Brian Menze, Dabe Alan

Behind the scenes with Fallout, KOTOR, Project Eternity artist Brian Menze

Behind the scenes with Fallout, KOTOR, Project Eternity artist Brian Menze

Hey everyone! I’m always fascinated by concept art and the people who shape the worlds of the video games we play, and Obsidian artist Brian Menze presented me with a great offer: I could go through his work, select a few pieces I enjoyed, and he’d explain the stories behind them. I tried to select different kinds of images, but I’m not ashamed to say I gravitated towards some of the work Menze has done inside the world of Star Wars. I hope you enjoy this look into the mind of a very talented artist.

My name is Brian Menze, a senior artist at Obsidian Entertainment where I’m currently the art lead on South Park: The Stick of Truth. I’ve been involved with making games as an artist since 1993. The bulk of my career has been spent working with Chris Avellone and Feargus Urquhart, beginning at Black Isle Studios in 1999 . My first project at Black Isle was Fallout 2. Since then, I’ve been a part of creating many wonderful worlds and helping create some of the best RPG experiences of the last 15 years.

Since the formation of Obsidian, I’ve concentrated most of my efforts on character creation where I’ve helped expand the Star Wars Universe with Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic II, created masters of espionage on Alpha Protocol and returned to one of the greatest RPG franchises ever with Fallout: New Vegas. When I think back on my early career, I’m proud to know that the Infinity Engine games I worked on were some of the best RPGs of that time. So when it was decided that we’d begin putting together a project that would tap into the spirit of those games, I was of course very excited.

It’s like going home again with the family you’ve always known. One of the most exciting things to me about Project Eternity is the fact that it’s crowd funded. It’s truly an incredible feeling to have such a direct relationship with the people that will be playing the game in the end. For me, it adds to the family aspect of the project as a whole with the backers being part of that family. The day we reached our goal was such a boost for Obsidian, but when we broke $4 million it’s safe to say that we were energized as a company. That energy has set the stage for us to move forward in creating a game the backers will remember for a long time. 

This is a creature design I did for Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords. We didn’t have a dedicated concept artist on this project, so I filled in and during KOTOR2 I was still modeling and texturing characters so concepts were often done as quickly and as efficiently as possible.

This is a really good example of that. Rough, simple line drawing with simple color. My concepts looked like this for a long time because I would give most of my time to the model and textures. I didn’t feel the need to expand on these concepts as they usually stayed in house and that wasn’t what would end up in the finished game anyway. However, I don’t remember modeling this guy.

Also, I can’t recall if there was an existing image I based the concept on or just a description. But honestly I didn’t realize then, like I do now, just how phallic the neck and head on this creature is! I really tried to adhere to the Star Wars style though and felt pretty good about the creature designs I did. I think in this case I might’ve re-drawn the head and given him better looking fangs, however.

OMG How did this get out!  These drawings were not for any official project. Occasionally, Feargus will ask me to tackle some sort of challenge. He occasionally wants me to try to do some work for “fill in the blank” for some “fill in the blank” project. I think he trusts my judgment to capture a certain look or my take on an existing idea to see if there’s other perspectives.

In this case Feargus asked me to develop a “cartoony” style for a possible fantasy based project. This image is a collection of various styles inspired by animation or illustration. To start, I found an image of a D&D character (top left) and tried to create different versions of it to establish a look without having to design the character at the same time. Admittedly I aped a lot of other artists here, but this was in the beginning stages and because I’m not asked to do “cartoony” often, I felt I needed to get into the groove by looking at other artists work. Some may notice a little Mary Blair, Shane Glines and Hanna Barbera here, all of which I find to be extremely inspiring.

However, because of the aping I did, I’d usually never allow this image into the public. It’s a little embarrassing! Nothing ever came of this, but I hope that one day we may re-visit the idea of doing a more whimsical approach to the fantasy genre.

This image is a personal one. I painted it for my girlfriend, Kayelyn, while we were first dating.  There is a lot of symbology here for such a small image. We were living in different cities at the time so much of our conversations were on the phone. We’d spend hours on the phone and sometimes the conversations would be about silly things like, “what’s your favorite color, shape or number”.

I used those pieces of knowledge to put this together. I felt that since I was using such silly criteria to compose my image, that I would approach the image visually with as much whimsy. I set out to paint it as though it might appear in a children’s book. 

Here, I am the large figure drawn with spheres, my favorite shape and painted with greens which is Kayelyn’s favorite color. I used two stacked spheres to symbolize a “B” shape for my first name. The star is Kayelyn, her favorite shape and painted in yellows and oranges that are my favorite colors. The star’s motion of kissing my forehead, not only works for the story of the image, but also causing the star to resemble a “K” for her first name. I liked the idea of her kissing my forehead to maintain the sense of innocence and the beginnings of something greater. Too cheesy? Maybe. I was falling in love, so cheesy seemed appropriate at the time.

I can’t remember which came first, but this is basically the pistol version of the L.A.E.R. from Fallout New Vegas. Josh Sawyer provided me with a couple of photos (shown in the image) of the type of pistol he was looking for, so I basically “frankensteined” all of those elements together. I don’t normally conceptualize weapons, so I felt a bit uncomfortable doing them on FNV, partly because Fallout fans are very particular, but mostly because I don’t draw weapons much. I was the only concept artist on the team though, so I had to do the best I could.

