Interview with Charles Zembillas

Interview by: Crazybandicoot

Charles ZembillasCrash has been around for almost fifteen years now. People like him because of how he acts, how he plays, but also because of how he looks. His original design has undoubtedbly created an image that has stuck to a whole generation's mind, and we have Charles Zembillas and Joe Pearson to thank for that. Charles, who created various of the original character designs for the series (including Crash's), is now answering some fan questions regarding his work at Naughty Dog and his experience with Crash. A mighty thanks to him!

Q: Crash Bandicoot: what was this world for you?
A: Crash was a fun project. At the time I was contracted to develop it video games were still very simple. This was the first time that professional character and production designers were hired to develop a high profile game. Also, this was the mid 1990s and PlayStation was still on the horizon. We had the feeling we were doing something special. The world itself was very escapist fantasy for me and a chance to build an alternative reality based upon unusual characters.

Q: Do you still have some of your work with you, or have you left it all at Naughty Dog?
A: I still have an original production bible, which is the book that is assembled at the beginning of a production when it gets started. It bears the name of the orginal name of Crash Bandicoot, which was 'Willy the Wombat'. I also have odds and ends artwork from the original game but not much. I do have copies of everything though. Naughty Dog owns the original art. After Crash I started to contract for the original artwork, so I have the originals drawings for 'Spyro the Dragon' and 'Jak and Daxter', only a very few from Crash.

Q: Is there anything never seen before that you can show us now, or is all your work still protected by copyright of ND or any other company?
A: Yes, if you follow this link, it will take you to a topic I started on my forums, I posted for the first time publicly the original development artwork I did for Crash. The art was created in 1995, and was published 10 years later in 2005.

Q: How was the process of creating a character or environment for Crash's world?
A: We were given an idea by Naughty Dog of what they were aiming for. The president of Naughty Dog saw something in my portfolio that interested him. It was presentation artwork I had done for a project of my own. He was influenced for the environment of Crash from this particular piece. When the process started to create what would become Crash Bandicoot, we went with the information of what Naughty Dog was looking for and started doing rough concept sketches to expand upon that and see where we could go with the idea.

Q: Did ND tell you details to follow or were you usually free to do what you wanted?
A: We were free up to a point, especially at the beginning. Then when they started seeing what we were coming up with (Joe Pearson and myself, a friend of mine who was developing the project with me), everyone started getting excited and more people started to join in on the discussions. Before long there were quite a few jumping in and offering suggestions and direction. As things progressed, Naughty Dog became more detail oriented. We were training their artists as this was going on, so they were benefitting from what we were doing in many ways. After our time with them was up, they were well staffed and production was under way.

Q: We can see a lot of concept art for Crash Bandicoot on Naughty Dog's site, but some characters like N. Brio and Pinstripe only have final sketches for them. Did any character come out perfectly at the first sketch?
A: As time went by Joe Pearson became more in tune with the quirkiness of what Naughty Dog was looking for and I functioned in a role of trying to make the designs we were coming up with animatable. I made sure that the designs made sense as far as the animation of the characters was concerned. Most of the time we had to go through a few versions of the characters before anything was finalized. The exception was Joe's environmental designs, which were almost always accepted right away. He did a great job with this.

Q: What was the funniest character to draw? And the most difficult?
A: Crash was the most difficult. When Naughty Dog decided upon the final design, it posed a genuine challenge for me. The mouth and the body were the same shape and I had to figure out how to give him different expressions besides a constant smile. Also, turning his head was a problem. There was no point to articulate the head from the body, so when he looked from side to side or turned to look back, it had to come from his waste. As far as funniest, that's tough to say. I think Neo Cortex had the potential to be the funniest character in my opinion.

Q: Have you got any favourite character?
A: I have several besides Crash. From the later games I like N-Gin (I think that's how you spell his name), also Dingodile. Later on in the Crash franchise from Crash Nitro Kart I like Emperor Velo, which was another character I designed.

Q: The characters have changed a lot in recent games. What's your opinion about their new look? Do you like them now? Do you think a change was needed after so many years?
A: The latest version of Crash I've seen on the Web and also on iPhone commercials in the US looks pretty cool. I'd like to get back on Crash and get a chance to contribute to his design a little more, but I don't think it's likely. I'm on to other things, besides, I like seeing the characters evolve through other artists.

Q: After the characters, the environments and the atmosphere in a game are done, what gets used in the final result and what is lost in the creation process?
A: Much of what we did for Crash was used. It's different depending on the situation, for example, if we were developing a Crash movie, more ideas/concepts would be turned away than if working on a game. Still, it's not at all unusual for a high volume of material to be passed up before a decision is made as to what will be used.

Q: What's your favourite game that you worked on?
A: I like the work I did on Crash 2 & 3, and Crash Nitro Kart the most. I had more freedom on those titles. On the original Crash, I felt like I was being held back. I couldn't really bust out like I wanted to. Everyone had their own idea of what the game should be and how the characters and environments should look. At the beginning of the development of a major game, it's usually this way. I was trying to help the best I could by providing designs based upon what they were looking for. When a decision was made, I'd go to the next plateau in the process. If I had more control I'm confident Crash would've been even better. I would've pushed it even farther, but studio politics being what they are, the only thing I could do was what they wanted me to do, which was make it look as good as it could, according to the input I was receiving from Naughty Dog and Universal Studios.

Q: Any words on the new Crash?
A: I'm glad to see Crash still going strong after all these years. Did you know that Crash Bandicoot is the number one paid application for the iPhone in the world? That's amazing! Whenever I'm in company and a commercial comes on the TV featuring Crash Bandicoot, I'm a star. It's a fun experience, one that really didn't imagine back in 1994 when I was approached to do the project. Fifteen years later it's still going strong. That says a lot.

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