Karen Davies / Imagine, Denton Designs, Freelance, Special FX
Added on August 15th, 2012 (10919 views)

Hello Karen! First off, can I say that you are probably the most well-known 'anonymous' C64 artist ever? You never seemed to sign any loading screen you did (and there are some very well known ones), and it took until the Internet era to piece together your portfolio of work.

Actually, that can be the first question! Was it personal preference or company policy that the Special FX loading screens were unsigned?
There was no company policy about signing screens, and if you look hard enough, my name is hidden in some of them. I signed Kaz, Kal or Ked. I can't remember where I signed, maybe if I looked at them again.

As one of the few remaining ex-C64 artists whose backstory is quite unknown to the community at large, can you give me a potted history of how Karen Davies came to be a C64 artist in the industry?
I did a degree in textile design at Liverpool Polytechnic were I met Steve Cain. I was good friends with his wife Paula. On leaving poly, I went to Lyon and then on to London working in textile design studios, but I remained in touch with Steve who told me about a company in Liverpool called Imagine. I returned to Liverpool, got a job in their art department and I started work on the Dragon and that was it. Although I don't think the Dragon game was ever published... Then on to a C64. Textile design and computer graphics were not as far apart as you would think.

How did you get started with drawing C64 graphics? Did it feel natural and did it ever bug you that the C64 hires pixels weren't square?
It always seemed quiet natural to work on the C64. I didn't choose it – it was given to me – but I liked to work with colours so I was fine working on it. The best was when you had a multicolour sprite with a hires overlay, which happened on Hysteria, so you had detail and colour.

What was a typical day at the office like?
It was not much different from any other office. You arrived, got yourself a cup of tea or coffee then got on with work. I would normally get there early (9/10 AM) depending on what time I had left the day before, and I would leave 5/6 PM unless we had a lot of work to do. I would then work late or take work home. I preferred to take work home and just work until I finished what I had to do, but sometimes it was difficult because of equipment. Some of the other artists and the programmers would often work until late; 9/10 PM and even until midnight or through the night depending on deadlines. Some people would even lock themselves away for weeks, just working day and night. I usually worked quite close to the programmer that I was working with so we could talk about what was happening in the game. I remember at Special FX, we would stop work about three o'clock and have a play for 15 minutes or so. Sometimes we did a crossword or someone would read something in a mag, the letters page or something. I remember a period when we would make paper balls and throw them at each other. It all seems a bit silly now, but at the time it was good fun.

Were you at Imagine until it's collapse? What was the career path afterwards which lead to Special FX?
Yes, I was at Imagine at it's collapse. That was a crazy time. We were working on games called Bandersnatch (this was the game I worked on) and Psyclapse; the so-called 'Mega games'. We were working long hours seven days a week, but it was really good fun as everyone was really into doing the games. Anyway, after that Dave Lawson and Mark Butler put a group of people together to form a new company called Psygnosis, but a few of us decided to have ago ourselves and so Denton Designs was born. The original people were myself, Steve Cain, Ian Weatherburn, Ally Noble, John Gibson and Graham 'Kenny' Everitt. We were together for about two years producing games like Shadowfire, Gift from the Gods, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Enigma Force, and Transformers. They were great times! Hard work but good fun. After Denton's, I freelanced for a short time for Ocean Software were I met Paul Finnegan. He went on to start Special FX with Joffa Smith and Tony Pomfret and that was it. Special FX was taken over by Ocean and then closed down, where upon Rage was formed.

Could you tell us why the original Denton team broke up?
Ian left almost right away. I don't think he was too happy with the way the company was structured. The remaining original five split later for lots of little reasons. Some were offered money to do work outside the group, a lot of money, so it was understandable they wanted to do it. Then there was disagreement about shares, not so much with us, but within the company. On top of that, we were trying to run a company as well as write games and it was all just too much. However, we all remained friends and went on to work with each other again at various points.

What sort of tools did you use to create game graphics with and what app did you use to the create loading screens?
In the early days, we used graph paper to draw the image and work out the animation and then typed in the graphics using code. This, although very long-winded, was good as it was easier carry a graph pad around than a computer. After that, all of the game graphics were done on in-house utilities, but the loading screens for the C64 games were done on the KoalaPad; a wonderful tool which I would have been lost without.

