Creative Interviews - Ben Watkins

Ben Watkins is a Columbia, Missouri based game designer and cosplayer, who owns and operates Brass Engine Productions. A meticulous professional and routinely busy creator, Ben was kind enough to give some insight into his experiences as a working artist.

Your company is Brass Engine Productions. When was it founded, and where did the name come from?

Brass Engine was technically founded in 2012, but it became a solo project for me in 2014. The name originated with some steampunk projects. I wanted a generic, memorable name that wasn't already associated with something else. I just sat down and came up with lots of options, until I zeroed in on one that didn't bring up anything in google [Laughter]!
The previous Kickstarter funded game, Materia, also created by Brass Engine Games.
So, when you have the need to create new things, where do you look to get inspiration from?

If I need to make something new, I just listen to other people. I find out what they're into. If I don't make something associated with that yet, I jot it down for later development. If I have a desire to make something, it's almost always born of necessity. I am a survivor, so I create things in order to avoid the "9 to 5". To be motivated and get my brain functioning in a way that helps me achieve my goals, I listen to music. Sometimes it's movie soundtracks, and other times it's new retrowave.

Over the years that you’ve been a professional creator, what have been some of the most enduring or important things you’ve learned?

  1. Listen to everything around you. People and the environment can influence your work, whether it's inspiration or criticism.
  2. Social media can be a help, even if it seems like a burden. You wouldn't be surprised to find out that people on the internet love to give their opinions. If you can learn to use those opinions to your advantage, you can be a better maker.
  3. Even if you don't think others want to see or know about your process, they do. Do livestreams, share stuff as you work on it.
  4. Don't keep it secret or keep it safe. I talk openly about any project I'm even thinking about. Early criticism helps a ton, and no one that wants to be a consumer of your content is going to steal your ideas.
Is there a particular project of yours that you would identify as your favorite, or one that you are most proud of having had a hand in creating?

I don't know if I can really say I am proud of any of my projects. Many of them I will look at with fondness and good memories, but not pride. As far as a favorite, I can't hold any as a favorite either. I enjoy creating, so I don't think in terms of what was my favorite. Maybe someday I will look back and see the one project that gave me financial freedom to continue creating. For now, I enjoy the projects amidst the struggle of truly being a starving artist.

What is something you find that is a positive change in modern pop culture creation, and what is one of the challenges you’ve encountered?

I think the most positive thing is instant communication. We can share in new things instantly with anyone across the globe. That's powerful stuff compared to just two decades ago.

The most challenging thing for modern pop culture is widespread access. Anyone can make or publish a thing now, and that means everyone is competing for people's most valuable asset - their time. You don't have to go through a third party, or move to LA. You can just put yourself out there on the internet. In my opinion, that makes it harder for the truly innovative and creative minds out there to be heard among all the mediocre ones that are given such an easy tool and free access.

If you had advice to give to emerging/upcoming artists wanting to work in the creative field, what sort of advice would you give?

Start small. So what you can with what you have. Find your fans, and don't get discouraged. No one is 'magic' in art - it's all practice. Practice, practice, practice. And practice some more. Don't want to do your art over and over until you're better? Then you may not really want to be a creator. Have an irrational passion to do the thing, and then obsessively do it. Think about it everyday.

As far as traditional art materials, what are some of your favorites to work with?

Pen and paper. I just jot down notes when I have ideas. A notebook and a pen is my best ally at any given time.

We live in a time where the advent of an immense amount of creative people now have virtually unlimited reach via social media networks from Twitter and YouTube, to the just now emerging Instagram TV. Some artists believe that we live in a time of overexposure, that a lot of the curtain to the creative process has been pulled back to an almost detrimental effect. Do you feel that it's been more of a positive or negative change to have that sort of access for the general public to encounter exposure of an artist and their works with?

When a painting hangs in a gallery, everyone wants to know why they used certain colors, or what techniques they employed to paint what they did. Consumers don't just want the end result, they want the process. Media has given us a way to make our consumers more involved during the process, making them into true fans. Every technological advancement will change the environment we operate in.

Artists should respond to the changing tides of society, and make their work reflect that. They shouldn't just buck at new tech like an old man screaming for everyone to stop telling him how to do a new thing.

If you had to pick your favorite two movies, what would they be, and why?

Nope, [Laughter] not playing favorites!

Movies I could watch over and over without ever getting tired of them - Lord of the Rings Trilogy, and Star Wars saga. I like epic stories the most.

Mac or PC preference?


And why?

Compatibility, no proprietary equipment, cheaper, reliable (mostly), easier user interface (cause I've used it all my life).
I can attest to the craftsmanship that Ben does, as this is a wonderful custom sketch journal he created for me.
When you're in the zone creatively, do you enjoy working with music or any kind of background noise going on, silence, or are you indifferent to the outside surrounding ambiance? 

Sometimes movie soundtracks, sometimes new retrowave, sometimes Post Modern Jukebox. I mostly use Pandora's shuffle stations function to get a variety mix.

What artists, current or historical, had profound influences on you?

Even though they don't have much to do with my medium directly, I would say film directors, the likes of Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard, Guillermo Del Toro, and Peter Jackson. I follow artists that have grand visions and great leadership - it's what I aspire to be.

