Between Real And Virtual War

Door gunner

While the Art of Future Warfare project at the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security is interested in drawing out specific visions of future armed and social conflicts, one of the main aims is to showcase how artists go about producing such work.

For fans of visual art, there is a limitless supply of compelling imagery accessible from anywhere in the world. It is at our fingertips, around the clock. Yet viewers are used to focusing on the end product, the art. That they often forget to ask the origin of the work in the same way they take for granted that when they flick a switch on the wall, the room is illuminated.

Instead, we should be asking more often, “How was that painting made? Why do we never see that character’s face? How does the artist really feel about their subject? What is the right level of detail in a panel?” These are questions with useful answers that can apply to creative methodologies in any setting.

Spiros Karkavelas is a visual artist from Greece whose future-war illustrations are imaginative and walk a line between being overtly aggressive and intricate. Detail in is deliberate in his textured snapshots, such as in the finely drawn metal skeleton of a robotic soldier about to deploy from a helicopter. Yet these elements that lend authenticity are not overwrought. The power of a scene is not sacrificed, but amplified.

Door gunner
Image: Spiros Karkavelas

The Art of Future Warfare project, which has featured his art as the gallery image atop the website, interviewed Karkavelas over e-mail to learn more about his work and creative process.

Tell us a bit about your background…
I’m a concept artist from Greece, born here in 1984 and making a living off art locally since I was 24. In 2011, I attended Feng Zhu’s school of Design in Singapore and started working for the games and film industry since. I have a passion for anything with a motor and two wheels, and voraciously consume any sci-fi related content when I have any time to spare.

What drew you to graphic art, and to military science fiction?
I believe war and conflict is something that’s embedded in human nature. It’s a core part of being alive, for any living thing really. It’s exciting, it drives us, it creates strong bonds between those who fight for the same cause that can bridge almost any gap. The problem is real war is horrible. I’m really happy we now live in an age where language is no longer a barrier and foreign culture is something that fascinates, instead of intimidates. We also live in an age where great new mediums are being explored. Movies where CG [computer-generated imagery] can now show much more than before. Scripts that are much more open-minded and/or controversial than what we saw within even the last decade. And of course the interactive storytelling of videogames.

War stories can in this day and age educate people about the horror and evil of war, the importance of avoiding it in reality, while at the same time using virtual war as a means of entertainment to excite us, bring us together and hopefully after a good virtual battle, sit down with our fallen enemies and friends and have a laugh over the matter. It’s really a case where we can really have the pie and eat it.

What drove me to military science fiction is just that. The ability to tell a story where you, the protagonist, suffer horrible loss and learn to hate war, fight with your all to overcome the adversity of it, bond with allies to help you along the way, and in the end of the day, put the game down and return to a peaceful life. A virtual war to help avoid more real wars, so to speak.

From where do you draw inspiration?
So many things! From novels like The Forever War by Joe Haldeman, (I have a whole project dedicated to that!) to movies like Saving Private Ryan. Several of Hayao Miyazaki’s animated films have also greatly inspired me towards the work I do today, as well as games such as Metal Gear. There are of course many more influences I could mention, but what is common in all of the above is an underlying message that war is really a horrible thing, and more often than not, caused by misunderstanding, or the inability to communicate with your adversary. Without meaning to spoil anything, that’s the reason I’ve listed Forever War instead of another novel. The punch line. The reason behind that war…

Do you have particular visions of a future of conflict that you keep coming back to?
Yes, but they’re not realistic. I keep trying to envision a world in which the art of dogfighting or small-unit conflict is what determines the outcome of a battle. The more we move ahead in time the more war becomes a matter of flipping switches and making phone calls, and the more we move away from the times where it was the man, not the machine. In my case I prefer to envision future conflicts where the boundary between man and machine becomes sketchy, and yet, one person’s actions in war can change the course of it from the battlefield instead of a command post.

Where do you like to work?
Anywhere with creative, positive people that are not afraid to make decisions, anywhere with good culture. I just need my laptop and Wacom to do my work, and I try to change my surroundings as much as I can to avoid feeling too comfortable in one place and becoming lazy to try new things.

What’s a typical day and where does your creative work fit into it?
A typical workday as a freelancer generally involves leaving the desk for very small breaks, working until you can no longer think, sleeping three to five hours, then getting back to it until the job is done. The creative part is only a portion of that, usually a few hours after a sleep break when my brain works best. I lay down all the design elements for the day, so after that I no longer need to do any thinking work. From that point on it’s just executing the plan and making everything look good.

Do you collaborate with other artists?
I haven’t had much chance to collaborate with other artists as a freelancer. As the job requires so many hours to complete, the only contact I have with other artists on the same project are brief critiques of each other’s work and what needs to be improved, changed or scrapped. Then we each go back in our “zone” until there’s something to show again.

What are you reading, playing or watching right now that you can’t put down?
Star Marines by Ian Douglas. Part of the Legacy trilogy. Really good science fiction novels if you like getting into details about how future weapons might work and how future conflict might be conducted. It’s really a fascinating read.