Thursday, 2 September 2010

Francis Tsai Interview

Francis Tsai is a freelance illustrator who works in the entertainment industry. He provides conceptual design work for computer games and film and also supplies artwork to be used in books and on cards (to name only but a small amount of what he does, for instance I haven't even mentioned his comic book work yet).

 Born in Hawaii and raised in Texas, Tsai was initially trained in Chemistry before before receiving a graduate degree in architecture. In 1998, he joined Presto Studios as Conceptual Designer where he provided visual development and game design for the video games Myst 3 and Star Trek: Hidden Evil. In 2003, he then joined High Moon Studios where he was principal concept artist for the video games The Bourne Conspiracy and Darkwatch

You can never really do an artist justice in a small introduction like this, usually because they have done some much that is worthy of note. So, for a better overview of his career, check his wiki page out (after you have read the interview of course) then head on over to his website for all other Tsai news.

The Interview

Dungeon Masters Screen (c) Wizards of the Coast

As is the case with all the artists and illustrators I interview, you have a very varied and colourful work history that crosses different media outputs (films, games, comics etc.). Out of all that you have done, what did you find the most rewarding artistically and what would you like to do more of? What have you yet to try your hand at and would love to do?

For me the rewarding thing about doing this kind of work for a living has been the variety. As a fan of science fiction, fantasy, comics and things of that nature, I’ve enjoyed all the different kinds of media you mentioned. As a working professional, being able to contribute to all these different outlets has been a dream come true. To answer your question, I may have to say that comics have the ability to combine a lot of disparate skills and artistic opportunities, and challenge you in many different and unexpected ways. I’ve done a few stories for publishers where I’ve been the hired gun on art. What I really want to do sometime soon is to write and draw my own stories.

You have two “how too” style books out are there any plans for a third? Maybe a DVD?

I would love to continue creating books as long as there is a demand. I haven’t really looked into the DVD thing. The nice thing about books is that it allows me to plan out the presentation a bit more carefully than I would be able to do with a video.

(c) Marvel 

Is teaching and the passing on of knowledge important to you?

As a student, I think it’s very important! I’ve learned a lot from various teachers and role models, and being an artist is an endless learning process. I haven’t really had the urge to take on a formal teaching position, but I do enjoy working in a team environment where there is opportunity to mentor younger or less experienced artists. Bottom line though, I think I prefer doing the work than trying to pretend I’m a teacher.

Extreme Worlds Movie Poster (c) Tsai

What can you tell me about some of your self initiated/personal projects? How many do you have on the go? How successful are you at juggling time between the personal ones and commercial works?

I don’t seem to do as many personal paintings as I used to. I think going freelance had a lot to do with that – you feel like any time not spent on client work is money down the drain. The funny thing is one main motivation to go freelance was so that I’d have time and opportunity to work on personal, creator-owned projects, such as graphic novels. What ends up happening is you work all the damn time, trying to make sure you have enough reliable client work going to support the personal stuff, which then you try to fit in between jobs. I am deliberately scaling back work these days, so my wife doesn’t just see the back of my head all the time.

How frustrated do you get when you have too much commercial work taking up your time? (If such a thing should ever be complained about)

I wouldn’t say it’s a frustration thing. I love working. Drawing, painting and designing never feel like work to me, even if it’s a project or property that I don’t have a particular affinity for. In those instances it becomes a challenge, and an opportunity to stretch beyond familiar comfort zones artistically, see if I am able to bring something to the mix that isn’t typically expected of a certain kind of project.

 Ganesh (c) Tsai

I listened to and enjoyed your music on your website. Do you ever play your music at gigs? Do you have any plans to get an E.P. of your tracks together?

Thanks, I’m glad you liked it. Music is sort of a secondary thing for me, a hobby really, but still one of my great passions. I grew up playing music, first playing violin in the school orchestras, and then switching to guitar in college, and most recently digital composition tools. It’s a way for me to change mental gears and be creative in a different medium. There’s a temporal, linear quality to music that is different from creating a piece of illustration or design that I find interesting.


Finally, on your blog, some time ago, you posted up a ‘doodle’ of an electric car and spoke about how motorways should provide cars with energy to save battery sizes. Well, here is your platform. IF you could design 3 things that would change the world for the better, what would they be?

