Anna Hollinrake is in trouble.
Not in her career, mind; in 2017 she was awarded a BAFTA Breakthrough Brit, and after that was dubbed a Game Dev Hero, and made the cut for MCV’s prestigious 30 Under 30. On top of that, the art director, illustrator and games developer has something even bigger to celebrate this year. She’s leaving her position as an Art Lead at the UK developer Mediatonic after two and a half years (where she found herself building a team to handle the startling growth of their biggest hit Fall Guys) to co-found her own game studio: Electric Saint.
But right now, touring a Cézanne exhibit with the NME, she’s just set off the Tate Modern’s alarm system. She was showing us how the famous impressionist hides individual brush strokes of brash colour in his paintings, pointing to an illicit stab of coral in otherwise drab painting. “I love it,” she says, talking of her own impulse to smuggle colour into her art wherever possible. “I like to do shadows that aren’t black, but are edged with a strip of ultramarine.”
At which point the Tate’s alarm system shrieks into life, warning her that she’s too close to the painting, or perhaps that she’s having too much fun. Anna laughs bashfully, acting as if she’s been caught red-handed.
“When I like something,” she says, “I want to eat it.”
While Anna probably would have been perfectly un-self conscious conducting our interview cross-legged below some fine art, the same can’t be said for the NME, so we search out a table in a nearby pub. There, Anna acquires the iconoclastic combination of a bowl of chips (mayo on the side) and a negroni.
Spending time with Anna, it’s abundantly clear why she is going independent with Electric Saint. Talking about their diverse passions and opinions, they fizz like a soda bottle.
“I’m not suited to specialism,” she explains. “There’s a quote in The Bell Jar by [a novel by the late poet] Sylvia Plath about how the protagonist wants to be everything. She imagines her life as a fig tree, and all of the figs are dropping off and dying because she can’t decide what she wants to do. That resonated with me.” Anna adds that she feels her ADHD diagnosis keenly in her work. “I am just fascinated by so much stuff. And having moments in my work where I had to make sure it was okay to explore something, or I wasn’t allowed to be fascinated? I’d chafe against that. So having that kind of self determination was really appealing.”
It’s a problem Anna hopefully will have escaped with the founding of her new studio, which Anna is founding with friend and programmer Pavle Mihajlovic. Previously the technical director on Erica (an innovative full motion video thriller you could control with your phone), Pavle’s been friends with Anna since they met at the BAFTA Breakthrough Brit event. It’s not just that they have complimentary skills, Anna explains, but that they have a similar propulsive energy.
“We just end up getting really excited about similar stuff. We learnt to ride motorbikes together back in 2018, we decided to learn how to surf, we did a zine, we did a short story writing course together and he won an award! And we’ve always resonated a lot on the same themes. Like, we’re both really interested in what it means to find home and to have a found family. He moved to the UK from Portugal to work when he was 18. ”
With Electric Saint, Anna’s also helping to fix something that the games industry has been lacking for decades: creative directors whose background is in art.
“Starting our own studio was a way to make a leap into design that I couldn’t see happening otherwise. There just aren’t that many art lead creative directors out there,” she reasons. “The biggest inspiration that I have is probably Ikumi Nakamura. She’s so funny and characterful, and then she left her studio to be a creative director.”
Nothing could make more sense. Not only do both Anna and Nakamura share an electrifying, feel-good aura, Nakamura was an artist on Bayonetta, and – for what it’s worth – there’s more than a touch of gaming’s flashiest witch in Anna’s personal style. Nakamura would also startle the games industry by releasing a photo book on urban exploration in Japan, which is precisely the kind of left-field interest that has a magnetic pull on Anna.
“If artists have that design sensibility, there are so many of them that have these worlds within them that they desperately wants to realise. I’ve seen so many people make these worlds that they make into art books, when they woud d be so much better as fully-realised games!”
When asked if Anna has a world she wants to realise working at Electric Saint, Anna smiles ear to ear.
“I’m very aware that if I don’t make this game, I’m going to go mad.”
It’s not an unexpected answer. Spending time with Anna, her sense of identity and self-expression is so strong, you’d expect her to have been born fully-formed, emerging from some sort of pastel-coloured egg. She’s only a little embarrassed to describe her current style as “post-ironic high femme” with ambitions to become “a kind of ethereal, nonbinary anime prince creature”.
But Anna explains that when she started her career, not only did she not know what she wanted to say, she didn’t feel comfortable experimenting with gender and identity. Initially, studying for her Game Art degree at a university in Leicester, Anna just knew she wanted to be good.
“I just fucking loved being on the computer and making stuff,” Anna says, gesturing expansively with a chip. “Even before I did art, I made presentations and little choose your own adventure games in BASIC [Beginners’ All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code] that my poor parents had to sit through. Going to university, I just knew I wanted to be known for my craft and respected for it. I wanted to have a reputation for executing on ideas. And I saw my career as a vehicle in which I got to make digital art all the time.”
