Beyond the Game: Dave Guertin & Greg Baldwin Talk CreatureBox

Hi all,

This is the start of a new blog series where we’ll be profiling various Insomniacs and their special talents beyond the world of videogames. We’re kicking things off with two long-time Insomniacs: Dave Guertin and Greg Baldwin. Dave was one of the original artists on Ratchet & Clank and is often credited with creating the original designs for both Ratchet and Clank. Greg has worked on every Insomniac-developed Ratchet & Clank game as well.

Both have teamed up to create CreatureBox, a blog that serves as a “playground for (Dave and Greg) to experiment with character design, illustration, and comics.” They’re also the guys responsible for our fantastic collector’s edition Ratchet & Clank vinyls.

Below is an email interview I conducted with Dave and Greg…read on and be sure to check out the amazing time-lapse videos they’ve created. You will have an even deeper appreciation for what it takes to create truly memorable characters.

Ryan Schneider, Community Director

Tell everyone a little about yourselves, outside of Insomniac. How did you get into art, how were you trained, where, etc.
Greg Baldwin: I grew up just south of Boston right on the ocean in a town built around fishing ports. I was fixated on comic books, video games and animation. I wanted to be involved in commercial art as far back as I can remember. I don’t think I really got into it so much as it couldn’t avoid me.

I dropped out of college on my first attempt; but fortunately, my girlfriend at the time, now my wife, has always pushed me to do better. I went to Southern California to get the education I needed to become a competitive artist. I always maintained my interest in comics and commercial art, but the more I trained, the more I became obsessed with sculpture. I ended up focusing my degree on drawing and sculpture, and am confident when I say that becoming a sculptor is a death march at best.

Fortunately, I was lucky to meet some really incredible video game gurus and they helped me land a job as a digital modeler. After a few short stints, and a lot of time honing my skills, I landed a job at Insomniac. It was a strange and awkward journey, but I wound up very lucky and now work with some of the most talented people in this industry!

Dave Guertin: I was born and raised in a small city just outside Providence, Rhode Island. Growing up I tended to be the quiet kid with my head severely lodged in the clouds. Before I knew it, I started scribbling out all these strange ideas and stories as I soaked up the treasure trove of 80’s inspiration. Fortunately I had supportive parents and several teachers throughout grammar school who kept me on the right track which gradually lead to massive hopes of a career in art.

In 1989 my Dad bought me my first comic from a CVS Pharmacy. From that day on, my focus was pinned on moving to NYC to become a comic book penciller. I started to bury myself in the books in addition to playing lots of video games with my friends. Once I hit high school, I stacked my schedule whenever I could with art courses including drafting and photography while working away on cartoons. In my junior year, the Savannah College of Art and Design gave a presentation–I was sold.

A few years later I graduated with a degree in Sequential Art, yet the late 90’s were not a pleasant time for the comics industry. I found myself switching gears and jumping head first into the concept art field. I began my career with Singletrac Studio in Salt Lake City, a wonderful group of artists who took the time to show me the ropes of game creation. After a series of buyouts, the company went under and I jumped at the chance to be a part of the Insomniac team.

How long have you been at Insomniac, what has the journey been like here?
Dave: I started as an environment artist about 9 1/2 years ago. The journey has certainly been fun, challenging, and unpredictable. At the time, I was brought on to the skeleton team developing Insomniac’s first PS2 title–known most often as “Girl With a Stick.” Within the first few months an opportunity arose to help develop the concept art, so I slid back over to the drawing table. While the job was fun, the project went through a series of bumps and bruises and was eventually cancelled. After an announcement from Ted and a long weekend, the team rallied to create a new title: Ratchet & Clank.

I have always been amazed how quickly Ratchet got off the ground. Within three weeks we had designs fleshed out and a playable character running around on screen. The team hit an instinctive stride as everyone contributed to building a new universe at a record pace. What followed was a wild ride across the production of several titles where I learned volumes about making games.

Over the next several years, I transitioned between a few positions including Character Art Director and, most recently, Principal Artist. The growth in the team, technology, and franchises has been extremely exciting to watch and I certainly look forward to the years ahead.

Greg: I’ve been at Insomniac a bit over seven years now. I was hired on as a texture artist to help wrap up the first Ratchet & Clank and help get the ball rolling with Ratchet & Clank: Going Commando. It was amazing to jump in feet first to such a cool project. At the time, specialties were mostly dependent on what was needed in any given week, so it was always exciting to see what I was going to learn that week!

Over the years, I have worn a lot of hats at Insomniac. My title has changed a number of times too. But what I have always loved about Insomniac is that no matter what position you hold, everyone’s voice is considered equal. I’m now a Principle Artist in the North Carolina studio and I’m shoulder deep in the trenches with the rest of the cronies. It’s awesome!

Give one story that makes each of you laugh out loud (in a good way) about a memory of working at Insomniac. (Yes, Dave, you can bag on me for the Broken Finger episode of 2004!)
Greg: Ugh. Alright, here it goes. At the end of RC3, a few of the Insomniacs were being interviewed for some of the teasers and trailers. I was asked to be interviewed by Ted. It was kind of a big deal, because I was still toting around the “new guy” tag.

