Box Art Forum: Red Dead Redemption and GTA Artist Talks Games, Music, and His New Company, Triton City
Gaming . Content . 15 Minutes . Ryan Rayhill
If you've been anywhere near a game console, gaming site, game store, billboard, taxi, bus stop, 22-year old kid's apartment, or any number of other places where entertainment has been peddled in the last decade or so, then you've probably seen this:
That last one should certainly look familiar due to the fact that for the last few weeks and months, it's sequel, Red Dead Redemption 2, releasing this Friday, October 26th, has had it's imagery plastered on every surface possible from New York:
to Osaka, Japan:
With the unprecedented hype Red Dead Redemption 2 has been building to for what seems like years now, not to mention the nearly 90 million copies of Grand Theft Auto V has alone sold throughout the world since 2013, there are legions of gamers and non-gamers alike who are certainly familiar with the art above.
But do you know anything about the artists who actually created it?
For over 13 years, Anthony Macbain was one of those artists; working first as an illustrator and later as Director of Illustration for venerable purveyors of fine interactive entertainment, Rockstar Games. In addition to all of the games above, Macbain also worked on other Rockstar classics like Bully, Max Payne 3, and every GTA game since Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Not insignificant projects as far as video games go!
Officer Tenpenny, voiced by Samuel L. Jackson from 2004's Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
However, after leaving the company last year, Macbain is striking out with his first post-Rockstar endeavor, Triton City Entertainment, which aims to bring his fantastical sci-fi visions to life via television and film.
We spoke with Macbain to discuss his work, his influences, his music (sometimes performed shirtless), and his favorite Brooklyn clam bar.
Macbain (left) performs with his band 99999999 in 2014
DIRECTV: Hi Anthony. How was your summer?
Anthony Macbain: I just recently came back from a trip to Peru. It’s an incredible and beautiful place. But the most remarkable thing that happened while I was there was that I met an Inca princess named Juanita. Her grave was discovered at the top of a volcano in 1995 and now she is frozen in ice and on display with many of her possessions at a museum in Arequipa. Not sure how I feel about her being on display like that, when she’s supposed to be spending eternity at the mouth of a volcano. But it was a remarkable experience to see her. Indescribably profound. And after we met, I knew I had to write a song about her. Immortality comes in many forms, I suppose. There’s plenty of conjecture about how she got up there and why. All we know for sure is, she was there, surrounded by many fine objects. She had drunk a very potent drink before she died and the cause of death was a fractured skull. She carried an immense burden in life, as in death. You can listen to a demo of the song here…
Not a lot of people know who I am or what I've done. At the same time, I don't know if I've ever met anyone who hasn't seen the artwork for GTA.
What is Triton City Entertainment?
Triton City Entertainment is a new company that is creating original sci-fi/fantasy stories which could become the next big feature film, TV series, and/or animation franchise. The name Triton City is inspired by Buckminster Fuller's concept of a futuristic floating city. What we’re doing is Worldbuilding--where stories, characters and the worlds they inhabit are brought to life visually through concept art. Star Wars got the green light in no small part because of the brilliant artwork and designs of Ralph McQuarrie, whom George Lucas had hired to help visualize his world. We aim to do the same.
How did you get involved?
I had just left my role as Director of Illustration at Rockstar Games and was looking for a fresh start. During my 13 years at Rockstar, I created iconic illustrations for marketing massively successful game franchises including Grand Theft Auto V, Red Dead Redemption, and Max Payne 3 among many others. I created concept art defining the look of lead player characters in these games and developed new illustration styles to brand each unique title in order to set the vibe of the marketing campaign. When I left the company I was looking for a way to build on my skills and experience, but have more creative input, and try being my own boss for a while.
Max Payne from 2012's Max Payne 3
My very good friend (and band mate), Paul Weil, was already involved with Triton City Entertainment as Art Director and General Manager and introduced me to CEO, Dirk Hoogstra, formerly Executive Vice President/General Manager at History Channel. Dirk needed an artist to help develop his vision and offered me the role of Director of Illustration and Lead Concept Artist. Between my experience in visual development for triple-A video games, and Dirk's experience buying and selling hit TV series, such as the dramatic series Vikings, we have a great team ready to get the company off the ground and take our ideas to the next level. We are currently looking to secure funding.
