Interview: Monkey Island's Bill Tiller on creating the background art for games

When we think about the art in video games, we usually think about the design of the characters or the look of the items with which we interact. We sometimes forget that someone on the team had to design the backgrounds in the game as well. For years, that was the job of Bill Tiller, who was the background artist (among other things) on such classic point & click adventure games as The Curse of Monkey Island, Full Throttle, and The Dig.

With the first episode of his latest adventure game, Duke Grabowski: Mighty Swashbuckler, recently released on PC and Mac, we moved our mouse over an image of Bill and hit the left button so we could ask him a few questions about how he got his start setting the scene, and how it led to him being both the Art Director and Co-Project Lead on his new game.

GameCrate: How did you get your start as a background artist for video games?

Bill Tiller: Well, for the first one I worked on, The Dig, it was actually as an animator. At the time, being an animator wasn't just about doing the animation, you also had to draw things and do all the shading.

At one point while making that game, we had to put it on hold because people weren't happy with the direction it was going in, and we were going to reboot it. When this happened, I asked the art director if I could draw the backgrounds. But she was like, "No, you're an animator." "Trust me, I can do this." "I don't know...." I got kind of annoyed about this, so I jumped on Photoshop, which was pretty new at the time, and did a background image. I then put it on her computer so it would be the first thing she'd see when she came in the next day. Sure enough, when she saw it, she was like, "Okay, you've impressed me, you've got the job."

GC: ReganArts recently published a book called The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop, which is about the artists who did the background paintings for such movies as The Wizard of Oz and The Sound of Music. Aside from working digitally and virtually, how much does your job have in common with theirs?

BT: Well, their job is to make it look photorealistic. But there are some similarities. For instance, they work big, as do I. They paint on almost wall-sized canvases. When I worked at LucasArts, there were a ton of these background paintings from Star Wars, and there was one from Star Trek of this beautiful Vulcan landscape. But I noticed, when I looked at them up close, that they're not really that clean, they're kind of messy. They go big so that when it gets shrunk down, any mistakes they make aren't a big deal.

We also looked at how they lit stuff, how light bounces around, and we use those principals as well. So these things were definitely an influence on what I do. I used to go to the bathroom and then stop and look at them for five minutes before heading back to my desk.

GC: Now, you recently released the first episode of Duke Grabowski: Mighty Swashbuckler on Steam. I assume it's about a pirate, yes?

BT: Yeah. Originally, we were planning to do something completely different. To make a demo to show off our technology, we used the models, animation, and so forth from our previous game, Ghost Pirates of Vooju Island. But we wanted to have a different kind of hero, someone who was big and dumb and rough and tumble, but also really determined and could be nice, kind of like the character Mongo from Blazing Saddles, but a little smarter than that. Or like Ogre from Revenge of the Nerds. But when we made the demo, we really liked this character, and decided to make the game about him, even though it meant the game was going to be another pirate game.

GC: So is Duke Grabowski connected to Ghost Pirates of Vooju Island?

BT: Yeah, it's kind of a prequel. It has some of the same characters, and the setting is the same, though the stories aren't directly related.

GC: For Duke Grabowski, you're the Art Director, but you're also the Co-Project Lead. Do you ever catch yourself paying more attention to the background art than other aspects?

BT: Well, I know that if I focus too much on the art that other aspects of the game will suffer, and that I won't have time to influence the game's design. It's always a struggle between hitting deadlines and hitting the bar quality on everything we want. So I often have to bring in other people to work on parts that I don't have time to do. Like on this game, I didn't have time to do the special effects, so I had to bring someone else in to work on that.

But the good thing is that often times I get people who are better at something than I am, which takes a weight off my soldiers because I can just let them go and they do a great job.

GC: So, when is the second episode of Duke Grabowski: Mighty Swashbuckler due out?

BT: We're planning on five episodes. The plan is to have the second episode come out in the Spring. I've already written it, and we're doing pre-production on it now, and have some sketches done, as well as some of the puzzles.
GC: So, lastly, I have to ask – when you're playing a game for fun, how often do you die or fail your mission because you're looking at the backgrounds and not at what you're supposed to be doing?

BT: Yeah, that happened when I played Alien: Isolation. It's a gorgeous game if you like industrial design, which I do. There were so many times when I'd want to stop and look at some lab but the alien would be around, and if you stop to look at something, you're dead. Maybe I should play it on "Easy."

The first episode of Duke Grabowski: Mighty Swashbuckler is out now for PC and Mac.