Interviews - Bill Tiller
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Bill Tiller

First of all, please tell the readers something about yourself.
Just keep talking until I say 'when'.

Bill Tiller together with his wife Amy and Chewbacca at an ILM eventI was born the night after Halloween, which I think had a big effect on me because I love adventure, ghosts, horror, monsters and other stuff like that. I wanted to be Spider Man when I grew up, either that or an architect. I started drawing when I was two or three and inherited some artistic talent from my grandmother who loves doing country landscapes. I was a terribly lazy student, getting bad grades in everything except for the three subjects I liked: geography, history and art. I was and still am big into sports, especially American football. Go Chicago Bears! I even collect NFL football helmets, though my wife won’t let me decorate the house with them.

In 1980 my friend Geoff turned me on to the game Dungeons and Dragons and I haven't stopped playing since. I especially like the Ravenloft Campaign setting. In 1977 my family moved from Oak Park, just outside of Chicago, to a rural house near Bartlett Illinois. It was right next to 500 acres of woods, cornfields and rolling hills. It was a childhood paradise! My love of nature stems from living in the woods for so long. That is probably why I draw a lot of trees in my art.

While looking to buy some Dungeons and Dragons books I bought a Dragon magazine issue with a cover painted by Greg Hildebrandt, and I was blown away by the colors and the composition. It was an image of a dragon burring down a castle in the moonlight. And ever since then I have been copying their style to learn how to paint. My art doesn't really look like them much anymore, but the influences are still clearly there.

In 1982 my family moved to Orange County California, the land of mini malls, sunshine, smog, and where there is not a forest to be found! And I got extremely depressed so I read a lot of books mostly by Ray Bradbury, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Anne Rice. I also played a lot of D&D, and drew often. I did all this to help me escape the social pressures of high school. I started to copy the art style of Jeff Easley and Patrick Nagel: Jeff Easley for his pen and ink illustrations and I copied Nagel because I really like the simple lines and shapes of his modern art deco style. Plus I was really starting to get interested in girls and dating at the time and for some reason women really liked my Nagel style drawings. So I wasn't going to stop doing those.
I was always a big fan of Disney films as a child but I had never seen their short films until my step father got a Laser Disc player and I began to watch all the animated shorts like the Silly Symphonies, the Donald Duck cartoons, and Mickey Mouse. I really began appreciating animation around then and cartoon style art. So I took an animation class in Junior College and animated a ghost walking through a grave yard, a cute alien bug probe flying around, and a dragon shooting flames into the camera. I even worked at Disneyland for a summer, but then I got fired – I wasn't all that good at counting out change!

I then applied at California Institute of the Arts, which is sort of the Berkley of art schools. I started off in the Motion Graphics or Experimental Animation program because I wanted to learn how to do 3d animation, but I was more interested in the traditional Character Animation program, the one taught by Disney animators. So I switched over after two weeks. I was much happier there and I learned a hell of a lot about all aspects of art and animation there, plus super, super talented students surrounded me. My art improved rapidly in those four years.

Back when my family moved from the woods of rural Illinois to the smoggy mini malls of Orange County, they bought me a computer to take my mind off the stress of moving, an Apple II+. I had always loved video games in the arcade and when I got my computer I jumped right in and started making my own video games. They were slow and written in BASIC, but they looked pretty good. I also played a ton of games on it like Dark Crystal Adventure game, Zork, Choplifter, Rescue on Fractulus, Bilestoad, Temple of Apshi, and Bards tale.

So after college all these interests came together when the head of the Lucas Arts art department came to my college to look for an animator on Brian Moriarty's version of the Dig (as opposed to Noah Falstein's, Dave Grossman's and Sean Clark's versions)

How did you become involved in making art in general, and later in Monkey Island related art?