Superhero movies are re-booted over and over. Epic shows like Game of Thrones can be binge watched in a single weekend. Production can't keep up with consumption, and there are very few studios controlling most of the content.
I'm excited about the idea of working in film/TV because I have always loved the storytelling aspect of illustration. I was also drawn to the creative freedom within the science fiction genre after years of working on open world games striving for hyper-realism. The challenge when creating an original sci-fi world is that everything has to be built from the ground up. When Triton City lines up funding Paul and I would be working closely together on the visual concepts that would flesh out the world of TCE's first story, Dawn of the Paladin. He and I have collaborated in the past on musical projects so I just knew this was going to be a blast.
Lena from Dawn of the Paladin
What can you tell us about Dawn of the Paladin?
Dawn of the Paladin is the story of a small group of peacekeepers called The Paladin, who protect a remote three-planet colony in a distant galaxy. The Paladin are led by a father and son team who have developed a new fighting style, called Jun, that utilizes skills that can only be mastered by accessing dormant areas of the human brain.
Tet from Dawn of the Paladin
They take psychedelic drugs to open these areas up and learn new skills. The main fuel source in their world is an alien ore called "ouj", found within one of the planets. Conflict ensues when rival alien factions try to steal the ouj to create advanced weaponry for themselves. There is a high demand for new, interesting and unique intellectual properties in the entertainment industry right now as media entities shift their budgets towards creating their own content. Superhero movies are re-booted over and over. Epic shows like Game of Thrones can be binge watched in a single weekend. Production can't keep up with consumption, and there are very few studios controlling most of the content. We see this as an opportunity for disruption, and so we are blazing the trail by creating a company whose product is creativity through storytelling and art.
Loran from Dawn of the Paladin
What were the influences for Dawn of the Paladin?
Influences for Dawn of the Paladin are wide ranging. We want this to look like nothing anyone has ever seen before. Paul and I are both musicians as well as artists, and Paul has worked in fashion. So these are all things we want to bring in. We are looking at everything from George Clinton's Funkadelic, to Federico Fellini, and from Alexander McQueen to Jack Kirby. We love artists/filmmakers David Lynch, Alejandro Jodorowsky, and the French comic artist Moebius. But this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Mogul from Dawn of the Paladin
What else does Triton have coming up?
What led you to the art world and ultimately gaming?
I was that kid who always wanted to go home after school and draw in front of the TV instead of hanging out with my friends. When I was with my friends playing video games, I would be sketching out the characters from whatever game we were playing. I can't remember a time I didn't envision myself becoming an artist.
Upon graduating from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY, the open world game genre had just been born in the form of Grand Theft Auto 3 and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. I fell in love with the latter and the 80's pop culture vibe. I took one look at the loading screens illustrated by Stephen Bliss, who was then unknown to me but would later become my co-worker, and thought whoever does this has my dream job.
How I got my foot in the door is a simple story of knowing somebody that knew somebody. I had been playing in bands and creating gig posters and album covers for my friends. One friend had asked me to do a 1960's pulp style illustration of his band looking like they were in a gang holding weapons. This may have been what got Rockstar's attention. Or perhaps the diversity of my portfolio as I often liked to switch up my illustration style to best suit the subject matter. After performing an illustration test, they called me in to work as an in-house freelance illustrator. My boss and mentor for the first several years I worked at Rockstar was a brilliant artist named Steven Olds. He basically taught me everything I know and helped me to realize my own potential.
What have your thirteen years in gaming illustration meant to you?
Thirteen years is a long time to try to summarize in one paragraph. But I will say it was a distinct honor to get to work on and develop the art styles for so many different titles at Rockstar. My favorite game of all time, and also one of my favorite projects to work on was Red Dead Redemption. And probably even more fun was the zombie DLC pack that came after it, Read Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare.
They don't want nun; from 2010's Red Dead Redemption DLC, Undead Nightmare
That was a project that seemed to come together naturally and with ease. Some of my fondest memories are of getting my co-workers to pose as zombies in the conference room and actually making them moan and stagger around so that the photo reference for the illustrations would have the right energy.
Old West Zombie from 2010's Red Dead Redemption DLC, Undead Nightmare
You’ve worked to help create some of the most iconic art in modern gaming. What's your process? Any favorites?
