Interview with Bradley Schenck
Bradley W. Schenck, also known as BWS, is a name that may seem unfamiliar to you, but as soon as you witness his artwork and computer game designs through his original Webomator site, you might immediately recognize the style if not the face behind the work. Bradley has worked as a writer, a draftsman, and a sign painter before he entered the gaming industry as an artist, a designer, and as an art director. His styles range from dark Celtic to mystical to futuristic realism — and he renders his work with a professional grace and slickness that seems to transcend all those times and places.
These days, Brad hides out in the Midwest, where he's working on a dream that's "bigger than the Atlantic Ocean."
You began your career with hopes of becoming a writer. Can you tell my readers when and where you began this career, and a bit about what type of writing you focused on?
I don't think it's ever been a career, really. I mean, we're talking about what I was doing in my teens through mid-twenties.
I started out by wanting to be either H.P Lovecraft or Lord Dunsany — probably Lovecraft, since he went through a Dunsany phase and I probably followed him there, and stuck.
All through my childhood and into my teens I read constantly. Some of the things that interested me were history and mythology. From there it wasn't a very difficult step to fantasy because so much of that has been based on the stories and beliefs of actual ancient peoples.
And then somehow, because it was the seventies, I managed to mix that up with Carlos Castaneda — though I'm thinking that a Castaneda/Dunsany stew is one of the least likely things you'd want — and that was sort of the theme of the first couple of prose stories I had published. This was in a magazine called "The Dragon," which was the house magazine of TSR — the fellows who published the Dungeons & Dragons rule books.
I also had a story published in a comic book anthology called "Jam" at about the same time — this would have been 1976. "Jam" was all stories for children, and mine was more an illustrated story than a genuine bit of comics writing.
Anyway after that there were just a few stories in small press magazines and my fiction sort of petered out. I think the last story I wrote was one that nearly made the cut for a mass market anthology, actually, but despite that near miss I really didn't pursue it any more. I'd been doing much more painting than writing for several years by then.
Did you have any training in painting? What were your subjects and your media?
No, I really didn't have any training at all, at first, anyway. I started out with pen and ink. I did do a bit of work in acrylic, but I found I really didn't like it much. So from ink I went to inked drawings that were tinted with watercolor, and gradually over to pure watercolor, for the most part.
One of the reasons for concentrating on black and white ink work was that I was interested in working as an illustrator. This was a good ten years or more before digital separations came on the scene and color separations and printing were very expensive — so the work I did was geared toward one or more spot colors, for offset printing. I even ran a printing press myself at a couple of stages, back in those days.
I did a few silk screen T-shirt designs too, but my bread and butter — such as it was — was black and white work for ads and illustrations.
I want to know who the heck "Morno" is, and I also want to know more about the image at right, c. 1977 that was created by you, or Morno. Can you explain? I mean, doesn't "Morno" mean "self-deprecating reference, or beyond moronic?"
"Morno" was a pseudonym I used as a teenager, from about 1974 to 1978. It was a name I made up; I liked it because it was an anagram of "moron." Why, exactly, I couldn't say. Maybe I thought it would keep me humble.
In these Internet days I see that it's a genuine surname in some parts of the world and — as you point out — also a piece of urban slang that's a reference to "moron." But at that time I'd never heard it before, and I don't think anyone I met had, either.
I had some kind of idea that I wanted to keep my creative self separate from my day-to-day self, and that was the main reason, I think, that I used an invented name. But at the same time, I was in my teens, so I may have wanted to reinvent myself anyway.
It's probably inevitable that the scheme didn't work for me. If I was making art under the name, and dealing with the people I was making art for, then, well, Morno was my everyday self, wasn't he?
Most of the work you could find that I did under that name was related to fantasy role playing games like Dungeons and Dragons. I ended up doing some illustration for gaming magazines and for game publishers — the "Vampire Queen" cover you've got there was a game module published by a company called Wee Warriors. I did the covers and illustrations for just about all the WW product line, along with a few projects for Dave Hargrave's Arduin Grimoire series. That "Vampire Queen" cover dates from 1977, when I would have been 19.
