Story dated March 2, 2004

From Jokerz! to Ripley's Believe It Or Not!, John Youssi has been creating original and inventive artwork for pinball games for more than 15 years.

With Ripley's starting production, John was good enough to talk about his time in the industry, the other work he does and the whole process of designing the first thing people see on a pinball game.

John Youssi is interviewed by Jim Jansen

You’re one of the most famous pinball artists at the moment. What are you doing when you’re not working on a game?

Of course I work for IGT as an artist doing glass art for the #1 slot manufacturer in the world. In my spare time, I love the outdoors, reading American history, gardening & just began restoring an old Bultaco Trials bike.

You've done a lot of work with Pat Lawlor, ever since Whirlwind in fact. Do you especially enjoy working with Pat?

Pat & I have become friends over the years & I'm very comfortable working with Pat as well as the PLD team. Pat knows when to leave me alone & that's important in the creative process. 'Guess he has confidence that I'll eventually get it right. I'm proud to be associated with all the talent at PLD, they never let you down.

Are you always working with the same schedule. For Monopoly you designed first the logo, then the cabinet, the playfield and the backglass. Is it always like that?

That's usually our routine. I usually have 6 months to illustrate a game & in the first few months the cabinet is the only "safe" thing to work on. Pat's still refining the playfield & it's just too early to tackle the Back Glass painting. By the time the cabinet is finished, the playfield is pretty well defined so I move on to that. It's a good idea to do a rough Back Glass sketch at this time just to be sure that the whole game is working as a unified package. The Back Glass painting comes last as it takes a week or two to paint, but it can be produced rather quickly compared to the Cabinet & Playfield components. While I'm working on the Glass art, the folks at Stern are building Cabinets & Playfields as well as sending me last minute alterations on completed art. There are always lots of evening phone calls at this time & I breathe a big sigh of relief when the game is finally completed & on the line. That relief lasts a month or two 'til I start to miss working on a game!

What makes a machine good for you? Ball flow, the deepness of the game, the game-art combination?

Remember that I'm an artist so that's the first thing I take note of. Some times I'll be looking at a new game for 10 or fifteen minutes before I realize I haven't even checked on the game play. In general, three things are important to me. I already mentioned the art but the shots must be well defined, & the flow must be correct. All I know is that when it's done right, the designer can make it look easy, but it's not. Even Pat's rough white woods have good flow.

What other examples of your art might we have seen?

Of course any Casino has examples of my work, but believe it or not, the grocery store has hundreds of examples of my art on food packaging.

Check out Yoplait Yogurt, (that's right... 40 flavors of Yoplait Yogurt).

This is the stuff that puts my kid's thru college.

Do you mostly work with traditional materials or are you using mainly electronic tools now, and if so which ones?

Good question. These days, I work almost exclusively in Photoshop. That doesn't mean I'll never do a traditional painting again, You just can't beat the ease of producing faithful, colorful art on the computer! In a perfect world, all backglass art would be rendered traditionally, so maybe the next one.

Do you have any contact with colleagues like Kevin O’Conner, Paul Barker or Greg Freres? Which pinball art do you like that you haven’t designed?

Yes, we all stay in touch & I even e-mailed Greg my Back Glass sketch just before I started on the final art to get his read on a few problem areas. As far as other artist's are concerned, I think Kevin O'Connor is a force to be reckoned with & a creative dynamo. We work together often & have become friends. I also respect Greg Freres & it's too bad he's not in the game any more. He's a great thinker & very clever.

Are there any self-portraits in your pinball artwork? What about hidden messages or references?

The only self-portraits you'll find in my art are because I'm the cheapest & most convenient model available. Check out the "Funhouse" backglass, I'm the guy with the kid on his shoulders.(That's my kid also)...

...and on "WhiteWater", I'm the geeky guy as well as the geeky girl (Yes the geeky girl) riding the raft on the back glass. I'm not one for hidden messages, but I just like to hide little things for the fun of it. Look for a few on the playfield back panel of our next game.

(Small) jokes make pinball unique. In Road Show, I still love, even after seeing it 1000 times, the gimmick in the display when you receive an extra ball: the worker gets the ball on his head. Do you also have one or more favourite things like this?

My games are full of these little jokes, & since you mentioned Road Show, check out the backglass art. In the background you can see Pat seated in his Corvette shaking his fist at Red & Ted.

Every time I see that I remember when Pat drove over here to pose for me.

Pinball's about fun & we're lucky to be still doing it.

Sometimes the way you design letters (for example in Road Show and Medieval Madness) reminds me on graffiti art. Did you hear that before? You like that way of art?

I love working with lettering & even took a year long class in it years ago in art school. The Funhouse logo was based on the Carnival Logo art. It's very flamboyant & colorful. Road Show just incorporates different devices from any old road construction site. I think Graffiti artists are emulating pinball art among other things.

Do you find it easier to work with a licence or do you prefer the opportunity to develop the look of the game from scratch?

I like both but you do have more freedom when working from scratch. Sometimes the licence comes with lots of ready-to-go art. This can be good or bad. On Monopoly, I thought I'd be able to use lots of art from their Style Guide but most of their images were too stiff & lo res for our needs.

I ended up painting almost everything including the big logo on the side cabinet.

When a new game from you appears, do you go to pubs or arcades to watch and listen to people's reaction?

Absolutely. I play dumb & usually just watch over their shoulder. It can be very rewarding or devastating!

What’s the most strange place where you saw a pinball from yourself? (Last year I saw an TAF in a really small place in Venezuela at a bus stop)

Back in the 90's I used to see games everywhere including every little truck stop across the USA. I guess the best would have to be at a small lake in northern Illinois that had a beach & beach house. They had several of my games under a tarp! All the legs were rusted but there were plenty of kids play'n.

After Williams closed the factory, did you give a cent for the future of pinball? Was it hard for you?

I never gave up mainly because of Pat. He never gave up. It was a very difficult time for almost all of us. I'm a free-lance worker & wasn't in the office every day so I wasn't hit as hard as most, but looking back, those were very dark days. I remember at Pinball Expo when George Gomez stood up & said that Gary Stern was "the last man standing". He was right & Gary's still standing.

A year before that, everybody was waiting for the Pinball 2000 machines and ‘as a surprise’ Cactus Canyon came on the market. Was it really an ‘in between project’?

Hate to say it but I can't remember how it was positioned. There was talk among the team that we were working on the last Williams traditional pinball machine & that alone made my work more intense. We weren't even sure it would ever see the light of day. It seemed they were pouring all their resources into the "Big Kahuna" as they called the 2000 game & we were just a side show.

You've already made three Stern machines. Is it different to work for them instead of Williams?

At first it was very different & difficult. Dwight Sullivan was one of the few familiar faces at Stern. Once Pat jumped in, that all changed. Of course, Williams was a much bigger company with greater capacity, but I have to say I enjoy working in this intimate atmosphere. I was at the Stern Holiday party & was impressed with the "family" feeling. Also saw plenty of familiar faces. Gary's done a great job of including us in his plan.

Did you work on the next Pat Lawlor game, Ripley’s Believe It Or Not? Can you tell us something about it yet?

Yes, I just finished the art for BION but sorry to say, I can't talk about it other than to say you're in for a great game!

A last message for the players?

Just to say it's great to be appreciated by players all over the world. You guys are the ones we put extras into the game for. As long as you keep flipp'n 'em, I'll keep draw'n them.


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