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Jagged Alliance My very short, impromptu interview with the original JA artist Ned Mansour

MrBuzzKill

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In spring 2021 I played and completed Jagged Alliance 1 for the first time. I was impressed with how well it holds up today and randomly decided to look up the people who made it. Most were hard to reach, but fortunately, the person responsible for most of the art and animation in the game - Mohanned (Ned) Mansour - had an online presence so I was able to ask him some questions. The answers were very interesting, especially for anybody into gaming art history. Now I wish I prepared ahead of time... But here it is (interspersed with Mobygames screenshots):


Me: Hi. Sorry, I was wondering: are you the Ned Mansour who worked on the original Jagged Alliance game?

NM: Hi there. Yes, I worked on the original Jagged Alliance. May I ask why you’re asking? :)

Me: Sorry, I was just curious. I've picked up the game for the first time recently and played it for over 10 hours already. It's very fun! Then decided to look up the people who originally made it, where they are now and what they are doing. Thanks for making a great game!

NM: Wow, thanks for sharing your experience with the game. That was my first experience creating art in games. I started on the project with two other guys, Ian Curry (programmer and director) and Shaun Lyng (writer). I took care of everything from 3d modeling to animation and user interface design. It was the most fun project I ever worked on and funny enough, it was all done remotely. We used dial-up modems to transfer data and we all worked from our own homes. We were a little ahead of the times I guess. :) Glad you liked it.
I graduated with an animation degree, then I worked as a general artist in games for close to 18 years then tried wedding photography for a while. Then I worked as an character animator in movies for a year and now I’m doing special fx on tv shows. :)


25684-jagged-alliance-dos-screenshot-some-characters-have-their-own.gif


Me: Very nice! On your Mobygames page, it actually lists the games you worked on, and there are some very well-known titles such as Red Alert 1 and Prince of Persia games. It looks like around 2003 you focused on VFX in games. And then movies and TV as well? It seems you had a hand in a lot of cool projects over the years. Can I ask you what 3D modelling and animation was like for you in the early 90s? I've seen the interfaces and some behind the scenes footage of how they made the original Toy Story, and previewing animation seemed horribly slow to me! lol! It must've been quite a task to model the units and animate them then?

NM: Yes, we were learning as we went. There was no google or youtube back then. I remember learning 3d studio (before it became 3dMax) when it first came out straight from the manuals that came with the software. It was a whole different way of making games as well.
I remember having to make all the different animations of the characters facing various angles and then rendering them from a top-down angle, then placing all the animation keys next to each other in one image which contained all the animations in it. The hardest thing was to limit the color pallet to a small number of colors. The game was limited to 256 colors total. Every color that was in that pallet was thought about very carefully. There were different colors used for the characters, others used for the terrain and others for the interface. We worked on the color pallet for months before we got everything perfectly right for the game. It was like figuring out a puzzle. I really enjoyed doing that because it was always like solving a puzzle. I could go on and on, but it would take too long to explain the process. :)
I took a look at your post with the pig and butcher. Nice models. Keep up the good work.
[this is about my 3D artwork I put up on the site]

25675-jagged-alliance-dos-screenshot-picking-a-lock.gif


Me: Thank you, it means a lot! and thanks for explaining part of the original creative process. Now that you mention the color palette, I notice the characters do clearly stand out against the jungle. It's one of those things a player probably won't think about unless it's done wrong! I like the interface too, especially the player's office with the animated bits (laptop, bed, window, etc) and various panels that move and rotate in the GUI, giving that "physical" feel to the game. I would be interested to learn more (unfortunately couldn't find any interviews regarding the original game, just JA2), but I can appreciate that your time is valuable.
70490-jagged-alliance-dos-screenshot-headquarters.png


