By Marty Mulrooney
Claire Hummel is an incredibly talented artist currently working for Microsoft Game Studios Publishing. Claire recently collaborated with Irrational Games on their hit video game BioShock Infinite, helping to design Elizabeth and the Letuce ‘twins’. In Alternative Magazine Online’s recent review of BioShock Infinite, Elizabeth was described as the “game’s secret weapon” – she truly is one of the most well-designed and memorable female video game characters of all time. AMO is therefore proud to present an exclusive online interview with Claire Hummel!
Hello Claire, thank you for your time and welcome to AMO!
Thanks so much for reaching out to me! Really excited to chat.
Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself please?
My name’s Claire Hummel, obviously – I grew up in LA drawing dinosaurs and ancient Egypt, went to school at the Rhode Island School of Design where I drew dinosaurs and ancient Egypt, and now I live in Seattle, WA with my two snakes, Xocoyotzin and Rodney… where I continue to draw dinosaurs and ancient Egypt. I think I’m primarily known for my historical interpretations of Disney princesses, though my work for BioShock Infinite is coming in hot as a close second.
You are currently working as an illustrator and visual development artist for Microsoft Studios – what does this role involve?
That I am! So, I started out at Microsoft almost five years ago, as a concept artist for the Central Media team. Because my team is (predictably) a central hub within Microsoft Studios Publishing, we get to touch a ton of projects at any given time. I wouldn’t say that we’re jacks of all trades, but we do have to be pretty adaptable – we would find ourselves working on a variety of art for different games, on different platforms, in different styles, and it takes a weird sort of headspace to be able to jump back and forth like that during the course of a day. Challenging, but definitely not boring.
I’ve since evolved into my current role as an associate production designer, which has been my title for about a year now. I’m still with Central Media, but now I have more ownership and creative control over the projects I’m involved with – definitely a satisfying change of pace. I still get to do a lot of the visual development and production art that gets me up in the morning, but now it’s in step with a lot of art direction and feedback as well.
What’s it like working at Microsoft Studios?
It’s actually pretty fantastic, especially as a relatively young artist in the industry. Microsoft courted me as I graduating from RISD – along with Colin Foran, one of my crazy talented classmates – so it was a hell of a gig to get right out of college. As I mentioned, it’s just such a pleasure to work on several projects simultaneously; you don’t get the satisfaction of seeing something through over the course of several years, I suppose, but I feel like I’ve gotten a ton of experience over a relatively short amount of time.
I’m also spoiled with some seriously hilarious, talented, and thoughtful co-workers – I would definitely miss these guys if I ever left the team.
How did you become involved with Irrational Studios and BioShock Infinite? What was your job title whilst working with them?
They actually reached out to me first, which completely caught me off guard. I’m a huge fan of the franchise and count the original BioShock among my favourite games of all time, so when Jorge Lacera (lead concept artist at Irrational) contacted me via email it took me a few beats to realize what was happening… aaaand to realize that I wasn’t being pranked. Coincidentally – I don’t think I’ve even mentioned this to Jorge and his team, now that I think about it – I had been working on some more historically accurate designs of Elizabeth in my free time when they first contacted me. Seemed like fate that they’d want to bring me on board in a more official capacity!
I’m not sure what my job title was, since I was working freelance, but probably something generic along the lines of ‘artist’ or ‘concept artist’.
What was it like collaborating with the Irrational team?
Fantastic, absolutely no complaints on my end. I was dreadfully nervous about the whole thing at first, to be honest; I tend to forget that I’m already a professional artist in the industry, and so every time I’d send over an art drop of my latest work I waited with bated breath for their reply… totally convinced each time that they’d see it, reject me, and move on to someone else. This obviously did not happen, thank god.
The artists over at Irrational are just insanely talented, so any sort of collaboration with them is a privilege more than anything. I now own a copy of the official art book, and I’m just blown away by how much amazing (and unused!) design work went into building the world of Columbia.
How did the creative process work – what were your main design goals and how much guidance/free reign were you given?
I had an initial chat over the phone with Irrational, and they passed over a prompt along with any research or previous concepts they had for Elizabeth. They had a couple of aesthetic pillars they wanted to maintain with the character – the general colour scheme, the youthful “schoolgirl” look, etc. – so I just tried to adhere to those while still bringing something of my own experience to the table. It was pretty unexciting, to be honest, but in the best way possible – just tossing concepts back and forth over the fence until we honed in on something that felt final. It’s fantastic when you can do design work without running into too many roadblocks on the way.
How did you approach designing young Elizabeth?
I cast a pretty wide net initially (which you can see in my first round of concepts), but my priorities were to find a design that was age – & period – appropriate, that maintained some of the colour blocking of her later costume, and that felt iconic. I’m a sucker for all of the little details in costume design, so a lot of the fun work was designing trims, buckles, pleating, all that tiny stuff. It can take what would be a relatively plain costume – a white blouse and blue skirt – and make it far more unique.
