Out of the Shadows – Daniel Thron / by Alexandru Negoita

Sometime in 2009 one the fantastic artists that worked on the original Thief trilogy, Daniel Thron, was kind enough to accept this interview for TTLG, we talked about his inspiration, process and everything Thief related,  a good insight in the Thief history for fans and for artists. 

Daniel Thron

 

I’m guessing that everyone here already knows who Daniel Thron is. We all loved his cutscene art and animation in Thief I and II. Beside these, Daniel also created the box art, the maps, the particle system effects and he even did some voices for all three Thief games. The man behind the unique art of the beloved games had the opportunity to answer a few questions submitted by TTLG members about working on Thief.

TTLG: Hi Daniel, thanks for accepting this interview! First of all tell us how did you got hired at Looking Glass and how was working there back in the day?

Daniel Thron: Thanks for asking — I love talking about LG; before I started there I was basically working at Blockbuster Video, so it was a real life-changing experience.   I got my break when friend of mine had been hired, and he encouraged me to get my portfolio together and bring it in.   I had done a little freelance illustration, and I had co-written a paper RPG with some good friends, but that was about it.  I hadn’t even go to college, and I knew very little about computer-based art or games for that matter.  So I was pretty lucky to get in.

The place itself was intense — I don’t know if any of us at the time realized how rare this kind of a crew is — everyone very passionate, totally committed.  Most places I’ve worked since then haven’t had a 3rd of the energy that LG had.  Very creatively democratic, everyone was helping everyone on everything.  I met at least a couple of my best friends there, some of whom I continue to work with today (google ‘tron reboot’ episodes 1, 2, and 3, which I’m in, directed by Ben Hansford of LG ).  That being said, it was also a giant, smelly dorm-room of a place in the middle of one of the most dour industrial parks in Boston.  There were a number of other straight-laced companies in the same building; they hated us.  It was amazing.

 TTLG: What was the inspiration for Garrett’s design and Thief in general, movies, music, books etc? Tell us about the development behind the visual style and illustrations.

Daniel Thron: The initial look for the character was developed by Marc Lizotte and Rob Waters, two great artists, and the whole thing started as a concept called Dark Camelot.  So though it was a more sinister looking than similar settings, the first designs were still very armory and Excalibur-looking from what I remember, but the longer Marc and Rob worked with them the further it drifted from classical fantasy into something meaner and leaner.

Ken Levine was writing and designing for it at the time, and I seem to remember that he and Tim Stelmach were referencing more and more 30’s pulp material, which was the root of the pseudo-modernization of the setting.  Lot’s of Fafarhd and the Grey Mouser being passed around.  Musically I don’t remember much, but we started talking about movies like The Third Man (we even took a company trip to it when it played at a local arthouse), this kind of stuff.  Thief’s style still looks fresh to me today; it’s one of the most original settings I’ve ever seen.

TTLG: Ok, what about the The City? What historical eras inspired you, what kind of architecture, technologies, clothing?

Daniel Thron: Mark Lizotte was easily the most informed in terms of art history, and he led the charge in realizing the Dickensian/Baroque mix, I think we were both in love with the idea that these styles showed the maximum possible difference between the rich and poor — the rich were ostentatious beyond reason, and the streets between their houses were something out of Oliver Twist.  I think it made the idea of being a thief seem pretty attractive    I had also just read a book by Caleb Carr called ‘The Alienist,’ and the both the story and setting of that were very inspiring — but it was the cover really hooked me: it was a photo by Alfred Stieglitz — and from that, many of his shots became the source of how I thought about the City.

TTLG:  Can you tell us a little more on how you developed that unique animation style used in Thief’s cutscenes? Please describe the process of creating the cutscenes – the software, techniques, equipment.

Daniel Thron: Ken and Rob were developing the cinematics when i came on board, and the first pass was designed to look like an active comic page — it was very cool looking.  Then Josh Randall and I took a swing at them; he introduced me to After Effects, and once we started designing for that style of animation, the whole thing really took off — especially when Eric Brosiuscreated such an inspiring, modern score.

But to be honest, much of the stylistic darkness that became the signature look of the cinematics came from the fact that we only had so much time — and there’s nothing quicker to paint than shadows.  We all had to think harder because we had such severe limitations on the production — and I think that goes for the whole of LG.  By Thief 2, I was working with Jen Hrabota-Lesser, who is one of my favorite artists, and the thing evolved to a whole different level.  We came up with stuff together that I still show today.  Very proud.

