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[Interview] Imaginary Friends Studios (Is More Real Than You Think)

You're unlikely to have heard of Singapore-based creative agency Imaginary Friends Studios - unless you're in the fields of film, games or animation. They've done work for games developer Square Enix, Sony Online Entertainment, DC Comics, and publisher Random House amongst many others, and this year they celebrate their eighth year in the industry. As part of their anniversary celebrations, the agency decided to give back to the industry by launching a Diploma in Digital Design program in Singapore, developed in partnership with 3dsense Media School and the Singapore Workforce Development Agency (WDA) to help bridge the skills gap in the local digital media industry and produce world-class talent for the global market. We speak to the founders of Imaginary Friends Studios (IFS) team - 28-year old Kai Lim, 39-year old Stanley Artgerm Lau, and 31-year old Kendrick Lim (pictured above)- about hitting the big eight.

1. Tell us a little about yourself.

Stanley Artgerm Lau: I am a co-founder and creative director of IFS. I was officially trained in graphic design and advertising but with a strong passion in art since young. I devoted most of my free time in drawing and painting during my younger days. I've been drawing for the past 25 years and 20 years of that in digital medium. I love manga, comic, anime, games and toys and they influence my art substantially. I believe in serving the art community and I consistently devote my time to interact with the aspiring artists through deviantART, chat-rooms and streaming my art on Livestream regularly. I also conduct workshops, talks, and live demonstrations in many countries. Most of my artworks can be found on my deviantART gallery which they were viewed more than 50 million times and with close to 200,000 active followers. Kai Lim: I am also known by my handle UkiTakuMuki within the online art community. My passion has always been video games; and the process of trying to find my way into the industry started with me dabbling in free 3D software as a secondary school student purely as a hobby, eventually getting better to the point of offering my artistic services to online game modification or "mod" teams that tinker with games like the then-famous Half Life. All this would be for no pay and just for the love of coming together from every corner of the globe to share our love for making games. At the time, 3D technology was still in its infancy and required alot of 2D overwork to make something presentable on screen. Being a rather impatient person I came to the conclusion that 2D was the dominant mode of visual communication and thus chose to invest my energies there. Fast forward 10 years, and I am now coming back full circle to my roots so to speak, utilising both 2D and 3D in my work to be able to tackle a larger range of creative projects such as concept art for film, games and animation, and commercial illustration in general. Kendrick Lim: I am an illustrator and concept artist by trade. I may be better known by my fans and the creative industry as "kunkka" ( a name I have plucked out of the depths of my mind without rhyme or reason). After graduating from Nanyang Polytechnic with a diploma in digital media design, I have spent a year in Tokyo working for the game company tri-Ace/Square-Enix, and then set up IFS with my current partners. That was 2005, and I have been with IFS ever since, growing the company and doing the things that I love, namely illustrating and designing cool concepts for the games industry. I would say that my passion for what I do stems from my love for watching cartoons and playing video games as a kid. I have always looked at those cool characters and gadgets and wanting to create some of my own when I grow up, and that inspired me to get to where I am and where IFS is today. The joy and satisfaction is immense when you get to work on the games/comics that I grew up with, And none was greater than getting a game character from a hugely popular game/e-sport like dota, named after myself as a tribute for my illustrations done for the game. It's kinda like having a planet named after you, and not many things can be cooler than that.

2. What inspired you to start Imaginary Friends Studios?

Stanley: Art is where my heart belongs always. Before setting up IFS, I was running an advertising and design agency as art director for 4 years, working on corporate design projects such as branding, and advertising campaigns. I got tired of those stuffs and wanted to create artworks for a living while I was still young and free from life commitments, and I believed that the entertainment industry fits my preference. It has always been my dream to see my art appears in the games and comics that I love. Therefore I gathered a few of the like-minded friends to setup Imaginary Friends Studios which includes Kendrick, who had just completed his one-year contract with Koei Japan as a game artist, and Kai who had just graduated from his diploma course of Interactive Media Design in Temasek Polytechnic. The three of us share a very strong passion in digital illustration.

