Thursday, 1 November 2012

Sean Andrew Murray Interview

With a very busy work and life schedule, it has been a long time since I first approached Sean for an interview (almost a year at writing this now) and managed to figuratively pin him down but, I believe, the wait was well worth it. Results speak for themselves and this interview, I think, is one of the best I have conducted so far.

Like many of the artists I talk to, I found Sean and his work via the internet. Immediately, I knew that I had discovered someone truly talented and someone with a unique take on fantasy art. With incredible levels of detail, intriguing story telling and an awesome ability to make the unreal seem real, I became an instant fan.

And this is why I found it easy to get behind, promote and put some money down to Sean's Kickstarter project to self publish and distribute a book based in his creation, 'The World of Gateway.'  The campaign, *spoilers, was a massive success and the project reached well over its goal and secured its funding. I can't wait to see the book come through my door sometime next year but, until then, I can take comfort in the knowledge that he is burning the candle at both ends and working away on it.

So grab a hot drink and take some time to enjoy this interview because it is a really fascinating read.

Wizard Backpacker - Internet Showing Exclusive!

Lloyd Harvey - So, the Book of Wizards is in production and, as one of the many who added to the funds through your Kickstarter campaign held back in May, I am very excited and eager to see it come to fruition and can’t wait until it comes through my door sometime next year. 

For those who don’t know (shame on them), the Book of Wizards is an illustrated field guide to the world of “Gateway”, a world that you have conceived in your mind and shown through your personal work. The book will introduce people to some of the famous characters you’ve created, like a magical “who’s who” if you will. 

Was the creation of Gateway, through your personal illustrations, something that was a conscious effort, as in, you set out with the objective to build a world piece by piece, or was it something that evolved over time? 

Sean Andrew Murray - It evolved over time, and is continuing to evolve. In fact, I would say the “evolving” part was the reason I finally decided to do a Kickstarter campaign because I feel as if it is, and will, continue to force me to solidify certain things about the World of Gateway. Eventually, you have to commit to things when building a world, even if you aren't totally sure if something makes sense or is exactly the way you want it to be…. Kinda like the real world. No idea, or building, or story or city is immaculately conceived, nor do any of these things ever end up exactly as planned. 

Can you remember the first time that Gateway came to be and what was your original inspiration to conceiving it? Sub question- have you ever walked the streets of that city in your dreams and how vivid and real do some of the settings and denizens feel to you? 

I believe the first time I thought of Gateway was in college when I was on a road trip with some friends to New Orleans. That was in the late 90s. I just had this notion that fantasy worlds all seemed to follow the same templates. I had always loved the idea of the city-planet of Coruscant in Star Wars, so I thought: why not the equivalent in a fantasy world? How cool would it be to have entire adventures that take place in a huge, seemingly endless and amazingly dynamic city built over hundreds, or even thousands of square miles? The idea has morphed and evolved a lot since those days but the essential kernel is still there. 

I would say I do walk the streets in my dreams, definitely… but it is usually more vivid when I am not thinking about it…. Like, if I try to force myself to do it, I end up getting hung up on insignificant details and I might lose the “moment”. 

I know from first hand experience, how long it can take to create a diverse fantasy world and know of the fine balance of mixing reality and fiction that can come into play. What research have you conducted that has fuelled your ideas and where do you find most of your “eureka!” moments come from? 

It’s funny, I think too much world-building relies on over-simplified internal logic. While I am a big fan of logic, I think that by trying to make every detail make “sense”, it often makes a story feel a bit flat. I prefer to think about the contrasts that exist in real life that, if you were to explain to a space alien, might seem counterintuitive, or would require a deeper understanding. 

Here are some examples just to illustrate what I mean: 

How many times have we seen a fantasy world where the “Capitol City” is always the biggest, most impressive city in the realm? The same doesn’t always hold true in our own world - Washington D.C. is not America’s biggest or most exciting city by far. There’s a (sort of) logical reason why D.C. is located where it is when you read the history books, but it’s not as intuitive as just pointing to the place that has the tallest towers and saying: “That’s the Capitol.” 

Why is food in the American South (where it is often very hot and humid) all about hot spices, hot barbecues and deep-frying, while New England (where winters can be brutal) has a lot of local ice cream makers and iced coffee is very popular? For that matter, why does Boston, a city that prides itself on its old traditions and support of local businesses, seem to have more Dunkin Donuts per square mile than anywhere else on the planet? 

Why does everyone in LA go everywhere in their cars, rather than walk, despite having some of the nicest weather in the country? Obviously, the answer has nothing to do with weather, but it just seems like the last place you would want to be stuck inside of a car in traffic. 

