1 August 2004 Dragons, Dreamworlds, and... Diskettes: An Interview With Original CGW Cover Artist Tim Finkas Column 2

Note: Tim Finkas was Computer Gaming World's original Art Director, Layout Artist, Photographer, and Illustrator. He worked on the magazine from the very first issue in November of 1981 to about late 1985. I recently managed to catch up with him, and over the last few months, Tim graciously answered my many queries regarding his time with CGW. It is the CGW Museum's pleasure to present this fascinating feature on Tim's work.

CGW Museum: How did you end up getting a job for CGW?

Tim Finkas: In 1980, I was 20 years old and attending University to become a graphic designer. I was also working part-time for Balboa Games in Long Beach, CA. Balboa distributed war games, strategy games, computer games, and Dungeons & Dragons products. My primary job was putting together orders for shipment to various games stores, but sometimes I got the chance to create artwork for a few games and publications that Balboa produced. It must've been through Balboa that I came to the attention of Russell Sipe, the founder of Computer Gaming World.

CGWM: What exactly was your job? How much work was involved?

TF: My job, at least for the first few issues, was to take care of all the art and design needs of the magazine. I was responsible for creating the cover illustration and interior illustrations as necessary. I designed the logo, masthead, column headings, and other magazine graphics, as well as create other promotional items for CGW (for example, CGW ads for other magazines, business cards, stationery, etc).

I also did the "old-school" style physical paste-up of the magazine. In those days, you would send your typewritten manuscript out to a company whose computers would compose columns of type and output them on photo paper. These columns would then be pasted down onto sheets of page-sized posterboard. It was tricky business cutting with an X-acto knife, rubbing down type, getting everything straight and exact. Of course, nowadays the layout artist/designer can input and format text, photos and graphics onto the page interactively using a page layout program. This was just a few years prior to when desktop publishing on PCs was born. I pasted up the first issue on the kitchen table of my parents' house!

I also served as photographer later on, when Russell wanted to add box art for reviews.

CGWM: About cover illustrations - I've always seen the first issue cover with the dragon as representing computer gaming "coming out", that is, becoming more popular, reaching out of the computer. Was that the intent, or am I reading too much into it?

TF: That's certainly a great interpretation of the image! Thinking back, I guess what I had in mind was how computer games can transport you into their own fantastic world. I wanted to convey the way a player actually flinches or moves in real life, sitting in his chair, in reaction to danger he is facing on the screen. It is easier and more abstract to represent this effect by having the dragon emerge from the screen so that's how the image evolved.

Of course, the dragon represents the whole Dungeons & Dragons inspired fantasy game genre. After hours of non-stop play, my mind would become virtually imprinted with those claustrophobic twisting & turning passages. This effect is hinted at by the overhead view of the labyrinth depicted in the background.

Another way of interpreting this cover is that computer gaming brings fantasy worlds to life. You could very well find yourself face to face with a dragon and find that hero deep within your own soul.

CGWM: Great stuff! Continuing on this topic, was the cover design completely up to you? How did you decide on how to approach a particular illustration?

TF: Sometimes the cover idea would be mine from start to finish, other times Russell would give me a theme or subject to work with. On a few occasions, I dug up an old sketch of mine and convinced Russell I should work it up into a cover illustration. I'm sure there were a couple of covers that I just "sprang" on Russell at the deadline - I'll bet I gave him a few gray hairs with such behavior!

When I had to come up with a cover, I'd first consider a computer game related subject or situation that lent itself to inclusion of the diskette image as a visual pun. I'm not sure how diskette became the running visual pun, but I'll take credit for it. <laugh>

Oddly enough, I didn't have much exposure to PC games at that time. The only computer I had access to play games with was at work (I remember two early faves were Castle Wolfenstein and Cytron Masters). Otherwise, I was only acquainted with video arcade games. If you look back on the covers, quite a few of them are oriented more towards arcade games than PC games (for example, 2.6 after Pac-Man, 3.1 after an Atari joystick, 2.5 after Defender, 5.2 after Space Invaders or Asteroids, 2.3 after the wire-frame graphics in Tempest, and so on).

