Daniel Dociu was born in Cluj, capital of Transylvania. A gifted industrial designer, he found his way to the United States in 1991 and from there into the world of video games. He has worked for many companies, including EA Games, Microsoft, Wizards of the Coast and for the last four years has been art director at ArenaNet in Seattle.
When you look at a piece of Daniel Dociu’s concept work, your first thought isn’t ‘that’s a great painting’. You’re too quickly sucked past that level of experience, directly into the world he portrays. You’re transported not by realism, but by the artist’s ability to
convey the truth of imaginary things.
Take a few examples from his latest project for ArenaNet’s Guild Wars: a bird’s-eye view of the Crescent Island complex, the perspectivised pyramids of mythical Egypt or the tiny details of weapons and armour. “I approach illustration from the position of an aid to communicate something,” says Daniel. “That something can be more or less abstract.” An object, an idea or an emotion.
Returning to this world you begin to wonder at Daniel’s style – where does he conjure those shapes from? That feeling for alternative worlds? Answering these questions takes us on a fascinating journey that starts behind the Iron Curtain.Imagining things
Daniel grew up in Romania when it had just been vacated by Soviet troops; it was a communist country with all the arcane and seemingly non-communist practices of a regular dictatorship. But
for a youngster this was less of a concern, and Daniel was busy discovering his artistic nature.
“I was drawing a little bit of everything,” he recalls. From early on he was interested in objects. “In general, structures and architecture, objects, furniture.” Although his parents wanted him to become a doctor or an orchestra conductor, Daniel had other ideas. “I just was really attracted from a very early age to building, designing and imagining things.”
This took Daniel to a high school that specialised in art and design, and from there to the Fine Arts Academy in his home town of Cluj, where he specialised in industrial design. “I graduated from my masters degree with the highest grade point average in the country,” he says. This entitled Daniel to first pick of the available jobs. It was, he says, “A bit like the NBA draft.”
But having his pick of the jobs was tarnished by the fact that even the best job was “a shitty job”. Daniel spent the next five years designing products for a conglomerate of outmoded Eastern Bloc enterprises. “It was a fiasco,” he says.
Eastern Bloc Enterprise
Eventually, his educational debt paid off, Daniel returned to Cluj as a teacher at the academy from which he had graduated. This gave him time to reflect on his own motivations, in particular his need to be creative in a practical sense as he enjoys “the process of inventing new structures.”
Daniel’s concerned that others may misunderstand what this means. “If that sounds pretentious…” he begins. But this sentence is never finished. Instead, he reiterates, “I love that part of the process.” This ‘part of the process’ occurs largely in his head. “I’ve always used illustration to get a point across,” he explains. “To communicate an emotion, a mood, a structure and the way it’s put together.”
Bringing these skills to the world of computer games involved more adventure for the Dociu family. “My wife and I left Romania in the summer of 1989… right before the shit hit the fan in Eastern Europe.” Four years and several jobs later and Daniel landed a position with Seattle-based developer SquareSoft. Diversity
Daniel was a natural. His training as an industrial designer instilled an intuitive grasp of three-dimensional space and his teaching career gave him the ability to nurture and direct talent. Within months he was promoted to art director and has since fulfilled that role for the likes of Microsoft, EA and, for the last four years, ArenaNet.
And this brings us to something that Daniel feels very strongly about: diversity. As an art director, it’s crucial to see the big picture. “I strongly believe that diversity is the most important quality in a team… We are a lot more different than we are similar in our ways of thinking.” And Daniel believes this should be a source of strength.
If everyone were to follow exactly the same thinking patterns they’d end up with exactly the same results. “That’s not what I’m looking for as an art director,” says Daniel. “I’m looking for the team to enrich and build upon a half-baked idea or a vision… Once I throw that idea out and people start approaching it from different angles, that’s when it truly becomes rich and layered and grand.”
So the eventual style of a piece is conducted like an orchestra, rather than cloned. “This is another subject I have strong feelings about,” Daniel notes. In personal terms, style should come naturally. “It should not be the result of a deliberate search. You should not look for a style of your own just to be different, it should evolve over time as the result of where
your true interests are.”
Case in point – the human form. So often the focus of artistic endeavour, the figure has a different place in the Dociu dimension. “I’m definitely fascinated by the human figure,” he says. “But you don’t really reinvent anything. It’s just the take or the approach or angle.”
Learning to understand your particular style is a Zen-like challenge. “I was desperate to invent a style for myself,” Daniel recalls. “The more I tried, the more miserable I felt. Only when I gave up the deliberate search and did whatever came naturally and effortlessly did things begin to crystalise.”
Daniel’s philosophy is that you can’t rush a good thing. “True style is the result of all those influences that you’ve allowed to simmer over years and years,” he says. You must gather them and “distil all those fumes into something that’s representative
of who you are.” The crucial thing is that it should come naturally. Affecting style in the name of cool won’t cut it with Daniel. “I think that is very shallow. I discourage that.”
Style has something in common with that other staple of the creative industries: talent. The thing they share is what we call difference, argues Daniel. “I think that what we perceive as talent is simply a person who has found a way to connect point A and point Z in their brain by a very convoluted path that we don’t relate to and can’t understand.” Real talent, according to Daniel, is “effort, work and sweat.” He thinks the regular definition is just a convenient shorthand, and backs this up with the observation that, “Talented people don’t use that excuse as much as people who lack it who say ‘I wish I had his talent’.” However, laziness is beginning to trouble the creative industries. “Good-calibre talent is hard to find,” says Daniel. “It’s really hard to get through the hordes of people who have no business being near a pencil.”
Video games, comic books, animation – all of these are fighting a tide of graphical convergence. “The more unique or ‘far out’ your style, the more you restrict your audience,” Daniel observes. He’s extremely unusual in that he didn’t even know that comic books existed until he moved to the US at the age of 32. But how many of today’s artists had developed a mature style before they opened their first comic book? Potato soup
Somewhere along the line the goal ceased to be individual and became public property. It stopped being about perfecting your own style and became about who could do this style or that style the best. “I hope we are not falling into that trap,” says Daniel, adding, “Everyone says ‘yeah, diversity is good’, but I truly believe it.” Art directors should be guardians of the only weapon we have against uniformity – difference.
Understanding and nurturing diversity – this is what art directors are for. “It defines my relationship to human beings and to my artists,” says Daniel. He reassures us with a culinary analogy. “When you make potato soup, more goes into it than potatoes and water – there’s all the spices and other stuff, but it’s still called potato soup.” Daniel believes an art director should define style by saying: “Hey, we’ll be making potato soup. You guys throw in whatever you think it needs to make it yummy.” Surely that must be a recipe for creative success.