So, I guess what I am saying is that I like to get my ideas from looking at the quirkier, less intuitive side of our own world. I try to observe life around me and all of its idiosyncrasies and use those as inspiration. I think if I were to try to approach Gateway in a more structured way, perhaps it would lack some bit of “truth”. 

That is something that has always bugged me a little bit about traditional fantasy – every elf is always graceful and high-minded, every dwarf a gruff but loveable gold-hoarder. Obviously there will be various factions in Gateway that have their cultural traditions, but since it’s this dynamic place where everyone is intermingling and inventing their own new traditions, it should feel like a place where anything is subject to unique circumstances. There might be a good reason why a fishing boat has a rhinocerous painted on the side of it…. There’s a good story there, and I want my audience to have their pick of little mysteries to immerse themselves in. 

My “eureka” moments usually come to me when I am drawing, because I experiment with ideas while I am drawing… like, the other day, I was drawing a character that initially I intended to be a mask, but when I began to think about the characters origin or story, the idea that he was just wearing a mask seemed underwhelming conceptually. As I was drawing some human skulls on his belt, the idea occurred to me that maybe his real head was removed ritualistically, and replaced with a wooden head imbued with magic and carved into the visage of one of his culture’s gods, and maybe everyone in his culture does this as a sort of coming-of-age ritual. 

That’s why sometimes I just start drawing even if I don’t have a solid idea in my head, sometimes the ideas and solutions present themselves. 

In the real world, here on Earth, what is the future for Gateway? Where and what do you hope to achieve and what would be, for you, the coolest thing to happen with it? 

Gateway, in my mind, is my life-long, on-going project. Obviously I have far-fetched dreams about making a film or a video game with a line of action figures, bobble-heads, and underwear to go along with it, but in reality it’s mostly important that I just keep working on it, even if those things never come to fruition. Perhaps a slightly less far-fetched is the idea of some-day being able to support myself by continuing to develop new material (books, prints, graphic novels) for Gateway. 

Do you have any advice for people who are looking to build their own world and where do you think is the best place to start? 

Well, the best place to start is in the real world, without question. The key, though, is to find a compelling “hook”, something unique about your world. Maybe it comes from your personal philosophy or maybe it has to do with a dream you had, or a notion that seems interesting to you. 

Don’t start by saying: "OK, I have to have an Ice zone, a forest, a desert, and some mountains…." That stuff will evolve, those are the details. Say to yourself – “What do I want to say about what I believe is the essence of fantasy or science fiction or horror?"

Maybe you have a story in mind… start with the story, then the world will evolve around it, like: “I’ve always thought a cool idea for a story is one about a dark ages, low-tech fantasy world that is suddenly invaded by high-tech aliens from outer space.” Or maybe there are stories from your cultural background or a mythology you connect with that can make for a good spark of an idea. 

Sometimes it’s fun to just start drawing maps. You might suddenly have an idea for what your fantasy world is all about simply by trying to work out the details of a map. Study real-world maps, download Google Earth and explore the world, look at pictures that other people have taken of amazing places all over the world. 

Watch bad sci-fi movies one day, then go to the science museum the next day. Forcing yourself to be open to the wealth of ideas that the world has to offer is so much more effective than sitting down at a desk and trying to force yourself to have a great idea without any input. 

Professionally, where are you working now? How did the sudden unemployment, the successful funding of you book, you and your family’s relocation, all affect you and your work? 

I am now employed at Harmonix Games, of Guitar Hero, Rock Band and Dance Central fame, working on a very very cool, but very very secret project that I can’t say anything about. Stay tuned though!
The 38 Studios implosion was definitely a weird time in my life that caught me totally off-guard. But while 38 Studios was crumbling, my Kickstarter campaign for “Book of Wizards” was going on simultaneously, so it was a real roller coaster of emotions.
I don’t think these events have affected my work other than just to set me back a few months on my timeline for the project, but I think I will be able to catch up and still get the book out on time. The new job at Harmonix has been really great, and the fact that I am getting to do some really exciting new things there has actually inspired me to do more creative stuff with my personal work for the book. So I would say that it is overall a net positive. Plus I have to say I really like living in Boston now…. not that Baltimore wasn’t great, but Boston has been proving itself to be a great source of energy and inspiration for me.

Moving to a different aspect of your life, you’ve said before that you'd like to travel the world at some point. What places of the world really interest you in a cultural sense? 

Eastern Europe – Romania especially, Finland, Poland, etc. and Asia – Vietnam, Cambodia (Ankhor Wat), China, Japan, Korea…. I am planning on picking one of these places and going on a “sketching tour” sometime in the near future. 

Finally, to conclude this portion of the interview, where does the nickname Muttonhead come from? Please tell me there is a story attached and that its not just a play on your name. 

