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Sean Murray - Celebrity Interview
Interview With Sean Murray

SM: - Sean Murray | WTW: - When Teens Write

WTW: Where did you go to high school/college?

SM: I attended High School at W.T. Woodson in Fairfax, Virginia, and college at Syracuse University, where I majored in Illustration and graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree.

WTW: How did you get into drawing for comic books?

SM: After I graduated from SU I was contacted by Harry Bauer, the friend of a fellow S.U. alumni, about doing artwork for a comic book he was writing called, “Dragonsbane” which was to be published by a very small company called Hall of Heroes. I had initially agreed to do all three issues of the comic, but after completing the second issue, I realized that I just did not have the time to do the third issue, especially since I was not getting paid for the work. After that, I swore off of comics for a while, and then in 2002, I teamed up with a friend of mine to self-publish a comic-book called “Robots R Cool, Zombies R Jerks.” I am also working on finding a publisher for a couple of my own comic book ideas.

WTW: Did you drive yourself insane before drawing, “Robots R’ Cool Zombies R’ Jerks?”

SM: How did you know? I guess you sort of have to be insane to draw comics to begin with. They are very time-consuming, especially when you are doing the penciling AND inking. Also, I tend to draw with a lot of detail, so I bring the insanity upon myself.

WTW: How are you helping to design Middle Earth Online?

SM: Well, I am working as a freelance concept artist. This means that I create drawings of people, places, objects and creatures that are used as guidelines for 3-D artists to create the assets that will go into a game. This particular game is an MMORPG (Massively-Multi-Player Online Role-Playing Game), similar to Everquest and Dark Ages of Camelot, but it is set in the world of Middle-Earth, J.R.R. Tolkien’s stage for The Lord of The Rings and The Hobbit.

Since I am a freelancer, I get to work at home, and I communicate with the art director at Turbine Entertainment, the company that is developing the game. My drawings are then sent to art directors at Vivendi/Universal, who is publishing the game and owns the rights to make games based on Tolkien’s novels.

WTW: You dare to work with Tolkien. How much have you actually used the descriptions in the books in your conceptual design?

SM: Usually the art director at Turbine has pretty in-depth descriptions of what I have to draw, based on the consensus of several people on-staff at Turbine and Vivendi/Universal who are well-versed in Tolkien lore. If there is anything that I feel I need more direction with, I will turn to the original text, but in many cases, I have to design things that aren’t necessarily described in great detail in the text, like places that the characters talk about, but don’t actually visit during the course of the novels. Also, I have to design things based on common sense. If I am tasked with designing a suit of armor, I have to base it off of traditional European, Celtic or Nordic designs, since Tolkien wrote his novels to be a sort of an alternate history or mythology for Great Britain.

In some ways, we get to be more creative with our designs than perhaps the films were because we are trying to create all the nooks and crannies of Middle-Earth, as opposed to illustrating the story word-for-word. The game is going to be about players being able to interact with Middle-Earth during the time of the War of the Ring, and create their own stories and adventures.

That said, I have read all 4 of the novels, and it is really a big thrill to be working on the project. I probably would never have imagined back when I read the books that I would one day be helping to bring Middle-Earth to life!

WTW: How much have you used the films?

SM: Not at all really. Our game is separate from the films because the license that Vivendi/Universal is using is one that is associated with Tolkien Enterprises, a separate license holder from New Line Cinemas. It is all very complicated, but basically, our game is based off of the novels themselves, so anything that is described or mentioned in either the Lord of the Rings trilogy, or the Hobbit is fair game for us to design, whereas, the video games that are based off of the movies, are only able to use material that is derived from the films themselves.

Since Tolkien Enterprises is unaffiliated with New Line Cinemas, we have the sometimes complicated task of designing everything for our game without being influenced by the look of the films, yet still make everything just as cool, if not cooler!

WTW: Have the developers of Middle Earth Online had any contact with Peter Jackson (director of the Lord of the Rings movies)?

SM: Not to my knowledge, but I would imagine the answer is “no,” based on the reasons I described in the previous question.

WTW: What’s the style of the game?

SM: Well, I suppose you could describe it as Realistic High Fantasy. Everyone on the team is striving to make the game feel as if you are actually stepping into the world of Middle-Earth, as close to the way Tolkien would have imagined it as we can.

WTW: How would you say the game is different from others in its genre?

SM: From what I know about the way the game will be played, players will be able to interact with the world more than other MMORPGs. They will be able to buy property, develop skills and crafts, and witness live events as well as form adventuring parties and go on various quests. The game will be geared to two groups of MMORPG players: the ones that play for 40 hours a week, and those that play for 4 hours a week, by allowing a player’s character to develop even while they are not actually playing the game. But if you want more detailed information, your readers can find out more about the game if they go to either www.lotr.com, or www.middle-earthonline.com.

WTW: How did you break into video game design in the first place?

SM: Well, it’s funny you ask, because I was barely aware that I HAD broken into video game design! It has all happened so quickly within the past year or so!

