Posted Apr 16th 2012 by

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An interview with
Steve Purcellwords by , April 2012

There’s no way of avoiding it, Steve Purcell is a bit of a legend. Creator of loveable cartoon duo Sam & Max, cover artist for classic LucasArt games such as Monkey Island, Zak McKracken and Indiana Jones, and now co-directing Pixar’s latest release, Brave, there’s an awful lot we wanted to ask him! So let’s get going…

Hi Steve, it’s a real pleasure to welcome you to Thunder Chunky! How do we find you today?

Walk straight ahead. Turn ninety degrees to the left. Look under the stove… Hi!

Could you talk us through a normal day in the life of Steve Purcell?

Peek at the alarm clock, collect myself and slide into my car for the long drive to Pixar. Attend various combinations of reviews of animation, story and editorial. Eat lunch at my desk and catch up on non-work related tasks. More reviews, maybe some writing or product notes. Drive home and catch up on dinner while I read the ipad. Spend some family time and maybe watch Pawn Stars or an old Lost in Space episode with the wife and kids. Put the boys to bed. If I have any energy left, take it to my studio in the backyard and work until I’m completely fried. Rinse and repeat.

Steve working away in his studio

Steve’s desk

Sam & Max… you must know them well now? How important have those two characters been to you over the years?

Sam & Max opened the door to many stages of my career. After the first comic came out I was hired at LucasArts based on awareness of the book. A couple of years later I was able to license Sam & Max to LucasArts because the President of the company was a fan of the books. Post-LucasArts I teamed up with a Writer/Producer who liked the comics to adapt Sam & Max for a network TV series. And years later I was hired at Pixar by the great story man Joe Ranft who had read my comics back when he worked at Disney. Around the same time Telltale licensed Sam & Max for their adaptations. So Sam & Max loom large for me.

The dangerous duo themselves!

You published Sam and Max whilst studying at California College of the Arts. What were the most useful things you learned there?

I spent some time early on trying to please the professors with my assignments. At some point I realized that I should be using this time to figure out what kind of art I wanted to be spending my time to create. I rediscovered that I most enjoyed what I was doing if I found a way to get some aspect of my personality into whatever I did. I advise students to try to find a way to connect with whatever you are doing. What will make you own it?

What were your key drawing tools when creating the comic strips?

In school I roughed them out in blue pencil and inked them with a dip pen, usually the night before they were due for the paper. They weren’t the best strips but allowed me to begin to consider how to present Sam & Max to actual readers instead of just myself. Years later when I was doing the comics, it was the same drawing process but with much more thought and care put into it. I treated each comic as if I might not get a chance to do another.

One of Steve’s very early Sam & Max comic strips

Would the jokes come first or would they pop up whilst doing the drawings?

The jokes and the art develop at the same time. Usually I have an idea for a story and just start sketching different aspects of what I want to include. Little moments of dialog come out of that as well as bigger set piece ideas. I need to think of the pictures at the same time as the dialog.

Do you remember the first time you saw a Sam and Max comic on a news-stand? How difficult was it getting the comic published?

I do remember and it was a great feeling to see the first FishWrap book appear on a shelf. That book came out at the tail end of the black and white self-publishing boom and sold around 12,000 copies. It was always a treat to hear comic shop owners tell me how they tried to indoctrinate new Sam & Max readers with the book.

The first commercially published Sam & Max comic – ‘Monkeys Violating the Heavenly Temple’

At what point did LucasArts step in and suggest making them into a game?

I was a game artist at LucasArts and Sam & Max had become unofficial mascots inside the company. Programmers used Sam & Max animations to train new code-writers and I had been doing Sam & Max “Sunday” strips for their fan newsletter. One day the company president Kelly Flock came to me asking if i would license Sam & Max for a game. I thought it was pretty amazing to have one of George Lucas’s companies licensing something form me.

Sam & Max Hit the Road video game

How was it, going from having sole control over a comic strip to then having a whole crew of artists building a game based on your characters, and then after that a TV show as well?

I’ve been lucky in that the production crews that I have worked with adapting Sam & Max always seemed to understand the style of the humor. It makes it easier if you are all on the same page from the start. When collaborating on Sam & Max projects I find that it is great to be available as a point of reference for the crew but also it can be healthy to get out of the way and let the creative contributors feel ownership in the project. If I want to create a Sam & Max project all my own that option is always available. But I think it’s well worth working in collaborative mediums that draw a wider audience than comics.

Sam & Max Surfin The Highway book

Do you have a favourite weird moment from the Sam and Max universe?

In the comic Bad Day on the Moon I like when Sam is trying to restore Max’s consciousness from himself back into Max’s body. He has his finger in a giant beaker of liquid and keeps offending Max by joking about Max being soup. He has a line where he says something like, “I think Max is considered a mineral.” For some reason that comment tickles me. Also there was a gag on the TV series where Sam is teaching about biology by swinging a length of intestine in a circle until it hums like those colorful plastic tubes that kids played with in the 60’s. It’s barely animated but the sound effect sold it the way I wanted it. Sometimes it seems like I have nothing to do with these jokes, that the characters come up with them on their own.

The intestine scene from Chock Full ‘o Guts

Whilst at LucasArts you also worked on a particular favourite of the TC crew… Monkey Island. How did your involvement with the game kick off?

