Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Life and Work: Matt Agnello

It's kind of hard to believe two weeks have gone by already, but here we are again! This dose of life and work comes from friend and fellow artist Matt Agnello.

I can still remember visiting Matt in Boston when we were in collegeI spent some time on the floor of his apartment putting together a handmade book of photography, and we accompanied him out on a nighttime shoot for the opening sequence to a Boston University TV show.

Speaking of college, I ask about education in these interviews for a reason: we fine arts folks end up in some interesting places. This really caught my eye in today's interview:
I think more often than not your education is tangential to what you end up doing. For me, that’s certainly true. But the basic concepts I learned about in my film classes can be applied anywhere. You learn about dramatic systems, how people react to stimuli, meaning that’s created visually instead of through prose. All of those translate to any creative or dramatic medium. It’s like learning a programming language. Once you know one, you know them all. You just need to learn a new dialect the next time around.
As you know, I don't use my degree directly at my day job, but I sure do feel like it gave me the skills I need to survive. But that's for another day. Coming up soon: contentious life decisions, turning over new leaves, and rediscovering self-awareness. But for now, enjoy a peek into another creative life! (Click the link below the video to continue reading).

As an aside, you should really check out some of Matt's work on Vimeo. It's three years old, but I've always been partial to this delightful little short film:

The Cranemaker from Matt Agnello on Vimeo.

You’ve done a lot of different work, from short films to TV stuff to non-profit videos to now the game industry. At the end of the day, how do you describe yourself as an artist?

You make it sound like I’m unfocused! And you’re right. As an artist, I totally let my passions lead me by the nose, and they have a tendency to wander.

If I had to collect all the loose threads in one place and call it something, I’d say I’m interested in human experience—User Experience if we want to be trendy. Like how a particular color, or shape, or sound, or motion can evoke an emotional response. I get off to typography, kerning, letter shapes. It drives my wife nuts when I point out a building and say, what would it look like if we took away the landscaping? Would it still be classy, or would it suddenly turn into a slum?

When I’m editing video, I obsess over titles—how much drop shadow, how much movement, if any, what font, small-caps, all-caps, lowercase. Or transitions: how long should that dissolve be, does it need a sound effect, and how loud? How will someone’s internal model of the concepts I’m communicating change if I remove three frames from this shot?

So, I guess I have to I describe myself as obsessive.

What are you working on now?

I just came off a gig where I produced a video to spearhead SPARC’s Open Access Week campaign. Open Access is a movement to open up scholarship that’s currently locked behind subscriptions to as many researchers and normal people around the world as possible. I spent a lot of time on the opening credits and title cards for the individual speakers. SPARC liked it enough that they used it as the background for their slideshow presentation.

My next big project is a StarCraft II mod. Here’s the concept from the design doc draft: 
You play a space prospector tasked with mining minerals from asteroids. Build networks of supply nodes to bring minerals back to your main ship. Avoid obstacles like alien infestation, gravitational rifts, and meteor showers. Use the influence you gain to barter deals with other miners and smugglers, and keep morale high. Features a dynamic map that changes as you interact with it.
I’m drawing from a lot of sources, including economics, Go, Civilization, and SimCity. It’s really fun to take all of these varied concepts and try to fit them into a cohesive whole. And unlike video, where you can dictate exactly what the user will experience, in a game you have to guide invisibly. The user can’t have perfect freedom, or the game wouldn’t be any fun. You have to create the illusion of freedom, guiding the player where she should go without explicitly forcing her in that direction. It’s a fantastically cool problem to solve.

Tell us about your background/education. Was getting an arts-related degree something you had to explain to your family, or have they been supportive all along? How does your formal education relate to the current direction you’re taking?

When I went to college, I hedged my bets. I went to Boston University’s College of Communication for film and television, but with full knowledge that if it turned out I didn’t like film, I could always skip over to another part of the school and be perfectly alright there. Turned out I loved film, and I can’t really remember what it felt like not to want to do creative work for the rest of my life.

