Drawing Inspiration from the Life and Work of Umetaro Azechi

In October of 2014 I was honored with an invitation to speak to the Art Department at my Alma Mater St. Olaf College.  The subject of my talk had to do with the journey that led me to my current position as an Art Director at Funomena, but rather than lay out an instruction manual on how to get from point A to point B (which would be useless) I spoke largely about my influences; what was I influenced by or NOT influenced by that continues to evolve my aesthetic.  One of the major points I attempted to make was that one cannot grow as an artist if one is constantly referencing what has been done in one’s respective discipline.  In my case I had big dreams of working as a character designer in Animation.

A huge turning point on that particular career trajectory occurred when I enrolled in an Advanced Character Design workshop at The Animation Collaborative taught by my instructor and friend Chris Sasaki.  His design philosophy was contrary to what I had been told for years as a student specializing in Animation Design.  Rather than having us look at what was current in the world of Animation, Chris urged us to look beyond that at other art forms, and disciplines whether it be theatre, furniture design, photography, literature and (especially) nature… Everything was fair game.  Coincidentally, around this time my girlfriend stumbled upon a book at our local library on Modern Japanese Woodblock Prints.  The work of one artist in particular floored me.  His name was Umetaro Azechi.

Azechi is relatively unknown these days but he grew to prominence in the mid 1960’s and is experiencing somewhat of a resurgence now.  His story is as inspiring as his art.  He knew from an early age that he wanted to be an artist, but his family was poor and he wasn’t able to further his education beyond eighth grade level.  It wasn’t until he was 18 that he had enough savings to take his first formal art course by correspondence.  Living in the small town of Uwajima in Ehime Province on the Island of Shikoku didn’t lend itself to artistic exposure, so he moved to Tokyo and scraped out a meager living distributing newspapers.  While there he acquainted himself with a cadre of like-minded peers who formed an informal  group and dubbed themselves the “Seven Stars.”  It was the leader of this group who later provided Azechi with a job at a Government printing Office.  While there, he was exposed to the art of printmaking and took advantage of the opportunity to teach himself how to engrave.  In his spare time he continued to study art and found a mentor in Un’ichi Hiratsuka, a prominent printmaker/artist who invited him into his home and encouraged him to continue his pursuit of an art career.  The life of a woodblock print artist had to be very simple and meager especially during the Second World War, but to Azechi, the most important thing was the work.  He found acceptance as a serious artist when he finally exhibited his prints in several juried shows.  The acceptance of his work and the praise he received were enough for him to ultimately quit his job and become a freelancer.  

All the while Azechi also discovered his other passion, Mountaineering.  It’s important to note that Azechi didn’t just draw inspiration from other printmakers in his circle, he looked at the larger world around him, especially at nature.

“My roots are in the Country, and I like simple rustic work… I respect (Shiko) Munakata’s approach, and I agree with him that japanese artists imitate too much.  In my own case I think my lack of training saves me from that kind of thing.”  -Umetaro Azechi

Later on he would actually gain prominence as an avid mountaineer and he also made part of his living writing about mountaineering.  Oddly enough he only wrote one book on woodblock printing (a copy of which I happen to own).

His overall philosophy is one of learning to live with imperfection and with mistakes which encompases a large part of the philosophy behind our game Luna, so it was only appropriate to bring his work in as a major source of inspiration.  What I love about Azechi’s work first and foremost is how it evokes the spirit of its subject matter.  His prints are very rough and in many ways primitive, but his sense of design and storytelling is very honed and sharp.  Most of his subject matter is inspired by his many solo treks into the wilderness, a practice I have adopted; not just capturing the physical reality of a landscape but evoking its emotional reality.  It is this kind of design philosophy that I hope to bring to Luna… To me there is no separation between our psychological selves and the natural manifestation of those hidden emotions in nature.  Umetaro understood this in his own way and worked it subtly into his prints.  

Umetaro Azechi passed away in 1999 at the age of 97 after a long, happy and simple life climbing mountains and creating his wonderful rustic work.  

Earlier this year, there was an estate sale in San Francisco that liquidated a huge cache of Umetaro Azechi prints gifted by him to an Artist friend in the U.S.  I was fortunate enough to purchase a couple of original Azechi prints for my home studio that I hope to cherish and draw inspiration from for years to come.  

-Glenn Hernandez, Art Director for Luna

 

Wattam!

Wattam is name of game that we are making for PS4 since Sep 2013 at Funomena. To say technically, Vikram the engineer and I started making prototype around the end of 2012. So it's already two years roughly. But it's not finished yet, so we made a teaser trailer.

 

Check out our official announcement on the Sony Playstation Blog

We are still looking for 3D artist who has good "sense" for Wattam, and a talented senior engineer who has experience with development for consoles. If you are interested in working with us, please let us know.

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-Keita Takahashi, Creative Director for Wattam

Listening

Ahoy!

My name is Brad. I design sound and music here at Funomena. One of my favorite things about being a sound person is Listening to the world around us. This may sound simple but the process of actively listening to the sound that enters our ears can be a surprisingly fresh and enjoyable experience. Quite often we allow ambient noise to exist just below our attention level or background music to passively augment our mood.  But how often do we actually just sit quietly and listen?

So let’s try it. Stop what you are doing. Turn off your music. Maybe even close your eyes for a bit and focus just on the sound of your environment. Even for just 30 seconds (I’ll wait). What did you hear? Maybe at first we hear a few obvious things like traffic, people talking or the television in the next room. But the longer we listen, the more subtle sounds are revealed. These sounds have been there all along and the sound waves even entered into our ears. Our brains just decided they were not relevant to our survival. So we tuned them out.