TTLG: Would you be interested in doing a Thief animated short using the same animation technique?

Daniel Thron: I’ve continued to develop the style for other projects, and I’d love to work in it again!

TTLG: Thief 1 and 2 had very iconic dark shadow heavy videos, but Deadly Shadows was much brighter and felt a little rushed. What is the reasoning behind the cinematic change for Thief 3?

Daniel Thron: Money, sadly, and some bad planning.  Theif 3 was done through Rustmonkey, the company I co-owned at the time, and it was a tougher run for everyone involved.  The cutscenes for Thief 1 and 2 were done in-house at LG, so the process and cost were more integrated with the actual game production.  But that’s not the relationship we had with Eidos on Thief 3 — and that’s what hurt it.  Complicated games like this go through a lot of story changes in the course of their development, so the budget needs to be pretty elastic, and we failed to plan for that — and as we were separate companies, it was too far along before we saw the problem, and pretty soon we were faced with the fact that quality had to take a hit just to get the thing done.  Everyone on the game team was incredible, and worked really hard with us to solve the problem as best we could, but it ultimately came down to cash and time.

TTLG: More on the design side, do you remember what was the process pipeline for a mission from briefing to ending cutscene?

Daniel Thron: For the briefings, the designers would render out overheads for the maps (that the artists would treat to look old-timey) and give the writers a basic layout of the mission.  Then the writers (noteabley Laura Baldwin, who coined some of the classic terms from the games)  would script the dramatic narration, and come up with a bullet point series of images that needed painting.  The rest was simple After Effects treatment.  The cutscenes were much less bound to the nitty-gritty mechanics, so we had a lot more room to explore the mood — Terri Brosius who was the screenwriter for much of this, really came up with some haunting, crazy material.

TTLG: Are you in any way involved in the development of Thief 4? If not you would have liked to work again for this game?

Daniel Thron: No one’s contacted me yet   I’d love to continue directing for Thief; I’m very proud of my contributions to that setting, and it’s a really wonderful style to work in, filmically.  I think game cutscenes (outside of great stuff like the Beatles‘ Rock Band movies — mindblowing) have fallen prey to the same problem that plagues big-budget movies: things are done because they can be done, not because it’s good filmmaking — CG cameras fly around like hummingbirds, zoom people’s noses’ etc.  Not that that’s bad —Lord of the Rings has a really active camera design — but after a while, most of this stuff turns to unmotivated mush.  I’ve seen cutscene ripoffs of Saving Private Ryan or Braveheart a thousand times apiece now, and I can only imagine that the audience is getting tired of it too.  Becuase of the style and flavor that LG created for Thief in both it’s gameplay and cinematics, I think Thief 4 has a huge opportunity to stand far apart from that mish-mash, and really make something groundbreaking again.

TTLG: Have you seen The Dark Mod?  What are your thoughts on it? Or have you played any Thief Fan Mission?

Daniel Thron: I have not!  I think I might have to download this right now!

TTLG: Finally, where do you draw inspiration from and where are you working now?

Daniel Thron: As far as inspiration goes, I read a lot, both fancy-style books (currently, Roberto Bolano’s ‘2666′) and cheesy-but-excellent ones with spaceships (currently Peter Hamilton’s ‘Pandora’s Star’), and I watch movies all the damn time — I’ve been seeing a lot of the Val Lewton movies on TCM, along with a great documentary about him.  I would kill to make something as scary as the cane-field scene in ‘I walked with a Zombie.’  And if I were to recommend anything from the past year or so in film, it would be ‘Let the Right One In.’

My wife and I live in Los Angeles now, and work in film — I do a lot of work for Digital Domain, and have worked on David Fincher’s film ‘Zodiac,’  as well as ‘G.I. Joe,’ and ‘2012.’  I direct, write, and act in all of my spare time — this is the stuff I love more than anything, and am working at making it pay the rent.  I’m putting together a short horror film right now (live action), and soon I’ve have my new site which will have a couple of examples of the same animation style we used for Thief.  Hope you folks dig them!

Thanks, and long live TTLG!

Daniel

 

Apart from this interview with Daniel Thron that was taken in 2009, I also did a 24 pages hardcover book that contains all the Thief related official artworks that I could get my hands on, with minor color/brightness adjustments I did to look better. So, if anyone wants to hold this book in his you’ll have to order it from Blurb. I don’t gain any profit from this, the price there is just the Blurb basic price without any cent from my addition. It’s a book by a fan for the fans.