Greg Freres’ career in pinball has spanned many companies and job titles, and has seen many ebbs and flows in the popularity of the game. Yet throughout, he has been able to solidify his place within the very top echelon of pinball’s artistic operatives by adopting a widely varying artistic style while at the same time providing underlying base elements that tie the package together within Mr. Freres’ wider oeuvre of work. Mr. Freres currently works on the artistic team at Stern Pinball and is co-founder of Whizbang Pinball (with his perpetual collaborator, pinball designer Dennis Nordman), with the company’s first title, Whoa Nellie! Big Juicy Melons, recently being tapped by Stern for production and worldwide distribution. On top of these commitments, Mr. Freres has recently released a line of 12’x12′ high quality art prints through retailer Pinball Life, which highlight his early work on four non-licenced Bally pinball backglasses. Each piece sells for $79.95USD, comes pre-framed, is signed by the artist and arrives with a note from Mr. Freres himself about the subject matter. There is definitely a lack of high-quality pinball-related wall accoutrement to display in your gameroom these days, and I think Mr. Freres’ prints fill this void nicely. I was fortunate enough to have Mr. Freres agree to an interview, and I limited my questions, for the most part, to the line of art prints and the games they feature. (A wider account of Mr. Freres’ oeuvre can be found in Pinball Magazine #2’s feature length interview with Mr. Nordman and Mr. Freres.)
Credit Dot: To begin, why did you choose to commemorate these four particular titles in your series of collectable prints?
Greg Freres: I chose Hotdoggin’, Fathom, Strange Science, and Black Pyramid because all of these pieces are unlicensed titles. I have an agreement with WMS that allows me to reproduce art prints from the unlicensed art from my past. I also chose them because they represent a group of games from earlier in my career at Bally. I now realize that the games from the early eighties are very collectable.
CD: Are the prints limited in number?
GF: No, these prints are not limited.
CD: Is the art depicted in the prints culled from the original backglass paintings? Do you own the originals?
GF: Yes – the art is scanned at a high resolution from my original paintings.
CD: How did the partnership with Pinball Life come about?
GF: I met Terry [DeZwarte, proprietor of Pinball Life] while Dennis Nordman and I were working on Whoa Nellie! Big Juicy Melons. Terry came out to Dennis’ shop to see what we were working on. He started selling ancillary products for Whizbang Pinball including WNBJM t-shirts, backglasses, and other branded merchandise. Once I started the art prints, it seemed a natural fit to work with Terry again.
CD: How have sales been so far?
GF: Sales are good. I know the album cover size prints are small but I thought that was a great idea for places where a pinball enthusiast might want to see some backglass art without taking up to much wall space. I’ve talked to buyers who end up taking them to work to hang in their office.
CD: The prints are a product of a high quality “giclee” reproduction of the original work. Can you speak a bit about the term for those not familiar with the giclee process?
GF: Giclee art prints have become the standard for many fine artists. All fine art is scanned at high resolution from the originals and then printed on acid-free museum grade paper (various paper weights and finishes are available from the vendor.) It’s basically a digital process that creates the closest color reproduction to the original art. It’s a great process for the artist because you don’t need to commit to a “run” of lithographic produced pieces. You can run small numbers and not be affected by the pricing constraints of a run in the hundreds.
CD: Now that many of the best places to play pinball are in private gamerooms across the country, there seems to be an insatiable desire for pinball-related gameroom décor. Was the decision to release these prints a response to that particular “need”?
GF: My wife has been planting this seed for a number of years after she witnessed the response from enthusiasts at various pinball collector shows around the world to my work. I always felt that most pinball people want to spend their money on pinball parts, after-market bling, and anything that will help keep their “investment” running and looking great. A piece of art to hang on the wall seemed like an expense that most collectors would not be interested in. I hope that the more I can get the word out, and actually get my website built and monetized, that I’ll be able to reach more people with the art that has been mostly seen in bars, arcades, bowling alleys, and basements.
CD: The four prints serve as a good cross section of your work at Bally, and portray how you were called upon to create an art package in varying styles: from the morose, horror-like mood created by Fathom to the more lighthearted and flashy flair of Hotdoggin’. How are you able to reconcile these wild shifts in style from game to game?
