Zombie Yeti / Jeremy Packer interview for Skill Shot

By Kayla Greet

Artist/Illustrator Zombie Yeti, AKA Jeremy Packer, is known in the pinball community for creating the art packages on many machines for Stern Industries, and the now defunct Zidware. Some of the titles associated with his name are: Deadpool, Iron Maiden, Ghostbusters, and the pitch-n-bat Zombie All-Stars. He’s also done the art for John Popadiuk machines (Magic Girl, RAZA, and Alice in Wonderland) which unfortunately never made it to production. His style is very rock ‘n’ roll, acid-washed, drippy, colorful, and comic book-inspired. Or, as he describes it, “If the Hanna-Barbera creative team in the heyday of the 50s-60s limited animation (From Yogi Bear to Johnny Quest) had decided to smoke crack.”

He’s been drawing since he was able to hold a pencil (two years old!), though he mostly works digitally these days. Having graduated with a BFA in Film and Animation with a Fine Arts minor, he took his first post-collegiate gig as an interactive multimedia designer. “I did not have a major in maturity or the long game of career planning, so it took me a while to circle back to illustration as a career,” he says.

But those of us in the pinball world are ever so glad that he did. While he’s mostly only worked on licensed Intellectual Properties (IPs) thus far (of the physically produced pins that is), that hasn’t stopped him from making them undeniably Zombie Yeti works of art. He explains of his approach, “I like cleanliness, but my aesthetic is more my love for classic animation cel cleanliness than embracing the pure digital feel.” His games are instantly recognizable.

“I’ll get some shit from purists, but I’m 100% digital for client work these days. No client wants paper,” he admits. Also he says that scanning and cleanup tend to slow the whole process down, and that there are plenty of tools available to traditional artists that help make the digital transition.

It’s fairly well-known that working on IPs, ubiquitous ones such as Deadpool for instance, comes with a strict set of parameters. Sometimes companies focus on the most minute details, even down to the text kerning! Jeremy has a positive spin on it. “Knowing your limits isn’t a bad thing, after all. But I always say my ignorance is my best asset–if you DON’T know something you don’t avoid full exploration.” Thus far, he revealed that Marvel was surprisingly the most open to new ideas, while Iron Maiden was much more particular.

For those of us with the great fortune of owning/operating some of these knockout titles, there are some Easter Eggs that Jeremy has tucked away–though he claims you’ll have to dismantle the playfield in order to find them!

Overall his process starts at the game’s incubation period. Once a design team is assembled, he starts cranking out ideas right away. With Keith Elwin and IM, he says the layout was already locked in for him to build off of. Deadpool with George Gomez was a totally different experience. George had predetermined inserts, though the placement and geometry of them needed to be readjusted throughout the entire design process.

Jeremy says that working for Stern has absolutely made him a better pinball player, even though he’d grown up with a Gottlieb Roller Coaster in his basement. “I’m the pinball players equivalent of a guy with a bashful bladder. I can’t relax in crowds to play worth a shit,” he admits. He says that while his skills have improved, he hardly gets the chance to prove it anyways because of his endless workload. And for that, we are all grateful!

Originally published in Skill Shot 53

The full interview:

Zombie Yeti / Jeremy Packer interview for Skill Shot

When did you start working as a full time artist? What moment made you realize this was a viable career for you?
Right out of college, but not as an illustrator, as an interactive multimedia designer. In fact, I never took an illustration class in college. I was drawing since I was 2yrs old so I sought out learning new things. My BFA was in Film & Animation with a Fine Arts minor. I did not, however, have a major in maturity or the long game of career planning. So it took me a while to circle back to illustration as a career.

Please explain your process. Is it pencil sketches first and then scanned to work on digitally? Do you create anything solely on paper or canvas now? What are the main advantages to working on a tablet/computer?
I’ll get some shit from purists, but I’m 100% digital for client work these days. No client wants paper, and scanning & cleanup slow the process down. That said, if you can draw traditionally, the tools exist now to do it directly digital with no interference.

