By Marty Mulrooney
Ben Lo is a Canadian concept artist at BioWare who previously worked as an ‘Environmental Concept Artist’ at Irrational Games. Ben helped design many of BioShock Infinite’s stunning locations. In Alternative Magazine Online’s recent review of BioShock Infinite, it was noted how “Columbia doesn’t feel like a series of video game levels – it feels like a real place steeped in history and built upon misguided beliefs and plenty of bloodshed.” AMO is therefore proud to present an exclusive online interview with Ben Lo!
Hello Mr Lo, thank you for your time and welcome to AMO!
Hello Martin, thank you for having me here haha.
Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself please?
Of course! I grew up in Toronto, Ontario Canada, all my family is still there, so I go back and visit quite often. I went to school for animation at Sheridan College. It was a classical animation program, so most things were done traditionally. Pencil drawings on paper, draw every single frame. It was brutal, but also very rewarding. It sort of provided me with a strong fundamental skill in drawing, which aided me into working on the things I do now as a concept artist.
Your official job title is ‘Environment Concept Artist’ – what does this role entail?
That was my title when I was at Irrational Games. My focus lies in environment, so I worked closely with the level artists, much more so than my other concept colleague at the time. My job was to find solutions, how to decorate this certain area, how the overall mood of the area would look like, so on and so forth.
How would you describe the experience of working at Irrational Games?
It was great working at Irrational. The core team (most of my leads) were close friends for many years. It was just so much fun listening to them, poking fun at each other every day. It was also my first job in the industry, all my colleagues were very patient and taught me a lot of things, about game development and life in general. I would not trade this experience for anything else.
How did the creative process work when creating concept art for BioShock Infinite – who did you work with and how much guidance were you given?
I worked closely with my art director and the level builders at Irrational. The majority of my work depended on what was needed by the level builders at the time. I can be viewed as the problem solver in a way. An example would be: here is a room, and this room is going to be serving as the offices for the foreman in Finkton. What do we need to sell the idea, what do we need in the room? And what kind of message are we looking to tell? My art director would be looking at the big picture from above. Giving me guidelines, pointers, and steering it in the right direction.
Can you please talk us through how you create your images, from an initial idea to a final piece of concept art?
Sure. Most of the time I would be given a grey box (a term used to describe a rough 3D block-in of a level in the game engine) screenshot of the area that needed to be worked on. I would then do researches that depended on what the area would feel like, what sort of buildings would fill the area. What kind of brick do they use? What kind of support structure is needed? This is a city set in early 1900 America. So there were a lot of specific details we needed to look at in order to hit that period look as close as possible. A lot of specific researches were done.
How would you describe the floating city of Columbia and where did you draw influence from when designing the city?
A lot of architectural references for Columbia were drawn from early 1900 photos of America. We looked at the 1893 Chicago World Expo quite a bit for its grand and glorious moment snapshot of America. And that is exactly how we wanted to depict Columbia. We also looked at the architecture in Prague. The National Museum in Prague is just absolutely gorgeous.
Your concept art for Finkton is dark and beautiful – were there any ideas that didn’t make it into the final game?
Ah, haha, thank you. Finkton was one of my favourite areas to work on in the game. There was a lot of “blood and sweat” put into that level by the level builders. There were many versions created, but unfortunately none of them made it to the final game. This goes for many of the other levels in the game too. A lot of accommodations were made to support the narrative, and the old versions of Finkton did not fit the narrative at all. So they were scrapped. Which is why most parts of the game were not created until very late in the production.
The Finkton propaganda poster you created is fantastic – was this influenced by any real-life posters from around the time the game is set?
Thank you, that specific one was just made up, my crude imitation of the ads and posters in the early 1900s.
How does it feel seeing the environments you helped design come to life in the finished game?
It was an awesome experience seeing the finished game. I left Irrational near the end of the production and a lot of the levels were still in the grey box stage at the time. So I had to wait until the game come out to really see them. I was blown away by the result.
The Bioshock Infinite cover you created for EGM Magazine captures the characters of Booker and Elizabeth perfectly – do you prefer drawing environments or characters?
Thank you. Although my focus is in environments, I love doing character work too. Characters are actually all I do at home during my spare time, it is a great way to take a break from drawing buildings and houses all day long at work. Because of the nature of things in the video game industry a lot of the actual concept work is often unfinished. Its sole purpose is to help the level builder. Once enough information is in the piece to tell what is going on, it’s time to move on to the next tasks. So being able to work on a magazine cover, and to be able to polish and finish a piece, is one of the biggest treats any artist could get.
What’s next for you Mr Lo?
I was very happy and learned a lot of things at Irrational. But because of family and amongst other things, I left Boston in the summer of 2012 and moved back to Canada, where I would be closer to home. I’m currently working in Montreal for BioWare, on a project I’m very passionate about. I’m once again learning a lot here from the new team. And I hope to be able to keep pushing, and strive to get better, to keep growing as an artist.
Thank you for your time!
Thank you, thanks again for having me. Thank you all for supporting the game.