Motion design sits at the intersection of many interesting disciplines: animation, graphic design, visual effects, filmmaking — and of course interactive design is becoming more prevalent. One of the common denominators between motion designers is their insatiable desire to pursue as many of these intersecting avenues as possible.
It can be a tough approach, one that can spread people too thin and lead to burnout. This apparently is not the case for Joe Russ.
Joe’s a decidedly entrepreneurial guy who always has a few projects running at the same time. His latest is an adventure-mystery game about a young detective named Jenny LeClue. Joe was kind enough to chat with us about the project and explain his non-traditional career path.
Q&A with Joe Russ
Who are you, what do you do and how long have you been doing it?
I’m a motion designer, director, and developer. Before moving to Sarsota, Florida, I freelanced in NYC for almost 10 years doing on-air and interactive content, mostly at Gretel and Thornberg & Forester.
I have also created several iOS apps including Anatomy In Motion (we are also working on an update for this). Its Facebook page, which my wife runs, has over 172,000 followers. I previously Kickstarted and created Fathoms.
And now I’m making Jenny LeClue.
What is this project all about?
Jenny LeClue is a handmade 2D exploration-based choose-your-own-adventure game focused on story, character & mystery.
From the Kickstarter page:
This coming-of-age narrative follows Jenny LeClue, a young detective, living in the idyllic college town of Arthurton. Jenny takes on the case of her life when her mother is accused of murdering the beloved Dean Strausberry. She soon discovers that nothing is what it seems…
This is a game about your choices and how they permanently affect the story. We want to deliver a rich narrative experience about relationships with delightful surprises and interactions. The story also deals with mature themes, complex characters, and a tangled, mysterious, sprawling, epic story. Jenny’s story is both personal, and epic. We want you to help choose the direction of Jenny’s story, within the game itself.
Where did you come up with the idea for this?
The original idea happened a few years ago when I became obsessed with procedural crime shows. I wanted to make a micro animated web series that was a nod to those shows.
The idea hung around in the back of my brain for a few years, gestating. Eventually, the idea evolved into wanting to make an interactive narrative on the iPad, as I had made some other apps for iOS and thought this format and direct-to-audience platform was ideal for the content.
It seems from the trailer that the game takes place in a story verse crafted by Arthur K Finklestein. Is that right? It’s kind of a narrative wrapped in a narrative? Or am I reading too much into it (as I often do)?
Absolutely, I didn’t feel like there was time to get into it in the teaser trailer, but there is definitely a metanarrative between the protagonist, author, and audience. This will evolve throughout the trilogy, as I’m interested in the idea of authorship and ownership of stories.
Games are fascinating in that you can have a predetermined narrative while gameplay allows for emergent stories to occur, sometimes in surprising ways. I’m interested in what happens when you give an entire gaming community the ability to shift the story.
At a certain point, Jenny becomes aware of the author and a dance between who is in control of the story takes place, with the audience in the middle, who also has a certain amount of influence over the direction the story takes. I’ve seen some games that tied this idea into TV shows, but very vaguely. I literally want the audience at the end of the first “appisode,” to be able to make a choice for Jenny that will change the way we write the next appisode.
So, here is a made-up example — I don’t want to give away any actual plot twists just yet: Maybe Jenny is faced with a choice between saving her mother’s life or saving her best friends. Whatever the popular vote between those two choices is, we would start Appisode 2 based on that. If you chose to save your mom and Cool Keith died, then maybe Appisode 2 picks up with his funeral.
This idea does sort of occurs in games like The Walking Dead, except we are narrowing the choices on a global stage instead of allowing many branching paths to evolve on an individual basis. There is ultimately still just one final narrative, but it’s written by all of us, together.
Have you ever made a game before? If not, are you worried about the process?
I have made a few small games before, but nothing on this scale. I’ve also made Fathoms and Anatomy In Motion, so I do have experience with development and long-form story content.
What’s great is Jenny LeClue utilizes a combination of my passion for and experience with animation, development and storytelling. I’ve honed these skills working as a motion designer and app developer. The major concern is not having enough time or resources to create the amount of content that I have written for the game. This is exactly why I’m crowdfunding Jenny LeClue. As you know, as a freelancer, if you aren’t working, you aren’t getting paid, and time is certainly the most valuable resource.
Will you have help?
Definitely. I have talented friends who believe in the project and are also passionate storytellers and artists. Our micro team is distributed all over the globe, with friends in London, Brazil, LA, NYC, and here in Sarasota, FL. Most people will only be able to help here and there, but, again, having a budget to work with will create longer windows of focused time to contribute to the project.
What engine/dev environment will you be using for the game? Unity?
Definitely Unity. It’s friendly, it’s likely to be around in a few years, and it makes porting to other platforms and consoles much easier.
What platforms are you launching on?
Currently we will launch on Mac/PC/Linux, followed by iOS. It would be a dream come true to have Jenny LeClue on multiple platforms, including Steam. We are submitting to Steam Greenlight and hopefully there is enough support during the Kickstarter campaign to make that possible.
I know you as a motion designer, one who’s been working in this field long enough to be called a veteran. Like many people with your degree of experience, you seem to be branching out into other disciplines with this project. Where do you think that impulse comes from?
I like to challenge myself and continue to evolve. I have always been interested in a variety of visual storytelling mediums including games, movies, sequential art, animation and TV. Part of why I got into motion design was because it felt like a collage of those mediums and didn’t require a focus on just character animation, or just endtags, but a bit of everything. This is even more true today as 3D, character animation and VFX are becoming a standard expectations for motion design projects. Interactive is also becoming more integrated.
The truth is, I have a lot of stories I want to tell, using various mediums, and they don’t necessarily fit into a client-based commercial environment.
You don’t live in NYC anymore, right? Why did you leave? Where are you now and how important has that been to your creative development?
Correct, I moved to Sarasota, Florida about two years ago to take a teaching job with Ringling College of Art & Design. I loved the teaching aspect. I’ve stayed connected with the school and host a summer mentorship program.
Let’s be honest, I love love love NYC, especially Park Slope (in Brooklyn) and always will. A lot of my friends are there, and it’s a brilliant place to be. That said, I am also passionate about these internal projects and giving myself the opportunity to pursue these bigger dreams.
My routine as a freelancer has been to work nine months and take three months off a year to work on internal projects. With the internet and having established enough client connections, I can work from almost anywhere. Living here allows for a better work-life balance, so I can spend six or more months working on internal projects and a shorter amount of time working on client-based work.
Also, the beaches here are killer and like 10 minutes away by car.
You have a family, right? Do you think that has encouraged the development of Jenny Le Clue in any way?
As it stands, I have a wonderful, supportive wife, and a puppy named Tilly.
My wife is probably the single biggest reason I’ve been able to create Anatomy In Motion, Fathoms and now Jenny LeClue. She is ridiculously supportive, creative and her patience is beyond measure. She has been very encouraging of the idea of creating a game that focuses on a smart, young, female protagonist.