Interview with Robert Stahl
Lead Art Director for Jurassic Park: Survival
19th July 2016
Robert Stahl was the Lead Art Director on the cancelled video game, Jurassic Park: Survival. The game was due to be released alongside Jurassic Park 3 in 2001, but after months of delays and a rough production, the game was cancelled for unknown reasons – until now.
Joshua Malone spoke with Robert after all these years and he was able to talk about what really happened, along with what the game would have shown.
We want to thank Robert for speaking with Josh and allowing us to publish the interview. Be sure to check out more of his work here!
In case you’re unfamiliar with the game itself, check out the trailer below:
How did you get interested in being an Art Director for video games?
Oh boy. Um. [*Chuckles*] I got in to it, really, close to the beginning. I got in to it in ’93. I’ve always been artistic; I’ve always been more of what I consider a designer than an artist. A lot of visual problem solving on top of hobbies, and building, and inventing on the side. I ended up going Pasadena Arts Center, and got a degree in Industrial Design with specific in Transportation Design. Graduated in ’91, tried to get a car design job, because that’s what my degree’s in, but I also wanted to work and make Star Wars films.
You know, that was my generation. I was seven or eight when the first one came out. You know, I always loved to draw, to build, and to design stuff and I also always loved cars, so my degree in car design worked out but there was a period where the industry had changed and there weren’t a lot of car jobs. So I followed my interest in video games, and science fiction, and ended up getting into the business. A guy I knew back in ’92/‘93 wanted to have some sort of design work done for a virtual reality racing game. This is using Silicon Graphics Reality Engine. Long, long time ago. Basically he showed me the ropes on video game making. Originally he came from, you know, Sega Genesis, and Eight-bit platform and then he tried to get more business with the racing game which didn’t quite work out, then about six months later he called me and asked if I wanted to be a part of a CD-Rom start up company. Name of the company was Xatrix, and about mid ‘93 we acquired three hundred grand for the start up, and we were basically one of the first CD-Rom gaming companies out there. And that’s sort of how I got in to it.
At first I was just a conceptual designer, so I just drew a bunch of scifi stuff. Then whenever we decided what a game was we would then take on more people, which then I would be the Art Director where I would pretty much lead a team. But there was pretty much just four guys in the art department, so there wasn’t a lot of us.
I always loved computers and all the gaming systems and got in to it… well, I wasn’t good at schmoozing for the film industry, you know? It wasn’t something I was comfortable with, and I just really didn’t have any connections. So games worked out real well. Games turned in to 3D, it worked real well with me having an industrial design background because before then games were all illustration and code guys. Basically programmers making games, the art was simpler because it was all, essentially, flat. They were never trying to build anything in 3D. So my background lent itself well to be able to manipulate 3D objects in my head and visualize it, draw it, sketch it, and all that.
So that’s how I got in to it. I’m not really doing games at the moment, but it’s been a very interesting journey. I’ve worked for a couple of bigger companies like EA and Activision, and then a few smaller startups and working on smaller titles, like Jurassic Park at Savage which we were doing for/with Dreamworks and Universal.
How did you get on board the Jurassic Park: Survival project?
The company I was with was Savage, and we were a bunch of Activision guys that spun off during a period where the industry bounced around when developer and publisher were still the same. Activision was a huge company. And Eidos did really well with Tomb Raider, so Activision spun us off, and had a small interest in our company. So we started Savage in ’98, or ’99 and were originally going to do a Heavy Gear 3 project, but that lasted about a year and a half then fell through. So we just had to take projects, you know, to keep the company going. We ended up having a connection with Vivendi Universal , and they wanted us to do Jurassic.
But it was difficult. What was problematic was that we didn’t have a lot of art work to give me for what the design was because they were still in the process of designing the movie, Jurassic Park 3. So that was extremely challenging as far as getting information from them, and as far as trying to tie it together. As far as the direction of the game in regards to where you went and what you did were actually very loosely based on some of the scenarios they knew they were going to do for the movie. So that was one of the more challenging projects. You know, I’ve worked on a lot of franchises and this one was really tough. In a lot of ways it was the worst because I was taking design ques from the other two films as far as some of the props, locations, and stuff but this was supposed to be an official game that ties or is in conjunction with Jurassic Park 3 so I really had to have something [from that film] to base my stuff on. But we just kind of had to wing it to a certain point. But I think that at a point we would have had to have gone back and fix a lot of stuff.