My family was skeptical but ridiculously supportive. They admitted going into an entertainment-related field was risky, but they weren’t going to get in my way if it was something I really want to do. I’m incredibly lucky to have the best family in the world.

What are your creative rituals? What keeps you dedicated and in shape?

I don’t have many set rituals. I know friends who light a candle before they write, but I don’t do anything that specific. I do my best work in isolation, where the only thing I can do is work—planes, coffee shops, the woods. To keep in shape and focused, or whenever I’m just looking for a new idea, I go to one of those places.

Where do you get inspiration when things get tough?

I read a lot. Reading about things gets me excited about them, and it usually motivates me to do work in that area. Getting away from the computer, going for a walk, studying something mundane very intently—these usually get my mind working again on something, anything, to feel like I can do it. Discouragement is the hardest thing to battle. If I don’t create for a while, I feel like I can’t, so sometimes I just have to force myself.

What does your creative space look like? How do you feel about it? Do you share it?

It’s sort of a mess right now. Before I moved, I shared an office with my wife. It was in a dingy apartment with a lot of extra roommates (roaches). We moved recently, and I turned the extra bedroom into my own office. There’s a lot of sunlight, my own bathroom (that I share with the cat). I’ve also separated my computer from my desk, with the intention that I could easily leave it behind. But more often than not, that extra desk just gets piled high with papers I’m conveniently neglecting.

Tell us about your most precious memento or piece of gear.

I don’t want to say my iPad because I’ve only had it for a few days, but wow, is this thing awesome. It responds so readily to touch interaction, and it’s made me realize how much good feedback is an important part of any interactive system. You move your finger and there’s no lag—it just moves with you. You let go and it pleasingly drifts to a halt, like opening the perfect drawer. When I’m reading on it, I find myself moving the page up and down just a little bit all the time. I use it to sketch out ideas quickly where I used to use a piece of graph paper or a whiteboard. Touch is one of the most exciting ways you can interact with something, and I’m so pumped to think about things in that problem space.

If I’m not allowed to say my iPad, I have to say my Zebra Expandz pen, which you can see is a bit beat up. This thing’s great. I clip it onto a binder clip that’s holds some 3x5 cards I keep with me for notes. It’s small and compact, but it slides out to about 3/4 of the size of a normal pen with a really pleasing snap. It feels really sturdy, takes refills, and it’s survived a lot of crap from me.

What was the darkest time for your work? How’d you get out of it?

I lost my day job about a year ago, and I didn’t find another for four months. That was tough. I had lots of time to create, but I didn’t really feel like I could do it, so I didn’t. And not doing it made it worse. It took me all four of those months to put together a trailer for my wedding that I’d shot the weekend after I was laid off.

What eventually got me out of the rut were two things: 1) I got a job, finally, and it wasn’t total crap, and 2) realizing I was far more excited about games than video.

What are your current goals? Where do you see your work going in the future? You’ve been “using your degree” to some extent in L.A., but how do you ideally see yourself supporting yourself with your craft in the future?

I want to make a living designing games and interactive systems. Specifically, I want to explore places games haven’t normally gone, especially in the direction of education. Not your average Math Blaster, but something deeper, where playing the game actually teaches you something at a fundamental level about how the world works or worked, like Oregon Trail on steroids.

I can’t really say where my work will go in the future. Both industries I’m straddling are in major flux. It’s like standing between two motorboats that are starting and stopping and turning all over the place, and it’s not really clear if I’m going to end up on one, the other, or in the water.

Ideally, I see myself in a small company that I started or got involved in early, where we’re making cutting edge stuff that people are super excited for. I won’t be making bank, but I’ll be able to comfortably support my family and do stuff that’s really, really exciting every day. There’s a circuitous route to that path, and it might not be something I get involved in until much later in life, but that’s the direction I’m going.


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