When I arrived, I sat down in front of a film crew and the guy that was asking the questions. I was pretty nervous. He told me to take it easy, and said he would ask me a few questions to get me warmed up. Always the clown, I answered every question he asked with the most inappropriate concoction I could muster up. I had the crew rolling. Turns out, those were the real questions. I provided ZERO usable footage. Ted was standing off camera during the whole ordeal. I can only imagine his neck pain as he no doubt shook his head in disbelief the whole time. Sorry about that, Ted! In case I never apologized officially.

Dave: There have been many laugh out loud moments, but one experience continues to rise to the top for me. During the production of the first Ratchet and Clank game, Chuck Suong (one of the friendliest animators on planet earth) would occasionally bring his dog Nala into the office. She wasn’t the nicest pooch on the block, freely snapping at employees who would get just a little too close to her food bowl, but she was a member of the family none the less. Every once in a while she would wander around the office soon returning to Chuck’s side. On one fateful day however, her journeys led her to John Fiorito’s desk where she proceeded to deposit a large “#2” on the carpet. I’m pretty sure that was the last time I saw Nala.

Now if you asked about a story of almost passing out in the bathroom from pain and fear, that would revolve around the infamous basketball injury of 2004.

How did CreatureBox come to be?
Dave and Greg: CreatureBox began mostly as an experiment. We were out to lunch one day talking about all the blogs we had been following. Since our sensibilities have always been in similar places, we wondered about jumping into the mix and starting a blog together. We figured alternating posts would help keep each other motivated while avoiding the trail off that we had seen on some of our favorite sites. After brainstorming some names over a couple evenings, we registered the domain, cobbled together a WordPress site, and started posting sketches. We really didn’t have any major goals or expectations other than exploring some ideas and expanding our techniques. We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into.

Exactly what is it and why does it exist? What does it represent to you?
Dave and Greg: At the core, the site is largely a playground for us to experiment with character design, illustration, and comics. Getting the work in front of others has created an air of accountability which continually gets us back behind the table to beat each other up with imagery. This has forced us into new territory that we may have missed otherwise as we search for new styles or approaches. Sometimes one of the toughest challenges in an art career is staying motivated and inspired–in many respects CreatureBox continues to be a healthy kick in the butt while practicing away on nights and weekends.

What has the response been so far to the Creaturebox site and books?
Dave and Greg: The response has been great! We feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to connect with so many artists and fans throughout the world. The yearly sketchbooks we put together continue to be an awesome learning experience not only with technique, but production processes as well. This has lead to some showings and signings at San Diego Comicon while connecting with fans and book sellers. We’re continually reminded how close knit the design community is and are thankful for the opportunity to contribute in our own maniacal way.

What’s it like running your own little side venture while working at Insomniac?
Dave and Greg: It’s a ton of work and a lot of extra time. Insomniac will always be our primary focus but we’ve found our weekends filled pretty quickly with CreatureBox madness. We’ve made our share of mistakes but we continue to learn each and every day. One of the biggest lessons has been time management and knowing where to apply our energy. While we’ve had some great opportunities within the entertainment and animation industries, knowing when to take on projects has been critical. First and foremost, CreatureBox is about having some fun and growing as designers so ensuring there’s enough time for our monsters, spacemen, and publishing adventures is important to us.

Sometimes I think I can detect a little bit of co-workers and friends in your character designs. Do you actively try to incorporate subtle (or not so subtle) “tributes” to people you know in either your game characters or your Creatures?
Dave and Greg: Ha! Yeah, that’s totally possible. You just never know where an idea is going to come from. Whether it’s from the guy who cut you off that morning on the way to work, or the way (Ratchet & Clank Future: A Crack in Time creative director) Brian Allgeier made his cereal that morning. I don’t think we’ve consciously snuck anything into the games–well, maybe Guthrie as the War Grok–but ultimately most characters have been victims of the subconscious. But you never know what the future games will hold!

What are you up to in the North Carolina studio? What’s the energy like there compared to when you first started off at Insomniac in California?
Dave and Greg: The studio in North Carolina is great. The crew that moved out from Burbank is a wonderful group and super talented. It was a pretty big change to go from 170 allies to under 30. Initially, it seemed as though it was going to be a throw-back to the small team environment that Insomniac was founded on. But once the dust settled and we brought on some of the newest team members, we realized this is not something we have ever been through before. It’s a really exciting time to watch the culture develop as the team grows. The core Insomniac principles of inclusion and creativity are intact wrapped in a North Cackalacky fervor! On the production side, the game continues to make huge strides and we’ve all been excited about the look and direction. There’s a lot of great ambition and anticipation and we can’t wait to show it off!

What’s been the biggest joy and surprise about launching and sustaining CreatureBox?
Dave and Greg: Haha. Just keeping it up and running has been a joy and a surprise. But seriously, getting back to learning has been the best. Hitting the tables with fresh eyes and new found motivation has been huge for our growth as artists. It’s safe to say that starting CreatureBox has really made it clear just how much we still have to learn. It’s really exciting.