I guess I have always been interested in video games, and have always had the desire to work in the industry. But I guess it started in 2000 when I got a job at a company called Funny Garbage in New York City. At the time, they were developing content for the Cartoon Network website, and I was assigned to design little games for the site that featured characters from the various shows. Most of the games were small and simple, but on a few occasions I got to design larger, more in-depth games for the Toonami section of the website, such as Toonami Lockdown, which was a 4-level, RPG-style game involving lots of crazy robots. That was a fun project and it put the game-design bug in me, so from then on I decided I wanted to try to work my way into the game industry.

A couple years later, I was surfing some of the video-game industry web-sites (Mostly www.gamasutra.com) for potential jobs or projects, and I happened upon a listing by a small start-up game company in Brooklyn (Which is where I live). They were looking for a concept artist to help them define the look and feel of a game they were trying to drum up interest for. After showing them my portfolio they asked me to come on board with the project, so I did several illustrations for them in between other work I was doing for Lego.com.

Then this past summer I applied for a full-time position as a concept artist at Turbine Entertainment, who had posted the want-ad on their web-site. After interviewing with them, they told me that they liked my work, but that they had decided (for internal management reasons) not to hire anyone for the full-time position. Then a couple months later, they contacted me about working for them on a freelance basis on the Middle-Earth Online project and I said, “YES!” (of course) Another thing I do to get my name out there is I frequent the message boards on such websites as www.conceptart.org and www.gfxartist.com. There, artists can post their work and get feedback from other artists or game-art enthusiasts. It really is a great source of information and great way to get critiques on your work so that you can constantly improve your skills.

WTW: What, if any, factors do you think may be holding back conceptual artists in today’s culture?

SM: Well, it is immensely difficult to come up with new and unique ways to visualize stuff when we live in such a visually over-stimulated culture. I often find that I have drawn something which I think is pretty original and then I turn around and see something similar to what I have drawn in a book or a movie, and I can’t figure out if it was just a subconscious thing where perhaps I saw that movie or image years ago, or if it is just a coincidence because there are so many artists out there who have similar approaches and styles.

Despite that though, I think I am starting to develop some pretty unique images in my personal work. Of course, when working with Tolkien, you have to adhere to certain accepted fantasy visual vocabulary, but I always try to add in a subtle twist here and there to give stuff a unique flare.

WTW: Where did you grow up?

SM: I grew up in the suburbs of Washington D.C. in Northern Virginia. Not exactly a hot-bed of artistic activity, but I still enjoy visiting home when I can, mostly because my family lives there!

WTW: Do you remember what you thought you wanted to be after growing up when you were a kid? If not then, when did you first realize that you wanted to be an artist?

SM: I think I wanted to be lots of things at one point or another: a train engineer, a commercial airline pilot, a lawyer, a detective… heck, I even wanted to be Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer when I was in Pre-school!

However, when I was in Junior High, I started getting interested in fantasy art and role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons and Warhammer 40K and the like. Back then, I dreamed of doing artwork for those types of games, and for video games, and when my stepmother bought me a set of technical ink-pens, I started drawing all kinds of stuff like that: dragons, monsters, wizards, etc.

But then when I was in High School, there were several other students in my art classes who were much better artists than I was, and I think I got a bit discouraged by that, so I started thinking that maybe I should go into graphic design, which is what I concentrated on in my art classes. I guess I thought I had to be more practical than aspiring to draw monsters for a living.

When college rolled around, I decided I wanted to major in computer graphics, but after my first year at S.U, some of my professors told me I would probably be happier majoring in Illustration, and boy were they right! Although I now work almost exclusively digital, the computer graphics program at S.U. at the time mostly focused on 3-D rendering, Animation and Programming.

So, to make a long story short, I have always WANTED to be an artist, probably even as far back as kindergarten, but it took me a while to realize that I could be one as long as I had confidence in my abilities and did not let other artists influence the way I felt about my own work.

WTW: What obstacles did you encounter to get where you are today?

SM: I guess the main problem I have is an occasional lack of focus. As I said before, I have always wanted to be an artist; I just wasn’t always sure in what capacity. For example, I went through a period where I really wanted to be involved in movies, perhaps as a special-effects person or a director. But then six months later, I decide that what I really want to do is draw comic-books.

It always fluctuates, but as I am getting older, I see myself becoming more and more focused. I constantly have a million ideas floating around in my head, either for a movie or a novel or a comic book or a video game, and it is sometimes hard to decide which one to grab a hold of and try to make a reality. But every now and then something just clicks and I say: “OK Sean, here’s a really good idea, time to focus!” I imagine this process is the same for many artists. You just have to keep trying, and eventually, things will happen!

WTW: What obstacles do you encounter on the job that prevent you or delay you in reaching your day-to-day goals?

SM: My daily life is never routine. I do things differently every day, and this can sometimes be a hindrance when it comes to keeping on task with stuff like bills and taxes and whatnot, which are a supreme bore to begin with. But it can also be a great way to live your life because you see and approach things in a new way constantly, helping to keep you from getting in a rut. Also, as a freelance artist, you constantly have to be thinking ahead to new work because you are self-employed! When the project you are working on today ends, you have to make sure you have more work lined up after it, so that you can keep bringing in a consistent income! This means keeping in touch with people, sending out promo-cards, researching company and industry web-sites for new projects, etc. It can be tough, and it can often interfere with getting work done (ironically enough)!

