mars Rising. As for what's shaking, well, at the moment, I am. Too much coffee, too little sleep. The usual. Seriously though, I'm also currently working on a couple of new titles for Ambrosia as well.
AT: Ah, cool. I've been playing those games a lot lately. So, what exactly got you started working with Ambrosia?
JS: Well, it was a total freak accident. A few years back, I replied to an ad on an AOL board about a startup company looking for an artist to do backgrounds for a game they were working on. I started working with this company on several background scenes but the game wound up being scrapped and we parted ways. About a year later (I think, I'm horrible with times so I can't be sure), I received an email from this same company asking if I'd like to work on a new game they were producing, so I said "sure." Well, to make a long story short, this company was MixedMetaphor, and the new game in question was Harry the Handsome Executive, which was, of course, being published by Ambrosia. This was not only my first job working with Ambrosia but also my first real gaming job where I actually had to deal with sprites and tilesets and the like. Quite the learning experience.
AT: Wow, so you and Ben go way back. That's pretty cool! And how are the current projects coming along?
JS: I'm in the process of wrapping up the art for a new Ambrosia title called Slithereens, which should be available shortly. I've also started work on another Ambrosia title called Ferazel's Wand. Interestingly enough, Ferazel's Wand is being produced by the same guys who did Harry.
AT: What's your favorite thing about the games you're working on?
JS: Hmmm. I'd have to say getting to play them once they are all done, or at least in beta. When I'm actually working on a game, I pretty much see the art one piece at a time, and each piece certainly doesn't interact much with the others. Once these genius programmers get their paws on the sprites, however, they spring to life and are suddenly flying around the screen trying to kill you. Hmmm. Come to think of it, most of the art I've done up until Slithereens, where I've done almost everything, has been the creation of the bad guys that are trying to kill the player. In Harry, for example, I was responsible for almost everything that tries to kill you. In Mars Rising, I'm basically responsible for the worst of the worst enemies--the ones that do the most damage and are the most difficult to kill. Sorry about that everyone.
AT:Just so we know who to blame. :)
JS:Anyway, I always work a free copy into the contract so I get a free unlock code when the game ships. The sad part is, I'm really not very good at games. Never have been. But it's great to see all of the artwork come together at the same time. Of course it's difficult to really look at the artwork when you suck so badly and are too busy just trying to stay alive. Ha! For all you programmers out there, I really need an Invincibility cheat.
AT: That sounds like a reasonable request. What's your favorite thing about being an artist?
JS: Well. I can't say that I have one favorite thing about it. I guess, for starters, I'd have to say that I just love creating something out of nothing. It's great for a good safe dose of a "god complex." I also love gadgetry, like computers, so it's a perfect match. I get to justify buying all kinds of great gear and then I get to play around with it to create all these "pretty pictures." And there's a lot to be said for your work wardrobe consisting of shorts and t-shirts.
AT: Do you think Apple's radical new iMac is going to build a new audience for the games you're doing artwork for?
JS: I certainly hope so. I think they are as cool as can be and they look like great gaming machines. Who would think that those groovy little boxes have more horsepower than your average Pentium II? I tell ya, if I had a spare $1300 floating around right now, I'd buy one tomorrow.
I think the best part of the iMac, and it's success, is that the companies, like Ambrosia, who have stuck with apple through thick and thin despite the naysayers, will finally see some more of the benefits from their loyalty. It's been a rough road for us mac people and hopefully the iMac will help turn things around.
AT: Do you have any other jobs? What did you study to prepare you for your work?
JS: At present, I'm solely a freelance illustrator/animator.