Like I said I started as a kid but didn't do it professionally till after college. I didn't do any Monkey Island art till I auditioned for the background artist role on Curse of Monkey Island. My first drawings were pretty boring, though they were pretty well done. They were just too realistic. I was still in a realistic mode from just finishing working on the Dig (Sean Clark's version). It took me about two to three months to settle on the final style for the backgrounds on CMI. Larry Ahern pushed me a lot, and really helps me improve my style.

How was it to work together on a game with people like, let's say, Larry Ahern and Steve Purcell?

Larry is a perfectionist albeit a nice one, but perfection is a hard thing to achieve and in the beginning of the work on CMI I had a hard time getting exactly what he wanted. But it was all worth it because he dragged out of me something I artistically didn't know I had. I owe him a lot for that.
The work was hard but he and Jonathan Ackley and the programmers, Chuck Jordan and Chris Purvis, had a great sense of humor and that made the game very fun to work on.

Larry was also a guy who appreciates artists who create unique art styles and bizarre character designs. We would talk and gossip for hours after work over beer, about the company, the industry or movies and art.
I worked with Steve Purcell in the office when he was working on Sam and Max Hit the Road, but we never worked on a project together. Steve is a really fun guy, and he is always doing some funky fun art piece, like carving a cool pumpkin for Halloween or creating a baby toy into a baby that smokes.

Funny stuff like that. He also had a lot of good stories and gossip about the comic book industry and comic book artists. He was a blast to hang out with. He even did a splash page for a Sam and Max comic and put me in as one of the crooks they were going to beat up! That was awesome!
Bill Eaken was very fun to work with because he has such an energetic personality. He is very opinionated and cynical but in a funny way. He and I would talk for hours about all stuff like politics, science and art. He had a lot of gossip and stories about fantasy illustrators too because he would go to these illustrator conventions all the time, and he met a lot of them.

He worked at Disneyland too, as a portrait artist and he would tell funny stories about dealing with ‘guests’ at Disneyland.
Peter Chan was so dedicated to his work that we didn’t hang out that much, but I did get to pick his brain a lot and I learned quite a bit from him.
He came in every morning at 8 am and left exactly 5 pm. You could set your watch to his activity cycle. He worked super hard and very fast. I don’t think that guy ever drew a line that wasn’t exactly where he wanted. Plus he was very imaginative and did a lot of the same things I did, like buying tons of art books for reference, study other artists’ styles, and use tons of photo reference to help guide his art. He was a hell of a lot more organized than me, and way faster. He even had a file cabinet filled with photos taken out of magazines and organized by subject matter. He was incredible! He deserves all the credit he can get.

What was most fun to do when making the backgrounds for 'The Curse of Monkey Island'?

I enjoyed the final line drawing part of the process and the color design. And ironically I enjoyed the challenge of reducing the background colors from 16 million to 245 colors. See, I love color and composition, so anytime I can concentrate on those two things I am very happy. I also like design work, which is to say creating the look of the art, and the ideas, like how to populate the world with objects and sets, and what those objects should look like. I also enjoy doing lighting. The few times I have done 3D art I concentrated mostly on lighting and textures. I hate 3d modeling.

How did the idea of the curly clouds – which is now a thing that is almost inseparable from Monkey Island – come up?

Larry wanted a whimsical and exaggerated style for the backgrounds, so I kept experimenting with various ideas. One day I came out of the scan room and I stopped to admire a poster of the game Defenders of Dynatron City that Steve Purcell had done that was mounted on the wall just out side the door. I looked at some of the smoke he drew, and there was a curly shape in it. I thought that was cool and I whipped up some curly clouds in a similar style in background drawing I did of the Barbery Coast. Larry saw it and said, "I like that. Keep the curly clouds." So then I started going crazy with them and put them everywhere and in weird shapes and orientations. Plus they were easy to do and quick! Everyone seemed to like them, but I didn't think they were going to be so popular! I have since noticed them in a lot of places, like movies, classic art, children’s books, and in other games. I don't think I started the idea of curly clouds at all, I just think it is a common way to stylize the wispiness of clouds.