I think we were on it for less than a year. After less than a year it got canceled, you know, for good reasons. It was just at that awkward period of gaming, you know it’s laughable now because everything today is so polished and high end, but then animations were awkward. And we were at that in-between Xbox and PS2, and that kind of “real time” bigger spaces that you had to make look big but really couldn’t so you had to add a lot of corners and organize the space. So having this jungle environment was challenging, because not all of it was just corridors.
It was fun, working on this big project. But ultimately it ended up not happening.
What new ideas did you try to incorporate into your design that people hadn’t seen in previous Jurassic titles?
Interesting. Hm… well, we didn’t have any influence from something like Trespasser. We didn’t have a lot to really pull from. It was just the films. And at no point did they say
“hey, we want to build on this part/idea.” So it was really kind of free form as far as an interpretive sense of design.
Ultimately it was going to be very Tomb Raider-esque. You know, various environments. Some on the ground, some of them climbing; some of them were in caves, jungles, interior spaces. Very much like Tomb Raider. A lot of step on this, wait for this to happen, run over to it in time before it automatically shuts. Some platforming where you’re jumping from one box to the other, or hand over hand over distance. We did a T.rex, a raptor, and also did a bigger one that would chase you around an area.
And I have never put a lot of screen shots up because it’s not at the quality I want to show. It’s tough because when you look at someone’s portfolio, like if you look at my website you’ll see that I put the year it was done. And if you have experience in the game industry you should know that things took a while to get how awesome they are right now. So were a lot of limitations, and I don’t think I collected that many screenshots from it. A lot of the design work I did was more environments, sketches, and storyboards and a lot of that kind of pre-production work.
So yeah. I mean, we got a lot done but none of it ever really got to be polished or final because we moved on to other things. There was actually another company working with us on the environments, mostly cave environments and some of the jungle as well. They had a really good art director who led their own teams, and they kind of followed suit with us as far as what the publisher wanted for the game.
Were there any new animals that you were able to design from scratch?
From what I remember there wasn’t… well, okay. The issue was, remember, that they [the film] was probably only three months ahead of us production wise. [*Chuckles*] And that was it. So, yeah, it was a very weird things and I’d have to look at the dates of when things got released and try and go back through my sketch dates.
What I remember was that one of the last spaces that I had made was an aviary, or at least the beginning of a giant aviary, where you walk in this sort of large cylindrical space that houses one of the dangerous dinosaurs. There was a big pterodactyl. Just like the movie, you know. Where they’re going across the bridge and it’s all foggy. When we were told that there was going to be some sort of space like that, but didn’t have any direction or visuals that we could copy we kind of just came up with our own stuff. But then in a few months the game was canceled.
It was just one of these things that, you know, “okay, we got to move forward,” and we would build a bunch of stuff. Then every couple months we’d be told that they accepted how we had designed things and it was okay, because it was going to be a game inspired by the movie. But they were sort of deciding where that line was. At a certain point I think they just wanted us to build stuff, and they thought it would all match up and then when it became an issue they sort of accepted the fact that the game was going to be an “inspired by,” then I think they tried to put other stuff and other scenarios in that weren’t going to be in the film. It just sort of became sort of smushed together, and ended up losing momentum.
If given the opportunity would you ever want to revisit/do a Jurassic Park title again?
I think there are lots of cool aspects of the Jurassic Park universe. The first one was amazing, and all the other ones had some cool stuff but sort of lost its movement over the years.
What was really fun for me, what I really enjoyed was designing some of the weapons and conceiving what they would be. You know? It’s fun as a designer to just say “make this,” it was more like “hey, we’re gonna’ need some weapons and what would fit in the Jurassic Park universe based on the first two movies?” And then be able to come up with something that was essentially the next phase, of certain weapons or vehicles. Because they try to build on their own designs. They seem to take the core design that they needed for the environment and unique weapons and how the vehicles need to be updated and modified, and how they’re reinforced because of the potential dangers of [*chuckles*], you know, the dinosaurs coming in. That was all really fun! It’s like every time they did it, they came up with a new way to do it. So I think working on a Jurassic Park game would be fun in that respect. You know, from a design point of view it would be fun. But it’s not necessarily that I have a certain love for Jurassic over other titles.