By the end of '78, though, I had mainly stopped doing any art for these games, and I dropped the pseudonym. I actually wanted to distance myself from that work and do something a bit different. In fact I kept distancing myself from it until early in 2006, when I discovered that people are now collecting those old publications — and I can't tell you how weird it is to find that something you yourself did has a nostalgic quality for somebody else. There oughtta be a law, I tell you.
One of the peculiar things about that games business, or any of its derivatives, is that many people in that world haven't even read Tolkien, on which it's all originally based. Of those who have read Tolkien, most haven't read any of the material that inspired his work. It turns out that an awful lot of people in the world just want a chance to beat a troll over the head with a great big magic sword.
So although I was still doing fantasy art I wanted it to go closer to the source, to be all about the stories — whether they were today's stories about archaic things, or the real old stuff that's the basis for those modern fantasies. And I took that farther from drawings or tinted drawing into watercolor paintings and a few (mostly unsuccessful) oils.
Most of those were sold simply as paintings, but I did some small press illustration work and LP and cassette covers for little music publishers. And I mostly kept that up until I became digital, in 1987.
You contributed to a graphics column for info (originally INFO=64) a computer magazine that covered Commodore 8-bit computers and later the Amiga. Was this your entry into gaming design? ie: Was your graphic style weaned on the Amiga and its accompanying Commodore monitor?
I'd messed about with computers since about 1983. I taught myself to write programs in BASIC on a Commodore VIC-20, and later on I bought a Commodore 64. But these weren't systems that you could do much with artistically.
I did some work with Pagemaker on a Macintosh Plus in the mid-80's, but although what that machine and laser printers were doing to the printing industry was pretty exciting, I couldn't see much that I could do with the Mac beyond typesetting and page layout. It was strictly black and white, for one thing, and it wasn't well designed for animation — which was one of the things it seemed like computers ought to be good for.
Along came a new generation of machines like the Apple IIGS, the Atari ST, and the Amiga. Their specs differed, but each of those systems offered some amount of color and the possibility of animation. And that was a combination that was much more interesting than anything that had come before.
And I was definitely interested in game design — when you took the graphic possibilities of these machines and added interaction, you seemed to have the platform for new kinds of fiction that (like a book) weren't really complete until they were observed by a reader, and (unlike a book) actually required the reader's active participation. You could have something like a book that would react to what the reader did. My favorites at that time, and maybe at any time, were the text adventure games that were published by Infocom — titles like Zork, Enchanter, and Suspended were entertaining and very cleverly written. I don't think they've ever been topped.
So anyway, I got myself the first of many Amiga computers and learned to make images in up to 4096 colors, and to animate them, using software that you could buy off the shelf at insanely low prices. These were great days. And I used the machine both to create the work and to promote it — not through the Web, which wasn't here yet, but through a nationwide system of local bulletin boards that were run by enthusiasts. People were really excited to see what kind of creative work could be done with these machines. You just had to make it easy for them to find it.
There was even a contest run by a users' group in the Silicon Valley, which I won in its second and third years (the BADGE Killer Demo Contest).
And before long that led to freelance gigs in game production, print jobs, articles for several magazines, and my regular graphics column for .info magazine.
I discovered a post where one person called you one of the most "prolific Amiga 3D artists." How prolific were you, really, at the beginning of your gaming design career?
Well, you know, pretty prolific :-). There were more of us, of course, like Joel Hagen and Louis Markoya. There were professional animators like Eric Daniels and Steve Segal who were using the Amiga to experiment with what they could do using a new kind of tool. There were fine artists using these machines to make limited edition prints. And I only really knew about the Amiga artists -- there was another whole subculture based on the Atari ST.
The world was a different place back then before Microsoft conquered the universe, and there was a lot of genuine innovation, as opposed to the innovation that Microsoft tells us they're doing — which always seems to be what some company they've just put out of business did last year.
You've worked for a number of gaming companies over the past two decades -- you were senior artist for Taldren, art director at Dreamer's Guild, and you partnered with Michal Todorovic of Terra Nova Development to develop the graphic adventure game, "The Labyrinth of Time." I'm sure that I just touched the tip of the iceberg hereâ€¦which two jobs affected you the most in a positive way and why?
