Atari I/O Interviews Art of Atari Author Tim Lapetino
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Author Tim Lapetino
By Rob Wanenchak |
With every new generation of video game consoles have come games that are more complex, polished, and photorealistic than those before. Modern games feature increasingly advanced graphics and carefully-crafted narratives, and gameplay is no longer necessarily complemented by active imagination in the same way or to the same degree as during video gaming’s earliest days, when graphics were primitive and game stories were elementary (if they existed at all). A game publisher’s marketing and design departments were often tasked to try to fill some of the imaginative gaps left by limitations of the early technology.
In this primordial era of video gaming, Atari relied on things like fantastic artistry, bright color schemes, and other stylistic intrigues to catch consumers’ eyes. It can be easy to forget that video game sales pre-date things like dedicated game review magazines, blogs, and YouTube reviews; making a sale in the earliest days often hinged on quick first impressions in a toy store aisle or a department store catalog. Of course, as the prevalence of digital game distribution grows and the desire for owning physical media wanes, consumers have seen the game publishing industry’s focus shift away from things like packaging and design aesthetics.
Nostalgia is a driving force behind many classic video game retrospectives, and the upcoming Art of Atari (Dynamite Entertainment) is no exception. Gamers who grew up with Atari will fondly remember the striking box, instruction manual, and label artwork as artifacts of a bygone time, when dressing up a game in proverbial fancy clothing wasn’t seen as an act of deception or otherwise underhanded. Instead, things like artwork and packaging design were generally viewed as enhancements to the gaming experience, inviting and inspiring game players to see something more in abstract game graphics.
Art of Atari promises to be much more than a simple compendium of artistic sentimentality, however. Tim Lapetino, graphic design director and author of Art of Atari, has gone to great lengths to chronicle memories and stories from the artists and designers themselves. Since Atari artists’ handiwork comes from a time when even game programmers weren’t given credit for their work (let alone artists), Art of Atari will be a long-deserved recognition of their important contributions to video gaming history and lore.
On behalf of Atari.IO, I spoke with the author earlier this year about his project-turned-book labor of love:
Atari.IO: In January 2014, you wrote that the Art of Atari project had already been underway for a few years. How was this idea first born? Did your initial idea evolve, or is the book more or less what you envisioned from the start?
Tim Lapetino: This project grew out of my love for the original Atari 2600 box artwork. Ever since I was a kid, the Atari 2600 artwork captivated me, and that continued on into my adult career as a graphic designer and creative director. I had always wondered who were the unsung creative folks behind the art and design I loved, and eventually started paying attention to clues and names floating around the Internet. In my own nerdy kind of digital Indiana Jones way, I began hunting for names and keeping a kind of spreadsheet of info I tracked down. I didn’t have a clear thought on what I’d do with that info, but I was capturing it nonetheless.
Then, in the space of one week in early 2012, I was able to buy a large cache of negatives, slides, and transparencies of Atari artwork from another collector, and also was serendipitously connected with Cliff Spohn, the artist chiefly responsible for defining the original 2600 illustration style. It was then I realized that maybe there was a book in all of this. As I began contacting and interviewing some of the Atari illustrators, I kept unearthing these great stories (and wonderful people) that I wanted to share with the world. And as I uncovered more artwork in high resolution formats – mostly 4×5 transparencies and slides, with some original art – I realized that a lot of this great work was soon going to be lost to time. Much of it has been destroyed, tossed out, or is in the hands of private collectors where few people will ever see it. I wanted to write and curate a book that would capture those stories and preserve the art in an accessible format for future generations. I wanted to give these creative people their due credit. I wanted to show that this “commercial art” created to sell game cartridges has transcended its original purpose to become iconic, fantastic art that stands on its own.
It was an exhaustive (and exhausting!) process, but also really fun and energizing. There was a lot of unsexy work involved at times, from tracking down people to cold calling names out of the phone book, to removing dust and scratches from old negatives – but it was all worth it, and I think it shows in the final product.
– Did you run into any difficulties tracking down Atari’s artists and designers, or has the internet made that kind of task straightforward?
TL: Yes, this was always a challenge, even right up to the very end. Atari wasn’t big on crediting artists and designers for a variety of reasons, so I had my work cut out for me. Some signatures were easily readable even on the small box reproductions of the art, and I started there. The Internet was a big help, but it was still a significant amount of detective work. When I finally started connecting to Atari artists, they would point me to other people, and I continued to grow a network of former Atari employees who graciously helped my search. And some artwork still was difficult to identify, even by those folks! After all, we’re talking about decades ago! A couple of great art collectors were also a huge help to me, since they had original pieces that sometimes had more info attached to them. Some of it was just old school pounding the pavement. In trying to contact one of Atari’s industrial designers, I must have called 15 people with his name in California, hoping to land on the right one. I eventually did!
– Were all the artists and designers you spoke with eager to discuss their contributions to Atari?