What do you think of the Monkey Island Art Connection?

I think it is great that a fan art web page is dedicated to this series of games. And how much of it, fan art that is, is generated. I think MI is a bit of an underground phenomenon.

What do you think of the art on this site? Anything that you particularly fancy?

I think Paco’s stuff was real good, and there was Ado's art, I thought that was good too. I like his art a lot. It has a great sweeping sense of romance and the line work and the colors are excellent. I like Yoha too. This person has a good sense of color and the art is quite clear and professional looking. I like her chicken sculpture. DanSky is good too. I have used his stuff for an article at Adventure Developer. His stuff is good to begin with, so it makes it easier to describe how to improve it rather than an image that takes a lot of work to fix. I like Dan's art too. He can paint well, and his sense of lighting is very dramatic.

Do you have some artwork left which we can show to inspire even more people?

I’ll see what I can find. (You can find it on this page – Haggis)

What would you advise people who have just begun, or those that are eager to begin making Monkey Island fan art?

I think the most important thing to learn is why and how the professional art for the MI games works, or doesn't in some cases. Think about and break down the art you like and dislike. Successful art isn't just about opinion: what some people like or not. All our brains are all wired for perceiving things in the same way so our response to simple design elements is pretty universal. True not everyone has the same taste. For example I prefer Monet to Picasso, but I understand how Picasso’s use of shades of gray, line and composition helped to create art like Guernica, 1937. So I appreciate his genius even though I would rather look at Monet's Le Parlement, Effet de Brouillard.

It is a hard thing to understand and I didn't till I went to college, but once an artist understands why art works or doesn't they can then apply this knowledge to their work and improve it considerably. The primary thing to learn is how to get your information across in the clearest manner as possible, so that the viewer can understand what you are trying to show them. Remember the old joke of showing someone a white piece of paper and saying “It is a Polar Bear in a snow storm.” This joke illustrates a failed illustration. Without a description of what it is the viewer has no idea because there is no information on it. The opposite can fail too when an illustration has too much information and it really taxes the viewer’s ability to pull out the shapes and colors.

The information can be too obscured. A successful illustration focuses the viewer to exactly where the artist wants them to look, and clearly gets across the information needed to understand the image: like the attitude of the people in it, where it is, what time of day it is, etc. An illustration can have a lot of detail but the detail should compete with the most important part of the image, the place the illustrator wants the viewer to look. The viewer tends to look at the area that is the brightest and has the most contrast because the brain needs to pull out the shapes of the objects to tell the viewer what they are looking at. Take a look at the image on the inside of the Grim Fandango CD.

It is a stone tablet with a ton of objects and details in it, But Peter Chan has done a masterful job of making all those complex shapes easy to read.

He puts darks around certain shapes so that the y come forward and has dimmed ancillary shapes so that the viewer won’t focus on them. This is a bit of a long subject to cover so I hope you all get the idea.

What is your favourite medium for making art?

Paper and pencil and Photoshop on the PC. I don't really like drawing on the computer, so I generally draw on paper with pencil, an F weight Turquoise or a Prismacolor Black, or both. Then if I need to do color I scan in the sketch and paint it with Photoshop. When I do paint with actual paint I use acrylic on masonite board. But I am too addicted to the 'undo' button, so I rarely paint with real paint these days.

Are there any special projects you are working on, and what are your plans for the future?

Well, after ten years working for other games companies, I have decided to be my own boss for a while and see how that turns out. My last project was art directing the EA game Lord of the Rings: Two Towers at Stormfront Studios.
But I wasn't doing much art and I started getting more and more depressed about it. So last month I decided to do something about it and go solo as a freelance artist doing art for movies, games, and books.

I am also working on my own adventure game idea a lot more now. It is called A Vampyre Story. Hopefully soon, I can get funding for it and possibly do 2d adventure games for a living. There is a lot of work to do before that dream becomes a reality and a lot of risk that goes with it. But things are coming together nicely and I am very pleased with the progress that has been made on it. I don't want to go into too many details now, but let’s just say it will be more beautiful than Curse of Monkey Island and hopefully, just as fun and funny. Wish me luck!