Honestly, I can’t really remember anymore, it was way back in High School. It may have been something about a person I spotted at an amusement park wearing a shirt that said “muttonhead” who was being a muttonhead, and so from then on it became a “term of endearment” amongst my friends….. nice huh? Haha! 

Question Set 2 – Questions for every artist 

What has been your career highlight to date? 

In terms of video game making, my highlight was shipping "Reckoning", and having contributed to the design of so many parts of that game, especially the epic “Balor” boss-battle. 

But overall, it has to be this Kickstarter campaign. I was quite literally blown away by the response, and the desire to see this project made. It has been a humbling and frightening prospect all at once. 

The crazy thing about the campaign, though, was that it was all occurring at the same time that 38 Studios was collapsing, so a majority of that month was filled with conflicting emotions. The biggest high came when Kotaku posted an article about my personal illustration work, right in the middle of my Kickstarter campaign. That was pretty amazing. 

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

I don’t remember who told me this, but I think it was that when you are working on a piece, you should be able to stop working on it at any point along the way and be happy with it. In other words, if you are working on a piece, and it looks terrible, but you keep telling yourself “it will be good when it’s done”, then the piece is already a failure. It may be possible to have a flawed piece that can then be corrected and made better, but it is extremely difficult and laborious. Better to make sure your piece is always working, at every stage. 

Don’t start a piece with a half-realized sketch (I have made that mistake a lot), don’t frontload your time working on only one section of your piece (what if that beautifully-painted head is totally out of scale with the rest of the body?), and don’t wait until the last minute to make sure your lighting is consistent or your scale is uniform (again, many times I have found that one character’s lighting seems to be coming from the left, while the guy behind him seems to be lit from the right, etc.) 

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

These days its social media and crowdsourcing. A good friend of mine, Marc Holmes, made a great point that these days you basically just need to find 1000+ people who are willing to spend $100 a year on whatever it is you do, and you’ve got a career. While this may be over-simplifying it to prove a point, I think it is essentially on point, especially when considering the powerful effect Kickstarter and other crowdsourcing efforts have made on the world of personal projects. 

Artists can reach out and connect with people from all over the world now with Blogs, Twitter, Facebook, etc., and find exactly those people that are excited about whatever it is you do and may be willing to pay for more. I think the most successful artists are going to be the ones who are the most skilled at leveraging these tools to get the word out about their work. I’m fairly poor at it, but learning as I go. 

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

Probably the biggest challenges are the ones involving keeping yourself relevant, fresh and inspired. With all of the amazing talent from around the world that comes exploding onto the scene in a matter of days with sites like Cghub,, etc., it is so easy to feel like you are falling behind. But I think as long as you maintain a unique personal vision, as opposed to just getting really good at what someone else does, you can always make yourself stand out. 

The other big challenge is balancing life with creative pursuit. Most of us artists tend to be a tad obsessive and can lose basic social skills if left unattended. Having a good support group, whether that is friends or family or co-workers, is vitally important, I think, to staying balanced and sane. I try very hard not to get so wrapped up in what I do that I neglect other parts of my life, but that can get tricky especially when you have committed yourself to a major project like The Book of Wizards, and I have the choice between paying some bills, or working on another wizard…. It’s very tempting sometimes to put the bills off until later, but it is also very dangerous…. Haha. 

Set 3 – The Random Question Section 

If you were a Bond styled villain, do you think you’d blab your master plan when you should really spend the time doing away with the spy? Or do you think you would have just done away with that meddlesome spy? 

I would blab my plan. My students would tell you the same… I think they often think I like to blab too much, and I suppose to some of them (especially the ones I had to give low marks too), I must seem like a Bond Villian, albeit a lame one…. 

Do you have any party tricks you’d like to share? 

Sorry, no. 

Other than art or drawing, what hobbies do you have and frequently partake in? 

I don’t really have any “hobbies” in the traditional sense. I mean, drawing and painting and playing video games and working on my book takes up all of my non-familiy or sleep time, so it’s hard to squeeze in a hobby. I do enjoy travelling/day trips, and I also like spending time on Google Earth learning about this great big, amazing world we live in. Also I am a History buff, and I especially enjoy the American Revolution period, and the period just before that, the French and Indian War period. 

When you were younger, were there any foods your parents tried to get you to eat but you just would never eat and now that you are an adult, eat all the time? 

I have to say no because I was always an adventurous eater. I avoided pickles for a long time but love them now. 

And finally, in any language, what is your least favorite word? 

“Dichotomy.” I don’t know why but this word just rubs me the wrong way. I feel like it is a bit of a cop-out, overused word. I much prefer “contradiction”. 

You can see more of Sean's incredabliy rich and lushly detailed work here, at his Blog: and his website here:

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