A Blank Canvas

A Blank Canvas
"I Didn't Leave Games, the Games Left Me"

Shannon Drake | 17 Oct 2006 08:02
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Amidst the flannel and depression of the mid-'90s, there was Earthworm Jim, a surreal world of toilet humor and offbeat jokes in an entertainment culture drowning in seriousness. While Shiny ex-pat Dave Perry usually gets the credit for the games, the creator of Earthworm Jim is artist and animator Doug TenNapel. His expertise ranges from cult-hit videogames like Earthworm Jim and The Neverhood to comics (GEAR, Creature Tech) and television (Catscratch), but he's been noticeably absent from the gaming scene in the last few years. As a fan of his style and his creations, I wanted to find out how he got into the industry and how he wound up getting out.

He describes himself as someone who has drawn for his entire life, "just about every day." He got his education at Point Loma Nazarene College, where he earned a fine art degree. Outside of that, he says, "I've taken some classic portrait classes and some intensive figure drawing classes to help supplement my education. Most of what I've learned about art has been during production. Production forces me to finish drawings and make them appealing as possible." Going pro was a lifelong aspiration. "I've always wanted to be an artist professionally, I just didn't dream that many people would ever pay me to draw," he says, describing himself as a fan of Disney animation. "That was an early goal of mine: to be a great animator. Little did I know that my lazy California roots and lack of persistent training would prevent me from that kind of greatness."

TenNapel's videogame career began with some freelance work. "I did some freelance animation for David Warhol (Loom) on some early Nintendo games. I got my first big job with Bluesky Software in San Diego to work on the Jurassic Park game for Genesis," he said. "I always loved videogames since the first time I played Pong at the local pizza parlor. I spent my summers in high school working in the berry fields to make a few bucks to ride into town and play Pac-Man at the arcade." His work on Jurassic Park eventually lead to a stint at Virgin, where he met Mike Dietz and Ed Schofield, who, indirectly, contributed to the creation of Earthworm Jim.

"Earthworm Jim was my job interview at Shiny," he says. "I had only known Ed Schofield and Mike Dietz for a few months when they left Virgin to start Shiny with DP [Dave Perry]. I had met DP a few times, and we were kindred spirits since we were both 6'8," but DP had some really aggressive scams in mind, and I was still just an animator on the Jungle Book videogame." However, he says, "I was dying to get out of Virgin and wanted to be with Ed and Mike on whatever they were doing. Mike wasn't convinced that I was their man yet, so he asked me to come up with a character to see if I had the animation chops. I was desperate for a job, so I put on Fleetwood Mac's Rumors and hit play."

Before the album finished, he says, "I had created Earthworm Jim, Psycrow, Professor-Monkey-For-A-Head, the Princess, Queen Slug for a Butt (DP named her) and Peter Puppy. Like I said, this stuff is easy, and I didn't know then that these characters could all occupy the same universe, so I was just blowing stuff down. Earthworm Jim was the most interesting of the characters, though each was a sort of animal with very human characteristics. EWJ became my lead because he was a weak, vulnerable worm in a powerful battle suit! How cool is that? It was very videogamey, though I hadn't seen anything like it I in videogames. I did a walk cycle and presented him to Mike and Ed, who took him back to Dave Perry. I got hired (thank God. No, I'm not talking about you, DP) and then my real animation bootcamp began. Mike and Ed were working on a vastly improved system of animation than we were using before, and my drawing needed to rise to the occasion. We did some figure drawing, and I did a lot of animation.

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