GameDuell’s Art Director Ian Bowden is burning bridges between his game persona and the real self.
Olga: Not many people would assume that you, a person who stands behind the famous Grand Theft Auto series, actually have a degree in English Literature and Art History. How did you end up working in the gaming industry?
Ian: Well, it was that, teaching, or going down the track of managing at McDonalds. I mean, what can you do with an English degree, seriously? But the way I got into gaming was pure luck, to be honest. A long time ago, when computers where the size of a building, my father somehow lucked his way into computing. He started as a computer operator and, later, a programmer – back then it wasn’t even a specialized job yet. I was the first kid in my school to have a computer, actually, and thanks to my father, I learned COBOL and all these ancient programming languages that nobody remembers anymore. I even wrote my own games when I was an early teen. And that prepared a good solid background for what I’m doing now as, essentially, I was a programmer by upbringing.
Olga: So why did you decide to study something else if your interest was in programming?
Ian: Because I was always interested in art. In fact, my favourite way of annoying programmers is saying that if I had failed my entry exams, I would have become a programmer. Because that was my back up plan! My dad got me an apprenticeship as a programmer, but I passed all my exams (unfortunately) and went off to read books for around 3 years.
Olga: Does this art background somehow help you create games?
Ian: Absolutely. It trained me to look critically at art – and I don’t mean just look at it and say “Oh, that’s rubbish”, but to actually understand why it looks the certain way and how we develop a visual language. Also, my English degree taught me lots about semiotics, which is a fascinating subject. All those critical faculties gave me a certain understanding that is slightly different from the commercial artists who mainly go with some kind of gut feeling.
Olga: So how exactly did you find yourself in gaming then?
Ian: I worked the path into it through an animation company, where I stayed for a while. Then during university, I was always doing some freelance graphics on the side, and I eventually just lucked my way into a computer games company. And actually, right away I thought that this is it – an emerging new medium that is going to change the world. When I took that first job in a little company in Harrogate in the UK, I didn’t know that at some point I would be working on a game changing project – GTA – which revolutionized the landscape of games. Since then games have had a massive penetration into our pop culture. The day that I really realized that we were making a massive impact was the day when I saw something in the press where they were saying that the opening weekend of Iron Man was clashing with the release of GTA 4, so they thought that the box office for the movie might go down. Now, I think that was the first time ever when somebody was seeing games as a serious threat to the film industry.
Olga: How do you translate your vision in the technical part of gaming?
Ian: It comes from the background. The technical stuff is kind of easy for me – because I understand the programmers’ mentality and can speak their language, I don’t have much problems working with them. I can’t code anymore myself, of course, but because I have the background in it and because I constantly keep up with the trends in the industry, it becomes much easier for me to say: “Look, I have this vision – how can that be made?” It’s a rather helpful quality, really, because having a good grasp of technical aspects of production not only helps to realize an image in a game, but also pushes both aesthetics and tech to progress and develop. If, for instance, you got engine that doesn’t cope with the vision you want to create, then if you possess the know-how, you can work together with the programmers – and then, hand in hand, the art progresses, and the technical part progresses, too.
Olga: So it’s like art in science and science in art, coexisting together in one whole piece.
Ian: Yes, exactly.
Olga: Where do you get inspiration to work on your projects? Does Berlin inspire you as much as Leeds used to?
Ian: Leeds is a beautiful city. It was a weird city, but it was beautiful. It’s a very bourgeois city, too. Built on the textile industry, all of its beautiful architecture only happened because the rich merchants put their money into building something ‘impressive’. So it was a real kind of dichotomy between the industrial roots of Leeds and some of its inspiringly beautiful architecture. Berlin inspires me in a different way. First of all, I love this city for its history. I wish I had come here before, actually – before all the renovations, when I could have seen what happened post the wall coming down. Another thing I love about Berlin is the graffiti – I love graffiti! In the UK, we clean this stuff off so everything there looks ‘normal’ and ‘decent’. But Berlin is that unique European capital where you see graffiti and think, at first, my god, this is a very sketchy area, only to realize that, well, it actually isn’t! This is the soul and the spirit of the city.
Olga: What’s your favourite graffiti in Berlin?
Ian: Oh, there’s a brilliant one in Mitte! It’s just round the corner from GameDuell, in the Französische Straße. It’s very Banksy – it’s a standstill picture of a very elegant woman in an incredibly detailed puff ball skirt. It’s beautiful, it really is! Just how detailed that standstill is – it’s just crazy! And the fact that it’s just sitting there in Mitte, which is pretty much graffiti free, creates such a great contrast! Speaking of contrasts, by the way, one of my other favourite spots in Berlin is next to Kottbusser Tor. Just next to Kaiser’s, there’s this secret bar, Fahimi. The doorway to the bar is covered with stickers – it’s literally sticker bombed, you would not believe it if you saw. You walk in through this door that looks like a crack den – completely covered in graffiti and super sketchy looking. And then suddenly you find yourself standing in the middle of the prettiest looking cocktail bar! These kinds of contrasts are something I love about Berlin – the city of terrifying sketchiness and upscale, cutting edge, buzz nightclubs. I find that to be refreshingly wonderful.
Before joining GameDuell, Ian Bowden was Founder and Art Director at Rockstar Leeds, where he was responsible for the visual style of such world-famous games as the Grand Theft Auto series, Red Dead Redemption, L.A. Noire and Max Payne 3. In summer 2014, Ian took a position of Art Director at GameDuell. Read more about his previous work here.
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