I use a Wacom Cintiq and Clip Studio, primarily. The key is turning off any software correction built in for old faulty input devices. I see a lot of digital artists who look very digital because of the software reliance (vector, filters, etc). The shortcut is to the output, not the creation for me.

With that said, I like cleanliness, but my aesthetic is more my love for classic animation cel cleanliness than embracing the pure digital feel. I’m the sum of my influence and knowledge, so it’s hard to peg the visual vomit’s singular source, but the other day I had a conversation where I think I got close… Imagine if the Hanna Barberra creative team in the heyday of the 50s-60s limited animation (From Yogi Bear to Johnny Quest) had decided to smoke crack. That’s sort of what I think I’m close to pulling off. And no, I’ve never smoked crack – I’m saving that for when I run out of ideas, of course. (just kidding, Mom!)

Another benefit of digital is being able to work on larger scales than my studio space would allow (with less mess) which doesn’t hurt the end product I guess. I still touch paper and pencils, but only for rough ideas outside of the studio these days.

The benefit is really in convenience, speed & output. Being freelance, every second counts. I’m fairly fast with ideas, but I like using extra time to rethink as I go to make sure I haven’t missed a better idea.

How did the relationship with Stern come about? Had you already been a pinball fan or did that come second?
Well, I grew up in the 80’s with arcades and pinball all around me. My dad was a big pinball fan and we had a gottleib rollercoaster in our basement that helped start me down the path. I’ve always been a huge gamer, so the mechanical aspect of pinball always fascinated me, while the self-challenge idea of competition was the appeal for me. I prefer competing with myself as opposed to others. I refuse to think I’m better than anyone at anything. Therefore, I will never be a YouTube celebrity?

My ‘professional’ start in pinball was with John Popaduik back in 2011. He found my portfolio of illustrations online when I still had a day job as Creative Director for a software company (I think an enormous portfolio of 5 character illustrations at the time).

From there, I had worked with John Popaduik on Magic Girl, Raza, Alice in Wonderland, and a few other projects for almost 4 years when he stopped communicating. I found pinside and learned the fate of Zidware for the first time. I was crushed by the death of Zidware and the lack of John letting me in on it until it was too late. But even more than that, I was crushed that he hadn’t told me he was using other peoples money to fund these projects. All around a gut punch for me.

So, thank Dennis Nordman for hiring me after the Zidware implosion.

Dennis reached out and hired me for the Zombie All Stars pitch-n-bat in the summer of 2015. While working on it he asked me to meet him and Greg Freres for lunch one week. We met at Stern and We all got along great.

I’m sure they thought I was a strange guy making strange jokes, but I’m fortunate that my work & work ethic can make up for my deficient social skills (that’s gotta be it, right?)… The next day I told Greg if I was ever going to do anything in pinball again, I’d like it to be with Stern to prevent the risk and disappointment I was still reeling from with Zidware.

A few weeks later, Greg reached out and had a test for me that was eventually Ghostbusters.

What is your initial approach when designing playfields? At what point in the game development do you begin working on the art? Is it once the rules and layout are finished, or do you start brainstorming ideas right when the project is green lit?
My approach is not revelatory, it’s pretty straight forward. I want to try to explore new ideas while acknowledging what traditionally works and is pinball. I also don’t like repeating myself.

I really try to do something unique and fresh – thinking as if the project at hand is my last – so it might be my pinball legacy. I also don’t like repeating myself. (*rimshot)

I come in at various stages initially, so it depends on the project timing. I start very early with rough ideas based on what rules might exist and where. It’s iterative from there, working with the designer and programmer throughout. But you’d be surprised how much might change along the way. Pinball is a very iterative process obviously. I consider myself reactive during the early play field work and proactive after.

Each designer is different which varies my approach. For example, Keith had Iron Maiden’s insert layout locked in and I worked knowing exactly what was there, while on Deadpool, George asked me to layout predetermined inserts for specific areas based on the idea of his katanas and character placement. He took my general ideas on placement with the art in mind, and made them work with geometry and mechanically, and then I adjusted and created the art layout from there. So it varies, but it’s always collaborative throughout and genuinely exciting to start pulling things together.