I don't think I ever even think about this in those sort of terms, honestly. The computer game business that I wanted to be part of was already nearly gone by the time I got in. It just took me a few years to figure that out.
Terra Nova was a company that Michal and I started together, and because I was responsible for the whole game design and all the art for "The Labyrinth," that would have to have been the biggest milestone for me. Like I said above, the industry was changing; but it was still “barely" possible for two guys to walk into Electronic Arts with a demo and walk out with a contract to produce a game.
After that was when my jobs for other companies started, though, and although it was nowhere near the "perfect" end of the scale, I accomplished the most at the Dreamers Guild. I started there as an artist but before I knew it I was hiring and supervising a whole art department that was working on a scary number of projects all at once. My department consistently turned out good work on time, and as a result, nobody could really mess with me or mine. The crazy thing here is that this was my first management position, and I never even came close to having that kind of authority again, in nearly a decade that followed.
Now, alternatively, which job affected you negatively, and why?
I'm just not comfortable answering that question, even though I've got no plans to go back to the games business, and have nothing to lose by answering. It would feel unprofessional even though I'm not that kind of professional any more.
What I can say is that the games industry is notorious for being badly run, even though larger and larger amounts of money are at stake. And it eats its young.
Did you help to develop the story lines along with the graphics for any of the games that you worked on?
I worked on the game designs for a couple of titles at the Dreamers Guild, but the company collapsed before those titles were finished. Beyond that, I was just one of the guys in many rooms who were throwing ideas around, and some of my ideas probably landed someplace.
Your reputation grew from "prolific" to that of a master who could build "castles from pixels" by 1995. What do you attribute most to your success within that decade?
Well -- actual castles?
I think it must have helped that once I had enough RAM and a fast-enough machine, I really threw myself into 3D modeling and rendering. This was very new at the personal computer level and it wasn't much older at the workstation level. So people got very excited when they saw interesting work come out of these fantastic new (and inexpensive!) pieces of 3D software that were emerging. It often did seem like magic.
I even got the cover of the IEEE magazine "Computer Graphics and Applications," with a really nice article; that was in '94, and the cover was one of the images from "The Labyrinth of Time."
Ok -- you and I both know that I'm not a tech whiz, so I would like to know more about how you produce your artwork. The piece at left, for instance (which won first place in a 2005 3DluVr contest), was produced on an Intel P4 3.4GHz 2GB with a rendering time of a little over eight minutes. But, how long did it take you to create the image, and what inspired you to create this image other than the contest theme, "Warrior Tools"?
The inspiration for this image was my desire to win the contest prize. I'm not proud.
You did pick one here that I documented; one of the conditions of the contest was that the winner would write an article about how the piece was done. Now that you've made me look, though, it seems like they never posted the articles for their last three contests. Maybe I should post it someplace myself.
The contest rules specified, I think, a sword and shield, and a resolution of 800 by 600 pixels — I kept wanting to do something in a portrait orientation instead, to work with the shape of the sword, they'd stuck me in landscape. The sword and shield models are the only things I built especially for the picture.
The primitive altar was built for my "Jeepers Creepers" picture (View a larger version here) that I'd very recently done, and the natural setting was one of a bunch of terrain experiments that I'd been working on lately, too. That's technically the most interesting part of the picture. I used a pretty simple polygonal model that's made to look like rock and sand through a process called "Displacement Mapping," where you use an image map or procedural map to distort the shape of an object. I used vertex colors to mask between different types of displacement so that I could create both stone and sand shapes in the same object.
Because my motto is "we waste no part of the animal," I later used this same terrain — we see just a small part of it here — in yet another image, one called "Radio Times (View a larger version here)."
I'm not sure just how long I worked on it, but I do know that this was while I was working a pretty demanding schedule at Destineer Studios. So I was limited to late nights and possibly weekends, probably over a period of a couple of weeks.
I also know that some images that you create take hours to render on a computer -- can you explain to my readers what this "rendering" time means and why it takes so long?
When you make a picture using 3D tools you're actually building models of everything you see. You have to construct their shapes, apply textures to them, arrange them and light them. It's not anything like painting. It's more like building sets or miniatures, except that the sets or miniatures never really exist.