“Going to university, I just knew I wanted to be known for my craft and respected for it. I wanted to have a reputation for executing on ideas. And I saw my career as a vehicle in which I got to make digital art all the time.”
“At university, I ended up obsessed with skill and the technical aspect of creation,” Anna says, referring to the hard-won ability to create illustrations that look realistic. But she feels that while this gave her strong foundational skills, it was also an exhausting way to work.
“I didn’t have an intrinsic calling towards a particular style, just because I hadn’t really seen what that could look like. I didn’t do stylized artwork until third year of university, and it was like a light went on in my brain. I was like, I didn’t even know this was an option!”
Which is how Anna finished university technically proficient, but creatively shattered. “It was a point of pride to brag about how much coffee you drank, how many all nighters you pulled,” she explains, “But when I got to my final major project I just found I had nothing there. It was like I was stuck in mud and couldn’t come up with anything.”
Laughing, Anna remembers that she named that project “Apotheosis”, meaning it was the sum of all she would ever achieve. “Like, shut up, Anna, you’re 22.”
It was only after university, working her first jobs as a graduate artist in the games industry, that Anna would have her creative awakening.
“It feels cliché to say because everyone’s inspired by Studio Ghibli, but it came from seeing Kazuo Oga’s backgrounds and paintings in classic Ghibli films. I was just captivated by them. I remember watching the scene in Spirited Away where the train travels on the water, and that feeling of longing and melancholy. And I loved all of the adversity and strange friends in that movie. It’s just this real mixture of emotions.”
“I remember the first piece I did where I found my style,” she adds. “It was a very joyful experience. When I made that piece of art, I just loved creating it. And I think when you enjoy making something, there’s something ephemeral about it that I think people can latch onto.”
Today, Anna’s portfolio is – in a word – lush. At odds with the stern, almost sober starting point of most video game concept art, Anna’s style is packed with colour and flush with life. We see distracted people making themselves at home among ever-present vegetation. Well-loved machinery balances precariously over water (bodies of water that are each painstakingly granted a character all of their own).
It’s refreshing in both senses of the word: Anna’s illustrations offer a window into a world full of fresh air and billowy fabrics that you want to climb into, and they also act as a considered counterpoint to the de facto masculinity that has dogged video games for decades.
“I don’t think that humans are a particularly tidy species,” Anna explains. “And I love the feeling of empathy and understanding when you see a scuffed up world that’s been customised and adjusted for the way people like to live. There’s a logic to it, a sense of like, natural understanding, a lack of pretension, that I think people find quite comforting. I do like to create worlds where humans feel comfortable, but with maybe a bit of melancholy. A bit of tension. I also try to use colour relationships, like reflected light, so that everything looks harmonious, but also like everything is influencing the other.
“I find, like, completely clean, sterile sci-fi just so boring,” she offers. “Because if you give a human a flat surface, within a week they’ll have spilled coffee on it. People will write their names on walls and have been doing so for millennia! They will put stickers on things, they will sew patches, they will patch over dirt or damage. Humans are a mess. I love that, and I want to represent that.”
“I find, like, completely clean, sterile sci-fi just so boring,” she offers. “Because if you give a human a flat surface, within a week they’ll have spilled coffee on it.”
“Humans are a mess” might be a surprising observation from someone who is regularly the best-dressed person at UK games events, but Anna’s identity and personal style was also something that she had to work hard to find.
“At school I was bullied to shit,” Anna says, blithely. “I didn’t really get how to be around people, I was very anxious. I think that came from my religious background and the ever-present threat of God watching and judging me. I suppose I didn’t just want to be good at my craft, I also wanted to be good in the moral sense? Like, I wanted to get good grades and make sure no one was upset with me.”
But Anna says she’s left religion in her past, as well as – apparently – her anxiety.
While going to an all-girls school made it easy for Anna to figure out they were bisexual (“We had a token straight girl,” she jokes), in 2016 Anna began to realise that she was queer in a more gender-based way. “I started wearing a lot of tailoring and menswear stuff, and started putting kind of androgynous-looking photos of myself out there. And when I started getting positivity back – especially coming from what was a very homophobic, religious background – it was like a light was being switched on but also permission to keep going.”
And as Anna found her identity, she also found yet another source of inspiration for her work.
“Fashion is such a wealth of inspiration. I think games have a tendency to overcomplicate when it might not necessarily be needed. You see the over-detailing of enemies to the point where you don’t have a clear silhouette, where you don’t allow for a block of colour to just stand on its own. You don’t have to put a billion belts on someone to make them look cool! Even if you’re trying to make something look memorable, I think some of the best places to turn to you are fashion.
