The complete Bally Fathom pinball page


I am very proud of an interview I was able to do with Greg Freres recently.
Now you can read, how the master himself feels about pinball, art and Fathom:
Greg with Fathom artwork
Greg with the painting of the Fathom backglass.
First, thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to do this interview.
Greg, let’s go back some years. You worked in advertising before you started to work in Pinball. What did you study and how did your Pinball career start?
Greg: After getting a degree from a state college I landed an apprentice position for a local Point-of-Purchase advertising company. I spent two years being the «kid» doing a lot of the «gopher» work. I worked with a great group of talented designers and learned how to be professional. If my art director hadn’t taken the leap of faith and hired me I’m not sure where I’d be today. It was at this company where I met Kevin O’Connor. He spent about six months with us, bringing his «young, fresh approach» (and bad sport coat) to the group. He then landed the job at Bally and told me if there was any room for more illustrators he’d let me know. And he did! And I’m grateful!

What, apart from the influence of Kevin O’Connor, made you change from advertising to Bally?
Greg: I got a great start in the Point-of-Purchase advertising business. The company was responsible for some memorable beer, soda, and cigarette advertising and I was able to learn about how to attract customers to a product with illuminated and sometimes animated signage. When I got the opportunity to work at Bally, it was a perfect combination of my illustration skills and the attention-grabbing signage I had learned over the past two years. After playing coin-op games as a kid and especially through college, it was exciting to think that I could get my art displayed on such a pop culture vehicle as Pinball. To this day, I’m still excited to hear when someone sees my work on the other side of the world and they have taken the time out of their vacation to walk over and see my name on the backglass! Friends of mine just returned from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and told me the only pinball game on display is «The Rolling Stones», donated by Keith Richards (previously owned)! Now even though I haven’t done work for a pinball since 1999, I’m still thrilled to hear about these kinds of sightings!

Let’s talk about «Fathom». Who had the idea for doing a machine with such a bizarre ocean theme?
Greg: I’m not sure who had the original idea for Fathom, but if I remember right, I believe Paul Faris suggested the idea and did a rough sketch of the back glass for me to work from. People have told me Fathom is the only back glass in which a murder is being committed for everyone to see. Now that’s notorious! For those who know me, I probably wouldn’t have gone in that direction, but it does have an interesting balance of the serenity of the ocean and the panic of taking a situation a bit too far.

It is known that Kevin was doing the graphics, Ward the design, and you the art. Can you describe this in some more detail please?
Greg: I don’t understand how it’s known that Kevin was doing the graphics for this game and myself, the art. Kevin was only responsible for the comic style sell sheet at the end of the project. Except for the rough concept sketch that Paul Faris did to get a kick-start on the back glass direction, I was responsible for the entire art package. We were still working in one department, but Kevin was probably busy with a project of his own at the time. Margaret Hudson may have pitched in with some production art support but for the most part, the total package was mine.

Later in the history of the group, Kevin would eventually work as a freelance consultant and would often be called upon to do an “inked» version of the playfield keyline, often working from a tight pencil design that any one of the in-house artists would provide. This created a better workflow throughout the department, allowing the project artist to create a unified look to the design package by farming out the production to outside vendors. Ward Pemberton was the designer of Fathom, a very early effort by Ward with undoubtedly some mentoring by Norm Clark. It was a great table with really good shots.

The playfield and the backglass are outstanding due to the huge amount of detail. How long did it take to do the artwork and how much time was needed for the design?
Greg: Too much time has passed to give you an accurate time estimate of how long this project took. I’m guessing, (based on the fact that I inked the playfield and maybe even did the hand cut color separations) the playfield may have taken anywhere from 7–8 weeks; 3–4 weeks for concept and 3-4 weeks for production art. At that point in pinball history I’m sure we were under some pressure to get the games into production quickly, but that pressure undoubtedly increased as market conditions worsened. The backglass itself was probably about a 6 or 7 week schedule; three weeks for a tight color comp (a comp referring to a «comprehensive» sketch being quite detailed in finished design, layout, and color selection) and about 4–5 weeks for the painting. I remember taking the painting home for a couple of weekends, working under a different light source and seeing a visual difference in the flesh tones once back in the office lighting conditions. I believe I had some corrections done in the color separation phase to color correct the condition but the painting remains the same.

As far as the design timeline is concerned, we were probably on a somewhat abbreviated schedule so it’s possible that the entire cycle may have taken 6–9 months. At that time, game design was less integrated with the art development; many whitewoods would be built up without a specific theme in mind, and then the chosen table (based on playability) would be put through the process of theme development. Later on, game designers would become more specific on theme development up front and began to integrate the playfield design right from the beginning. This was an important transition in the development of adding playfield toys and other interactive mechanical devices. «Fathom» was probably in the transition period of this design philosophy.

Did you work with models during the drawing of the sea nymphs and mermaids?
Greg: Yes, I think I remember asking a couple of friends to help with modeling for the mermaid but I can’t remember if they complied with the request or not (with this kind of time passage, you’ll see how convenient this «I can’t remember» answer can become.) I could tell you the models for the mermaids were two young ladies I met earlier in that year at a party to make for a more interesting interview but that’s not quite right. Besides, the model probably asked me to destroy the photos.

It is a 3-ball multiball game with a fantastic ball capturing feature. Were there any design problems during the development of «Fathom»?
Greg: I’m really not the person to ask about design questions. At that point in my career I was not as close to the actual design process as I was in the Williams years. I don’t recall any outstanding design issues.

I count about 12 different colors on the playfield. Was it difficult getting all the stencils aligned properly?
Greg: Most of our playfields at that time were about twelve colors. We tried to limit the amount between ten and twelve for production purpose. Playfield separations were all registered by a series of «pins», or 1/4" metal posts that held all the separations in register to the keyline (the black outline that all colors get trapped under). We also provided the printer with registration marks that would print in an unseen place on the playfield (unseen after all the plastics were added).

What was most challenging while designing it?
Greg: The most challenging part of the design process was the playfield, as it always was. I wanted to try to help convey a story line from the top of the playfield down to the flippers, so I started at the «surface». I also wanted the playfield to have an illustrative feel instead of the overly graphic «lane» approach that we had on so many games. I realized that the player still needed graphic direction to help keep the rules clear but my goal was to create one complete underwater scene. I also spent considerable effort in creating a more painted look to the play field so that it would tie in better with the back glass. I was very happy with the final printed playfields and felt that I pushed myself to a new limit in the design process.

Are there any funny stories related to the «Fathom» production?
Greg: I think the funniest part of the design process was hearing the synthesized speech from Texas Instruments for the first time. The recording sessions had to be kept to a minimum back then so we ended up with all of these somewhat disjointed phrases that the programmer would string together into some very strange sentences. «Help, Surface, Fathom» – I can’t remember if that was a real speech call or if the art department made that one up after hearing the recording session results. Whatever the results, the speech calls certainly didn’t convey a sense of urgency to the player. I think the mermaids talking to the player would have made for better entertainment.

>> continue with part II