You are very popular among Monkey Island fans.
Now is your chance to say something to them: fire away.

First I like to say I am so happy that you all like my work so much. I am the kind of person who has self esteem problems so when I hear from anybody, fan, family or friend that they like my work, it is like a light shining from above, pushing forward to create new and better art. So I want to say thanks for the support, because I need it!

Second, I get a lot of request to look at people’s art and games. I must admit I am not the most organized of people and I often lose track of things I need to do. So if you sent me art or e-mail and I didn't respond, send it again. I am not ‘dissing’ you at all, I just forget things a lot and lose them often too. So keep bugging me!
My e-mail is

Speaking about the fan community, do you visit Monkey Island sites often?

I used to all the time back when I was at Lucas Arts, right after CMI came out and EMI was in production. I used to comment on the forums using a pseudonym because LEC forbade employees from commenting on them. I still do check out the fan sites, just less often than before. The SCUMM Bar is the one I go to the most and The Legend of Monkey Island would be next on my list. The World of Monkey Island is full of good stuff too. New ones pop up all the time. It is amazing to me that this one series of games has such loyal and dedicated fans and I count myself among them. I am glad there is a site dedicated to just Monkey Fan Art. There was so much of it on other web pages that I think it is an excellent idea to have one dedicated only to that. I will be checking this site out a lot from now on.

Which computer games have, according to you, the best graphics ever?

Anything Peter Chan, Steve Purcell, Larry Ahern, Bill Eaken and Paul Mica worked on will have some of the best art ever in video games. Outside of Lucas Arts I really liked the Kyrandia games for their art, and the Blade Runner game. Torment was just gorgeous and moody. Recently I have played a lot of 3D games on the PC and I really like Return to Castle Wolfenstein’s art direction. I think the Alien deigns in Half Life are wonderful. Any of the BioWare/Black Isle D&D games has tremendously good art; Star Craft was really well done visually. I really liked the character textures in Everquest, though their environments were pretty stark and plain. It is kind of hard to judge the art in some 3d games because it really depends so much on the hardware a player has or the technology of the engine, as I discovered when I art directed the 3D Indian Jones game.

And now something I guess we'd all like to know:
where did you learn to draw like that (so good, I mean)?

Thanks! I learned from my Cal Arts teachers, copying the Brothers Hildebrandt, copying Disney films, and from getting some help from my Grandmother's genetics. I am also a very competitive person, so if I see a friend of mine’s artwork and it is better than mine I begin to worry that I suck, and some of my lame art pieces enforce that concern. So I work hard to make myself better by closely examining good art and artists and learning from them. Just when I think I am a good artist I will see someone way better than me, and boom! There goes my self-esteem. So then I just dig in and make myself learn to get better. Talent will only take one so far. To get better an artist consciously has to make an effort by taking a class, copying other artist’s styles to learn from them, and practicing on nature and real life.

>One thing that helps me a lot is studying science and light. I constantly look at clouds or trees and other things in nature and wonder why it looks that way, what is its true color, why does it cast this type of shadow.
That is why people paint ‘still life’s – to learn how light and color work and to try and replicate it.

Thank you very much for your time, we hope you found this interview as great as we did. We wish you good luck with making art and whatever you plan to do in the future.

Sure, no problem. I always like to inspire other artists if I can. So many artists have inspired me in the past with their personal stories, talks on technique and such. So I know interviews and discussions of art like this can really help motivate young, aspiring artists. Thank you very much for having me for this interview.

This interview was conducted by Haggis; questions by Haggis and Haxaty. The logo at the top of this page was drawn by Paco. All the other pictures on this page are used with permission from Bill Tiller and LucasArts. Please do not copy anything from this page without asking

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