My final cover was the Ultima-themed issue #26 in March of 1986. I had created all the covers to that point with the exception of issues 4.4, 5.5 and #25. Wow - I haven't seen many of these for years... since I did them!

CGWM: Do you have favorite covers?

TF: Cover 3.6 features a self-portrait as the Lord of the Rings character Sauron forging the One Ring, which here is a glowing diskette circled with glowing runes. That's got to be my favorite; I have the original hanging in our house. In addition, this illustration is amongst the most skilled of any of the covers I created which also makes me somewhat proud of it.

The parody of American Gothic that graces the cover of 3.5 has got to be my second most-favorite. It depicts the aftermath of a Space Invaders type game where an ambitious farmer has captured a defeated alien - in this case a beautiful outer-space "babe". The models were myself and my girlfriend Nadinia (who actually DID have purple hair). Note that in many of these illustrations, you can find the name Nadinia hidden somewhere!

I also like the humor of 5.1 and its intended homage to the dragon from the first cover. Hmmm... I guess the first cover is certainly a favorite too because it started everything.

I used photos of myself, family members and friends as the reference for many of the covers. My dad was the model for cover 5.2, my girlfriend for cover 3.5, and other friends, especially my brother-in-law who appears (cloned several times) on covers 4.3 and 5.4. My younger sister, Stefanie, modeled as a druid for cover #26.

Looking back on some gives me a twinge of embarrassment or regret. The art for cover 3.3 is one of my least favorites. It has to be one of the least skilled and least successful of my efforts. Yuck! I didn't even remember it 'till I visited the CGW Museum!

CGWM: Any thoughts on some of your other covers? I find 2.1 and 4.3 particularly interesting!

TF:  2.1 was obviously inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey. I had the video tape on freeze frame forever trying to capture that scene. It's funny how antiquated these appear because of the old-school floppy disk! <laugh>

2.6 was created to honor CGW's first birthday. That's why Pac-Man is eating a single slice of birthday cake with one candle.

4.3 is also me. I am the central figure (in my Ren Faire costume - I was a theme character out at the ORIGINAL Ren Faire in Agoura, CA during the 80s). The other two figures are both my brother-in-law, Bryan Kramer. He is now a Major in the USMC.

4.4 represents the first cover I did not do. I think I was having problems with the one I was working on and Russell Sipe decided to use a stock illustration.

As previously mentioned, 5.2 is a portrait of my Dad. You can see I didn't go far to look for models!

5.4 is multiples of me again and my brother-in-law Bryan Kramer.

[CGWM: Tim kindly provided scans of some of his preliminary illustrations, as well as scans of the front covers of issues 2.2, 2.4, and 4.1. What follows is some background regarding these images.]

TF: I was taking a painting class during the time I did the Hedge Maze illustration. Since I had homework painting to do for school, I conveniently decided on an image that would serve as a CGW cover (issue 2.2). The style is an exploration of pointillism a la Seurat. I still have this painting in my collection. It is around 15" x 30" acrylic on a wooden panel. I used the image again in later years for a departmental banner for the retail store "Store of Knowledge" with Photoshop manipulation to continue the scene into the background and detail a question mark worked into the central area of the maze.

The uniform (issue 2.4) is a photo, of course. I fabricated the "expert" badge from an existing medal and a sawed out piece of brass. I had enough rudimentary jewelry fabrication know-how to create that much. I'm not sure why the powers-that-be on the CGW staff decided to lay the masthead type in purple over the photo - it certainly wasn't my decision or input! Clearly it does not work and legibility suffers.

The spaceship cover (issue 4.1) is meant to depict a spaceship entering a black hole. In this case the black hole is in the form of the diskette, following the visual pun that was visited time and again. The illustration is acrylic and airbrush dyes on illustration board.