3. Share with us some of the journey that Imaginary Friends Studios has gone through since its founding in 2005.

It has been an exciting as challenging journey since the inception of the studio. When we first started, there wasn't any other digital art studio existed in Singapore and we had no role model to follow. We had very little knowledge of how to get our foot into the entertainment industry and find clients that were interested in our creative services. Before our bank savings ran dry, we decided to put together an artbook and brought the copies over to San Diego Comic Con and gave them away like leaflets. Within a week of returning from the comic con, we got our first official project, which was a coloring job for the GI Joe comic by Devils Due. Since then, projects have been gradually rolling in through the recommendation from our clients and kept us really busy. Besides doing comic coloring, we were contracted to work on trading card game illustrations too. I remembered that we were doing more than a hundred card art every month for Soul Calibur, King of Fighters and Street Fighter. It was really crazy! Gradually the reputation of our studio was getting stronger and more exciting projects were heading our way. Besides, card illustrations, we were also engaged in concept design for games with A-list studios such as Square Enix, Sony, Ubisoft and Capcom, producing comic interiors for DC Comics, & Image Comics. This year is the eighth year of our studio and we had the pleasure to work with almost all of the leading entertainment clients in the industry. Being located in Singapore, a melting pot of various cultures, it gave us a very strong advantage in flavor to our clients. We are able to bring fresh ideas to their projects with the unique east-meet-west approach.

4. What has been the biggest challenges and what have you been most proud of?

The greatest challenge to a studio like ours stems from our very nature of being a freelancer collective. We have to balance the need to allow our members to flourish from an individual portfolio standpoint, to having to move out of our comfort zones and come together as a team on a single project in order to meet payday. Thankfully we hire versatile, passionate and team-oriented types who love to create not just for themselves, but for others - like the clients we help daily to visualize their worlds and products. This is a constant challenge of balancing the need to be - on one hand - unified in delivering certain art directed looks or styles for certain large scale projects, and on the other hand allowing diversity in the types of projects we bring in to help keep our broad range of talent engaged in their ideal space where they can really shine, producing work that make our clients look fantastic and them, proud to add the work to their portfolio.

5. What are your impressions of the creative industry in Singapore, especially since LucasArts recently held a massive retrenchment exercise here?

Kai: To my mind, Singapore is just a destination in what is a truly global industry.  LucasArts retrenching here has nothing to do with us as a nation, but rather their major shareholder, Disney back in the US. It is truly unfortunate, but it really is a case of risk management for massive companies, like any streamlining exercise in any industry. As for the creative industry in Singapore I think it is a wonderful and exciting time where digital technology and content creation capability is advancing at such a rapid rate. More and more power is placed in the hands of the everyday consumer as opposed to only those who could afford it in the past. Software and computer processing power is at a stage where a 'indie group' can, with the right talent and relatively inexpensive setup, put out products that go on par or even excel against multimillion dollar "AAA" titles that are often a gamble to produce. The mobile gaming/app development industry is a shining example of this interesting "less can be more" philosophy. Maybe it's just me, but it feels like the "indie mod group" from my earlier answer. All over again, and I cannot help but love where this future is headed.

6. What do you hope that the new Diploma in Digital Design program in Singapore to achieve?

We see the lack of proper educational avenues for Digital Illustration and Concept Design in Singapore presently, so we would like to offer an opportunity for the aspiring artists locally and regionally to equip them with the relevant and up-to-date knowledge and skills to pursuit art as a career. We crafted the curriculum of our program based on our decade of experience in the digital art and design to inspire our students creatively and artistically. It is not our goal to turn them into replications of us but to simply show them the possible paths they can take which may lead them to the destinations that they can truly excel professionally as individuals. We believe that every artist has something unique to offer to the world and we want to assist our students to discover their true calling in art together.

7. Any words for aspiring digital artists?

Passion and commitment are the keys to be successful digital artists. Believe in yourselves and love your works so that others may love them too. [Picture credits: Imaginary Friends Studios]

Daniel Goh is the founder and chief editor of Young | Upstarts, as well as an F&B entrepreneur. Daniel has a background in public relations, and is interested in issues in entrepreneurship, small business, marketing, public relations and the online space. He can be reached at daniel [at] youngupstarts [dot] com.

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