GF: My best and most honest answer to that is – I guess I’m still searching for my “style”. When I started working at Bally as a full-time illustrator for their art team, I was a kid: 23 years old with only 2 years of experience as an apprentice designer at a point-of-purchase advertising company. I have always been influenced by a wide variety of artists and illustrators. I guess I can be a chameleon when it comes to the subject matter I work on. I love the satire that Mad Magazine brought to my youth, I watched every monster movie that they showed on Creature Features, I built every Big Daddy Roth “Weirdo” model kit, and I played drums. So my interests have always been all over the map – I guess that helps tackle the variety of subjects.
CD: Speaking of Fathom, suggested titles for the game were Barracuda and Deep Threat, the latter being your suggestion (rejected by Bally I’m assuming because of connotations to the Linda Lovelace film Deep Throat?). How integrated in the creation process were you in the early days at Bally? Could an artist influence game design or other important elements such as game title?
GF: We always had a lot of creative freedom in the pinball business early on–actually for many years of my career. Game design was so much simpler when I started. Norm Clark would have a line-up of whitewoods in the test room and at some point he would tell marketing and sales which one was ready for production. Once it went to the art department the artists sometimes could make suggestions for themes, even adding lights to the playfield to spell a specific word. Bally was just bringing licenses to the table back then but for non-licensed games the art department could get really involved in theme selection and direction.
CD: How did you come about creating the female characters for Fathom? They seem to carry elements of fish, snake, mermaid and human.
GF: I’ve never been asked that – I guess they are mermaids with incredibly long tails. How else could they take down their prey? Paul Faris art directed me on this project in a big way – he kept pushing me to do better and better with a theme that was not easy to envision. I hope to someday do a prequel graphic novel that leads up to the moment on the backglass and playfield.
CD: There is a strong sense of helplessness in the Fathom backglass art, and I think that comes from the detail that the drowning man doesn’t look particularly panicked–as if he’s resigned himself to the fact that he’s going to die at the hands of the two sirens. I often feel helpless myself when playing Fathom, because the game is deadly hard. Is this just a coincidence?
GF: It must be coincidence because we didn’t play it much before starting the theme and art. Fathom has garnered the most interest of any project I’ve been associated with and I believe it is because of the intensity required to do well. It’s a great playfield and can be pretty mean. The guy’s knife is floating downward; maybe the clue you caught in his resignation.
CD: The notion of the helpless male figure depicted in that Fathom backglass is a bit of a departure from the hyper-masculinized male figures normally depicted in pinball from this era. Even examining your prior work for Bally, we see the larger-than-life shirtless image of Mick Jagger on the Rolling Stones and the uber-masculine bearded outdoorsman of Frontier (who is the furthest thing from helpless–he battles a bear with his bare hands). Was this a consideration to add to the overall mood of the game?
GF: Not a conscious decision – we were experimenting with so many ideas and directions with the non-licensed themes. Heavy Metal Magazine was a major influence on all of us at that time and we followed that vibe of each story (and in our case each game) having a completely different visual direction and thematic choice.
CD: Is there a name for the particular bubble/balloon style of art used on Hotdoggin’?
GF: I had just seen the Art of Playboy exhibition in Chicago that year and some of my favorite illustrators of the day were in that show. Plus one of my favorite board games as a kid was Candyland. When I saw Doug Johnson’s work at that show I felt his bright color schemes and tubular architecture felt right for this ski theme.
CD: There seems to be a lot of actual hot dog imagery in the Hotdoggin’ art in both shape and colour. Am I just seeing things?
GF: Well, I guess Chicago is known for its Hot Dogs! Influence can come in many forms.
CD: Black Pyramid is some of the first pinball art you created under the Bally-Midway banner. Was there any change in direction for the company after the merge, or was it business as usual?