On the preliminary illustrations, the dragon is alcohol-based design marker and rapidiograph ink linework on drafting vellum. The dark foreground was rendered in gouache on illustration board. The vellum drawing was contour cut along the bottom and glued down onto the illustration board. This method was used to make the bottom part rich and black so type could be laid over it. I think this art was intended to serve as a black and white ad for the first issue of the magazine, so it is possible that this might actually have been created AFTER the color cover as opposed to before. I just don't remember clearly. For the scan, I Photoshopped the foreground to give it a less dense appearance - to look more consistent with the upper half of the illustration, instead of just dead black.

CGWM: Can you expand a little bit on the second preliminary illustration (the alien), which ended up as the cover to issue 3.2?

TF: The preliminary sketch is in pencil, the title on the sketch is "Smoker Jam and Quarry" (seems somewhat goofy to me now). The final cover art is in alcohol-based design markers & rapidiograph ink lines on drafting vellum. It was one of my favorite methods because an illustration could be executed quickly, within a matter of a few hours.

The subject is that of an alien soldier having just defeated a human opponent. The sentiment of this illustration is how deadly it is to go up against well-armed aliens. The typical outcome in many computer games is that you get fried many times before you ultimately triumph over your alien opponents. In this scene, all that's left of the human protagonist is a smoking stump of an arm and a smoking submachine pistol.

I suppose the idea of this creature came like many other drawings where I just started sketching without purpose and the creature just "evolved". The alien has a centaur-like body with the torso of an ankylosaurus, a humanoid torso & arms, rising to a fish-lizard-dinosaur head. The tail has a mace club like an ankylosaurus.

Often, I was fascinated with the material culture of an alien race so I enjoyed inventing the environmental suit, the equipment belt and the weapon. The suit is criss-crossed with refrigeration/heating tubes just under its surface. There is a zipper-like structure going up the creature's right front leg and an alien insignia on his left breast. The alien has 3 fingers + thumb evident, and the feet feature 3 stylized elephant toes. The alien wears a headset communicator device, and you can see the clear bubble shape helmet (removed) slung across the back as the champion savors the "smell" of victory.

Note that the human was only armed with a conventional firearm, not an advanced ray gun such as the alien soldier's. You see the magazine has become detached from the pistol body and many spent shell casings on the ground. This is where our ill-fated hero made his last stand. This is reflective of many games (Quake for instance - although this of course predates Quake) where the player starts out with substandard weapons and upgrades along the way. It sucks going up against a blast rifle with a mere machine pistol!

CGWM: Indeed! Any interesting stories that you recall from your days working on CGW? Any good gossip? :-)

TF: I am going to disappoint you here, I think. I was essentially an outside contractor who just popped by the CGW office from time to time to either pick-up materials or drop off art or sketches. I barely knew Johnny [CGWM: Long time CGW editor Johnny Wilson] as most of my interfacing was with Russell. I met the guy who replaced me, Vince (?) [CGWM: Vince Denardo] a couple of times but only in passing.

An incident does come to mind where a baseball game was becoming very popular and Russell wanted me to do a baseball-themed cover. His concept was for an elaborate cover where the art would depict the area around home plate, including the stands behind. Russell suggested I should include members of the CGW staff and prominent game designers sitting in the stands. Whew! That was a tall order and quite beyond my skills. I decided to simplify the idea and ended up with the cover seen on issue 5.3.

Russell was a really nice guy and very sincere. I have some faint (and unreliable) memory that he had previously been a Lutheran minister. I heard him use some mild swear word once and it shocked me, so I think my recollection of his former "calling" might be correct!

CGWM: Did you use to play the games reviewed by CGW? Any favorites?

TF: As I have mentioned previously, Castle Wolfenstein and Cytron Masters are ones I remember playing and enjoying. I didn't have a computer so I was limited to what was on the computer at Balboa Game Company where I worked. I was a master at the arcade game Defender.

Nowadays I play a lot of first-person military shooters (Rainbow Six, Viet Cong, Medal of Honor), and sometimes that old standard, Civilization I.

CGWM: Are you in touch with any of your former CGW colleagues?

TF: I heard from Russell 4-5 years ago. He'd run across my name online and just dropped me an e-mail to say "Hi." He had already sold the magazine to Ziff Davis and was working on some sort of astronomy/comet website, one of his passions I think. I never really knew anybody else on the staff very well.

