Ex-Pixar artist on designing art for games and film

Ex-Pixar artist on designing art for games and film

Former Pixar art director Mark Holmes discussed the key processes and differences when designing art for films and games during the opening session at the Games First Helsinki 2017 conference.

Holmes worked for a number of years at Pixar, his credits including films such as Toy Story, Wall-E and The Incredibles. He also has experience in games too, having co-founded CounterSpy developer Dynamighty.

Holmes said one of the key differences between the two mediums, and two companies, was that with Pixar, he was designing for narrative. This meant helping to create emotions, make people think a certain way or question what is going on.

One way Pixar is able to do this is through colours and shapes. For example, in The Incredibles, duller colours were used during scenes where the main character Mr. Incredible's life wasn’t being fulfilled.

During scenes set in an office where the main hero has a normal job, rigid squares were also used to shape the environment – right down to square paper clips.

The more exciting moments in the film however – and when the main character was achieving his goals – the colours were often bright.

Countering with games

For games however, he said CounterSpy, for example, was very much about running around and shooting people in the head and blowing things up. Here then, he couldn’t use a lot of the techniques made famous at Pixar.

Holmes’ task then was to create a compelling framework and a fantasy that players could lose themselves in.

The style for CounterSpy was inspired by the cold war era and spy novels of the time, including James Bond and numerous other sources, as well as absorbing the architecture of the era.

“I didn’t come to this and realise this is the style of the game,” said Holmes, explaining that the art design was a combination of tastes, context and constraint.

One of those constraints was developing the game for low-end devices. After getting investment from Sony to develop the game for PS3, PS4 and Vita, the team was also still developing the game for mobile.

The art then had to be very clear and have clarity. Combined with a small team that grew to around 15 overall, the studio couldn’t afford to do art that would be hard to make – so the style came about in a way that satisfied all of these things.

The studio also lacked the budget for exposition, cinematics and voiceover work, so Holmes had to make sure the world told a story through its art and design.

One of the ways Holmes and the art team made their way to the final art style for the game was the creation of mock teaser posters.

This experimentation with art styles and thinking outside of the box led to a certain kind of aesthetic using red and black colours, creating an analogue feel that felt as though it came from the 1960s. This then informed the game’s menus and hud, and eventually, the environments.

"As someone who has learned that visual design is not just about creating a pretty image, it’s about creating hopefully an experience, creating a world, conveying character telling a story," said Holmes.

"I was really tickled by the idea of making this larger than a game and creating a fantasy, almost like a metafiction around it."

He added: "Your game experience deosn’t end with the game because we’ve planted the seeds of this larger world that you want to maybe continue in another form."

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Craig Chapple is a freelance analyst, consultant and writer with specialist knowledge of the games industry. He has previously served as Senior Editor at, as well as holding roles at Sensor Tower, Nintendo and Develop.