I had contacted pinball artist Doug Watson earlier in the week to see if he would be interested in participating in an email interview about his time working in the pinball industry. Mr. Watson’s pinball artwork spans three decades and four distinct pinball manufacturers. Some of the games he worked on include 80s cult favourites like Devil’s Dare and Big Game, as well as some of the most popular titles of the DMD era like The Shadow, Terminator 2: Judgement Day and Attack From Mars. My personal favourite piece of his is the backglass from the 1981 Williams game Barracora. It is absolutely breathtaking–the eyes of the fish-woman seem to peer directly into your soul. Mr. Watson is currently an instructor at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco and has recently signed on with the upstart British pingame manufacturer Heighway Pinball. I received a response to my email from Mr. Watson yesterday afternoon, and in a strange bit of foreshadowing, a game on which he did the artwork showed up in my gameroom exactly twenty-four hours later:
Mr. Watson was extremely welcoming to an interview request, and went on to give me some rather nice feedback about this site. He also went on to comment on an article I wrote up a few days ago about Jersey Jack Pinball’s The Hobbit playfield artwork. In that article, I bemoan the cut-and-paste style of JJP’s release, and go on to generally lament the death of hand drawn playfield artwork. Turns out Mr. Watson agreed. So much so, his email briefly, but passionately, layed out his opinion on how times have changed along with the economics and aesthetics of pingame art. I was so taken by Mr. Watson’s email, that I found it a shame that I would be the only one to read it. I asked to post an excerpt on the site, and he graciously agreed:
I took a look at your Credit Dot site. Very well written in my opinion. I could not tell who the author of each essay was though. I assume you wrote a number of them but you don’t credit yourself. Who wrote the Hobbit playfield art essay? [Ed. note: It was me, I write them all] My opinion echoes the author’s. What he talks about is the absence of the imprint of an individual artist’s style. When you play a Gordon Morrison game, or a Greg Freres game, or a Kevin O’Connor game, or a John Youssi game, or one of mine you know it immediately. The artists from that era left an indelible imprint of their own unique artistic aesthetic on their games. In our modern era that has largely been lost.
The economics of pinball art are very different now. Game makers hire artists, often good ones, with no pingame experience whatsoever to do their art packages. No matter how gifted an illustrator may be, only long term ongoing close association with the development of the game fosters the wisdom and insight into how to make pin art, particularly playfield art, not just attractive and pleasing…but effective. In the 17 years I did it, I strove constantly to improve the effectiveness of my work. I experimented, I studied other artist’s work, I had failures and successes, and most of all I was a player. I knew what I wanted the artwork to do from a player’s standpoint and an operator’s standpoint, in addition to my designer’s standpoint and of course to a license holder’s standpoint.
The economics and technology of Photoshop-created art has played a huge role in 21st century pin art, combined with modern sophisticated process printing. Collaging together found images or those supplied by a license holder requires significantly less time and effort than the old days. Original art in an artist’s original style requires a great deal more effort. We old Bally and Williams artists used to pour our hearts and souls into our work. Greg, Pat, Tony and I did countless “all-nighters” to make printing deadlines. I remember we all would go two and three straight days without ever leaving the building to get a painting done. We would paint up until the last possible second until it had to be ripped off our desks and sent out for color separations. Then we would go home and crash in bed for a few days before coming back to work.
As an example, to get just the right look I wanted for the Martians in Attack from Mars I built an armature and sculpted a maquette about 9 inches tall, inventing it as I went. Then I set up lighting arrangements and posed it in different positions and took lots of photos. I recruited a lovely young lady from the front office to model and took her to a costume shop in Chicago to rent a Marilyn dress. Then I set up another photo session with her and eventually hand glued her into the arms of one of my Martians. The sculpting, the costuming, the lighting, the photography, and all the drawing that came afterward took weeks. Today an illustrator would simply go online, find a bunch of images and Photoshop them together. Might take them a couple days. And often these days the artist might not ever even play the whitewood of the game they are packaging. Ultimately the creative process and effort put into pinball art now is very different. It has a generic quality to it that struggles to satisfy the soul of anyone with a true passion for the genre.
Consider that teaser to the upcoming interview I will conduct with Mr. Watson sometime in the coming month, or when time permits. Until then, check out Pinball Magazine #2 for a brief interview with Mr. Watson about the saga of the Demolition Man backglass artwork–it is a good look into the artwork revision process and the troubles associated with working with a licence. As a side note, Mr, Watson also mentioned that he would “walk through fire to work with Brian Eddy again”. Fitting, as I, and many other pinball aficionados, would walk through fire just to PLAY one of Brian Eddy’s machines. Anyhow, I look forward to talking to Mr. Watson further–he has a flair for the written word that certainly matches his flair in pinball artistry.
Doug Watson Digital – Homepage
Academy of Art University – Homepage
Internet Pinball Database – Doug Watson Pinball History
Credit Dot Pinball – NEWS: JJP’s Hobbit Playfield (a lament for hand drawn artwork)