How narrow is the focus of what you can and cannot include? Are you given strict parameters when working on a licensed IP?
Depends entirely on the IP holder. And it’s often not clear until you step over a line. So far, Marvel was the easiest and most open to new ideas, which was a surprise, while Iron Maiden was the strictest in terms of do’s and don’ts. Both approaches have inherent pros & cons. Knowing your limits isn’t a bad thing, after all. But I always say my ignorance is my best asset – if you DON’T know something you don’t avoid full exploration.

What do you feel is the most challenging step of designing pinball art packages?
Looking at a blank template at the beginning and trying to figure out where to go for 3 unique packages. Then, looking at the rough pencils, deciding how to ink. Then looking at inks, deciding what colors to use…pretty much the whole ride really. It’s exhilaratingly exciting and miserable until it’s over. But you focus on the positive (the end) and try to pick properties you’re passionate about and can challenge yourself to grow the skillset… I also try to make sure I won’t have to be tempted to break out the crack. (It’s a callback joke, Mom. I won’t do crack I promise!)

Has there been any design elements that you’ve had to fight for to be included in the finished product? If so, what are they?
I fought hard for Ghostbusters to have flippers…and a HUGE gap between them? Wouldn’t that be a great answer? … In reality, there are things I always have to explain in the art choices I make, but I’m not at liberty to say because I’d have to explain them again. I’m sure there were things I could point to, but I always consider the teams perspective and no one on any team I’ve worked with at Stern is arbitrary in decision making.

Can you mention any Easter eggs or hidden images on the pins that we might not know about?
I will only say that unless you dismantle your playfields, the only one I’d mention is Dennis’s pitch-n-bat. The Backglass has one rather sad zombie who is stuck looking over the fence watching the players with a bit of jealousy. Think about the timing and my headspace at that time, and you can perhaps figure out what or who that is about.

What is something you’ve learned about pinball from working with Stern?
Producing pinball is no small feat. I’d estimate by the end, at least 30-40 people have applied their specialty to the process. There are a lot of evolution and iteration that goes into it at every facet. In short, pinball is not easy – but damn if it isn’t rewarding and worth the birth pains.

Have you ever considered teaming up with Dirty Donny on a playfield art package?
I’d love to! I’ve talked with Donny about a collab outside pinball as well. I got him involved with Primus for the last tour and he killed on the gig poster he did. We want to work together on something. Timing is the key.

That said, I’ve also spoken quite a bit about the idea that 3 package interpretations for a pin split between artists would be kinda rad and might be great for the consumer. Stern makes 3 packages for pins these days. Maybe people don’t like my work, but love Donny? Donny does one package, I do another. We collab on the playfield…. It’s an interesting idea at least. Not without issues tho.

Music and comic books seem to be the biggest influence on you as an artist. Now you’ve gotten to work on huge IPs in both (Maiden and Deadpool). Which machine do you feel is closest to the Zombie Yeti aesthetic and why?
Would you accept all of them? I swear that’s not a hackneyed answer – it’s just that as an illustrator each project and IP is teaching me new ideas and approaches so I’m always in flux. I really do treat each project like it’s my last, because you’re only as good as the last thing you did with most people. I take controlled risks hoping I don’t fail. But, failure is how I got here, so it’s not as debilitating as it could be in the head space. I use it as a motivator… or a crutch!?

My gig poster work is probably the rawest and most honest form of my aesthetic. Those are great impulsive endeavors where 13 yr old me takes over. (Like making crack jokes!)

Has working with Stern made you a better pinball player?
Absolutely. But I seldom get to prove it because of the workload. That said, I’m the pinball players equivalent of a guy with a bashful bladder. I can’t relax in crowds to play worth a shit. But, in solitude at home, I can do very well …WITH the glass on I swear!