“We’ve been improving, and evolving many small invisible details, but always in a very traditional way – we’re trying to master our art.” Ed Ricketts talks to eBoy, the unassuming masters of pixel art
Since its inception in 1997, eBoy has quietly and modestly established a unique genre of graphic design, instantly recognisable to designers and the general public.
eBoy’s pseudo-3D pixel art style harks back to the days of 8-bit computer graphics, and indeed earlier illustrations were designed to be viewed solely on the computer screen. These days, eBoy’s work features in mainstream ad campaigns, editorial illustrations, posters and a range of Peecol toys. All bear the distinctive eBoy style, for which the phrase “often imitated, never bettered” could have been invented. Remarkably, the company still consists solely of its three original German founders: Kai Vermehr, Steffen Sauerteig and Svend Smital.
Computer Arts: What’s new at eBoy?
Kai Vermehr: We’ll soon be starting to work on Rio de Janeiro, which we’ll be really happy to add to our group of Pixorama cities [previous cities in this series include London and LA, as well as imaginary places including Foobar and Assembler]. Also, there’s an upcoming iOS project that involves a different approach to a pixel editor. For that we were able to find a great developer from NYC.
CA: Did eBoy invent pixel art – at least in the form it’s now known?
KV: Well, we were lucky to get into pixel art early. Since then I think we have been able to define our very own style.
CA: When you began designing in this style, did you think it would be so popular and so imitated nearly 15 years later?
KV: No! But it was obvious that pixels, straight out of the box, were eye candy and fun to handle – and being discrete objects themselves, they taught us to think in a modular way. This was exciting, and we could see pixels had the potential to be much more than just coloured squares. Steffen Sauerteig: We had no idea at all that it would be popular for so long.
CA: It could be argued that eBoy-style pixel art is one of the few genuine digital art innovations since the introduction of Photoshop. Any thoughts?
KV: Well, our approach was new in that we used the influence of game graphics to create pictures that stood for themselves.
CA: How much has the process of creating your art changed over the years?
KV: The tools have evolved and social concepts have been introduced. It’s also become very easy to research things, and the information flow is getting faster every day. Besides that, we’ve been improving, and evolving many small invisible details, but always in a traditional way – we’re trying to master our art.
CA: Famously, every pixel object you create during the development of an image is said to be stored for later re-use. Is that still true, and roughly how many objects do you have now?
KV: The theory is certainly that everything goes into our database once it’s created, but sometimes we just don’t have the time to clean up after a project is finished. As of 26 May 2011, we have a total of 6,140 objects – ranging from a dead pigeon to a full football stadium.
CA: Your work with Adidas and Paul Smith brought the eBoy name to a whole new audience. Are there any other clients you’d still like to work with – and do you ever approach clients with ideas?
KV: Most of the time people do approach us with a brief. It’s nice, because they’re excited right from the start – we don’t have to convince anyone. But sometimes we have projects we want to realise and then we have to find people to work with, such as with the iOS pixel editor.
CA: How long do you spend designing and making new toys and other merchandise, compared to creating new artwork?
KV: I would group toy design, pixel work and R&D into the category of ‘creation’. We spend about 50 per cent of our time on this, usually in the afternoon and at night. The rest is spent mostly doing email, iChat conferences, job-related research, a bit of shop time and accounting. These all fall under what you could call ‘organisation, revenue and corporate hygiene’.
CA: What was the largest or most complex project you’ve worked on so far?
KV: Probably the Kidrobot project [a series of eBoy’s Peecol toy figures together with a range of T-shirt designs featuring the same characters]. We started with the development of the concept, went on with the work on the prototypes and ended with the final production of the product. We had to use tools we don’t work with too often, and the whole process took a lot of time. Everything was all new to us too, particularly the transition of a design from 2D to 3D to a real object.
We used Illustrator, then went into 3D. We made a brief excursion into real clays, but our results were just messy. Even the prototypes from professional clay modellers didn’t achieve the industrial clean design look we wanted. So we gave up clay models and decided to go for 3D software. Again, after a lot of frustrating attempts trying to do this ourselves, we hired Douglas Lassance, a friend of ours with a solid 3D background. From then on we only did some minor corrections to his models, using modo.
CA: That must have made something of a change, given that it’s usually just you three working on all your projects?
KV: In general I would have preferred to have been able to do everything in-house, and have a lot more time for testing and optimising. I love working with 3D, but the time between a draft and the prototype was too long. One reason we started working with pixels is that the result is there at the same moment as you click. That wasn’t the case here – it was like working through three proxies. Even so, we think the series came out great. Looking back, that’s a bit of a surprise to me.
CA: Kai and Steffen, you live and work in Vancouver, while Svend lives in Berlin. Has being in different countries – with a substantial time difference between them – changed the way eBoy works?
KV: We meet almost every morning, Vancouver time, for a video chat. It really doesn’t matter where we live – as long as we have fast internet access and can manage the different time zones. Even when I was based in Berlin, Steffen and I lived next to each other but we still often used iChat instead of meeting in person.
SS: In fact, the way we work might have become even more efficient because we have to be more organised now. Luckily, we sometimes get invited to conferences where we can see each other in person too.
CA: Has anyone ever approached you to design for a video game, say for the Xbox or PlayStation? Would that be something you’d be interested in?
KV: Well, we’ve worked on games a couple of times – in different roles. Our latest project was the FixPix [puzzle game] app for iOS with Delicious Toys.
SS: And we’ve just finished a dynamic wallpaper for the PlayStation 3.
KV: In general, I would love to work on a huge science fiction MMOG [massively multiplayer online game]. Or even better, on something that I’ll call a first-person physics-bending MMOE [massively multiplayer online editor] – that has to be the next big thing coming up. That would be so cool to work on.
CA: Could you ever see yourselves moving away from pixel art and doing something totally different – either by deliberate choice, or just gradually?
KV: Both scenarios are possible, yes. I’d love to introduce more 3D concepts into our work, and in general I miss not having more time for R&D. On the other hand, we all really enjoy a slow evolution of style and craftsmanship, based on quality. Sometimes there are those moments when I want a complete change. Who knows what will evolve out of all this?
SS: I agree with Kai. In a way we are changing gradually already, with our slowly but steadily expanding online shop. It’s amazing that we’re now able to publish and sell posters and books, and also stuff such as toys, skateboards, pillows and blankets, all by ourselves.