WTW: What obstacles to your long-term goals?

SM: I don’t think there are any obstacles. I am a firm believer in the idea that the only obstacles that keep us from succeeding are the ones we make for ourselves. This is an attitude that I think all people who desire to be happy and well-rewarded for what they do should have.

WTW: What inspires you to keep going?

SM: I suppose it’s the desire to have my art and my ideas seen by more and more people, and to have people come to ME because they are familiar with my style and reputation. That may sound a bit self-centered, but I think a bit of selfism is a good thing for everyone, especially anyone who wishes to be happy with themselves and proud of what they have contributed.

I am constantly striving for the next milestone. Eventually, I would like to contribute to video games as a lead concept artist or art director, or even work as a concept artist on movies. Beyond that, I would like to create my own worlds and my own stories, as the basis for video games, movies, or books.

WTW: Where do you see yourself in five years?

SM: I suppose it could go one of two ways. One way is that I would like to be working as a lead concept artist for a video game or film production company. The other possible future for myself is that I would still be freelancing, yet with a hoard of potential clients trying to beat down my door in order to have me place my artistic flare on their story or game.

WTW: Any plans besides art that you want to pursue?

SM: Well, as I said before, I would like to do more writing, or at least collaborate on a writing project with a friend or colleague. I keep a journal now of all the random thoughts and ideas that I have so that hopefully one day I can do something with them (previously I would just jot my ideas down in sketchbooks, which eventually get shelved and are rarely looked at afterwards….). I also have had a story idea that takes place in a huge, fantasy city that has been circling around in my head for the last 6 or 7 years that I would like to one day bring to some sort of resolution……

WTW: What advice would you offer to aspiring or young artists reading this?

SM: The number one piece of advice for artists, and for everyone is this: DON’T GIVE UP! Too often have I seen people crumple like a leaf at the first sign of pressure or criticism. In art, as in most other professions, if you want to get anywhere, you can’t be afraid to take a little criticism, but you must also be bold enough to recognize when your critics are wrong.

My second piece of advice is related to the first one and it is: have confidence in yourself. Don’t get bogged down by constantly comparing yourself to other artists. I have fallen into this trap many times, and I can tell you it can be very self-destructive. Don’t do it! Have faith in yourself and your abilities.

Finally: Get your name out there! Go to conventions, talk to people, call up artists on the phone and ask them if you can come over to their studio and see how they work, keep in touch with art-directors, use your contacts, be aggressive, but not too aggressive.

WTW: How do you seek to affect people through your craft?

SM: I don’t think anything I am doing is Earth-shattering or life-changing, but instead, I would hope that my art fills a fairly simple, yet important role which is that of fun and entertainment. Hopefully, my art helps to transport people to new and exciting worlds and inspires other’s imaginations. The entertainment industry is often viewed as a non-essential industry, but I think it is just the opposite of that.

WTW: Name three artists who have influenced you.

SM: Hmm, Bernie Wrightson, Ian Miller, and Gustav Dore’. I highly recommend these artists. I guess what they all have in common is an astonishing capacity for creating highly detailed images without spoiling the over-all effect and composition of the pieces. Ian Miller can be hard to find, but if you find any of the Warhammer books published by Games Workshop back in the mid-nineties you are bound to find his work, but he has also done some Magic cards and usually has one or 2 pieces in Spectrum every year, which is an annual compilation of the years best Fantasy and Science Fiction art-work.

WTW: What is the best piece of illustration or conceptual art you've seen in the last year?

SM: Tough question… I have seen quite a lot. I guess just about anything created by Craig Mullins, whose Web site is www.goodbrush.com. He is sort of the undisputed master of digital painting at this moment, and I tend to agree with that classification.

WTW: Who do you think is the best in your profession working today?

SM: Well, I guess the answer would have to be Craig Mullins! Also Feng Zhu is really good (www.artbyfeng.com ) and I really like Stephen Martiniere as well (www.martiniere.com ).

WTW: If you could be any person throughout history, besides yourself, who would you be?

SM: Well, I don’t know if I can really answer that question effectively. Who can really know what another person’s life was really like? So instead I will answer it by telling you who from history I really admire: Ayn Rand, author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. Besides being the author of my favorite book (The Fountainhead), I admire her for having the courage of her convictions, and for being bold enough to use art to express her philosophy, a philosophy which is often misunderstood and maligned as being an excuse for selfishness, but is in fact a philosophy for pursuing a happy and productive life, free from moral dilemma and full of integrity.

Also, I really admire the Founding Fathers, especially Thomas Jefferson on a purely philosophical level. I would have loved to have lived during the time of the Revolution and witnessed the immense courage it must have taken to stand up for themselves and fight to end the aggression and corruption of the Monarchy in America.

Questions by Andrew Hard

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