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Wilco's Domain Interviews Michael Hutchinson
Space Quest 6 Animation Director

This interview originally appeared at the now-defunct Wilco's Domain and appears here courtesy of the Domain's former webmaster and Freelance Space Quest Historian, Troels Pleimert. The original interview was conducted in 1997.

Wilco's Domain: How long have you been with Sierra, and how did you get involved with them? What was your first project?

       Michael Hutchinson: I've worked for Sierra for just about six years. I heard about the company from a cousin of mine who had recently been hired on, and he encouraged me to I did! My initial application didn't prove to be enough, but after a second try, I was extended an offer for an entry-level position. At the time, I was living just outside of Boston, Massachusetts, so I loaded up my car with all it could carry (the important stuff -- you know, art supplies, stereo, some clothes thrown in for good measure), and drove out to California. When I arrived, I found that my cousin had moved to L.A., and I didn't know a soul in Oakhurst. Oh well, I figured, I'm here.

       The first thing I worked on when I got here were the black and white Macintosh conversions of King's Quest 5 and Space Quest 4, and some bit animation work for Larry 5. Since I was hired in at an entry-level, most of the work I did involved clean up and conversions, but somewhere along the way I had the chance to do some animation, and I started to make a name for myself doing that. My first "real" project, the one where I started to make a more significant contribution, was "EcoQuest: The Search for Cetus". Since then I have worked on King's Quest 6, Gabriel Knight 1, Space Quest 6, Lighthouse, and now, something new!

WD: What were you doing before joining Sierra?

       MH: I was working in the warehouse of a sporting goods store; I was also trying my luck at freelance illustration, but the work was only trickling in. By the time I heard about Sierra, I was really anxious to have a steady job in the art field, and was more than willing to relocate for it.

WD: Do you have any particular »idol« in the graphic business?

       MH: No one individual, but, rather, teams of people who create the incredible. Ever since I was a kid and first saw Star Wars, it has been the people at Industrial Light and Magic whom I have most consistently looked up to. I also admire Nick Park for his great clay animated films, and John Lasseter and the artists at Pixar. ILM seems to always take the cake, though, for their film special effects, from Star Wars to Jurassic Park to Dragonheart to Twister, the list goes on...

WD: Do you think it's more fun and/or better to stress the technology and create exciting effects rather than concentrating on stuff like fluid animation?

       MH: Special Effects are always one of the most fun things to do, but there are two important issues: 1. the most important thing is that the effect MUST be visually integrated with the game as a whole; special effects for their own sake alone stand out. The trick is to make everything work together and feel like they belong together. 2. since we're working in the computer business and not the film industry, we need to be more aware of and more careful about what we try to accomplish. By that I mean that we are dependent on evolving technology (and more relevantly, processor and video speeds) to be able to display what we would like to on screen. We are constantly having to limit our "vision" because the average computer can't handle pushing around that much information at a time... movies are where this becomes most apparent -- we have to simplify the camera movements, or compress the movie down so far that the visual quality suffers. Computers are getting so much faster, though, that hopefully this issue will go away soon. Movies look so great, in part, because the end platform is a reel of film: there are no memory-storage issues involved at all.

       In respect to technology vs. art quality, I think the two are intertwined. I believe that technology ENABLES the bar to be raised on the fluidity of animation and the overall quality of the art. The more colors we can display, the better the game will look. The faster the frame rate we are able to achieve, the nicer the animation will be. The better our compression routines get, the more color and movement information we can display in our movies. But the most important thing is to do your best with the tools you have. The quality of the art always takes the front seat, but you need to work with your technological limitations, or it could end up looking worse. For instance, the shot of Roger's shuttle escaping the DeepShip 86 was originally created with a sequence of full-frame panning camera movements, but it was impossible to get it to play on screen without it looking bad, so we changed it to a series of camera cuts instead, and were able to make it look better. Things are always going to get better, though; only a couple of yeras ago, we wouldn't have been able to get results anywhere close to what we can get today.

       And (in the words of Josh Mandel) that's the short answer.

WD: How did you get assigned to Space Quest 6?

       MH: SQ6 was ready for development right after Gabriel Knight 1 shipped, and most of the GK1 team moved right onto SQ6. I had developed a really good working relationship with John Shroades, with whom I worked on Eco1, KQ6, GK1 and SQ6 (until he went on to work on the background art for GK2). It was a real team effort, with John working on background design and art, and myself handling the animation design. We worked together to create the overall effect. Josh had requested virtually the entire GK1 team, and that is largely how it worked out.

