Iain McCaig: The human aspect
From a collaborative drawing exercise that spawned a monstrous pipe-smoking skeletal pilot to a video of a film concepts and CGI trials that never went into production, concept artist Iain McCaig’s session mirrored his evident personality – theatrical and charismatic. McCaig designed Darth Maul, but more importantly also drew the covers of several early Fighting Fantasy books, cutscene portraits for Secret Of Monkey Island and is now working with Respawn Entertainment.
His talk spanned the story of his career so far, which started after attending the Glasgow School of Art in the 1970s, which didn’t allow studentss to draw fantasy or sci-fi pictures. Though he didn’t necessarily like fantasy, he liked books that were fat, and crucially, he loves drawing people, a talent that brings his concept drawings rare personality for the fantasy genre.
He showed several covers he drew for Fighting Fantasy – the interactive fantasy novel series developed by Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson – including Forest of Doom, City of Thieves (for which he provided internal drawings, too) and Deathtrap Dungeon. When working with WETA recently, the art director in charge of Lord of the Rings exclaimed, “You did Deathtrap Dungeon!” and had even coloured in all the drawings inside.
McCaig was already intrigued by D&D because it was “theatre meets war games”, and Fighting Fantasy “made books interactive – it was everything I loved about both”. It lead to another project with Livingstone, spurred by McCaig’s love of a book called Masquerade, which contained a series of pictures concealing puzzles which led to a treasure that had been buried in the real world. This, by the way, was the second mention of the book at Develop – the first was by Mind Candy CEO Michael Acton Smith, who said that Perplex City was inspired by it. The result was puzzle book Casket of Souls, which featured elaborate puzzle pictures that, he said, only kids could solve because they’d see all the details.
McCaig went on to work on a huge variety of other projects, including the cover of Jethro Tull’s Broadsword of the Beast LP cover. “It inspired tattoos on burly men, from nipple to nipple,” he said, adding that it’s worth translating the runes around its edge with the Anglo Saxon alphabet. He illustrated an edition of The Hobbit and drew for Marvel comics, too.
Eventually he joined Industrial Light & Magic, the special effects division of LucasFilm, and was to start working on Terminator 2. But while he was waiting for the project to begin, he was asked to work on something else at LucasArts, described to him as “George’s vanity project”. He hadn’t even touched a game before. Using a mouse and just 256 colours, he created the close-up portraits that appear during cutscenes. “This is never going to catch on,” he thought at the time. “Videogames don’t quite involve me yet, but design-wise they’ve always pulled me back again.” He’s subsequently worked on Bond games, drawing villains and many versions of Q.
After Terminator 2, McCaig started working on his own projects and went broke trying to make a film based on fantasy novel A Wizard of Earthsea, which forced him into regular employment at LucasFilm. There, he noticed that nobody drew people, only machines or creatures. So he asked to concentrate on people and was given Darth Maul to design, then Princess Amidala, basing his striking concepts on the then 14 Natalie Portman. Soon after, she ended up being cast for the role. Attempts to back-door cast Russell Crowe with concept art for Obi-Wan Kenobi and Ralph Fiennes weren’t so successful.
Aside from his work at Respawn, McCaig is now working on several films, including a horror fantasy based on the death of Edgar Allen Poe, shortly before which he disappeared for three days and was found, apparently insane, lying in a gutter and wearing clothes that weren’t his own. But he ended his talk with a pre-production test video of his version of John Carter of Mars, based on the Edgar Rice Burroughs story that Pixar is to come out with its own version of next year.
Though McCaig still isn’t plugged into videogames, as such, his focus on faces and character can teach game concept artists much about injecting more personality into their worlds. He ended by explaining his creative process: sketching fast pictures, and then picking out details he likes – whether teeth or a distinctive brow – and then finding many analogues in the real world to carefully draw studies of them. Only when he’s close to bursting with excitement at drawing the final image does he start on it, all based on the huge mass of research he put together.
“Will Ian Livingstone and I work again?” he asked, at the session’s close. “Will we see Deathtrap Dungeon II? This is a time of miracles and sequels and anything is possible.”