GF: Pinball had waned a great deal at this point since video games took the front seat at Midway. I was doing more managerial work at this point so it was good to be back on the board. I wanted to attempt a color scheme more like the Hildebrandt brothers- cool shadows playing against ultra-warm and bright highlight areas. I like to joke that the state of the business for pinball was in such dire straits that the skeletal warriors represent the cost-cutting and blood-letting that was happening via layoffs and cost reduced games.
CD: While not as blatant as some of the Gottlieb games from the same era (Hollywood Heat and Deadly Weapon for example), Black Pyramid appears to harness the success of the Indiana Jones films without having an Indiana Jones licence. Is it an art form in itself trying to hit all the genre elements without infringing on official copyrights?
GF: I’m not sure it’s an art form but it was definitely fun to try and touch the essence of the theme without infringing.
CD: By the time Strange Science hit arcades, the displays had moved to the bottom of the backglass. Did this make life easier for the artist, not having to design around score displays within the art piece itself?
GF: Absolutely! No doubt! Those 5 displays broke any continuity in an otherwise great layout because when you walked in a gameroom all you saw was a portion of the art because we used an opaque layer to make sure heavy shadows from the displays wouldn’t cut off any cool visual.
CD: Strange Science has an overt comic book style with the backglass being the cover of the “comic” and the playfield being the inner pages, complete with boxed text. We saw a comic influence before in the Fathom flyer, and we’d see it again, in spades, with Dr. Dude and his Excellent Ray. How did your fascination with the comic style begin?
GF: This was me trying to be the Mad Magazine guy in pinball. I always loved their parodies on current movies and TV shows so I wanted to try and capture that spirit in my work.
CD: The Strange Science era games were released in generic “Bally/Midway” cabinets devoid of game specific art. Was this a cost-cutting measure? Did this help or hinder the overall artistic presentation of the game?
GF: Cost cutting all the way. Pinball was hanging on for dear life at that point so the product suffered accordingly. To stay competitive someone thought the cabinet art should be the first to go since most games get lined up in rows. It did, however, allow the artist more time to focus on the backglass and playfield.
CD: With some lesser enjoyed games like Strange Science and Black Pyramid, is it satisfying to hear players and collectors attest that your art packages were often times much more memorable than the gameplay of the games they graced?
GF: Yes – quite a bit of my art has been on games that didn’t sell as well as the bigger games. Of course I would have liked to have been on the more successful games (in terms of sales and game play) but I’m fine with being the underdog of the group. Maybe as I got closer to game design in my career I was still influenced by that underground mindset.
CD: The four prints represent some of your earliest work in pinball, and you are coming up on forty years in the industry. Besides the actual process of creating the art, how has the job changed for the artist from your time with Bally to your work today with Stern?
GF: The easiest difference to point out is the computer. When I started in the business it was all hand-drawn – a term that collectors have been clamoring for the return to since computer graphics have made everything so much more efficient, and somewhat generic. We did both line art and spot colors for playfields; inked line art and the colors all hand-cut from rubylith (a unique graphic arts film that could be cut into and peeled away to create a masking effect, then contact exposed onto litho film to create the film positives needed for silk-screen printing.) Our backglasses were paintings that got reproduced on glass via silk-screen, and then later we switched to translite technology (plastic instead of glass) for better resolution and consistency, and to save money as well.
Even though we were traditional artists we needed to make the transition to digital art to continue to work. Once Stern started with a heavy percentage of licensed themes, it made sense to provide a more photo-composed package for easier approvals and efficiency in the production side of the art. Now that Stern is offering a tiered product structure with the Pro, Premium and Limited versions of each game, it’s tough for one artist to complete an entire games worth of art. Since starting at Stern two years we’ve been tag-teaming the design of the art packages while trying to keep a consistent look throughout all three tiers.
My goal as AD at Stern is to eventually return to some degree of a hand-drawn look to the games we produce. Pinball has a rich history of great art and I want to make sure we can recapture that spirit in future games.
CD: Citing a few specific examples from the series of four prints, can you give us some insight as to your artistic process when designing a backglass?