WD: In the GK AVI-file [the Gabriel Knight CD came with an AVI-file entitled "The Making of Gabriel Knight", -ed], you said that starting work on a completely new series was a great thing because you weren't locked in a particular style. How was it like to join up on the SQ6 team, which was a sequel-to-a-sequel-to-a-sequel-etc.? And did you base the art design on another SQ-game, or something totally different?

       MH: Every game series has its particular "feel", and while working on another "installment", we never want to stray too far from that feel. I worked on KQ6, which had an obvious stylistic precedent, (and one that worked well for the KQ games at the time), so I wasn't a stranger to the sequel-to-a-sequel idea. GK felt really fresh because we were all actively involved with the creation of something new. We could design Gabriel from scratch, both in look and attitude. Moving to SQ6 was a nice change from the darkvoodoomagicscarygothicdeath feel of Gabriel Knight (we can't dress in all black forever!), and it was also done right as Sierra was making the technological advance from a 320x200 to a 640x480 resolution in our adventure games. This was a real breath of fresh air, because all of our art could be so much more detailed! (Gee, imagine being able to use 4 times as many pixels to create the backgrounds and animation! It seems like so long ago, but it really wasn't.)

       This move to hi res seemed particularily well suited for an animated game, with a "clean" look (no pun intended), so that's the path we took. The backgrounds were created entirely on the computer, where the artists had ultimate control over how the backgrounds appeared on the screen. This wasn't always possible when the backgrounds were hand painted and scanned in -- there was always that level of removal from the final way it appeared in the game. Likewise, the animation was made with an eye for integrating well with the backgrounds, and we included a fair amount of 3D rendered elements, which were fun to try to integrate with the unique look of our backgrounds.

       I guess we looked to SQ4 more than any other, but ultimately we created SQ6 the way we felt was appropriate for SQ6 -- we tried to give Roger's goofiness back to him, which is much easier to pull off in an animated style, in my opinion. Awful, terrible things happen to Roger that we can really play up when he is animated!

WD: What was the hardest thing about designing art for a game like SQ6?

       MH: Probably the organizational stuff: just keeping track of the sheer amount of animation that needs to be produced, and making sure we have enough time to include everything we planned on. Most often, we all try to get just one more movie done, or add just that one more piece of animation, or sound effect, or music, etc., and we end up working like crazy to get it all in before shipping. The hardest part is drawing the line.

WD: What tools do the graphic artists at Sierra use?

       MH: The 3D tools we use here in Development include 3D Studio Max by Kinetix, Lightwave, Softimage, and Alias. On the 2D tools side, we use Adobe Photoshop, Fractal Design Painter, Autodesk Animator Pro and Animator Studio, and some Sierra proprietary tools to address our specific game needs. But we'll use whatever we can to help us get the results we need.

WD: If you should choose a place in the SQ-series that you'd like to visit the most, what place would that be?

       MH: Corpsman Santiago's........ uhh, nevermind. I think Orion's Belt would be a pretty interesting place to hang out.

WD: What's your personal view on the whole SQ7-business? Do you think Sierra should produce a new one, and if so, would you try to be a part of it?

       MH: I think Space Quest 7 should be made, and if I were asked to be involved, I would probably accept. Space Quest is Roger Wilco's sotry, and, as such, doesn't seem to me like it could be made into a multiplayer environment. (Can't you just hear it? "I wanna be Roger tonight! No! ME! You were Roger last night!") BUT, I think that it could do very well in a 3D adventure environment, where you could see everything, even the characters, in the round. King's Quest 8 and Quest for Glory 5 are doing some encouraging work in this direction.

WD: What are you currently working on? And what do you hope to be working on in the future?

       MH: I'm art directing the new SWAT game, which will be very much unlike the previous one. We're going for a more strategy oriented, player controlled approach, and not so much towards the tactical simulation of SWAT1. SWAT2 will emphasize the head-to-head clash between good guys and bad guys, where the player can play either side, and play out his strategy for victory! It belongs in the "action strategy" genre, and it will be multiplayer capable, so you can team up with "SWAT officers" or "terrorists" from all over the world.

Comments, questions, suggestions...

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