Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Two Interviews With Teoman Irmak

Introduction by Joe Pranevich


This week, we have a special treat: not one, but two interviews with artist Teoman Irmak. I first stumbled onto Teoman’s work while reviewing the Questprobe games. You may recall that I didn’t quite understand why some systems had different graphics than others and I interpreted this to being due to Adventure International optimizing the art for each platform. Not so! As I learned later, the different art was because the two “Adventure Internationals”, the US and UK ones, were targeting different platforms (the common ones for their regions) and employed separate groups of artists to do so.

Teoman’s work is likely to be more familiar to European adventure game fans, but we’ve seen his art in the original Elvira game and Robin of Sherwood, as well as the UK editions of the Questprobe games. He also worked on many more including Sorcerer of Claymorgue Castle, He-Man, Gremlins, Personal Nightmare, and others that I hope we will eventually cover as part of our Missed Classic series.

So why do we have two interviews? Teoman has been kind enough not only to answer a few questions for me, but also to provide us an unabridged interview that he did last year for Sam Dyer’s book, ZX Spectrum: A Visual Compendium. There’s a bit of overlap between the two interviews, but together they provide a fantastic glimpse at some of the processes that underscored early adventure gaming.



Adventure Gamer Interview with Teoman Irmak

An action packed scene from Questprobe: Spider-Man.

Can you tell us a bit about your background? How did you come to do much of the art direction of Adventure International UK and its successors?
From a fine art background I was introduced into computer graphics via a stint as a commercial artist illustrating, among other things, computer magazine covers using traditional methods like oils and inks. This brought me to the attention of Adventure International and the wider computer community.
From conventional oil painting I eventually made the switch to pure digital art, producing graphics for the early computer games.
Did you have a chance to meet or work with Kem McNair, your counterpart for Adventure International in the US?
I was never able to meet him. My real contact was with the Marvel pencil artists. They sent over the pencil roughs and I had to work from them. Sometimes we completed the lead version of the digital graphics; sometimes the US company was ahead of us.
When designing the art on a limited (and very early) digital medium, what was your process and tools?
We had our own in house character set assembler to draw the graphics. What Adventure International was doing with the Spectrum was quite new for the time. So no commercial packages were used.
As the hardware of the day was unable to display pictures quickly, the computers’ faster, text only screen mode was used. Instead of conventional text being written to the screen the newly reshaped ‘alphabet’ was used to create the illusion of the final image. The technique was enhanced by the fact that up to 3 characters could be variously combined. As well as simple rotation a basic arithmetic logic was used to combine the characters. This was by addition, simply overlaying as a logical OR, by a type of subtraction, one character cutting into the next as a logical EXCLUSIVE OR and by selective addition as a logical AND.
Quite a few projects were accomplished this way. I got so used to it that eventually I could look at an image and ‘see’ the redefined characters and their orientation that I needed to assemble it.
An adventure for all seasons, but especially Halloween.

As graphics improved for the Elvira games and later, how did your processes change? Do you have any fun stories of photo-realistic horror props?
The approach to presenting the graphics in the adventure games, while I was with the company, hadn’t changed. It was still the fast character set graphics method. Later on perhaps some of the loading screens were hand drawn.
As I remember, Mike started the HorrorSoft label to release titles like Elvira. A real live person was fronting the new games and this was a novel development for us. I saw it as my duty as the artist to meet her and we had many discussions on the subject.
I was keen to explain that a faithful representation needed, no, demanded the real subject but Mike was not convinced. I think he saw straight through my overly dramatic ploy to get a free trip to London for the day.
As it turned out, I never did get to meet Cassandra face to face for the project, just lots of publicity shots were provided for the artwork. I kept telling Mike it was not the same.
Robots march on, from R.M.o.V.’s cover of “Sunday Morning

What have you been up to for the past several decades?
After Adventure Soft, I went on to work for other companies like US Gold, Vivid Image and Artworld, ending up directing TV adverts for Lego. The Harry Potter TV adverts for example were accomplished by my team of 8 or 10 animators. Things were no longer down to one artist anymore, times were changing. 
I have again become, as I started, a fine artist. I now devote my full time to exhibiting my art as a ‘collaboration with computers’, whether it is as images, videos or computer music. In fact I sometimes combine the purely computerised music and video, in my audio project know as R.M.o.V. 
So really looking back nothing has fundamentally changed. I still work with computers and they still surprise me. It’s just that they are so much faster. But ironically things I want to do now also seem to take much longer than they did on simpler hardware. Complexity is a trade-off.
A very nice book!

With permission of Teoman Irmak and Sam Dyer, we are delighted to present this unabridged interview that Teoman did for Mr. Dyer’s book, Sinclair ZX Spectrum: A Visual Compendium. This is an absolutely beautiful work, more than a hundred pages of art and interviews with many individuals involved with creating games for the Spectrum. And before this starts to read too much like a paid advertisement-- no, I just really like this book! It’s good to see others working to preserve the memory and the joy of these early platforms and this book does that in spades.

Spectrum Interview with Teoman Irmak

Mike Woodroffe started Adventure Soft and I worked with the company for many years and many titles. Previously I had been illustrating the covers of some of the computer magazines. So at the start, I was involved with producing cover artwork for the first titles the company was just starting to release. It was a bit later that I got involved with the actual game graphics. It was only one artist to each project in those days. I had to do it all.