I approach each project with a clean slate. Developing new artistic styles is incredibly difficult because you have to raise the bar for yourself and teach yourself new ways of working each time. You can't just rely on what you did before. So, it's through lots of experimentation and iteration that one arrives at a piece of art that feels right for the story, characters, and vibe of what you're working on. Bully is a game I look back on fondly and was one of the first art styles I helped to develop while at Rockstar.
Jimmy and Gary from 2006's Bully
I already mentioned Red Dead Redemption as a favorite project. It is also the only game I've ever gotten a 100% completion rating playing through. Tied with that is Grand Theft Auto V. The three main player characters were a breakthrough in gaming that really brought out a lot in the storyline. I created concept art for two of them, Trevor and Franklin, and pushed them visually to feel right in game.
West side is the best side; Franklin w/ Chop the Dog from GTA V
I was leading a team of very talented illustrators at that point, one of whom in particular, Roxie Vizcarra, deserves a mention because we were really down in the trenches together developing that art style and without her extreme talent, the art would not be what it is. I should note, she also did a lot of heavy lifting on L.A. Noire as well. There are a lot of very talented people at Rockstar whose contributions to such massive projects are essential to their success.
When I was with my friends playing video games, I would be sketching out the characters from whatever game we were playing. I can't remember a time I didn't envision myself becoming an artist.
Were you involved in the upcoming Red Dead Redemption 2 before you left Rockstar last year?
My favorite game of all time, and also one of my favorite projects to work on was Red Dead Redemption.
Have you been influenced by any other video game box artists?
I don’t have any top picks for this. But there’s a book I picked up recently called Art of Atari. I played these games on my Atari 2600 as a young child and I was always fascinated by the art on the cartridges, which somehow managed to breathe life into games that were composed entirely of abstract blocks of color. These were true artists and I think what they achieved is no different from what an illustrator must do for game art today. I’m not impressed by how hyper detailed the 3D renderings are, that completely misses the point. The point is, what is the story, and how does one take my imagination there through the art? What is the style and the vibe of the thing, and why should I bother playing it? I like work that looks like it was created by a human, not a machine. I wish more game companies would use illustration to market their products. It adds a level of depth that can't be achieved with stiff, high resolution 3D renderings.
Do you have fans?
If I have any fans out there please follow me on Instagram! Not a lot of people know who I am or what I've done. At the same time, I don't know if I've ever met anyone who hasn't seen the artwork for GTA. I've been in foreign countries, and I've spoken to elderly people who claim to have never played a video game. But when I mention GTA there's always a look of recognition on their faces because the art is very memorable and at this point has become part of contemporary popular culture. Now that I'm striking out on my own, I'm trying to build a fan base and bring awareness to the art I've done and the art I continue to create. Occasionally fans will reach out and tell me how much this artwork influenced them and it warms my heart.
Getting frisky on the streets of Los Santos in GTA V
Did you see anything at this year's Comic Cons that piqued your interest?
I'm less impressed by all the big budget game and movie trailers going on at SDCC/NYCC. My favorite thing to do there, aside from soaking in all the amazing cosplay, is to visit artists’ tables who have merchandise to sell. People seem to forget because of all the glitz and fanfare that it's an incredible place to buy original art, and actually meet your artistic heroes who may be sitting at a booth waiting to meet their fans.
Lots of swirling feedback and rolling around on the ground. Very punk and confrontational.
You mentioned your music earlier. What else can you tell us about that?
I've been playing music and writing songs for many years in addition to being an illustrator. My first band, Tunnel of Love, was started with my brother, Andy Macbain, and our friend Makoto Sato.
Tunnel of Love: Anthony Macbain (center), Makoto Sato (left), Andy Macbain (right)
We would dress up in black and white striped tights, and set up our amplifiers on the floor in the back of the club. Nobody ever knew what hit them. Lots of swirling feedback and rolling around on the ground. Very punk and confrontational. We toured the US and Europe but have been quiet for a little while. However, we've been talking about a reunion.
Another band I am in is called The Psyched. This is the band I started with Paul Weil before Triton City Entertainment. We became friends while touring with Tunnel of Love and Paul's band The Apes.
The Psyched: Macbain (center) with Paul Weil (left) and Jess Ludwick (right)
When the time was right, we joined forces. Later, we added a bass player, Jess Ludwicki. Again very street oriented rock & roll with urban influences. We wear cut off denim vests with our band's symbols on the back like a street gang, which Paul designed and made by hand.