Once you've placed lights in the scene, and a virtual camera, your software renders the image pixel by pixel. There are several different ways a program can do this. But you can sort of generalize it by saying that for every pixel in the picture, the software "looks" through the image area at whatever part of the scene is visible at that point. It calculates the effects of reflections, refractions, and shadows on that pixel. And with all that in mind, it decides what color that pixel should be. Then it looks at the next pixel. Meanwhile, in a perfect world, you're at the beach...
...Because it can take a really long time. Bearing in mind that when I started this, I was using a 14 mhz processor (yep, megahertz, not gigahertz), I don't much mind. My renderings can still take quite awhile, but often they're fast — like the one you cited above — and when they're not, I just think back to the days when a rendering could take days to finish. And I feel a little better — and a lot older. In a perfect world, I am thinking these things on a beach.
In fact with the speed of computers these days I'm more likely to get worked up about running out of memory. This can happen, obviously, when you fill all your available memory with great stuff to render; but it also seems to happen when the software wants to allocate a big block of contiguous memory (that is, one unbroken block of RAM). That's why it gets frustrating — because there's enough memory there, and it just isn't getting used.
When I switch over to a 64 bit processor, a 64 bit OS, and a 64 bit application, I'll be able to make use of way more memory, and I will still run out. Because that's just the way it works.
You have at least six different Websites where you promote your artwork and sell your wares. But, before I get into those projects, could you tell my readers how and why you began to build Websites. Was this a business line for you initially?
No, but I was pretty sure that it could be. I just had to figure out how to do it first.
I started with a personal website — it's really grown by stages into the one I still have today — and I tinkered with it and redesigned it a couple of times while I figured out how everything worked. I was using Earthlink as my ISP back then, in 1996, and they picked my site as a winner in a contest they ran, so I figured I was on to something.
It seems that the Celtic artwork -- especially the knots, or interlaced work -- represented the first stamp on you online identity. How did you get involved in that intricate work and how did you produce the artwork?
I started using Celtic knotwork, or interlace, patterns in my drawings and paintings back in 1980, and kept using it through the eighties. So when I began to make pictures with a computer it seemed pretty natural to use it there too. I did a lot of Celtic art patterns during my Amiga days — usually just in 16 or 32 colors — and it also crept into some of the graphics I did for games.
I was so pigeonholed for that style of work that I tried to make it obvious that I could do other things, too, and I ended up using knotwork borders less during the mid 1990s.
So when I'd set up my own web site, and I was wondering what I had to offer that other people might want to use, I went back to those 16 or 32 color knotwork designs I'd done in the Amiga days — their limited palette made them perfect for use on the web, and I wasn't using them, so it seemed like a great thing to add to my site — to give folk s a reason to go there. I dug up the old knotwork patterns, modified them a bit and added some new things, and set the whole thing up as a collection of web-ready clip art that people could use for personal projects.
And once I was working in web development and wanted to tinker more with search engine optimization, those celtic clip art pages gave me a terrific testing ground for things that hopefully would work. I kept that up for a while, learned what I could, and then just left it alone for a few years.
When did you begin to market your artwork and wares through your sites and through CafePress?
When two things happened at about the same time. I knew that CafePress was a print on demand company that made T-shirts, coffee mugs, and some other merchandise; that was interesting, but not something that I figured I needed myself. But in 2002 they added posters. And that, I thought, was much more interesting.
For several years I'd wanted to be able to sell archival prints of my 3D work to the probably small number of people who'd like to buy them. Because by now I was doing only digital work, and digital work doesn't exist. It's just a phantom on your monitor. In order for it to come to life in the real world it has to be reproduced, and hopefully in a way that will last, in a way that really does seem like art.
Now that's not what they were doing; but posters weren't a bad thing, either, even if they weren't archival quality.
The second thing that happened was that I actually looked at the logs for my web site. Remember all that search engine optimization I'd done? Heck, it had worked, and I hadn't even noticed. I had floods of traffic to those clip art pages, thousands of people were using the art on their web sites, and they and their uncles and their pet monkeys were all linking to me. Google loved me.
And I realized that I had a pretty large number of visits every day, and some of those people might like to own a piece of my work. And, you know, I'd hate to disappoint them.