Did you work on any other platforms other than C64 during the 8-bit period?
I did do work on the Spectrum, but only a very small amount. I think I did do some work on a game called Spy Hunter, a top down car game. I am sure I did, but if I am wrong, it was on the C64. A big sorry to whoever did do them! (Note: It would indeed have been the Spectrum version of Spy Hunter done by Denton.)

What attracted you to the C64 as a development platform? How did you feel about it compared to the other platforms?
When I worked on the C64, I was very happy to do so. As I have said, I like to work with colour to give form which is what I was trained to do in textiles. I had four or five colours to draw an image and make it look like eight or nine colours, but as I went on to work on more sophisticated platforms like the Amiga and the PC, I found I had a wider scope to design within. More colours, better resolution, more memory and faster machines. But I always had a soft spot for the C64. It was in a way more challenging.

Can you give an estimate on the time frame you were given to create C64 game graphics? What sort of time frame did you have to create a loading screen in?
The amount of time given to do game graphics varied depending upon the contract. In an ideal world we would be given two, three months and even six months when the computers got bigger, but that wasn't always the case. In one particular case I can remember we had about a week to ten days and I think it showed in the game if we had a fair amount of time or not. To do the loading screen, we would normally get a week or so as the games were usually getting tested. One or two were done quick, in say 24 or 48 hours. It could be done and to a good standard. I don't know if I could do it now though. (Note: 24-48 hours for a loading screen would be considered industry standard for freelancers at the time.)

Because of time limits, could you sometimes feel that you were not totally pleased with your work but it had to go because of the deadline?
Oh yes! I still look back on those games now and know I could have done a better job. But it was not always time limits. It was just at the time you couldn't draw what you felt or saw in your head how ever many times you did it.

What artistic directions did you get when you were assigned to a game?
That totally depended on the game. If it was a movie license we would go and see the movie or sometimes we would get stills and a script. If it was an arcade conversion, we would usually get the game to play with. A lot depended on the format of the game, if it was a platform game, or icon driven, depending upon the original source. For example, Batman had windows of different shapes and sizes opening which came from the comic book format. The design of the game was usually put together as a group. The programmers giving restrictions and the artists putting different looks together which could work across the platforms the game was to be designed on. Then later on when I worked on 16-bit machines, actual games designers were employed and they would have more of a look in mind for the game.

Did you have artistic freedom when designing?
Yes, we were allowed to do more or less what we wanted as long as it fitted within the game restrictions. I can remember we had to change blood from red to green once because red was too violent to look at, but I can't remember which game it was (it could have been an Amiga game). I can also remember being asked to put more hair on the Bruce Willis character in Hudson Hawk (I worked on the Amiga version), which actually changed the look of the graphics. Other than that, I can't remember being asked to change or alter anything.

Was there a lot of planning (storyboards, character design, or sketching loading screens on paper) involved before you started drawing or did you make it up as you went along?
I seem to remember a lot of making it up as we went along. Although we did do some sketching to show each other what we were thinking and we could then bounce ideas off each other.

What was most satisfying to work on for you; title screens, sprites or backgrounds?
Title screens were always fun to do if you had a detailed drawing and it was going well. If it wasn't going well and you couldn't get the drawing right, it could be a real pain. But I can remember doing title-like screens for fun, just for me, nothing to do with games. I never did any sprite work or background work for fun, so I would have to say title screens.

Was there a game you would have liked to draw the graphics for?
There were no games I saw and thought I wish I had done the graphics for because I would have done a better job. There were times when I saw graphics and thought 'they are really good'. I can remember one young lad (I can't remember his name I am sorry to say) who came to Special FX. He was looking for work and he showed us an ogre/Neanderthal man walking across the screen. The man was big and chunky, he had a big forehead and his knuckles were dragging along the ground. He had a comic book look and the animation was really smooth. I really liked it and you could have designed a game around the character alone. I think the young lad went to work at Ocean and I never did see those graphics again, but funny enough they have stayed with me all these years. Games I would have liked to have been involved in... Well, it would be cool to say you were involved with Pokemon, Mario or Sonic the Hedgehog games that took over the world, but I wasn't. There was also a game called Abe's Oddysee which my little boy loved and it would have been fun to say 'Oh yeah, your mum did that', but again alas I didn't.

