Interview with Paul Culp, Studio Director at Supergenius Studio
Supergenius Studio in Oregon City, a few minutes outside Portland, provides creative and production support to the video game industry. We recently completed an interview with Paul Culp, Studio Director.
Could you tell me a bit about your background?
I’m actually from a town called Prunedale in the dead center of Monterey Bay, California between Monterey and Santa Cruz. You drive through it on the 101 on your way to LA. You blink, you miss it. I got a job there right after high school working for an entrepreneur out of an old converted house designing screen savers to compete with After Dark, the old fish tank screensavers for Windows. I was given a 386 PC and a catalogue of all the available media software at the time. It had Photoshop, Painter, 3D Studio Release 1, everything a digital artist could ever want but could never afford, or learn how to use, for that matter. The boss let me pick out whatever I wanted, so I did. I picked all of it and went to work. The only thing we ever actually shipped was a screensaver of my faerie art done in Painter. Images of half naked faeries in the woods, called FantaSee. His name. Not mine. It was pretty dumb. But it was my first product to hit the shelves. I was proud of it at the time.
That ended for one reason or another and I went to work in web design in Saratoga. This was before most people knew what the web was. It was a thankless job. No money in web. All the cool kids were doing video games. My buddy owned a game company in San Francisco called Blam, which was a garage style game shop in an old converted Victorian, and he offered me a job doing concept art and storyboards for a Zelda clone on the Playstation called Monkey Hero. I happily left the world of web design.
Blam was great. I have a million stories from there. The game tanked and we never made any money but I cut my teeth with one of the true garage shops of the 90’s and learned everything I know about game development, character design, game design, etc. The ironic part is all my friends in the internet business were making millions now and I was slogging away barely able to pay my bills. I wouldn’t trade it for the world though. I loved those guys at Blam. I ended up Art Director there and wrote a lot of original designs for EA, Mindscape and helped design an RPG system for Stormfront Studios. We drank a lot. Embarrassed ourselves and others at E3 and GDC a lot. We pitched games right and left. Made a lot of friends. Got in a few fights. The industry was a lot smaller then and you kind of knew everybody. You’d be out drinking with guys at E3 debuting their game for the first time, and six months later their game goes on to be the biggest seller of all time. Now they’re sickeningly rich and you’re wondering why it wasn’t you. Well, that was my story at least. Those were interesting times.
Blam eventually went under. One of the partners left to help start a small publishing division of Take Two called Rock Star Games and they offered to buy Blam for a dollar. The remaining partner refused and the studio went under. None of us had any idea what would eventually become of Rock Star.
Luckily, I was long gone by the time it went completely under. I was burnt out and my paychecks were bouncing. I had a new kid on the way and I just couldn’t afford to keep screwing around, trying to make the next big hit. This was late 1999-early 2000. One of the artists at Blam and I decided to branch off and start a studio of artists that would help game developers who needed extra art help. Lord knows we needed that many times at Blam. We called ourselves Liquid Development. This business model was unheard of at the time. There was a lot of general skepticism from our friends and colleagues. This was the beginning of art outsourcing studios. The model we built, project management software, processes, all of that is standard now in the industry. At the time it was all a blank canvas, which for us was really exciting.
Liquid was very successful, despite how much beer we drank and general lack of maturity when we began. We were all kind of shocked by how well it did right out of the gate and how many developers were in need of more and more artists. We planned on that being the case, with the next gen consoles, but I don’t think we expected to be that accurate. At least I didn’t. My business partner probably never doubted it. We eventually moved the company to Portland, Oregon, because I had gone to see one of my favorite bands play there when I was younger and I thought it was cool. Plus, we could all buy houses and live like normal people. I had a wife and kids and I was sick of renting a crappy house two hours outside the city and commuting four hours a day. This was in 2003.
My partner weren’t getting along so well, so I ended up selling my portion of the company to him and I bummed around for about a year. I kind of lost interest in the industry and business in general at this point. I was disenfranchised, you could say. I tried a few little ventures here and there but all I really wanted to do was play in a band and do art. This was me just going native in Portland. I was in retirement mode at 28. Not very realistic for someone with three kids but I just didn’t know what I wanted to do. I had no drive at that point and wasn’t getting the kind of kicks I used to from work. Plus Portland had no game industry at the time. It was weird for me not to be surrounded by my industry. I never really thought of myself as qualified to do anything else.
I ended up taking a job at a friend’s studio in San Francisco called Shaba, which was a part of Activision. Shaba was right where Blam was at the same time, only Shaba made it. So it seemed fitting to go work there. Unfortunately my family was still in Portland so I commuted back and forth between SF and Portland for two years. Shaba was great, but that particular life sucked big time. I shipped two games with them, Shrek: Super Slam and Tony Hawk: Project 8. I also recorded an album in their basement. It was an interesting time in my life and I made some great friends, but I needed to get back to Portland. Fortunately I was mercifully laid off after Hawk. Activision shut the studio down shortly after. This was around 2006, 2007.
I did a lot of freelancing after I got back. I worked on The Watchmen Motion Comic for a while. I was completely resigned to leaving the game industry at this point. I knew I wanted to be in Portland, but there’s nothing here for games, which is pretty much what I’m most qualified to do. I ended up answering an ad for a project manager position at a film company called Funnelbox in Oregon City, where I met Robb Crocker, the CEO. He happened to have a small team of 3D animators in the back working on cinematics for A Night at the Museum game. It was a strange encounter with fate and I ended up taking on the team.
And what are you currently doing/working on?
I’m working on SuperGenius. That’s where I spend all my energy. It’s a great studio, and we’ve done a lot of cool things since we began. We went from four animators to over twenty animators, artists and producers in two years. We pretty much have our grubby little hands on every Telltale game that gets released, which keeps the animation team very busy. They are doing something very original right now with the episodic thing and I think it’s just going to get bigger and bigger. We’ve shipped Tales of Monkey Island, Sam and Max, Back to the Future, Jurassic Park and Poker Night at the Inventory with them so far. We have done a LOT of work on the Marvel Super Hero Squad license for multiple games. We worked on the trailer for Spike TV’s the Deadliest Warrior which debuted at the VGA’s. We are also working with a few other clients on some awesome titles which I can’t divulge at the moment, as well as a few internal projects.
Oh man, where do I start? I love Oregon. Portland, in particular. This is the first place I ever lived where I wasn’t plotting my next move in two years. It’s home now. The creative energy of this place is like no other place I’ve been or seen. People here don’t work for the sake of working. They seem to come here to make something. To work on something. To create something. Not everyone, exactly, but enough to warrant a generalization like that. If you’re reading this, chances are you’re from here so you know what I’m talking about. I like to be surrounded by people who are motivated for reasons other than being upwardly mobile. They do what they do because they enjoy it and care about their work.
What inspires you?
People who do things and make choices based on something other than fear.
What’s next for you?
Building SuperGenius to be the greatest thing ever. An institution of sorts. Where amazing things happen, and people come here to be a part of it. People work with us to be a part of it. We push people here to be at the top of their game, both creatively and technically and I think it’s infectious. We have an incredible motion capture studio in the works, as well as an education branch to help cultivate some of the raw talent this place has to offer. We have some of the best artists and animators I’ve ever worked with. We are expanding in all kinds of new directions. We are part of the 8th fastest growing company in all of Oregon, which is exciting in its own way. Especially considering the state of the world. We are on the verge of building something this place hasn’t seen before and I’m honored to be a part of it. I just want to make sure I’m worthy of that honor every step of the way. I’m definitely getting my kicks again.
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