But over-riding this autopilot listening mode can help us experience life in a different way. It can be like exercise for your ears! For example, I remember the first time I truly heard “silence”. It was in the middle of Joshua Tree National Park in California on a perfectly still winter day. No traffic or planes or refrigerator hum. No cell phones or news or noisy neighbors. It was so silent that the blood rushing through my ears felt enormous. This absence of sound feels like a blank canvas upon which our lives can be re-imagined. On the other end of the spectrum, loud sounds can be interesting too. The razor crack of lightening or the sudden snarl of a nearby dog can be quite a shock. The feeling of this loud unexpected sound has an undeniable effect on our mind and body. We feel energized with a “fight or flight” kind of energy. Being sensitive to these audio experiences can build our sonic vocabulary and help make better video games.

Listening closely isn’t just for audio nerds though. These techniques can also be helpful in our daily lives. It can be a simple form of meditation. Taking 5 or 10 minutes out of our busy schedule to just sit and listen can reduce stress and increase focus. Listening more closely to someone speak also has obvious benefits. How often are we truly listening to someone or just waiting for our turn to speak? Even listening to our favorite music more closely can reveal layers and meanings hidden below the main melody or lyrics.


So I invite you to listen to your life. It is beautiful and full of surprises!

 

-Brad, Sound Designer

Collaboration and Exploration

Hi, I’m Martin, co-founder and technical director here at Funomena! Every month a Funomenaut volunteers to speak at lunch on a topic of his or her choosing, and so far we’ve learned about a variety of interesting subjects, from hallucinations to the genius of Jackie Chan. For my talk I presented some thoughts on collaboration, which I am adapting here to share with you.

One of our core values is that everyone’s time is valuable. The experience of playing our games should be a worthwhile way for players to spend their time. The experience of developing our games should also be worthwhile! It can initially feel overwhelming, you start out with a seemingly infinite possibility space of all the games you could make. The game you want to make exists somewhere in those possibilities, but you’re not sure exactly where, or how to get to it. You’re stumbling around, sometimes making false starts, sometimes doubling back, and occasionally heading in the right direction.

If you are measuring your progress only against your final destination, you can often feel like you are wasting your time. However, most of that time spent stumbling around is a necessary part of the process. Part of the challenge of game development is maintaining cohesion between different realities. Even as a solo developer there can be a disconnect between the target you want to be heading toward, the target you think you are heading toward, and the direction you are actually going. When you are working on a team several new realities get added: the direction you say you are going, the direction other people hear from you, and the direction other people think you should be going instead.

You need a lot of communication to keep everyone on the same page. When developing experimental gameplay, it is hard to communicate the experience of the game through words because you don’t have many common reference points for people to relate to. Ultimately the best way to communicate is through the game itself. Our prototyping phases tend to be longer than our production phases. Most of the work done during our development is for the purpose of communicating with the rest of the team about what the game could be. Even though this work may not make it into the final game, it is still a valuable use of development time.

Game development requires patience, but narrowing down an abstract idea into something concrete and playable ultimately is rewarding, and you gain an appreciation for the nature of exploration. The medium is still young, and maybe in the future the vocabulary will be more defined, but I’m excited to have the chance to stumble around right now!

 

Low Level Thinking, High Level Programming

A few years ago, Vanity Fair called the 2000s "The Lost Decade" for Microsoft. Most of the reason for that name was financials and business decisions, but at the C++ and Beyond conference in 2011, Herb Sutter invoked Vanity Fair's expression to 

talk about the decisions that Microsoft had made going all-in on the .NET framework and largely stepping away from native cod

e . He said it was important to be focused again on low level programming, despite the fact that people coming up in the web and the .NET era thought mainly of abstraction. Herb claimed that native code was still relevant even for application level developers.

For people familiar with working in restricted resource environments not much has changed- but on the web and in a lot of application development, abstraction and patterns have been king. In games, there have been developers cramming as much as they can into as few registers as possible for a long time. This is partially because that's what was necessary, and partially because that freed up thinking and resources to deal with bigger more important problems. It's a kind of sokoban puzzle played by programmers hoping to squeeze just a few more milliseconds out of whatever it is they are making, or an exercise in minimalism where each piece has great importance.

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Now we're in an era where games as a medium allow us to tell many diverse stories. We're not just making efficient machines any more, we are making art. That's incredible, and the democratization of tools has meant that so many more voices can contribute to what we play. In the process however, it's easy to forget how knowledge of the craft can facilitate creativity. Games are at a point where we are lucky to have diverse audiences and still be able to try new things, building upon the work of many before us. It's natural to look for higher level abstractions. It is empowering! But, as developers we should still remember the lessons of "The Lost Decade".

Emil Persson spoke at GDC in 2013 

about the nature of high level shading languages and how as we get further from the hardware, it's easy to forget about what is actually happening under the hood. Falling into, "the compiler will handle it" or "resources are plentiful" means when things change at a lower level, we may not question what the implications are and instead convert knowledge into mysticism. The beauty of where we are at is that we can use the benefits of high level tools better if we still take the time to know the how and why that things work the way they do.

There will always be places for high and low level languages but no matter what type of tools you use, it will always be important to understand why and how things happen. The great thing about this is that it doesn't take very long to test. Trying out the different collections, iterators, operations or tools to see what is really happening and what each thing is good or bad at means that you will always know the right tool for the job. Be inquisitive and critical, then focus on what matters. Use low level understanding to be optimal and be able to focus on high level problems.

Jon, Lead Engineer

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-Jon McElroy, Lead Engineer