This question is from a chap called Frank Gasking who runs a popular retro website called Games that Weren't: Can you think of any projects which you worked on that never saw the light of day as commercial releases, and do you still have any old C64 source disks?
I am sure there are projects I worked on that never saw the light of day. As I said, I did a game on the Dragon, but I can't remember anything about it. I also remember doing an educational game, but again, I can't remember anything about that either, the format or anything. By the time I was at Denton's I would say all were published, although there was this one loading screen I did for a Napoleon Bonaparte game that I sent that of to the publishers (I can't remember who), but they told me they were not going to use it and didn't pay me. They did not say why they weren't going to use it. If they were not happy with it, they did not give me the chance to redo it. Funnily enough, I did see it published in a mag at a later date. Yes funny that, still never got paid for it. Do I have any old C64 source disks? I do not know really. I do have stuff put away but I am not sure what. I did give a lot away or threw stuff away when I left the industry. Who would have known people would be interested in that sort of stuff now?

What projects are you most proud of being part of? On the flipside, which ones caused the most nightmares?
Projects I am most proud of... That's a tricky one. From the C64 days, Shadowfire was good fun and at the time I was very proud of the way it looked and the way it was received. Frankie goes to Hollywood was fun to do also. And Batman. That was good fun! Batman was the first game I did with my brother Chas Davies (he was a Spectrum graphic designer). Most of the games I worked on had nightmare moments. That was usually when you lost a day's work, or God forbid, a weekend's work. Or when it didn't matter how hard you tried or how many different ways you tried something, it just did not work or look right. I had many days and game moments like that, but luckily those days and games have disappeared into the hidden corners of the brain and that's where they will stay.

Give us detailed information on the games you worked on: what was most fun to do in each game, what was tedious, how you solved problems, who you worked with, how you got the job, etc.
The beginning and the end were always the most fun to do on any game. The beginning because it was exciting, it was a new project and you had lots of ideas. You had new things to try out and this gave an element of fun. The end because you could see the light at the end of the tunnel. The whole thing was going to come together and you could have a well-deserved rest. The middle bit was all about hard work and could be a pain. You had committed to your ideas but things very rarely turned out as you saw it in your head at the beginning because of programming, time or computer restrictions. Work got lost and designs got changed. I remember one time when I was working on Enigma Force and I had to get animations done. I worked all day Friday, saved my work and went home. I then returned the next day only to find all the work had gone. It had not saved. I put it down to myself, human error. So I work all day Saturday and I am talking 9 o'clock to midnight. I saved my work and went home only to return the next day to find the work was not saved again. This was frustrating! I had lost two whole days of work and I had a deadline. I had to get this work done. I then did three days work in one day and I was not going to be able to save it. I eventually did do the work and again tried to save it, but I think I just left the computer on overnight and hoped it was still there the next day. The programmer who had written the graphics utility for me told me on the following Monday to be careful as there could be a problem with the saving function and that I was to let him know if I had a problem. AHHGH! I let him know! He shall remain nameless...

It was always a fun day when we met the press. They were usually nice and it was a bit like meeting up with friends. It was an important day too because we were basically selling the games. The games press on the whole were very much like us, young, and had an element of casual about them (ok, no one wore suits). They were usually the first people to see the game outside ourselves and the publishers, so it was always good to get their reactions. They knew their games and their opinions were important.

I remember working on Frankie Goes to Hollywood quite clearly. Ally Noble and myself sat opposite each other, being girlies we wanted to do a game that had nothing to do with shooting, killing or blowing up things. We wanted to do something a bit different. I remember I wanted to put a talking moose head in the mystery level, but Paul Morley who was representing the band wouldn't let me. Even to this day I feel Frankie lacks a talking moose head.