NM: Thanks for the compliment. The animated interface (room) was something I was very proud of at the time. We used a tool called Animator Pro which at the time was one of the best tools to do animations in games. It allowed color palette control and you could toggle back and forth between frames. The room was created in 3ds and then I brought the rendered frames into AP in order to animate the covers for example. That was hard to do in 3d. The rest of the interactive elements in the room were done straight in 3ds. As for all the facial animations, I scanned photos of people and then created animations in Delux Paint which was the main tool I used to create most of the graphics in the game. Forget about Photoshop. I was there at the time but mainly on the mac if I remember correctly, so I did most of the work in DP. I also used a morph program which (the name escapes me at the moment) to create looping fire or explosion animations. Amazingly I learned all of this on my own without any books or videos. I guess when you don’t spend as much time on the internet, you end up with a lot of time to experiment and find solutions for problems.

25685-jagged-alliance-dos-screenshot-a-manufacturing-plant-blows.gif

This is why I love doing fx in video games. It was all about finding creative solutions to do things that appear to be realistic or three dimensional. That part is getting less and less appreciated these days where everything is simulated and fx are getting more and more real and done in real time. I have moved away from games now and I love making fx for tv or movies using tools like Houdini, Maya and Unreal. I get to be creative and come up with tricks to speed up production fx.
I will be turning 52 this year and I still love what I do and still feel like I’m just starting out as an artist. Learning new tools and tricks is a full time job and being passionate about art means I love the whole process of creating art. I hope to get good at what I do one day. Good luck to you my friend and thanks again for making me relive some of those wonderful times in the not too distant past. ;)


Me: I'm struggling to write something clever, so I'll just say thank you again for being so nice and answering my questions! Good luck to you too.
 
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Ghulgothas

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Always love hearing what artists have to say about the design and development process in their work. Particularly when it has to do with the the technical process involved in creating computer graphics.

Nice job finding him, btw. Game artists who don't end up making a big name for themselves in the process tend to fall into the woodwork. Imagining how much trade info on the creation of art assets for old games that's been lost over time makes me sad.
 
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sser

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Pretty cool stuff. Never knew about AnimatorPro but that program must've been everywhere because those 3d graphics on the room show up in a lot of games of that era.

BTW, Ian Currie can be reached on LinkedIn if you want to talk with him. I had an hour long conversation with home over the phone and he's very friendly and has a ton of details about the development of the JA's.
 

MrBuzzKill

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3d graphics on the room show up in a lot of games of that era.
That's totally true (although I'm not sure how tied that was to AnimatorPro). I wish the trend continued, honestly. It seems to eventually die in the early 2000s, with some notable exceptions
129414-majesty-the-fantasy-kingdom-sim-windows-screenshot-main-menu.jpg


I had an hour long conversation with home over the phone and he's very friendly and has a ton of details about the development of the JA's.
Nice! Any chance of you sharing some interesting tidbits from that?
 
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Zeriel

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This is why I love doing fx in video games. It was all about finding creative solutions to do things that appear to be realistic or three dimensional. That part is getting less and less appreciated these days where everything is simulated and fx are getting more and more real and done in real time.


I agree totally with this. It seems like the artistry has completely disappeared in favor of just emphasizing technology. That's why although it should be totally feasible to create similar or better results in real time with particle effects now, it seems like old, sprite-based emulation of particle effects were much more "juicy" and impressive. Like you go back to Infinity Engine era spell effects... in the end, that was all 3D then converted into sprite animations, but it should be possible to do the same thing in real time now with particle effects, yet when you see modern particle spell effects they look dismal and weak compared to what was done with sprites back then. It's baffling, so I can only assume the artistry has been neglected.
 

sser

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I had an hour long conversation with home over the phone and he's very friendly and has a ton of details about the development of the JA's.
Nice! Any chance of you sharing some interesting tidbits from that?