In addition to weapons I was doing posters, characters, props and Vault Boys. It was my job to get stuff out fast enough for all the artists on the team to have things to work on. A side effect from working so fast however, is that I don’t remember much about this concept at all beyond that. This does illustrate that whenever I get into a pinch, because of time (and in this case out of my comfort zone) I’ll take the easy road and piecemeal a concept. During production and being part of a small team, that is sometimes all you have time for. I’m not necessarily proud of this one, but it did the trick and Josh was happy with it.

Visas Marr was created for Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords. This was one of the most exciting titles I’ve ever worked on. Obsidian opened its doors with this title and I’m very proud to have been a part of that. Plus, I fulfilled a lifelong dream of having helped create a small part of the Star Wars universe. Development for this game was so fast-paced though, I didn’t really get to enjoy the moment as much as I would have liked to. I didn’t really take a moment to realize what I’d just been a part of until it was over! Visas here was painted rather quickly. I had just started to paint my concepts instead of approaching them way I had in the past which was just a line drawing with simple color.

I was new to digital painting here and had to figure it out on my own. Every piece I did during KOTOR2 was a challenge.  For Visas Marr’s look I remember trying to mix the Baroness from G.I. Joe, ninjas and previous Sith Lords together. Also, because so much of her body is covered I tried to really make what little of her we see as sexy as possible, which ended up being only the bottom half of her face. Those lips had to be exactly right! Also, based on her written description, I thought I could soften her a bit by adding color to her as opposed to the customary black worn by the Sith in the Star Wars films. One thing to point out is that this concept doesn’t reflect how she eventually ended up in the game.

Part of being a good game concept artist is understanding what the engine and modelers can do and cannot do. Here I didn’t pay attention with the sleeves. We didn’t have the capability to have sleeves waving as they appear they would here and they would have looked silly sticking out rigidly if modeled as is. So the sleeves were later changed to being tucked into the gloves. Visas Marr became a real fan favorite though and I still get star struck when I see cosplayers dressed as her when I go to conventions.

This is Mira, who is a bounty hunter in Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords. I based her off the type of gothic girl gamer I would see a lot of going to shows or conventions around the early 2000’s. I’d often see girls with dyed hair, platform leather boots with straps and Hello Kitty backpacks. I was hoping to tap into a likeness that they’d respond to. Also, for reasons I can’t recall, I had the shaggy-like character from the Hanna Barbera cartoon Speed Buggy in mind as well. I don’t know what to say about that.

Sometimes I just latch onto an idea and just run with it because it makes me happy. There are some characters I concept that pay homage to really bizarre characters. I like Mira’s overall design but really don’t care for the painting. Back then I would start with a loose sketch, get that approved or make requested changes, then get the painting done in under a day to keep things moving. The concepts I did on this project all looked rushed and sometimes I’m disappointed in myself that I didn’t spend more time on them.

Still, it was in the making of KOTOR2 where I really got the bug to concept more. It was on this project that I began learning to paint digitally and I just wanted to get better. On KOTOR2 I was hired for modeling and texturing so concept wasn’t really a priority, but it became something I wanted to explore more. So I decided, during this project, that I’d prefer to not model anymore and thankfully Obsidian allowed me to do that. Since then I’ve been mainly a character conceptual artist and haven’t looked back.

This was done just for fun. I think I was trying to create a new profile picture for Facebook or something. It was painted in a just-goofing-around kind of way, in that it’s just a doodle, and the elephant was an attempt to do a very subtle self-portrait. This was done during a time when I was trying to do a sketch every day to try new stuff that my job doesn’t provide and I only spent about 15 minutes on it. That lasted about a week. I started out trying to use only geometric shapes, which I didn’t maintain, but you can see a little left over in the ears.

The bird was an afterthought and put there for balance and additional color. The memory that this image carries for me is of one of the most influential artists and person I’ve ever worked with, Justin Cherry. He gave me a set of Photoshop brushes early on during his time at Obsidian and this is one of the very first images I did using one of those brushes. Incidentally, that particular brush has become my go-to brush ever since. He and I would laugh at how dependent I became to it.

This is a cover to Tips & Tricks magazine when it was still published monthly and done in promotion for Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords. I don’t remember if it was the magazine’s editor or the art director who requested it, but they asked if I’d paint an homage to the original film’s poster art using KOTOR2 characters and vehicles. I was elated! It was such an incredible experience for me personally on this project and to get to paint a cover for a magazine to promote KOTOR2 was quite an honor for me. Setting this piece up (I thought) would be a breeze. I was wrong. None of the KOTOR2 elements worked as well as they do with the original Star Wars characters.

If you recall from the original, there is a silhouette of Darth Vader’s black head with Luke and Leia in white clothing standing on top. White on black, simple. The characters of KOTOR2 don’t contrast against each other as well so I had to make many adjustments that really cut into the time frame I had to get this done. I had to rely on some support from the modeling team to give me renders of the Ebon Hawk, HK-47 and T3-M4, then paint over them to fit them into the scene. For the most part, I think I did well with the skill set I had at the time, but Darth Nihilus’ head never looked quite right to me and the head of the Jedi Exile is too small and looks a little weird.

Whoever it was I corresponding with at the magazine was extremely happy though and even mentioned that he felt it was one of the better covers they’ve ever received. I felt on top of the world. Imagine how disappointed I was after seeing it printed to find they had placed text everywhere on the cover except where the two central characters are. Less than 25% of my work is seen on the cover. It was a little heartbreaking. Internally, I took the image and made it into an actual movie poster complete with a title and credits which was later printed, framed and hung in multiple parts of the building.