An interview with legendary concept artist Craig Mullins!
Mullins: I think I started in about 1998. Bungie had just finished one of the Marathon sequels, and they wanted me to take a stab at their new top secret project. I did a few paintings that nobody would even know are related to Halo now.
WP: What do you look to for inspiration when illustrating for Halo?
CM: I try to imagine what can't be seen—assume that it is a real universe, and the complexity that it must have. For instance, Halo has a real weather system probably very similar to Earth. Illustrating some things that are recognizable and familiar makes the fantastic seem believable. How much does a Brute weigh? 400-500 lbs? If he is standing on dirt, you'll see the deformation of the ground around his toes as he sinks in a little bit. There will be more dirt on his lower half if he has been in action for a while. I enjoy thinking through what these things would look like if they were real.
WP: Halo has a rich library of characters, technology, and locations. How do you decide what to represent in a piece like the cover for the Halo Encyclopedia?
CM: This cover piece was a challenge because I had to sum up the entire universe in one image. A lot of times this is too difficult to do, and a cover will be type and graphics. No one image could summarize a universe as large as Halo's. But I suppose with this piece the Forerunner architecture and the Master Chief kind of chose themselves.
WP: So many people think of the Master Chief as an action hero. What drove the decision to portray a more contemplative Chief in the Halo Encyclopedia cover?
CM: We did try some sketches of battle, but again, it felt like a snapshot. The Master Chief standing ready, looking into the distance suggests a large and important battle is about to take place. There was actually some surprise, but the contemplative sketch was chosen. I was happy I was able to use more neutral colors, staying away from contrast-y oranges and blues and explosions. The traditional wisdom is that the eye is attracted to contrast and bright colors, but on a bookshelf that's full of that, maybe a more continuous tone image would stand out even more.
WP: Do you have a favorite art piece of Halo? Or a vehicle, scene, or enemy that you think is particularly well done?
CM: I am partial to the Covenant dropship. It's very bizarre. It looks like it has a big block V8 engine powering it. I think it's a little influenced by the Millennium Falcon, very un-aerodynamic and a little awkward. I also really enjoyed the character animations in Halo: CE. They were very well done.
WP: How did you get started illustrating the Halo universe, and do you have any advice for aspiring gaming artists?
CM: In 1994, I think Marathon came out at the very end of the year. I remember playing it over Christmas break. A few months later, I did some fan art. It circulated around the net for a while and found its way to Bungie. They were working on Marathon 2 by then and asked me to make chapter screens for the new game. At this point, games came on floppies, so no animations or cut scenes were possible. I think there were ten chapters/levels in Marathon 2, so I did ten illustrations. When time came to start Halo: CE, Bungie invited me to their Chicago offices to see it. This was before Microsoft/Xbox. I did a few illustrations, but they were not what Bungie was looking for. It is difficult to work on the beginning of the project from a remote location. Things are changing so quickly, sometimes daily. It's easy to fall out of the loop and do work that is no longer relevant. You have to be in the middle of it.
My advice for aspiring game artists would be: don't think of yourself as a gaming artist. Become a solid artist first. Study industrial design as well as art. Draw constantly, both to gain facility and as way of thinking about things. Drawing is like thought on paper. Do many studies from life, but study the structure of things, not just painting what you see. Do highly finished work as well as many simpler sketches. They support each other.
WP: How long does it generally take you to create a piece of work, and can you let us in on your process in creating an illustration like the Halo Encyclopedia cover?
CM: It starts with a lot of thinking, I can think faster than I can draw, and a lot of bad ideas can be gotten rid of just by thinking about it. Sometimes I like to compose images as I'm lying in bed before I go to sleep. I can’t always get what I saw on my head, but it gives me some place to start. I do some low resolution digital sketches and send them off to the client. There are often a few changes before I am ready to start on the high-resolution final. I usually start from scratch with the final. I will often exaggerate contrast in the sketches, meaning there are areas of dark and light that are a little too pronounced. I end up fighting those overstated values in the final. I will paint at anywhere from eight thousand to twelve thousand pixels. This gives me a lot of control of edges, and I can allow some optical mixing to happen with the color. It also helps if there are areas of very precise detail that need attention.
Sometimes, things can go very wrong. In the sketch, I had the Master Chief holding the sniper rifle in his left hand. In looking at the Halo [story] bible, a reference created by Microsoft Game Studios that outlines every conceivable detail of how the Master Chief should be portrayed, I read that he is never to be shown as left-handed! This set me back about three days worth of work. DK Publishing was very gracious and understanding and extended the deadline to allow me to correct the problem.
CM: Thanks for taking the time to answer some of our questions, Craig!