Ha, that’s a good question! But it is the kind of thing I think about a lot. I don’t really have much of a technical or engineering background, but assuming I do –

1. Nanotech energy sources – I imagine microscopic/molecular sized thermistor-like devices that could harvest waste heat from mechanical or electronic devices and convert it to electrical or some other form of potential energy. This kind of technology could potentially eliminate the need for oversized batteries (including associated problems such as toxic heavy metal waste material), make machinery run cooler, and enable things like implantable biotechnological devices to run indefinitely, fueled by body heat alone. Harvesting waste heat from things like server farms or disc brakes would also eliminate the need to build in heat-dissipating design elements.

2. Artificial brains – by this I don’t mean artificial intelligence (although that would be pretty cool too), but rather a way to offload some of our own memories or cognitive functions to some kind of artificial, upgradeable substrate. It is alarming to me in a way that we bumble through life without any type of backup. A lot of us take great pains to make sure we have backup copies of our data or applications, but we still have no way to back up the most valuable asset we have, our own minds. At some point in time that is probably less than a decade away, computer technology will cross a threshold where the hardware will have more than enough capability to mirror the neuron/synapse structure of the human brain. At that point, I am hopeful that this kind of technology, in addition to improved medical scanning/imaging/modeling technology will allow us to solve the “no backup” problem.

6Wheels © Tsai
 3. Electrical roadways – as mentioned above, a sort of WPA-like project to retrofit the existing highway system (American, although I would assume it could work in any industrialized nation) with a sort of embedded electrical induction system that would provide power to electric automobiles eliminating the need for on-board, self contained batteries. I see an analogous system in our modern day cell phone technology – cell towers and infrastructure provided by telecomm companies enable us to carry around very compact yet powerful communications devices; an individual cell phone doesn’t need to carry its own transceiver in order to work. This of course restricts automobiles somewhat in terms of where they can travel, but I’d be willing to bet that most of the time, most of us drive only where there are paved roadways.

Questions Every Artist Gets Asked

Bourne Conspiracy Computer Game (c) High Moon Studios - Vivendi - Activision

What has been your career highlight to date?

It’s hard to pick one single event. I feel like it’s been more the case of thousands of tiny steps, with many thousands more to go. I suppose I could point to a few things – seeing my first Marvel Comics cover on the shelf, seeing something of mine get into Spectrum, seeing my name in the credits for a movie. Small things really, but each one a sign of having gotten a few steps further along in the journey. 

What was your big break into the illustration industry?

Here again it’s hard to isolate a single event. I started working as an illustrator in college, doing spot illustration work for the University of Texas newspapers and magazines. Every illustration gig since then has been a matter of finding the next opportunity and making the most of it, giving your work just a slight bit more exposure, and using that as leverage to get the next job. 

What was the best piece of artistic advice you have received or can offer?

Never rest, never sit back and think you’ve got it made. There’s always more to learn and there’s always someone who is better than you.

(c) Wizards of the Coast

What do you think is the most effective way you market yourself and your work?

I’m the wrong guy to ask for this one. I am a terrible marketer, but I have had the good fortune to have good referrals and repeat clients. Actually I suppose that is one answer right there – be reliable and professional, under-promise and over-deliver. Always leave your clients with a positive experience and as good a product as you can deliver, and the business will take care of itself. 

As an artist, what are your biggest challenges that you face?

Achieving balance in life. As a freelancer, especially one who tends to keep his nose to the grindstone, for better or worse, it’s easy to lose sight of all the other things life has to offer. We only get one ride, and it’s up to each one of us as individuals to make sure we reach the end of it with as few regrets as possible.

Random Questions for the Tsai man!

(c) Wizards of the Coast

In any language, what is your least favourite word?


What book do you wish you had originally written?

Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson. A science fiction novel that on the surface is a cyberpunk story, but really is about so much more. That book continues to influence me almost 20 years after I first read it.

After you have passed on, what do you want to be remembered for?

I don’t plan on passing on. I’ll be around in some form or other for a good long while. Read up on Ray Kurzweil and the Singularity to get a sense of what I mean.

What is your favourite beverage?

Varies, sometimes green iced tea, sometimes Mexican Coke (made with cane sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup), sometimes filtered water.

What was the last book you read and was it any good?

Hm that’s a tough one too. I tend to have several books going at any one time that I may or may not ever finish reading – often art books, so it’s more of a reference or study situation, maybe a science fiction novel, some sort of technology-related nonfiction book, or something of that nature.

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