GF: With any illustration, the process begins with research, especially for games that are non-licensed. Before even thinking about the structure of the layout you have to familiarize yourself with the subject. So for Fathom, I borrowed a stack of scuba magazines from a college friend. With Hotdoggin’, ski magazines showed up from another friend upon request. Keep in mind this was way before computers and Google. So most research was done at book stores, libraries, comic book shops, and of course, my own photography once the rough layout was established and I started to refine character poses.
All of this research leads to idea generation. Certain pictures or other art can act as a spark for further ideas of your own, and then like any other design, build upon those ideas and see what might work, and learn what definitely doesn’t work. Small thumbnail sketches are key to getting ideas down quickly without wasting too much time.
Those thumbnails often, at least for me, are so doodley, that only I can see or understand what I’ve drawn. Sometimes, I leave written notes on sketches because the scrawling can be so frenetic and scribbley, that later when I go back to the sketch only the words can explain what is there.
Once I have a feel for what could be a good composition, I can then begin to spend some real time on getting the pieces in place, including character poses background and foreground elements, and other details to help complete the story or add to the theme.
For Fathom, there was a lot of time spent on creating the “dance” of the three characters. My art director Paul Faris was instrumental in helping achieve this composition and keeping the illuminated art focused in the center without having bad shadows from the display panel areas negatively affecting the overall visual quality.
On Strange Science my goal was to get away from the overtly detailed backglass style that I had learned from my mentors, and I wanted to try something different that had a more “in your face” attitude that could be viewed from a distance (across the arcade or bar) to help grab the first quarter, then the rest of the story could be told on the playfield.
On Hotdoggin’, it was more about the design feel and less about the characters. That was a mistake that I realized after I had invested too much time in all of the hotdoggy architecture, when I should have been focused on making the female lead character a better focal point. I still like the final outcome for the pure colorful and playful vibe that it evokes.
Once the preliminary skeleton is built, a tight pencil is created, then transferred to illustration board. I usually do a color sketch, either very rough, or very tight, depending on my confidence going into the final painting. I prefer to work out all of the color issues in the color sketch phase so once I start committing to paint, I have less to figure out since painting can be stressful as printing deadlines approach. The painting phase may be the only time I can enjoy listening to music since most all the problems are figured out and it’s all about doing the best I can with a brush or an airbrush.
The final detail phase is critical to pushing the piece to the best it can be. This is where I review the entire piece and sweat the small stuff. Small highlights on edges can create the illusion of reality and correct lighting. And adding glows or reflective edge or fill lighting can help create the drama needed to pop characters off the background.
Many things have changed since then but just like any kind of structure, be it a building, or a vehicle, or a sculpture, it’s all about the internal structure, or the skeleton. In illustration, the accuracy of the final drawing before adding the “flesh” (or paint) onto that skeletal structure is key: no amount of color or flair can help a bad layout.
CD: In recent years, a dichotomy has appeared: pitting pinball as low culture amusement against pinball as high culture pop art. Does having your commercial art being reproduced as a museum quality print also serve to bring your commercial art into a new artistic light?
GF: I have always hoped that pinball art, in all of its lowbrow glory, could someday get recognized by a larger community of art collectors or aficionados. Our small fraternity of artists that have had the pleasure of making a living from the silverball have not only enjoyed the creative freedom and storytelling that pinball has allowed, but it has become our passion to create a unique artform that can provide entertainment as well.
CD: Are there any other titles you worked on that will be available in this art print series in the future?
GF: At some point in the near future I hope to introduce Frontier, Dr. Dude, Party Zone and a few others. CD: The prints appear to be a Pinball Life exclusive.
CD: Do you have any final thoughts or comments for fans of your work?
GF: I appreciate the legions of pinball fans worldwide and am humbled to know that my name has become synonymous with pinball art. Thanks to all who have ever played, purchased, or refurbished a pinball machine in the hopes that they could be mildly entertained by this unique piece of American history. Pinball has always had a certain “cool factor” and I hope that I can continue to help support a small part of that “cool”.
Pinball Life – Greg Freres Classic Bally Framed Artwork
Wizbang Pinball – Official Blog
Whizbang Pinball – Official Facebook Page
Stern Pinball – Greg Freres Joins Stern Pinball
Internet Pinball Database – List of games on which Greg Freres was a contributor