So it all started with posters, and practically as an afterthought I added some shirts and coffee mugs and so on. Over time I figured out how to make designs that were better suited to the shirts, for example, and I added new designs. And more. And on and on.
These days Google's displayed page rank for my commercial site is higher than that of the clip art site; over time, Google's learned to love it more. I still get more traffic to the clip art pages — it's pretty easy to give something away for free — but the whole enterprise has gradually turned into a sort of network of complementary commercial sites and free pages.
And now I've got those archival quality prints, too.
Your other sites, like The Retrovert, The Non-Conformists Union, Local 404, and Saga Shirts were all built by you within the last ten years -- which site did you create after your original Webomator site and why?
The Webomator site was originally a web site design enterprise founded by me and a co-worker, Ben Cunin. We had worked on web sites together in our day jobs, and we started to do freelance work together by night. I moved my personal site over there from Earthlink since we owned the domain and had the space, where it could have a permanent home.
Ben and I eventually stopped moonlighting together, and I ended up owning the domain myself. For a few years there was nothing there but that personal site of mine.
After I started a shop at CafePress I found that in order to get it ranking well with the search engines I really had to have it living at my own domain. So I bought a script called CPShop — this gave me a way to pull all my product content from CafePress and display it in whatever way I want â€“ well, within reason. Customers still check out at the CafePress site; they just stay at my domain till they're ready to make a purchase. So my Cafepress shop turned into a subdomain at webomator.com.
So I guess that's the cornerstone of my little Web empire. It just grew from there.
Which site represents your most recent work?
That'll vary, of course, but it's usually the "Celtic Art & Retro-Futuristic Design" site.
Outside the retail market, what's your latest personal project?
I have two, actually. The first one was so big that it was threatening to overwhelm me. I've chosen to prevent that by working on something else, too — which, honestly, seemed to make sense at the time.
The first one is a retro-futurist comic book called "Empire State Patrol." It's about six construction workers who were minding their own business and working on the Empire State Building in 1930, only to find themselves somehow transported to the sort of future that they expected was going to happen.
It's a ridiculously huge project, and I'm somewhere in pre-production. Long way to go yet.
The second project is a book and CD-ROM set of repeating Celtic Knotwork borders. They're all original designs, and they're presented in what I hope is a really useful way — one neat and unusual feature is that each of the designs is laid out as both straight sections, with corners, and as curved sections that repeat around a circle of a given size. Many of them also have some optional sections for subdividing the main "frame" of the basic design.
Do you intend to market these products yourself?
Since "Empire State Patrol" is a comic book series the best future for it would be to find a publisher. It's difficult for an individual to reach that market very effectively. If no publisher gets interested, I have some other ideas about offering it online and in print.
I'm leaning toward publishing the knotwork book myself through print-on-demand.
One way or another, the knotwork book will probably be done by Spring, with discs to follow. "Empire State Patrol" is a longer term project.
Do all the projects above represent the reason behind your departure from the gaming design industry this past year, or are there other reasons behind your decision to leave the office hours behind?
I left the games business for a lot of reasons. I think the most important one is that as time goes by, you get more and more aware that it's not coming back. If you're going to do something that's uniquely you, you have to drop everything else, at some point, and do it
"Close Combat: First To Fight," seems totally out of character for you when compared to your previous work. Do you agree? Was this work part of the reason why you decided to go out on your own?
If "First to Fight" is out of character, which it is, then so is a whole series of Star Trek games I worked on at Taldren; so is "Caesar's Palace" which I worked on as a freelancer; so is almost everything I ever worked on in the games industry.
As game titles became more and more expensive to make, more and more decisions were made by the money. That's the way these things go. And although game development companies like to believe that they're on a mission, well, it's a business - one in which the money decides what you'll do, and often, how you'll do it. If you're a professional, you just try to do that thing well, and on time. Until you've had enough and you run away, like me.
Where do you see yourself five years from now?
Right here, but with a new coat of paint.
Finally, if you could be a piece of furniture, what would you be and why?
A hall tree. Because I've always thought it'd be nice to be a tree, and I can only think of one piece of furniture with "tree" in it. Also, I like hats.
If you develop more branches, we'll have to get you more hats, Bradley. Thanks for the interview!