Finally, a solo project I started as an outlet to write pop songs in my bedroom is called 99999999. You can pronounce that "all nines" if you like. And you can write it with however many nines you want, as long as it's more than 3 (999 is already a band). This has developed into a two piece guitar/drums duo with my close friend and fellow artist, Ted McGrath.
All of these bands have records out on labels and bandcamp pages so I encourage anyone interested to give a listen!
Aside from music and your work with Triton City Entertainment, what's next for you?
I am really excited for the next chapter in my life. After working the same job for 13 years I really want to try new things and have as much fun and be as creative as possible in all the areas I never had time for before. I'm available for freelance work while I am building TCE. Next semester I'll be back at my alma mater, Pratt Institute, teaching for the first time. It's a course called "Advanced Worldbuilding" and it is part of the new Game Design curriculum. The opportunity arose after coming in to do a presentation to one of the classes on my career as an artist. Because of my experience at Rockstar and what TCE is trying to achieve, it was suggested I teach the class. I've always wanted to teach, and this seemed like perfect timing for it to happen. I find it so interesting to dissect what it is that makes an imaginary world unique and interesting, and at the same time inspiring young people to pursue careers in games and art.
They make a lobster roll the size of my forearm.
Any favorite local NYC spots?
Prospect Park in Brooklyn makes living in NYC possible for me. I need trees and lakes and the smell of 1000 charcoal BBQ pits at my fingertips at all times. Too much concrete gives me a headache.
Randazzo's Clam Bar in Sheepshead bay. Classic Brooklyn establishment that will serve you wine in a Dixie cup. They make a lobster roll the size of my forearm.
Randazzo's Clam Bar (photo: Daniel Krieger for The New York Times)
Hank's Saloon is a dive bar with live music that my band 999999 performed at recently. The last of a dying breed, they are shutting down at the end of the year so you better go before it's gone. It's been there for like 100 years at least and is where the American Indian steel workers used to go drink at the end of the day when they were building the Empire State Building.
Let's get into some influences! Who are your top artists?
Elektra: Assassin #1 signed by Bill Sienkiewicz
Bill Sienkiewicz- I got the chance to meet him and work with him once at Rockstar. And he signed my first pressing Elektra: Assassin #1. That comic influenced my artistic development more than any other.
Sergio Toppi - An Italian comic book illustrator with a very long career, who does incredible line drawings. I love the way he is able to capture humanity in the faces of his characters
Moebius - One of the most original comic illustrators ever. I'm equally inspired by his work in sci-fi as well as Western subjects.
Robert McGinnis - Classic 1960's and 70's pulp illustration.
Edward Gorey - I grew up loving his stark ink drawing style and morbid subject matter
2017's The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Metroid - Still one of the best sci-fi worlds ever created.
Inside - Side scrolling puzzle game with incredible atmosphere and vibe
Red Dead Redemption - Even though I worked on this game, I still feel like I could live in this world. I just want to set up camp and pick herbs all day.
Nethack - ASCII based D&D themed RPG for PC. It's open source and encompasses all mythology and fantasy literature in recorded history. Breathtakingly deep world for having basically no visuals at all.
Zelda: Breath of the Wild – My favorite contemporary game right now. Nintendo really outdid themselves with this one. Incredibly deep and fun open world game. The cooking aspect where you combine items to make power ups and potions is really a lot of fun.
Top musical influences?
Sssmokin: The incomparable Sam Cooke
Beck - back when he made 4-track demos of stuff prior to being famous
Favorite TV shows?
Whaddya say Coop? Kyle MacLachlan as Agent Dale Cooper in Twin Peaks
Trust us when we say this movie is nuts: scene from Alejandro Jodorowsky's The Holy Mountain
The Holy Mountain (1973) - Alejandro Jodorowsky
Fitzcarraldo (1982) - Werner Herzog
The Witch (2015) – Robert Eggers
Follow Macbain's work with Triton City, music and more below.
[Dawn of the Paladin images: Triton City Entertainment; Red Dead Redemption, Red Dead Redemption 2, L.A.Noire, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, Grand Theft Auto V, Bully and Max Payne 3 images: Rockstar Games]