Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Is it Art or is it Digital?








Is it Art or is it Digital?

Part 1:  Scott Mavor, Pixel Master








There still seems to be some prejudice out there against "Digital" Art.  But it just continues to proliferate in spite of the fact that like all new media it has had to deal with the usual biases in its bid for acceptance.  Digital Art is sort of like the Rock and Roll of the art world.  And like Rock and Roll, it could not be stopped;  it was inevitable that the amazing software designed for the computer would be used by imaginative artists in countless innovative and distinctive ways, leaving detractors in the dust.




Here's a little story for you about how it all began: I jumped into the medium back in 1991 when my son Scott (pictured top, above his scene of the notorious "alley" where a murder takes place) presented me with a 40-megabyte Electronic Arts computer, courtesy of his employer, Mythos Software, so that I could participate in creating illustrations with him for a pioneering computer game called "The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes".  Scott, who was a self-taught master of VGA art and animation, did the majority of the work, but because of a deadline crunch he  called on me to to help create some of the character portraits and a few of the 23 or so Victorian street scenes and interior rooms that comprised the backgrounds for the game.





What we are talking about here is artwork that was literally created pixel by pixel in a 320- x 200-pixel frame.  Teeny-tiny stuff.  Eyeball scrambling work. Very low resolution.  After hours of brain-crunching study, I figured out (almost) how my son did some of it and developed my own techniques for how to do the rest.  Working with just 256 colors, Scott showed me how he created graduating palettes of each one, which allowed him to do what he called "getting rid of the dots" in each scene.  To further mute the pixels, he kept the colors on the darker side which also enhanced the Victorian mood.  Way beyond the flat graphics of PacMan, Scott invented what one exec at Electronic Arts called "The Mavor Glow".   A great compliment for low resolution computer game artwork back in the day.  Of course, right after the game was published, the industry went to high resolution graphics and his pixel mastery became obsolete.




Weaving the illusion of continuous tone artwork with all those little "dots" made us buggy-eyed after a long day's work.  One night, I woke up, went into the bathroom, turned on the light and the world just pixilated in front of me.  Scary imprints on my retinas had followed me away from the computer monitor,  rendering my vision as a pointillistic painting a la George Seurat.  Comparing notes with my son, I found out this was a natural, if disconcerting, side effect of the job.  That and maybe a few carpal tunnel symptoms.
 

Along with all the backdrop scenes, Scott added animated figures, character head shots with animated mouths and in some scenes, explosions, raindrops and so on.  He worked with writers, programmers, sound engineers and others who put it all together like an exquisite little film production.  In those days, despite the pixel problem, things were pretty simple for computer artists ... no Windows, no convoluted programs to figure out, no crashes, just Deluxe Paint and Deluxe Animate, easy enough for a kid to use and accessed via MS-DOS (Microsoft Disc Operating System).  The Good Ol' Days, indeed, but no one would really want to go back to them.




I have the boxed game but you can't play it on any modern computer.  Fortunately, a few gamers have preserved some of it on YouTube (this clip from crozzoverDE), and I was especially happy to see again the Intro scene with the dark and foggy London street where tiny people stroll with umbrellas and an animated horse and carriage trot along the rain-slicked cobblestone street.  The scenes may not look as good as they appeared in the original game, but it is very heartwarming to be able to take a nostalgic look at Scott's pixel-spinning Victorian scenes whenever I feel like it.  Take a look for yourself on YouTube

We lost Scott to lung cancer in 2008 and he is dearly loved and sorely missed.  Certainly one of my fondest and most comforting memories is the joy of working with him on this innovative project. 

Is it Art or is it Digital? to be continued ...

13 comments:

  1. I remember the days of DOS!! I remember playing those games, seems like simpler times... it is nostalgic. Digital media is amazing, but I must admit I can't do it. Kudos to Scott for being a pioneer in this very new and modern media and being able to bring life to a bunch of dots. I've never played the Sherlock Holmes game, but the graphics look like they are from the era of Castle Wolfenstein... which was amazing in its day!

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  2. That was a great tribute – I got teary-eyed at the end. The more I learn of scott the more I see of you in him and vice versa. It’s nice – you don’t often find mother-sons that are such kindred spirits. KT

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  3. I remember seeing these scenes on the computer in your office! Most of the so-called High rez stuff out today doesn't have an artist's sense of movement, color, or anatomy. Nice to see Sherlock's world again.

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  4. Great to that wonderful Digital Art again! Scott was a rare talent and I'm glad this lost art lives on Youtube!

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  5. Hey !
    Thank you very much for using my Sherlock Holmes video :-) I already got a new video at my http://bit.ly/crozzoverDE account. So you could change your youtube link.

    Thanks again,
    Frankie

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  6. Frankie, you have no idea how special it is to be able to see Scott's Intro animation again, thanks to you. I will put a link to your account on the Side Bar.

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  7. You know this was one of the first games I bought for my brand new 486 back in early 90's. Never did finish it, but you can still play it with DosBox on a modern computer. Lovely game. Honestly the technology has advanced so much, and the budgets are staggering to develop a game these days, but your little crew's work still holds up as quite entertaining. So sorry to hear about your son. From your description it seems he was the one most responsible for the game. I'd love to hear more about the whole development of it, if you wouldn't mind.

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  8. Thanks for your kind comments, Steve. I always thought the game looked better than it played, but it was unique in its day with its modulated high resolution-like appearance. Lots of people still play it according to a gamer fan in Amsterdam. Son Scott was responsible for the "look", having developed the technique for manipulating the pixels which he taught me how to do. The game was presented to Electronic Arts by a small Arizona software company, Mythos, and was accepted for production on the basis of Scott's artwork samples. One exec referred to it as "the Mavor glow". For more information go to Willem van der Velden's fan website: http://www.game-nostalgia.com/holmes/the_lost_files_of_sherlock_holmes.html

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  9. Hi Ms. Mavor. I want to thank you for having this site. I just now found out about Scott's passing. I searched him on facebook and found the memoriam for him. I knew Scott in high school when you all lived in Hidden Point just outside of Annapolis, MD. Scott and I were friends along with Doug Kimball. My last contact with Scott was a phone call in 1979 after I had my first child. I enjoyed my friendship with Scott. He was funny, gentle and very down-to-earth. I don't think I ever saw Scott get angry. It was high school and he pretty much just went with the flow. I wish I still had some of the things he drew for me. I truly am sorry for your loss. Thank you so much for letting find out more about Scott. Please take care--Edie Warfield

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  10. Hello Ms. Mavor, Neeraj from India here. I absolutely love this game as I had played it YEARS ago, and being a rabid fan of anything Sherlock Holmes, I found this game to be fascinating.

    The artwork really is exquisite and it is very saddening to hear of Mr. Scott's death.

    Are you still involved in artwork professionally? As I am involved in Game production now and I would love to pick your brain or hire you if available when the need arises.

    Regards.

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  11. Hello, Neeraj. It is so nice to hear that you enjoyed this game so much as it is close to my heart for many reasons. Working with my son was the greatest joy! Thank you for your kind comments. I am still working professionally as a freelance illustrator and editor. Currently I am designing, editing and illustrating a 24-page children's book. Please feel free to contact me about anything you need and I would love to work with you. Contact me via email: winzin7@yahoo.com

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  12. I loved this game as a child and it was precisely the unusual "glowing" and shadowy artwork that made it unique. Thank you very much for this detailed desciption of your son Scott's work! Glad to hear about his creative genius.

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