In the early days the company was initially working with Adventure International in the US and I was the artist for the Questprobe games and The Sorcerer of Claymorgue Castle. Then came Gremlins the Adventure, Robin of Sherwood, I forget the order they went.

Later on Mike started the HorrorSoft label to release titles like Elvira. A real live person was fronting the new titles. I saw it as my duty as the artist to meet her and we had many discussions on the subject.

As it turned out, I never did get to meet Cassandra face to face for the project, just lots of publicity shots were provided for the artwork. I kept telling Mike it was not the same. I think he was worried about the extra cost.

By the Power of Greyskull!

Mike Woodroffe called the meeting at Adventure International (UK) HQ. We gathered around the Apple II screen and looked at the artwork produced by the artists at MARVEL Studios.

“Can we get the graphics to look as good as this?” he asked.

I immediately realised that draw and fill for complex scenes and characters like this would be very slow. Also we didn’t have floppy disks or a large memory. How can pages and pages of graphics be displayed very quickly?

I bit my lip, the task was daunting.

Then someone said “I have an idea! We can use text and it would be instant!”

What?

And so with typical British ingenuity, a Yugoslav programmer from Belgrade and a Turkish artist from Istanbul working together a solution was eventually found.

And what’s more the ZX Spectrum version ended up having the fastest graphics!

This was the first time redefined character sets were used to display images.
Instead of conventional text being written to the screen the newly reshaped ‘alphabet’ was used to create the illusion of the final image. The technique was enhanced by the fact that up to 3 characters could be variously combined.

Claymorgue Castle on a sunny day.

Quite a few projects were accomplished this way. I got so used to it that eventually I could look at an image and ‘see’ the redefined characters and their orientation that I needed to assemble it.

The Spectrum was probably the first time redefined plus recombined character sets were used to display images.

It was for a brief moment a way of drawing on a computer that will probably never be attempted again. Artists today don’t know what they are missing!

As I remember we had our own in house character set assembler to draw the graphics. So no commercial packages were used.

Spooky horned guy from Robin Hood.

At the time I was well versed in 6502 machine code and so was involved in writing the Commodore 64 version of the engine, as the initial programmer was Z80 code based. Very few programmers today get involved with machine code like they did then as it is considered too specific and cumbersome by today’s multi-platform standards.

A very brief explanation of the character combining technique:

As the hardware of the day was unable to display pictures quickly, the computers’ faster, text only screen mode was used. Instead of conventional text being written to the screen the newly reshaped ‘alphabet’ was used to create the illusion of the final image. The technique was enhanced by the fact that up to 3 characters could be variously combined. As well as simple rotation a basic arithmetic logic was used to combine the characters. This was by addition, simply overlaying as a logical OR, by a type of subtraction, one character cutting into the next as a logical EXCLUSIVE OR and by selective addition as a logical AND.

Quite a few projects were accomplished this way. I got so used to it that eventually I could look at an image and ‘see’ the redefined characters and their orientation that I needed to assemble it.

The ghost in the machine, from R.M.o.Vs “I Am a Computer

After this I went on to work for other companies like Vivid Image and Artworld ending up directing TV adverts for Lego. The Harry Potter TV adverts for example was my team, 8 or 10 animators. Things were no longer down to one artist anymore, times were changing.

I have again become, as I started, a fine artist. I now devote my full time to exhibiting my art as a collaboration with computers, whether it is as images, videos or computer music. In fact I sometimes combine purely computerised music and video in my audio project know as R.M.o.V.

So really looking back nothing has fundamentally changed. I still work with computers and they still surprise me. It’s just that they are so much faster. But ironically things I want to do now also seem to take much longer than they did on simpler hardware. Complexity is a trade-off.

                                                                                                         


Thanks to Teoman Irmak and Sam Dyer for these interviews! You can find Teoman and examples of his art on his homepage. His book, Ironic Surfaces, also includes some artwork from the Adventure International era. Irmak’s electronic music project, R.M.o.V., has released two fantastic music videos: Sunday Morning and I Am A Computer. Check them out!

Sam Dyer’s ZX Spectrum book can be found on Bitmap Books or where you normally go to buy your books. His company is doing beautiful and imaginative things with “retro” imagery and I hope you will check them out.

Up next: Back to our regularly scheduled programming.

2 comments:

  1. That is one and one quarter interviews, tops! A pity he had nothing to say about Touche, which we will have to take a look at later on.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah, I agree that the two interviews overlap more than might be best, but I'm grateful that he spent the time and provided what he did. I think of the "Spectrum" interview as something of a found treasure-- I did not want to change what I was given, nor did I want to re-do the interview answers which he provided. Not perfect! But still a good look at his processes.

      As for Fifth Musketeer, I honestly didn't even realize it was his until after. He is credited for some games on MobyGames that he had nothing to do with ("Seas of Blood", to cite one recent example) and so I was reluctant to use anything there, leaving instead just the games that he told me that he worked on in our correspondence.

      One upside from this interview is that I've discovered that I HAVE played He-Man before, sometime deep in my youth. I immediately recognized the visuals and some of the messages. It's strange what remains with you! And yet, I would have had no idea if I didn't boot it up to do screenshots. That may be a sign that I should play that for a future Missed Classic...

      Delete