CGWM: What prompted your departure from CGW?

TF: By 1984 I was successfully working full-time as an Art Director/Graphic Designer for a small advertising agency. While I continued to work for CGW, I had long since done any layouts or paste-ups. If I recall correctly, my contribution at that point consisted only of the cover illustration and some occasional interior illustrations or photographs.

Sometime in 1985, Russell told me of his plans to take the magazine from 6 issues a year to 9 for the coming year. I think at that point I knew I could no longer keep up the pace and promised Russell to help with another issue or two 'till he could find a full-time Art Director for CGW. He must have hired Vince shortly after that (if I am remembering the timing of those events accurately... I am not sure).

Note that my departure ushered in a slicker, more professional look for the magazine. This was certainly due to Vince's expertise and magazine experience. I hadn't any magazine experience when I started at CGW. It was also the end of an era where CGW had original cover art. From that point forward, the covers tended to feature actual box art from the games being discussed or reviewed.

Recalling those times reminds me how be grateful I will always be to Russell Sipe and CGW for giving me my first professional experience in the field which impressed the ad agency enough to hire me. It really launched my career.

CGWM: You were involved with a magazine that was just getting started. This magazine was discussing a hobby that was itself just getting started. Stepping back, what is your general impression of the four to five years you spent working on CGW?

TF: There were good times and not-so-good times.

Perhaps the work would've been more enjoyable if I hadn't been such a procrastinator. I would wait till the last moment to start things and then stress out over getting them done in time. It was a pattern I would repeat over and over again, and it sucked a lot of fun out of the experience.

I am sure I must've tried Russell's patience now and again with my frantic right-at-the-deadline work pattern. I regret putting him through that. He was a super guy and didn't need that additional burden along with all of his other responsibilities.

I remember one of the covers (though I can't recall exactly which) I worked on straight through from start to finish over a weekend without sleeping. I watched an endless parade of video tapes during the process as was my habit (Jaws, the Thing, Little Big Man, Excalibur, the Great Escape, Kelley's Heroes, Ben Hur, the Great Race, 2001, etc). When I got home from delivering the finished cover, I collapsed with flu-like symptoms and slept for 24 hours.

It wasn't that the process of doing the art was bad. Art is fun. The pressure to succeed was another stress producer. I was often at a loss for what to draw or how to draw it (for covers and for interior illustrations). Sometimes I went nuts trying to figure out the next cover and anguishing over what the image should be. That also contributed to the work starting later than it might have.

Still, I was at the beginning of my career and doing work that was seen on newsstands across the country. That was very gratifying. I was famous - in a very small way. And I earned some experience that really launched my career in the field of graphic design. Today I am able to look back on many of the illustrations with pride and feel like I did a good job. It was a great experience, but it wasn't painless.

CGWM: What do you do nowadays?

TF: I live in Pittsburgh, PA with my wife of 10 years and our 3 cats. I am starting a job soon with the oldest blueprint company in Pittsburgh, serving as the Creative Director for their visual merchandising division.

I still play computer games, but I am much more into what might be called "reality" gaming. For a medieval battle sport I participate in as a crossbowman, I must wear an authentic suit of armor. On at least one weekend a month, outfitted with a camouflage uniform, ballistic goggles, and a high-tech BB-gun, I go out and play combat games with the local airsoft crowd. And a couple of times a year I dress as a WWI French chasseur or a WW2 Russian infantryman and engage in 24-hour long historical re-enactment battles with blank-firing guns.

I guess you could argue that I never grew up! <laugh>

Many, many thanks to Tim for sharing all of this riveting information. I think Ziff Davis should ask him to do the cover for the forthcoming 250th issue of CGW! Wouldn't that be a great tribute?

Cover for CGW 2.2

Cover for CGW 2.4

Cover for CGW 4.1

Preliminary art for CGW 1.1 cover

Preliminary art for CGW 3.2 cover

Reference picture for CGW #26 cover

Reference picture for CGW 4.3 cover

Newly created art (2004) - D&D theme

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