TL: I’m glad to say that nearly everyone who I contacted was interested in talking about their time at Atari. All of them were as helpful as they could be, with more than 30 years passing since their time. Almost everyone was surprised at my interest and the prospect of a book, but they were more than willing to share some great stories that were never heard outside of the halls of Atari. In all, I think it has been satisfying for many of them to see that the work they did – whether it was art, graphic design, or industrial design – living on through dedicated fans and renewed interest. I hope this book helps cement their place in design history.
– Does Art of Atari discuss Atari’s decision to use detailed, fine-art painting-style artwork instead of more abstract but game-representative artwork like Activision used on their game boxes?
TL: I don’t talk about that explicitly in the book, but I can say that Atari’s approach really was a product of its time. In the late 70s and early 80s, illustration was still widely used in advertising, design, and commercially. Photography was just starting to supplant hand-rendered illustration, but it was sort of natural that the folks at Atari would draw from existing, parallel industries to drawn inspiration for their package design and art. There were no video game standards, so they borrowed from paperback novel covers, LP album art, and movie posters – and expanded upon it. Cliff Spohn’s art really served as a working template of how to approach the art, and they grew from there.
– How did Atari discover and hire their artists? Were any brought on staff, or was all the artwork commissioned by Atari game-by-game?
TL: Early on, Cliff Spohn and people like Susan Jaekel and Rick Guidice were all freelance artists, and their work set the stage for others to join. But as Atari exploded and the need for greater volume increased along with the amount of games, they found it more affordable to bring in some full-time staff artists like Hiro Kimura, Terry Hoff, Warren Chang, and others. A lot of other illustrators contributed work – like Ralph McQuarrie of Star Wars fame! It eventually became a mix of full-time artists and contract illustrators, until the market crash in 1983.
– Given that some artwork was shared between Atari and Sears for their respectively branded games and products, does the book go into any detail about the licensing/branding agreement made between the two?
TL: I would have liked to dig more into the Sears connection and how that particular relationship functioned on a creative level, but two things kept us from doing so: 1) There really weren’t many people left I could find who had those insights and 2) Sears artwork really was more of a footnote in the larger story of Atari art and design, and even with 352 pages, we had to make some choices to focus our efforts.
– Does Art of Atari discuss how Atari handled procuring artwork for games based on various movie and other intellectual properties (as a few examples: Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., Gremlins, the Sesame Street titles)?
TL: Absolutely. Those pieces are some of my favorite in the book. Licensing practices and the handling of artwork have changed dramatically since Atari’s heyday. In 2016, if you license a character for your game, pajamas, or whatever you will get access to master key art pieces from the licensor, and that’s all you’d be allowed to use. It keeps things consistent, allowing the brand to be represented uniformly, building on existing brand awareness. But at that time, Atari had incredible latitude to create totally original art based on the properties they licensed, so you will see unique versions of Pac-Man, Space Invaders, Indiana Jones, Gremlins and others done by Atari artists – art that would not appear anywhere else. And in some cases, the versions of these characters are wonderfully different than what you’d see previously. I’m thinking of one specific Pac-Man piece that I think people will be blown away by. We have a version of Pac-Man for the 2600 cover that has never been shown in public anywhere! It’s a treat to see and a personal favorite of mine.
– Were artists given specific instructions for what their finished product should look like? Or would they be given a blank slate and allowed to create based on their own interpretations of game concepts and gameplay? Were they ever (literally) sent back to the drawing board?
TL: It really depended on the game and the time period, but in general, Atari was a very creatively open place. They gave game designers and artists quite a lot of latitude to be creative and help drive concepts forward. Sometimes artists would just be given the verbal description of a game, and had to work from that. We have a lot of anecdotes throughout the book about artists’ specific inspiration and creative thought processes, which I’m very proud of.
– Will readers get to see any rejected artwork, first-draft sketches, or other unpublished art?
TL: While a lot of that stuff has been lost to time, I was able to include quite a few pieces of unpublished art, some sketch concepts, and some pieces that were changed for whatever reason. This is just part of the creative process, and I think that’s a fascinating and illuminating part of understanding what went on behind the scenes at Atari.
“I can say that Atari’s approach really was a product of its time. In the late 70s and early 80s, illustration was still widely used in advertising, design, and commercially. Photography was just starting to supplant hand-rendered illustration, but it was sort of natural that the folks at Atari would draw from existing, parallel industries to drawn inspiration for their package design and art. There were no video game standards, so they borrowed from paperback novel covers, LP album art, and movie posters – and expanded upon it. Cliff Spohn’s art really served as a working template of how to approach the art, and they grew from there.”
– Tim Lapetino, “Art of Atari”
– The aesthetic of Atari’s game boxes and labels changed many times over the years, and the artwork that went along with them became decidedly more arcade-like when Atari Corporation took the reins. Can we look forward to Art of Atari also discussing more sweeping graphic design changes like these?