“Just being able to draw upon, like, oh, this is just fascinating cut of a dress, or these shapes or materials are used in this particular collection. Like, I know people that do spaceship designs based on Adidas trainers, but why not go further? Because a lot of that form is already worked out for you, and it’s so inspiring.”
Anna pauses. “I do have a bit of an internal conflict, where I’m like, Okay, how many people are aware of the work that I do because of the work that I do? And how many people are aware of me because I like to wear suits? The only fear I chafe against is the fear that this is all I will be.”
Whatever revelations Anna has about her work, whether they’re to do with burnout, digital art or (more recently) working with ADHD, her first instinct has always been to package it up as a talk; something she’s been doing for almost as long as she’s been working. She’s a natural speaker, charming and excitable and accompanied by (of course) beautiful slides.
“I do a series of talks at universities where I talk about art having feeling, and it’s something that I was never really shown at university; like how a piece of concept art can describe the entire intent of a game in one shot. And I think that as digital artists we can be so focused on the quality of what we’re creating and the rule of cool [the idea that if something looks cool, bung it in] that sometimes the message of what they’re representing is lost. And I think it’s a real shame, because all art can have incredible emotional weight, and we should allow artists to tap into that to have a bit more of themselves in their work.”
Anna’s love of communicating is high up on the list of traits that would make her a natural studio lead, as is the role she played at Mediatonic. Initially hired in February 2020 as a principal artist to head up new game pitches, Anna eventually found herself becoming a creative services art lead, tasked with handling the stunning growth of their smash hit Fall Guys, which would eventually amass 50 million players to its madcap, mass-scale obstacle courses. NME had no idea what a “creative services art lead” was, but Anna was happy to explain.
“In October 2020 I did a Kickstarter for some enamel pins because comic conventions weren’t happening and I was bored, and it went better than expected so I made some clothing. This experience of creating products, talking to manufacturers and creating cohesive packaging, plus my knowledge of social media and my interest in fashion, led to moving onto the publishing side of Mediatonic, which was much more focused on marketing and consumer products,” she explains. “I helped rebrand the Fall Guys clothing, did brand collaborations and game events, worked with game event art and key art.” But maybe most importantly, Anna found herself heavily involved in growing the team dramatically, interviewing people and figuring out how the team should scale. “I got AAA experience without ever meaning to, which was lovely.”
“Humans are a mess. I love that, and I want to represent that.”
But when asked about the kind of team she wants to create at Electric Saint, Anna thinks back to a smaller studio. Specifically, her old job at Climax Studios, working on a little VR game called Lola and the Giant, where players flit between the perspective of a magical girl and the giant who accompanies her.
“It was also probably the most influential in [terms of] how I want to work going forward. There was a deep sense of trust, and there was so much love for the game, and so much communication. Whenever someone was talking to me, my lead would take out his headphones, just to make sure he was in the loop. I kind of pushed my way onto that project, I was so desperate to get onto it.
“I just tried to impress them whenever possible. Like I’d rushed through all of my texture work for this game I was working on and then I’d go up to the project lead Matt and be like, can I make you a windmill?”
Heading off on a tangent, Anna invokes Goncharov, the fake 1973 Martin Scorsese film that become the subject of countless fanworks in late 2022 despite the film not actually existing. “Working on Lola was like that,” she explains, the happy memory of working on this quaint little 2017 VR game playing across her face so many years later. “There’s just something magic about giving people the trust to take an idea and run with it, where whenever anyone brings something to the table everyone’s like, my god! Yes! Absolutely!”
“I had such a wonderful opportunity to pour myself into a game that was very dear to someone’s heart. Like, [the project lead] was just so excited about the stuff that I was doing, and encouraged me to do it. I would love to be able to provide that opportunity for people.”
As to what we should expect from Electric Saint’s debut game, Anna’s a little more tight-lipped. But it’s a project that’s been infusing in her imagination for so long, she can’t help but share a little bit of the direction her and her co-founder will be moving in.
“Starting our own studio was a way to make a leap into design that I couldn’t see happening otherwise”
“I think people would be very surprised if the game wasn’t something that’s very queer,” she says, choosing her words carefully. “I think I’m always going to come back to a sense of home, and finding your place. A lot of people have said that about my work, that they feel very at home in it, or they want to know what’s around the corner.
“And I want it to be more than just cute vibes. I want my work to say more than just: ‘wouldn’t it be nice to live in the woods?’ And we want to be fighty, we want a punky energy,” Anna says, in keeping with the studio’s logo, which is equal parts bold and bloody-nosed.
“We want to say it’s okay to be messy, but work on it.”
Starting this year, there will be no more shrieking alarm systems that are going to keep Anna away from the art, the colour, the raw stuff of life. NME is impatient to see what happens next.
[Disclaimer: Anna Hollinrake is a long-standing supporter of the Patreon for People Make Games, the author’s YouTube channel. He was not aware of this when he accepted the assignment.]