Steven Olds: Architect of Our Childhoods

While the name Steven Olds may not be a household name for some of you, believe me he made your household an amazing place to be in the 80’s and 90’s, especially on Saturday mornings. Mr. Olds has been directly involved in the production of iconic shows such as C.O.P.S., Captain N: The Game Master, and Spiral Zone…and that is just a tiny fraction of the shows he has contributed to (seriously, check out his IMDB page and be astounded!

Recently, Steven was kind enough to provide your pal, the ol’ Ouija Board Kid, an opportunity to discuss his awesome career, which has stretched from the aforementioned 80’s classics to the video games of today!

Can you give us a brief overview of your career and how you became involved in so many iconic shows?

Steven: My involvement with animation was accidental. I was working as an architectural designer/draftsmen when I was first introduced to some individuals working at Marvel doing animated series for their intellectual properties. I always had a fascination with creating designs which were beyond what was possible in the real world because they would involve impossible engineering and economics that were beyond reality. This did not keep me from dreaming and creating drawings for my own entertainment and creative satisfaction during my spare time. I had no idea these drawings and concepts would ever be able to be used until I presented them to a group of artists at Marvel and discovered that the work could be used in the make believe worlds of animation. Marvel was fully staffed at that time, so I was not retained to work on any of their projects but I was able to network with other artists. They encouraged me to continue developing my concepts since there was a possibility to make a living creating make believe worlds and get paid for it in the future. The opportunity came when I met Charles Zembillas, the Art Director for a series entitled Spiral Zone. The project was an import from Japan but was being re-created to suit a younger American audience to primarily popularize a new line of toys based on the series. Charles asked to do a design after our first meeting and I went home right away to get started. I was very nervous because it was my first assignment outside my profession of architecture and I did not know what the expectations were. So I worked hard to show my appreciation for this opportunity. Charles was/is a very talented and accomplished artist and I know having an individual like him review my work would help me learn more about what I’d need to do in order to make the transition into a career in the animation field. When I turned in my first assignment, I was pleased to receive some positive and encouraging words from Charles and then I felt I may be able to pursue my passion for creating worlds of make believe as a profession. Subsequently, I was able to create a good network of friends and fellow artists who always found a way for me to utilize my craft on various projects and allowed me to work on a diverse set of projects.

Do you have a favorite out of the shows you worked on and if so, why is that particular program a standout?

Steven: “Cops”. This was a new sci-fi IP and we had lots of creativity to build this world starting with a blank page. The style became a future world with a bit of a 1950’s vibe and design esthetic. I worked on props, vehicles and environments and it allowed new challenges for me working with a retro themed property. There was a lot of energy during the concept development phase of this project and there was a very talented group of artists bringing their individual perspectives to create a cohesive vision.

To me the thing that made 80’s cartoons seem so magical was the sense that everyone was working under the aesthetic that “anything goes” design wise. How true was that assumption, and how restricted were you in what you created?

Steven: We had a lot of creative freedom but there were some really good designs that never made it to screen. There was a hierarchy in place beyond the art department that had final say on the overall direction of the visual style and narrative for our projects so it was always interesting to see how things would actually come together. The artist who labored with passion to create what appeared to be superior ideas was often disappointed by the rejection from decision makers whose passions and objectives were not clearly understood or consistent. We did our best to generate the best work possible, within the design criteria, and hope for the best for what actually made it to film.

Did you ever create a design that you loved that ultimately wasn’t utilized in a program, and if so what was that design?

Steven: It turns out that my very first design for the animation industry created with the direction of Charles Zembillas for Spiral Zone is still one of my favorite designs. Perhaps for me it symbolizes a milestone of my transition from architecture to a new industry with new challenges. So I may have sentimental feeling attached to it. I had to re-design the zone generator device and I attempted to have a design that was created off Earth that looked believable and functional. My sketches were given thumbs up from Charles and I was excited about seeing the design come to life in production. For some reason the decision makers decided to go with a design that the artist found less appealing but disappointment happens as part of the process. You just must learn to work with it and always do what you feel is best and see what happens. The biggest reward for me with this design is how strongly Charles liked my design. He kept a copy of it on his wall for the duration of production and that was a huge compliment coming from an artist with his talent.

Do you have a dream property you would like to work on, and if so what is that property and what would you do design wise?

Steven: There are lots of pre-existing properties I’d love to re-create so I can’t really fixate on the one that is my wet dream. Ultimately, that dream project would be one of my own creations. I have for years been using my spare time creating a futuristic universe that is Utopian in nature and does not have what I consider commercial value for mass appeal. It’s an optimistic journey into a universe where peace, technology and wonderment are the stars (performers) without the predictable “good versus evil” theme that is the current flavor of mass consumption. For now, I’ll generate my ideas and create a place for me to escape in.

How does working in the video game industry differ from animation?

Steven: The real difference is the real-time interactivity. Video games are animated films that the user can actually control and manipulate at their own pace. I do feel that the complexities involved with game design and all the diverse disciplines required to complete a project for me, is a more complex process. Both animation for film and game design are filled with creativity and art and both require similar attention to storytelling art and technology to entertain. There is a lot of migration between media disciplines that allows talent more options for creative expression and cross pollination. I’ve seen lots of chances during my years in entertainment and there have been wonderful developments brought on with the development of digital technology. This has created a more uniform way to create higher quality and professional unification for all entertainment media to whatever delivery device preferred by each group of consumers.

Do you have any advice to artists reading this that may want to follow a similar career path?

Steven: I think to make an individual’s art and visual design skills marketable, learning traditional and digital mediums can be an asset allowing an artist more diverse options. If possible, I recommend finding a good school that has both traditional and digital art to begin exposure to many different approaches to art and visual design. I don’t have any formal art training so don’t be discouraged if a formal education in art is not possible there are lots of ways to learn and grow if you are focused and motivated. The main thing is that you are working to prepare a portfolio that shows you have competent skills that showcase your skill set to potential studios and clients. Be sure your portfolio has as much visual diversity starting out to prepare for the many different visual challenges that you may be required to solve in connection to any creative endeavor. Problem solving is a big part of becoming a commercial artist so learning to research and study various subjects outside one’s comfort zone also helps when confronted with new creative challenges that are not always obvious. Thinking “outside the box” is the term that seems over used but is totally relevant. Being able to bring and unpredictable solutions to old problems generates freshness and is a valuable asset in a much crowded industry that often has too much replication of ideas rather than innovation. Stay open minded and utilize all the resources available to learn and discover your unique vision and expression as an artist. Above all, observe experience life and everything around you because those are the things that will ultimately guide your vision as a creative individual.

Where can people go to check out your work?

Steven: I have a few samples of some specific projects that can be viewed here!

Daniel XIII

Daniel XIII: equally at home at a seance as he is behind the keyboard! Raised on a steady diet of Son of Satan comics, Kaiju flicks and Count Chocula, ol' XIII is a screenwriter, actor, and reviewer of fright flicks! What arcane knowledge lurks behind the preternatural eyes of the Ouija Board Kid?

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