When I started Pinball Heroes, I didn't really know how far I'd get, how many people I'd find, or how many people would be willing. Sure, there's been a couple of weekends when I haven't had an interview ready, or I'm waiting for replies, but on the whole the generosity of the people within pinball never ceases to amaze me. No exception to that is today's interview with one of the best known artists in the industry.
The Pinball Blog: So you're John Youssi, famous pinball artist and husband of a lady who makes rather fine cookies (I never reveal my sources). When you told your wife you were going to design pinball machine artwork did you get one of 'those looks'?
John Youssi: Difficult to remember that far back but no... I was a free-lance illustrator & every job was important to us. Jenny was always behind me 100% & had seen lots of unusual projects come & go so although Pinball was exciting to us, I never got ’one of those looks’.
TPB: Do you think pinball art has benefited over the years with moves to computerised drawing and strict ties to licenses or has this taken away some of the personality of machines from earlier 'conventional' drawing methods?
JY: Good question!
On the ‘negative’ side:
A) I was trained in the traditional methods & techniques & love the smell of paint & wearing paint splattered clothing so the change to digital didn’t come easy to me & I still miss the hands on approach.
B) We do much less drawing these days & have less control over the subject matter. In the case of licensed games we are provided a style guide & often we must use the images as is. Back in the day, an artist set the look for a game & was responsible for creating characters, settings etc. As you say ‘personality’. Much of that is over but don’t get me wrong, I don’t dislike licensed games. Demand & profitability fuel the industry’s choice of games. If a few ‘Funhouse’ type games were hits, you’d see more of them.
C) You don’t end up with a final piece of physical art that you can frame or just plain old touch or perhaps sell someday. I miss that.
D) No ‘Command-Z’ (see ‘On the positive side’).
On the positive side...
A) ‘Command-Z’ or in layman’s terms, a ‘do-over’. In Photoshop, we can go back over 30 steps so if you screw something up, it’s no problem to correct it. It’s a liberating feeling & frees one up to experiment more & take chances he wouldn’t ordinarily try on a traditional painting. I LOVE Command-Z!!! As much as I love traditional art, I always felt a little stressed that I might spill or smear paint on something. You weren’t 100% safe till the art was scanned or photographed. Then you could finally relax. Any artist who tells you he doesn’t like Command-Z is a liar.
B) The artist is more in control over the quality of the printing. The file I send to the client is very close to what ends up being printed. A traditional painting must be scanned, adjusted, separated, plates made & finally printed. That’s a lot of generations to get right. The printing methods & quality control at Stern are unsurpassed & very accurate. Gary Stern & Marc Schoenberg supervise every back glass print run & the end product is beautiful!
C) There are lots of digital tricks & techniques that can enhance the process.
TPB: From who did you take the likeness for Rudy in Funhouse?
JY: Ah... Rudy. I just happened to have a 3 foot tall 5 year old son (Charlie) who was an acting ham & chose him from the start for Rudy’s general look & gestures. Charlie was too young for the face so I researched manikin dummies & just drew till I came up with the ‘look’ I wanted. I have a few framed photos from the session here in my studio of Charlie, in his Rudy get-up standing on a picnic table thrusting his cane into the air.
TPB: Any plans to come over to the UK anytime soon as I'd love to get you to sign my backglasses (erm, I mean get to meet you)? And are you attending any pinball events this year?
JY: Although I love the UK, I don’t have any plans for a visit in the near future though Gary (Flower) works me over every fall @ Expo here in Chicago. Other than Expo, no plans yet. One of these days I’ll travel to Texas for their big event.
TPB: Which pinball machine are you most proud of as an artist?
JY: I have a few & it’s changed over the years. Twilight Zone is probably my favorite with Addams Family #2 but I’m also proud of the Medieval Madness back glass & cabinet. Also love the Jokers back glass.
TPB: And what of machine art from somebody else, which machine has artwork that you think is outstanding?
JY: Going back in time... Almost anything by Roy Parker. If I could afford it & had the room, I’d buy his old games & just hang them on the wall as art. I believe that’s how they’ll end up years from now.
Dave Christensen’s Capt. Fantastic.
Kevin O’Connor’s Star Wars work.
Greg Freres’s Star Trek.
Python’s 3-d like playfields were an inspiration.
I also admired Doug Watson’s playfields back at Williams. He’d use 6 shades of gray & do it effectively.
TPB: Do you keep your original drawings from each machine and any plans to put them on ebay?
JY: I do have lots of art as I never throw anything away but have no plans to sell anytime soon. Like I said earlier, we’re not doing paintings anymore & you can’t frame & hang a cd on the wall.
I have spent lots of time archiving my game art & have only scratched the surface.
TPB: The Addams Family was the most successful pinball machine of all time and is unlikely to ever be outsold. Did you and the design team realise you had started on something special or was it simply the right time for a pinball revival?
JY: I remember the day Pat Lawlor called me to let me know we’d be doing Addams Family. I loved the show & was excited from the start. Pat was always fired up about his next game & his enthusiasm was contagious. It flowed into the entire team so my concern was always to do the best I could & not let our team down. I approached every game that way. Pat had some great tricks up his sleeve for Addam’s Family so I knew it would be a cool game & I figured it would be popular if we all did our jobs well. The theme crossed over generations & was fun, cute, yet devious all at the same time. Plus... they let us ‘do our thing’. Having said all that, it was a very pleasant surprise when it broke the record.
TPB: What's it like to be among the last of your kind and is there a future beyond the short-term for a pinball artist?
JY: Hey, wait a minute, I ain’t dead yet! I feel like a walkin’ talkin’ dinosaur! I’ve invited teams of designers to my home/studio for meetings & tour if they’re interested. It always ends up the same way... Down in my ‘vault’ going through my old pinball art. That kind of art isn’t being produced anymore & young artists want to feel & touch it as they’ve never seen anything like it. Makes me feel good about my part in the whole thing but I wouldn’t say it’s over. Never say never!
TPB: Finally, please sum up your involvement in pinball in one word or sentence.
JY: Very hard work but a great ‘Ride’ with some unforgettable, one of a kind, dedicated teammates who have become good friends over the years.
I can’t say it all in one sentence, as there’s the ‘family’ part. Everyone who has worked in pinball at least here in Chicago is a part of a big family & it’s a joy to run into them almost wherever you travel.
Many thanks to John Youssi for his incredible art over the years and also for taking the time to become one of our Pinball Heroes. More Pinball Heroes coming soon.
The Pinball Blog
Pictures courtesy: John Youssi, Internet Pinball Database