The start of Special FX was a fun time. There was myself, Joffa Smith and Tony Pomfret all in one room working. Paul Finnegan was there as well, but he was not in the office every day. He would be off doing business stuff. Joffa was young and a bit shy while Tony was a bit older than Joff – and bit cocky with it – but we all got on well and we laughed a lot. Usually at Tony, but he was a good sport and took it well. I remember at lunch times we would usually go to the pub were we had a sandwich and just for a break they would play computer games. I would usually just watch them playing computer games. Fun times! As Special FX got bigger, it got more formal. I suppose the whole industry got more formal which was inevitable really and it became more like a job. Although I can honestly say I still enjoyed it until the end really. By then I was being torn between my family and work. I always got on well with the people I worked with, well I think I did, I could be a bit stubborn, maybe a bit bossy and a bit stroppy at times. So maybe they might remember it a bit different, but I remember it all fondly.

Was there anyone in the industry or otherwise who was inspirational to your designs and style while in the games industry?
The people I worked with have probably been the most inspirational to me. Steve Cain is the first name that comes to mind. He was a really good graphic designer and illustrator. I would really have to thank him for bringing me into the industry and introducing me to the work of other illustrators like Boris Vallejo, Syd Mead or Jim Burns. As well as other art forms like Manga or Anime, which seems a bit odd now, but 20 years ago we hadn't heard of Manga. It was not on the TV like today. Joffa Smith was influential because he was a programmer and an artist. He was a very good illustrator and could easily have gone into comic art or illustration. Also, I was very lucky to work with some very generous programmers like Tony Promfret, Kenny Everitt and Ian Moran who all gave me the room and the memory to do the graphics the way I wanted to. John Gibson is a lovely person and although I don't think I ever did a game with John, he was a very good friend who always had words of encouragement. But I suppose my main source of inspiration was like most people; movies, Blade Runner, Alien, Star Wars, Mad Max, comic books, Frank Miller, Akira and Disney.

While working on the C64, were you aware of what other artists and programmers were doing with it?
I don't see how you could not be aware of what was happening in the games industry if you were working in it. I never bought or played games (which sound a bit odd but it is true), but people, mainly programmers, were always bringing in games or demos and there was always game mags around. When we started Denton's, we were probably at our most insular but it was not done on purpose, it was just the way it happened. We were always busy. John and Kenny were not big gamers, Steve liked games, myself and Ally were not gamers, but then as more programmers joined the company more games would be brought in. I think there are both pros and cons to seeing what other people are doing.

If you had to choose one piece of C64 artwork to include in your portfolio, which one would that be?
That would be really difficult. I have a soft spot for Shadowfire not only because of the graphics but also because of the time. It was very exciting when we were setting up Denton's and it is my first actual game to be published. Graphically I really like Batman. I like the little Batman and the way he walks, so I will say him.

Are you aware that your graphics were ripped by fans and used in a lot of C64 demos back then? Did you know at the time? Any thoughts on that now?
No I had no idea at all until I read this. It's very flattering and it makes me laugh! At the same time, to think anyone would use my graphics is a bit cheeky really, as someone else had paid me to do them.

Are you aware that there is still currently quite a C64 art fan base, have you ever seen current C64 art and could you be persuaded to take fat pixels out for a spin again nearly 30 years on?
No, I was not aware that anyone had any interest in C64 graphics, but I did look at some on your Facebook page and they made me smile. I would love to have a play with some graphics. I am thinking of looking up some I have worked on if only to show my kids.

Can you tell us a little about when and why you left the games industry and what you are doing these days?
Why did I leave the industry? I am afraid it is really boring. I had been in the industry about 15 years, and in that time I had got married and had two kids. I had to decide what was my priority. I was the mum missing sports days with my kids and getting phone calls at work saying my daughter or son had fallen and I would have to leave work to go and get them. It was not fair on them or my work colleagues and so I had to make a choice, and I chose my family. So in 2000, I left Rage and England and moved to Gibraltar were I still am today. I am still married and have two beautiful kids aged 19 and 15 and I am very happy. I have done no game graphics since leaving Rage although my son has kept me informed with computer games over the years from Pokemon on the Game Boy to Call of Duty on the Xbox. I still keep in touch with some people in the industry and I am amazed that anyone would be interested in the graphics I did many years ago.

Many thanks to Karen Davies-Downey for participating in this question and answer session. With luck, we may even be able to tempt her back to the world of C64!

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