As for where I studied, that's kinda funny. I was never really interested in school. I hated it, as a matter of fact, and barely got an Associates Degree--and even THAT was in General Studies (a little bit of art here, a little bit of music there, some writing over yonder and a smidgen of science just to round things out). I didn't really realize that art was a viable career move until I was past your typical college age and had already had two art-related jobs. Once I did figure it out, I applied to the Savannah College of Art and Design and was accepted and offered a scholarship. I wound up delaying my admission for a year to save up money for the move and living expenses and the such. During that year, though, I was offered another graphics job (my first REAL job with my first REAL paycheck) and my part-time freelance work was starting to pick up, so when the time came to make a decision, I turned it down. So that's the story of my short-lived school career.
AT: Well, aside from your own job, do you have interests besides artwork?
JS: Well, I do moonlight as an Author from time to time. I've written for several books on computer art including: "The Ray Dream Handbook" (1st and 2nd Editions), "Creating Computer Art Using Fractal Design Dabbler," "Painting With Computers," and "Fractal Design Painter 4." I'm currently working on another book called "The ElectricImage Handbook" and have also started contributing to the magazine, "Serious3D."
I like writing about the techniques and technology but it's not my ideal writing. Being a big fan of science fiction (which shows up a lot in my work), I constantly have stories running around in my head that need to get out. As soon as I'm done with the book I'm currently working on, I'm going to take a break from technical writing and start working on some fiction. I have several short stories and at least one good novel in mind so who knows. They may never see the light of day but it's a thought.
AT: Cool. how many individual pictures have you drawn for games, in your estimation?
JS: Whew. That's a tough one. Especially considering I'm now wrapping up Slithereens which is, by far, the most intensive game I've ever worked on as far as the number of frames required is concerned. To put this into perspective, most of the sprites I do for other games require, on average, about 10-20 frames per sprite. For Slithereens, however, each snake required 312 frames of animation.
It's not as bad as it seems because I seldomly draw each frame from scratch. I do the bulk of my work in 3D applications. So I build a model of the sprite, texture it and then animate it. I render out each set of frames on a colored background and the open each frame in Photoshop, delete the background and touch the frame up if necessary (it's almost always necessary). This sprite cutting, as I call it, is the most laborious process of the whole game art experience, in my opinion. You want the sprite to look nice and smooth on the inside but you need it to have sharp edges around the outside so that none of the original background color shows through. As a result, you have to be very careful about which pixels go and which ones stay. The reason you have to go through all of this is so the sprite will look good on each and every background in the game without having some funky halo around it.
So after I clean up the edges, I also tweak the frame to bring out details and even add parts of the final sprite, if necessary. Harry, for example, had sprites of things like machine guns firing and the such. I added the sparks and fire from the machine guns by hand during this postproduction phase.
So, anyway, to stop rambling and answer the actual question, I'd guess I've created about four to five thousand separate frames for sprites. Another five hundred or so separate pics for level art and approximately twenty illustrations for various screens.
AT: Was it easy to learn how to make the graphics?
JS: Well, it wasn't really easy to learn as there was a lot of trial and error but once you get the hang of it, it gets a lot easier and you realize it really wasn't that difficult in the first place. You just have to get a grasp of what you're doing. Once you understand what will and won't look right in a tiny sprite, or collection of level tiles, you're on the right path. Creating artwork for games is much different than creating an illustration for print or the web or whatever. There a number of technical, sizing and alignment issues to keep track of. There are times when you need to figure out how to solve a specific problem within the limitations that gaming imposes but that's about as rough as it gets. This is not to say it's horribly easy either, but it's nothing that'll leave your brain hurting at the end of the dayŠfor the most part. There are some things about it that'll ache your brain a tad, after a while. Clipping the backgrounds out of tiny 24x24 pixel sprites, for instance, will have you reaching for the aspirin bottle in just a few hours.
AT: Thanks for the interview; it was quite enlightening. Do you have anything important to tell all of the Ambrosia fans?
JS: Just keep a finger on the fire button and your eyes on the screenŠand don't forget to eat every now and then. After that, everything else should simply fall into place.
AT: Rock and Roll. Slithereens and Ferazel will Rock, and we'll have you to thank.