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Breaking Into The Industry: Norman Felchle, Senior Concept Artist



This week, join us as we speak with Senior Concept Artist, Norman Felchle, about his background in comics (including his time drawing Batman), his contributions to The Sims, and the pros and cons of working on an unannounced title.
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Breaking Into The Industry is a weekly interview series that speaks with video game professionals from all across EA. We hope that by sharing how some of the industry’s biggest (and smallest) players got their start, you can learn how to do the same.

What’s your name and job title?
Norman Felchle, Senior Concept Artist. I work in The Sims division of EA.

Could you walk me through a typical day on the job?
Sure. Right now I’m designing characters, but things can change quickly. I might be working on anything from environments, to objects, to storyboards… pretty much anything that needs to be drawn at any given time. The variety is one of the fun things about the job.

How do you go about designing a character?
The game designer and art director will give me a general idea for something – let’s say an enemy – and have me do a lot of quick sketches to see where it’s going and what looks right. Then it’s a matter of getting more specific and a bit more finessed. There can be a lot of back and forth or changes in direction, too.

Where do you get the inspiration from, once you’re given the general idea?
In a more recent case, we talked about some different movies and artists to set a general feel. Then I tried to just take a day and do whatever came to mind within that “feel.”

Are you at all involved with the creation of a game’s 3D models?
I’ve been close to modelers at times, but also pretty far removed from them at other times. Sometimes I might sit right next to someone and we have a lot of back and forth. Other times stuff is outsourced and I have to make sure to communicate everything before it gets sent over.

You mentioned that you joined the team recently. What were you doing before this?
I was on The Sims Medieval, then moved on to various unannounced games. Since they haven’t been announced, I can’t really say anything specific about them.

Sounds like there’s a lot of secrecy to deal with. Does that ever bother you?
It can be a bit of a pain. I can’t show a lot of what I do to anyone for months. Sometimes even years.

But at the same time it seems pretty cool. Do you like being involved in the early stages of a game?
That’s the best time to be on a game. Everything is fair game and people are feeling creative and optimistic. That’s not to say that it gets grim or pessimistic later, but reality comes in and certain restrictions come in to play.

I was chatting with our mutual friend, Emmy Toyonaga, and she said that you had a pretty interesting run before joining The Sims team. Can you chat about your history a little?
I started in comics, drawing superhero stuff for Marvel and DC and others. I’ve been able to do sports logos, toys, storyboards for commercials – all kinds of fun stuff.

The first game I worked on for EA was American McGee’s Alice. My art director, Terry Smith, let me take a shot at designing some of the characters, and I wound up doing Alice, the Hatter, and some others. That was a lot of fun.

Are you a big comic book fan?
Yeah. I was a big fan when I was a kid and just wanted to draw Spider-Man. Then I got into comics and it was pretty stressful. The deadlines are really tight and it’s a lot of work for proportionately little pay. But it’s also great in that you can tell all kinds of incredible stories fairly quickly, and without the problems you’d run into on a huge movie or game.

Did that experience help you when you started working on games?
It did. In all kinds of ways. You learn to think and draw quickly in comics, and in general you learn to solve problems, which is a big part of concept art.

What superhero stuff did you do, by the way?
I eventually did get to draw a couple of Spider-Man books, which was cool. And a Superman book, a couple of Batman comics, Legends of the Dark Knight – stuff like that. Batman was the most fun to draw.

What was it that ended up drawing you to The Sims?
After working on Alice, Terry brought me into EA to work on a game with the promise that I’d only have to do it for a year or two. I wasn’t sure about working in an office after working freelance. But that was… eleven years ago. After that game, I wound up on a couple of James Bond games, The Godfather, and then The Sims, MySims, The Sims Medieval, etc.

Did you study art in college?
I went to the California College of Arts and Crafts, which recently took the “Crafts” part out of their name. I was a drawing major.

Was it useful to you?
It was. In some ways that you’d expect and in some lucky, unforeseen ways too. One of my illustration teachers asked me what I wanted to do, and when I said “comics” he told me to ditch his class and play hooky across the street where a young comic book artist lived. The young guy was Mike Mignola of Hellboy fame, and he really taught me a lot of very important things about comics. I also ran into his friends Steve Purcel (who did Sam and Max and now works at Pixar) and Arthur Adams – the “hot” comic book guy at the time.

Do you have any advice for kids in high school or college that want to follow your career path?
The things you need most are strong underlying drawing skills and the ability to be flexible and solve problems. Working well with others is also important because nobody makes a game on their own. It’s a team effort.

Painting skill (Photoshop mostly) is the most basic skill art directors look for, and if you can get experience with Maya, that’s great as well. A lot of concept work is painted over at least a rough 3D model.

Showing versatility in your portfolio is good because you never know what an art director might be looking for. Although, it would be even better if you could find out what a specific game company or art director is looking for before you send them your work. Skew your portfolio to show that you can do what they’re looking for.

Also, don’t get too discouraged if you get turned down for a job. Sometimes it’s just a matter of fitting the right artist with the right job.

Is there a specific video game job you'd like to know more about? Let us know in the comments! Plus, check out last week's interview with Lead Development Director, Berjes Enriquez, for more insight into the industry.

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