When I was first hired we were supposed to start on unnamed pirate game which sounded intriguing, but first we spent a few months creating Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade which I had a great time working on. After that it was fun to get back and jump into drawing pirates and working on broad silly gags every day. I never would have dreamed that Monkey Island would still be popular today and wind up in the Smithsonian.

Monkey Island at the Smithsonian American Art Museum

The video game graphics back in the day were hugely different from what they are now. How difficult was it working as a concept artist, when you knew the final version of your ideas would need to fit within so many constraints when it came to resolution, numbers of colours, animation etc?

Steve’s sketches converted into stripped-back-pixels

We didn’t spend a lot of time drawing concepts on paper first. We would often draw straight onto the screen. We had a handful of homely colors which looked different on every monitor. We found that black was the most consistent color and used it a lot which is probably why so much of the game takes place at night. Doing animations so small was a blessing and a curse. Small characters meant they were hard to see but the upside was you could animate quickly and create the performance or the gags through broad body language.

Pirate heads drawn to go on the Monkey Island copy protection wheel

What parts of the MI world did you most enjoy drawing?

I liked working on the ghost pirate stuff because it was dark and eerie and the ghosts were very stylized with their glow effects. I liked animating their goofy gestures with their heads coming off and such. Painting the box covers was a lot of fun because I was able to define the look of the world in paint instead of pixels.

And what techniques do you use when doing character concept artwork?

They are built up in washy layers of acrylic over a very rough pencil sketch xeroxed onto bristol board. Sounds convoluted but actually pretty simple in practice. This style was developed while doing these paintings years ago and is the way I’ve painted ever since.

Concept artwork for a ghost pirate and Guybrush, the lead character.

The box art for Monkey Island 1 & 2 in particular have become hugely iconic. Could you talk us through the process of creating them?

My first Lucas cover was Zak McKraken which was done in my natural cartooney style. When it came time to do the first Monkey Island cover there was an effort to make it a bit more realistic which was a stretch for me. I did sketches of an early Guybrush who looked not much like the final version. We settled on a direction and I took my time with it, working in opaque watercolors. I think the cover for LeChuck was more successful. I photographed my girlfriend for both characters with dramatic lighting wearing pirate costumes. I spent a month painting that image in oils.

Steve’s MI2 artwork iterations

And then the Monkey Island franchise was re-invigorated many years later by the folks at Telltale. Was it fun to re-visit that world after such a break?

I wasn’t involved in the new games themselves but was asked to create a cover image for the series. I feel like Monkey Island springs up for me about every ten years in some form or another. It was nice to play with the characters again.

Steve’s cover artwork for the Tales of Monkey Island

How did you go about creating the brilliant TOMI poster?

I visited with Telltale to look at the game in progress and they gave me a file of images to look at. I created three digital roughs on a Cintiq tablet to show to the company . Once we settled on the final I prepared an illustration board, and transferred the sketch to it. I roughed in the tones with acrylic washes and built up the opacity. I wanted a texture to the painting and chopped in little strokes of various colors for the background values and then dialed in on the detail of the characters.

As well as these things, you also work with the very talented Pixar team. How would you describe your role there?

Over the years I’ve worked as a story board artist, story supervisor, script-writer and co-director on a feature.

I assume you can’t say much, but can you tell us anything about any projects you’re currently working on?

You can find a lot about BRAVE online.

Pixar’s Brave trailer, which Steve is co-directing

Did John Lasseter or Steve Jobs ever revealed whether they’re Sam and Max fans?

I only crossed paths with Mr Jobs a few times in my early days there. I don’t know that John is a Sam & Max fan but he likes my monster and car drawings. I got to create a character called the Screamin’ Banshee for the first Cars short film then got to perform his growl in the short and for a big toy of him that was made. But one of my first tasks at Pixar was to create a birthday card for John Lasseter. I painted it in the style of a 60’s hot rod monster model package.

Steve’s design for Screamin’ Banshee in Cars

After all your experience across such a wide variety of mediums, what would be your 3 top tips to any illustrators starting out in the industry?

Learn to draw. The more you feel comfortable interpreting your ideas the easier everything else is. The challenge is always the disconnect between the brain and the hand, how do you get your idea to the page the way you are thinking it? Also, find opportunities to do the type of work you’re interested in. When I was starting out I was happy to do almost anything but over time I had my preferences. I would often take a fun job even if it didn’t pay as well because it was an opportunity to do a nice piece and add something I liked to my portfolio. Over time I was able to weed out the less appealing work and attract more of what I liked.

Some of the items that keep Steve inspired in his studio

Is there one must-read book that you found invaluable in the past?

John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath has nothing to do with painting or comics. Must read anyway.

Finally, what’s the one thing every one should do today?

Call your mother. Hug your kids. Compliment someone you don’t know. Nuzzle a mutant New York city sewer rat.

Just one more thing (Columbo-style)… Do you have a favourite… Sam or Max?

Aww, how can you ask such a thing? Let’s just say, I understand Sam, and I have a grudging admiration for Max.

Make sure to check out Steve’s blog and also his Sam & Max blog, where he regularly posts up a mixture of old and new artwork. And keep an eye out for Brave, which he is co-directing!


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