I was just picking his brain a bit, and then we got on about some development stuff in JA2. There was a lot of talk about voice acting in particular and how it was a mix of amateurs and professionals, but you'd be shocked at how some of the more amusing line deliveries were by pros. My intention was just to talk shop with him, but halfway through the conversation I realized it would make great article-material and inquired if I could make something more public out of it. By that point he was not okay with releasing the phonecall which is totally fair, as we'd been talking for some time and about a lot of details good and bad. There actually wasn't anything controversial really, but I'm still respecting that decision of course and I'd probably do the same if I had an hour long chat and couldn't remember everything I said. He basically ran that ship top to bottom so he has a ton of deets and, as mentioned, he was very affable and friendly.
 

Alter Sack

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I had an hour long conversation with home over the phone and he's very friendly and has a ton of details about the development of the JA's.
Nice! Any chance of you sharing some interesting tidbits from that?

I was just picking his brain a bit, and then we got on about some development stuff in JA2. There was a lot of talk about voice acting in particular and how it was a mix of amateurs and professionals, but you'd be shocked at how some of the more amusing line deliveries were by pros. My intention was just to talk shop with him, but halfway through the conversation I realized it would make great article-material and inquired if I could make something more public out of it. By that point he was not okay with releasing the phonecall which is totally fair, as we'd been talking for some time and about a lot of details good and bad. There actually wasn't anything controversial really, but I'm still respecting that decision of course and I'd probably do the same if I had an hour long chat and couldn't remember everything I said. He basically ran that ship top to bottom so he has a ton of deets and, as mentioned, he was very affable and friendly.

You should have asked him about Calvin Barkmore. :lol:
 

thesheeep

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That's totally true (although I'm not sure how tied that was to AnimatorPro). I wish the trend continued, honestly. It seems to eventually die in the early 2000s, with some notable exceptions
The problem with those UIs is twofold:

1 - Usability.
While it looks amazing, some of these were hard to figure out as a user - sometimes you don't even know something is clickable, etc. A plain button that says "Options" might not be pretty, but it won't waste anyone's time, either.
Some newer games have menus like that, and most of them are absolute trash when it comes to usability. One of those "funny golfing games" even has you running around in first person in a menu and you have to fucking FIND the proper way to quit the game... wtf?!

2 - Cost.
Probably the more important factor (and I don't think I need to elaborate on it).

But I agree, I do miss them as well. But only the good ones that still had usability.
 
Unwanted

Niggerino

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I can imagine this was pretty nostalgic for him, considering he worked on the game 27 years ago. Great job with the "interview", it was a nice read.
 

Spectacle

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Pretty cool stuff. Never knew about AnimatorPro but that program must've been everywhere because those 3d graphics on the room show up in a lot of games of that era.
AnimatorPro is a 2D animation program, it would have been 3D studio that was used to make the 3D renders in pretty much all games of the era, I don't think there was any real pro level alternative back then. Both programs are by Autodesk so it's not strange that they worked well together.
 

Falksi

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How the fuck has the Dragon Lady not appeared to gush her Jagged Ji-Juice all over this thread?
 

TZ3K

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Getting that old school look is still very achievable in modern rendering engines just gotta mess with the settings.
 

Bad Sector

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Both programs are by Autodesk so it's not strange that they worked well together.

AFAIK there isn't any real interop between the two programs aside from 3ds being able to export FLIC files, but by that time the file format was already quite common (it isn't really that complex) and other programs supported it. The UIs were very different too, they might as well be from different developers (and AFAIK practically they were by different programmers).
 

Ninjerk

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Lexx

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Jagged Alliance 1 is still one of my all-time favs. I played it so much in thy olde days. Kinda wish for a remake of it that stays true to it as much as possible. IMO Jagged Alliance: Flashback could be that, but first it was pretty bleh and second, I think people confused it with JA2 if what I'm writing makes any sense. In a way JA2 completely ruined the franchise, because whatever anyone releases, people will always compare it to JA2. Even if it's a remake of the first game. Sad.
 

MrBuzzKill

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Kinda wish for a remake of it that stays true to it as much as possible.
I'm glad the original is still very much playable today. The franchise did seem to only produce "meh" games ever since the sequel. A so-called "Jagged Alliance 3" is in the works currently, but I'm not holding out much hope
 

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