Was there a lot of research involved when designing Elizabeth’s clothes and hairstyle?
Oh god yes! I’m addicted to research. When you’re designing anything that’s based in a particular locale or time period (even if you’re not, really), research lends an invaluable legitimacy and depth to your design; the real world is generally way more interesting than what we can come up with on a blank sheet of paper. If you draw a horse from memory, for instance, I can almost guarantee – unless you’re a horse-centric concept artist which, well, kudos to you – that it won’t be nearly as interesting as horses drawn with proper research and reference. The same goes for costume and styling! It’s impossible to recreate the variety and cultural context of a time period out of whole cloth, so you might as well lean on the resources history has been so generous as to provide for us.
For Elizabeth, I spent the majority of my time paging through photos of young women during the era, and 1910’s clothing catalogues. The former are a literal snapshot of what people are wearing regardless of fashion plates, and the latter gives you the breadth and variety to make sure you aren’t just drawing one particular type or skirt or jacket. Very useful stuff.
When designing a character you offer many different versions of the same idea – were you happy with the final design that Irrational settled on for Elizabeth?
Very much so! Honestly, it’s dangerous to put any concept art up for review that you yourself don’t like; I’ve found that if I include any low hanging fruit that I assume will be dismissed by the art director, those designs will always be the one they fall in love with. One of life’s horrible inevitabilities. It always seems like a safe bet to put your best foot forward, so I would have been happy to develop any of the designs as needed. Irrational did conveniently zero in on my favourite general silhouette – the more modern cut shirt waist and skirt – so that was admittedly a win-win.
You also got to work on Robert and Rosalind – how did you approach designing these characters?
The Luteces were a blast to do, if only because there hadn’t been any design work for them yet. All I had to work with out of the gate was the fact that they were twins, they were elegant and ethereal, and that maybe they could be redheads – beyond that, I pretty much had free reign.
I focused on Rosalind initially, and would design and redesign Robert along the way to match. I looked at a lot of style icons from around that time period for both of them; Rosalind is essentially a Gibson girl, Robert is an Arrow Collar man – both of them equivalent to the commercial beauty ideal during the time.
I’ve actually heard a lot of groans from cosplayers about Rosalind’s hair, and it’s perceived defiance of gravity – it’s admittedly a hell of a thing to try to mimic some of the more voluminous Gibson girl hairstyles from the period, so apologies all around to any cosplayers who are teasing their hair into oblivion.
As for the fashion – I have an unhealthy obsession with activewear and tailored women’s wear from the turn of the century, so I knew I wanted to put Rosalind in something with a bit of a traditionally masculine cut to it. My earliest concepts had her in the period equivalent of a lab coat, but it seemed a bit on the nose – the final rounds of costume designs were more studious, but stylish. Both of the Lutece twins still have some modern appeal, but – going back to the whole ‘Arrow Collar’ idea – I really wanted them to look like they had walked out of a Leyendecker painting. They’re way more stylish and contemporary than the rest of Columbia.
Did Irrational let you in on the secret of how these characters are related before you started designing them?
I knew only the most basic information about the characters, and definitely not the complexity of their actual role in the narrative! The description I had to go off of was very literally “there are these twins called the Luteces, brother and sister, they’re Columbia’s equivalent of Nikola Tesla, have fun with it.” I picked up hints here and there, but I was still lucky enough to still be surprised by the game.
How does it feel seeing your designs in the finished game?
Absolutely surreal. I’ve seen my work in games before, obviously, but it’s rarely a game that I’m specifically anticipating- nor is my art necessarily right smack in the foreground in the way it is with Bioshock Infinite. It also warms the cockles of my heart to see the response from fans- there’s already so much cosplay and fan art of the characters, it’s absolutely mind-boggling.
What do you do for fun when you aren’t drawing? I’ve heard that you’re a keen cosplayer!
That I am! I love sewing since the process is a little bit mindless once you’re in the thick of it – I can watch a movie and sew at the same time, which is great. I have a couple of costumes I’m working on right now, and a ton of costumes that I’d like to do some time in the future. Besides that I read a lot, hang out with my snakes, hike – it would be an absolute crime to live in the Northwest and not hike – it’s just hard to find the time between work and personal projects.
I’m not sure if this counts as what I do for “fun”, but I also just finished teaching a class on character design at Digipen, up here in Redmond, WA. I’ve only done a smattering of teaching before now so it was pretty daunting, but it ended up being a blast. Loved my students, and I’d happily do it again in the future.
What’s next for you Claire?
I’ve got some art shows coming up, both at the Ltd. Art Gallery here in Seattle, and at Light Grey Art Lab in Minneapolis, MN – I’ll try to post details for the shows in question on my blog as they get closer, but I’m really excited for all of them. I’m not selling at any conventions right now (I think Rose City Comic Con is my next one, in September), but I will be at San Diego Comic-con for the entire extended weekend this July! Possibly – and most probably – in costume for several of the days.
Thank you for your time!
Thanks for having me!