TL: We dig into the graphic design part of Atari somewhat, with specific sections on design and peppered throughout. But things were moving so quickly and changing daily at Atari, that I have heard many different stories about what drove design changes. Sometimes it was practical – like the move to silver packaging. It was an attempt to update the packaging while simultaneously extending the product line to include multiple consoles, and the need to differentiate those. So we do have insights into the design, including some design concepts that didn’t go anywhere. Atari designer Evelyn Seto was instrumental in helping me understand some of those changes, and showing me much of the work the design teams were doing. She did a lot of it as well.
– Observant game collectors often notice the smallest of details and differences in designs and artwork across Atari’s products. Will Art of Atari help to explain any of the more unusual design quirks and oddities?
TL: As a collector myself, I’d love to get answers to some of those questions, but honestly a lot of those questions on why things were changed or altered on the run are just not there. The other factor is that I tried to strike a balance with this book of satisfying the most serious Atari fans while still being very accessible to the people who haven’t picked up a joystick since they were kids. And in service to that, some of the deepest nitty-gritty issues were not included. But I am sure there will be more than enough deep details to satisfy the Atari-obsessed like myself.
– What’s in your own Atari collection?
TL: I have a solid collection of boxed games, though it’s not totally complete. I have a love for oddball 2600 controllers and peripherals, so I’m drawn to things like the Track & Field controller, the Amiga Joyboard, the Quickjoy Foot Pedal, and those goofy Milton Bradley “arcade style” controllers like the Cosmic Commander. A lot of that is beyond the scope of the book, but those oddities are some of the things that I appreciate about the 2600 itself. Some of that interest shows up in the big section on prototypes I put together for the book.
– What are some of your favorite pieces of Atari artwork, and are there any in particular that you feel are especially underappreciated?
TL: For me, there are far too many to name, but the desert island short list would have to include Super Breakout, Surround, and Codebreaker. They are all Cliff Spohn pieces, and they all showcase his amazing design sense in addition to incredible illustration style. In Super Breakout, the image of the rainbow colored Breakout wall reflected in the curved visor of the astronaut is an image that has captivated me since I was five. Codebreaker just captures this moody, gloomy espionage ethos, and the montage design of all the different visual pieces is a kind of genius. I also adore Hiro Kimura’s original take on Pac-Man for the 2600. It manages to be original and still iconic all at the same time.
Also, on a different note, one of my favorite parts of the book is the section on industrial design. It might not be as sexy as the illustration work, but I was so thrilled to hear about the creative process of these designers – how they approached the work, how they considered surfaces and materials, and where their inspiration came from — that it ended up being a very significant part of the book. Also, I was really excited to learn the origins of things like the 2600 console design itself, the iconic one-button joystick, and things like that. Unearthing prototype and mockup photos of these was one of the highlights of the project for me!
I also am in love with the Atari 2700 console – the wireless controller one. That is a thing of beauty, and we were fortunate enough to get great photos of a production unit from a friend on the east coast. But I’m jealous that he owns it – I really want to hold one in my hands some day!
– Are there any big surprises in store in The Art of Atari for the hardcore Atari enthusiast? Artwork for unreleased or prototype games that haven’t ever been heard of before, for example? Perhaps some additional Swordquest: Airworld artwork, or something along those lines?
TL: Ha! I wish I could share those things, but I think I’m going to just have to tell you to wait for the book in your hands. That reveal will hopefully be more satisfying than anything I could say at the moment. But I think hardcore Atari fans will be jazzed to see some of the things we’ve managed to uncover.
– Was there anything that you’d really hoped to include in the book but couldn’t, for some reason (licensing, etc)? Or were there any questions you’d hoped to get answered but didn’t?
TL: Not really. We really were able to include as much as we could, given the timeframe we were working with. Dynamite, my publisher, was amazing in that they gave us 352 pages to work with. That’s a huge canvas to tell this story – and while we don’t cover everything that Atari ever did, I think the best work is totally represented in Art of Atari. There is less work that focuses on later consoles like the 7800, Jaguar, XE, etc, but I think that’s a function of the overall quality of the time. My curation within the book was driven by representing the best work, and also by what we were able to acquire. In the end, that left tons of amazing work to grace those pages. I think any Atari fans will feel the same way.
Art of Atari (hardcover, 352 pages) is due for release on October 25. Also available will be a Deluxe Edition of the book, which will include a unique leather-bound “Game Cartridge” cover and slipcase, a Steam key for Atari Vault, and a frameable Limited Edition Print featuring new artwork by original Atari artist Cliff Spohn. Additional book details are available at artofatari.com and dynamite.com.
Rob Wanenchak is an Atari player, collector, researcher, and occasional armchair historian. You can find him on the Atari I/O Forums under the name Ballblaɀer, often documenting his growing game collection with photos and fun facts. You can also follow him on Twitter and over on Flickr.