As a prop/cosplay designer, what sort of skills have you needed to bring to the table to help bring your ideas to life?

Everything, [Laughter]. I learned how to put costumes together before YouTube and Google searches.

I was the kid that got the monster makeup book and costume design books from the library just to see how things are done. I would watch hours of behind the scenes footage on dvds so I could watch them in their costumes, building props, and making movies. I employ anything I can watch or read about someone else doing, and then try to find my own way of doing it.

What aspects of cosplay design have been the most challenging, yet ultimately rewarding for you?

The most challenging thing about costume design for me is translating impossible garments into something functional. Video game characters wear impossible accessories (looking at you, swords on the back!).
Ben (is cosplay as  "Judge"), at the mercy of a vampire.
Movie costumes involve tricks and materials that may not be readily available or apparent. So it's most rewarding when I can figure out how to make a costume work in the same way you see it on screen.

Both of us are familiar with and work comic/sci-fi conventions, in fact we first met at StealthCon in Warrensburg, Missouri some years ago. What have you thought about the amazing growth that has happened over the last 15 years in regards to shows?

It has pros and cons. Growth is awesome, and it means people want more of what we're doing as artists and creators. The downside is that everyone thinks they can run their own convention, or a corporation takes on so many events that they risk too much. In both of these situations, it results in poor turnout and poor sales and exposure for the artists.

Do you prefer Star Trek or Star Wars?

Star Wars, but I like Star Trek Next Gen (series and movies) and the new ST movies.

Favorite dinosaur, and why?

I wasn't one of those kids that was obsessed with dinosaurs, but Jurassic Park made me a fan of velociraptors for sure (movie version, not actual of course).

Do you enjoy museums? If so, which ones would you recommend or are your favorites?

I loved the St Louis Science Center as a kid. It's still an amazing museum. The museum of Science and Industry in Chicago is also really cool. My favorite is totally cliche because I had the chance to go through the Louvre, and it was the absolute best.

That is amazing! The Louvre is absolutely one I want to go experience. 
Switching subjects up a bit, do you have a favorite newspaper comic strip and/or creator?

I was a Garfield fan for most of my life. So I would say Jim Davis.

Do you have a favorite comic book and/or creator?

My favorite comics growing up were Moon Knight.

Is there a book or series that inspired you?

Lord of the Rings was the most influential book series that really inspired me.

As a creator and vendor at many different kinds of shows, what aspect can be the most rewarding, and what have you found the most challenging?

The most rewarding aspect is seeing someone walk away with something that obviously makes them happy. The most challenging part is making this life more economical and profitable. The overhead is insane.

You're also a prolific game designer, with your latest game successfully funded on Kickstarter, Thief's Hoard. What drew you to wanting to develop games? Do you feel that now with the advent of so many indie game publishing aspects out there, that it's become easier or harder to get games created?

I love games. I love playing them. I think due to my nature of wanting to take things apart and figure out how they work, creating my own game was inevitable. Turning it into something real, that goes to my game design partner David, who keeps me motivated to make more games.
Card examples, and a limited run special edition coin for Thief's Hoard.
It's very easy to publish a game, but that presents challenges with ease of access. Anyone can publish a game, so it's hard to convince people that yours is good and that you aren't just a repeat of any bad experiences they've had.

I know that you recently won recognition for an amazing LotR character cosplay, which in part was constructed with 3D printing. Can you describe for our readers what that whole process was like, and what you felt like the moment you realized you'd won?
(Left) Close up detail of the 3D printed swords. (Right) Ben on stage as Talion at Planet Comicon.
Building Talion was my first time modeling anything in 3D. To say it was a challenge would be an understatement. I had to learn from the ground up, and had to move fast. My 3D printer was a cheap diy kit, and had to be finely tuned to make acceptable prints. The 3D prints weren't without their own issues as well. The swords are fragile because of the printer settings I used to make things go faster. My construction method, while sound in theory, had issues in practical application. The leather work for the costume also presented new challenges for me in building a pair of boots out of leather on top of existing cheap costume boots. Overall, the process in building the costume was late nights and long hours of figuring out new ways to make costume pieces, based on reference pictures from a video game.
An amazing cosplay video/photoshoot done by RetroHawk Productions.
I entered the cosplay contest for fun initially, but my competitive nature would not let me enter with a costume that wasn't 1000% effort on my part. When I was pre-judged, there were so many other amazing master level cosplayers that I did not feel like I deserved to be there. When they called me backstage just before declaring winners, I was in complete denial that I had won anything. My brain told me I was being called for something unrelated. As the line dwindled in front of me and the last prize to be called was Best in Show, I started pacing. I still denied that I was good enough to have won. So I was genuinely shocked and elated when my name was called for Best in Show. I couldn't believe it. I nearly broke into tears on stage, my hard work being validated for an entire audience to see.

Well for my part, I think that the choice was right. And it could not have been awarded to a harder working or nicer guy. I had a feeling when I just saw parts of it before you entered, that you had a really good shot at winning.

Ben, thanks so very much for taking the time to be part of this interview series! I very much appreciate it.

If you want to find out more about Brass Engine Productions, you can find more information on their website:

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