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Vol. 2, Issue 3
November 22, 1999
Under Cover :
Francis Tsai

by Rowan "Sumaleth" Crawford

Question: What does this issue of loonygames have in common with Presto Studio's recently completed game, Star Trek: Hidden Evil?

The answer is, as you may already have guessed, Francis Tsai, concept artist on the aforementioned game and this week's loonygames cover artist.

OK, I'll admit it, there's actually no "subtle link" between Francis Tsai and this weeks feature article - RadPipe's interview with Barrett "Bear" Alexander, CEO of Rogue Entertainment - but you have to admit, Francis draws a damn cool bear!

Francis started his career on a chemically orientated path, picking up a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry at the College of Natural Sciences (University of Texas, Austin) with some side interest in fine arts and the Japanese language. His intention initially was to move from there into pre-med, but well before he finished the course he realized that a future in either field - science or medicine - was not one that particularly interested him any more. "It was obvious to me that I was not med school material, and the prospect of spending the rest of my life in a lab was making me queasy," he explained.

His life long interest in art was looking to be a more suitable path, but he still stuck around to finish the science course before moving on. "When I approached the assistant dean of the architecture school with my intent to change majors, he advised me to finish my degree and apply to the graduate school in a year. Initially, I was crushed, but in the end it proved to be very good advice."

With the science degree in his hand, he moved onto a more art-orientated degree, and within three years had acquired himself a Master of Architecture (now that is a cool degree!) with "extensive course work in the School of Fine Arts." So two degrees and 8 years of tertiary education but the future was still uncertain.

Francis found that the things he most enjoyed ("sketching, rendering, science fiction, computer modeling, etc") were of little use in the work environment he found himself in, and the skills that were needed weren't ones that he possessed. "I found that although I was working in a design profession, I seemed to spend a lot of time memorizing codes, schmoozing clients and dealing with bureaucrats. The architecture profession was very different from architecture the academic pursuit."

A growing dissatisfaction with work lead to a growing interest in other fields, such as multimedia, virtual reality, games, film design and visual effects, and he also began to again draw the sort of images that he liked to draw - science fiction and fantasy images - something he'd done very little of in past years. Next came a deeper exploration into the various facets of computer art, such as (2D) Photoshop, web page design, and more recently, 3D.

And then, as if by magic (wait for it), word comes by way of the SIGGRAPH mailing list that a local game developer, Presto Studios, the company behind The Journeyman Project and other similar titles, were having a tour of their residence. Francis and his wife, Linda (a talented architect in her own right), took the tour and, at his wife's urging, Francis spoke to them after the tour and gave then the link to his web site. One interview later and Francis was finally working in a profession that he really enjoyed.

After initially working on one of the Journeyman Project games, Francis moved on to became one of the conceptual artists on Star Trek: Hidden Evil, a pre-rendered (with real-time characters) third person adventure game set around the Star Trek: Insurrection movie storyline (although the game doesn't follow the movie's plot). Being a conceptual artist on the project also meant that he got to work on other areas of the game.

"I was involved in the design of all aspects of the game beginning shortly after an initial storyline had been proposed. I participated in story and gameplay meetings and produced design work based on ideas we came up with in those meetings. During production, I worked with Victor Navone, our creative director to oversee the actual modeling and animation of all the assets."

Being a Star Trek game, the assets mentioned were to be either based on canonical Star Trek elements, or elements that were to become canonical elements. I asked Francis what it was like working on a franchise as massive (and potentially finicky) as the Star Trek one:

"Very exciting. Paramount and Activision were both very helpful in terms of providing us with a wealth of reference material and original sketches and designs from the movie. Paramount is very selective about how their property is treated. Luckily, almost all of us on the team are pretty hard core Star Trek fans, in particular our writer Eric Dallaire. We started out with a pretty good story concept, and with all the reference material we had, it really was a labor of love." And, since this Q&A format is working out pretty well, I asked Francis what his favorite book and favorite movie of all time are:

"Right now, my all time favorite SF book is Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson. On the surface it's cyberpunk, but the book is about so many things besides that, and on so many different levels. Neuromancer would probably be a close second."

"Favorite movie at the moment - I'd have to say The Matrix. I really enjoy seeing a science fiction movie that doesn't make me wince with embarrassment at any point in the film. Blade Runner is a very close second."

And Favorite games?

"I actually don't play a whole lot of games. The games that do come to mind are Starcraft, Half-Life/Team Fortress, Grim Fandango and Myst/Riven."

Francis' art "style" is really unique - I've certainly never seen anything like it before - so I asked where the style came from, whether it developed of its own accord or whether it came from any particular influences; "I'm not sure where my "style" comes from. I never really set out to create a totally new drawing style. I think it's really a matter of having a wide variety of influences, and trying to incorporate those bits and pieces of each that really spoke to me. I haven't really seen other artists who draw exactly like me, but I'm sure there are others around who are at least similar."

On the topic of favorite artists, Francis has a long list;

"Almost too many to mention, but a good cross section would be (in no particular order):

Masamune Shirow - mecha and vehicle design, the "sketchy" style of his ink work, watercolor/paint stuff.

Thomas Schaller (architectural renderer) - watercolorist; I really like his ability to capture mood and light quality. Lebbeus Woods (architect) - architectural design.

Chris Bachalo - characters and layout/graphic style.

Alphonse Mucha - technique, layout/graphic design.

Craig Mullins - Photoshop paint technique.

Alex Ross - seeing comic characters rendered in a realistic style.

Joe Madureira - character design, graphics/layout.

Travis Charest - draftsmanship, attention to detail."

Francis' approach to artwork uses both traditional and computer based techniques; "Typically, I will scan a pencil drawing and paint it in Photoshop. There are two approaches to painting I use:

1) To get a comic or anime effect, I will leave the line art in the final drawing and use more "flat" coloring, although I do add some highlights and shadows; an example of this would be the "Seven of Nine" painting or the "Konoko" painting.

2) To achieve a more painterly effect, I will use the pencil drawing as an underlay and paint over it using higher opacity. I then add lighting, shade and depth using different levels of opacity. An example of this style would be the "Borg" painting in my portfolio.

In the past I've used a variety of processes although prior to starting with Photoshop I pretty much stuck to pencil and watercolor. An example of this is the "Saul" image.

During Francis' professional career he has continued to work as a freelance artist under the moniker of Team GT, working on a variety of projects, "typical projects include vehicle airbrush art for custom automotive body shop, T-shirt and logo art, murals, interior design and signage for retail, comic book art and advertising story board art." In recent months Francis has also produced some 'fan art' in his spare time - such as the previously mentioned Konoko drawing which is based on the upcoming Bungie title, Oni - and has had some of his images shown on the game orientated fan-art site, GameArt.

And what does the future hold for Francis Tsai?

"I'm currently working on a new project with Presto Studios that will last through most of the next year. This is a pre-rendered adventure game which requires a lot of pre-production work. After that, probably a real time third person action/adventure game, and after that, who knows?


To see more of Francis' art, and you really should, there is a portfolio of his imagery on the Team GT site, including architectual drawings, characters, comic art, and a funny little animated Captain Picard. Star Trek: Hidden Evil is due for release this coming friday (26th November), although there are reports that some stores have it on sale already.

- Rowan "Sumaleth" Crawford is loonygames' Supervising Art Director.


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