The hyper-detailed video game worlds of Raf Banzuela

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Banzuela, who illustrated new covers of "Noli" and "Fili" for Anvil Publishing, talks about how he manages the amount of painstaking detail he pours into each work. In photo: detail of his "The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask" piece. Photo courtesy of RAF BANZUELA

The longer you stare at a poster illustrated by Raf Banzuela, the more you’re rewarded with details ripped straight from video gaming’s best moments. One of his recent pieces is a tribute to “The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask,” which comprises the game’s many characters and gameplay elements into a haunting diorama of the Nintendo classic. For Banzuela, a lot of the storytelling in his work comes from these carefully researched details.

“I put in time watching playthroughs, diving into forums and wikis,” he says. “Just trying to be familiar with the story, characters, gameplay, and the game experience.”

Raf Banzuela’s completed piece inspired by “The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask”. Photo courtesy of RAF BANZUELA

Most of the work he’s done recently are commissioned posters of video games. He’s busy completing several retro titles at the moment, including a monstrous piece inspired by “Super Metroid,” which Banzuela has been teasing on Instagram since January. On average, he says that it takes him two months to work on a 24 x 36-inch piece, especially when he juggles two or three of them at once. He admits that he’s “very slow,” preferring to individually draw each line you see in his illustrations.

The wait seems worth it, judging from the modest band of fans that have rallied around Banzuela’s work. On Facebook, members of a group called “Fans of Raf Banzuela” drum up hype for upcoming and potential commissions while discussing the elaborate drawing techniques that bring their beloved video games to life.

Banzuela's covers for the new editions of "Noli" and "Fili." Photos courtesy of RAF BANZUELA

Outside of his poster work, Banzuela has also inked quite a few book covers, including Anvil’s new covers for Jose Rizal’s “Noli Me Tangere” and “El Filibusterismo,” and some for his father, writer-journalist-professor Raffi Banzuela. In this medium where narrative takes precedence, his line work interestingly gives way to more surreal forms. In two book covers published by the Ateneo De Naga University Press, the abundant strokes characteristic of his work appear here, albeit drawn loosely and figuratively — quite unlike the highly choreographed quality of his video game posters. 

In the interview below, Banzuela talks about his inspirations, how he manages the amount of work he pours into each poster, and the themes that he’s drawn to as an artist.

Two variants of Banzuela’s “The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time,” featuring the time-traveling hero Link on the left and him as a young adult on the right. Photo courtesy of RAF BANZUELA

Can you share with us a bit of your background? Your upbringing, interests, and the factors that led to your career in illustration.

I grew up in the late ‘80s in the province, not much to do back then. So as a kid, my time outside school was pretty much spent riding bikes, playing with action figures, watching cartoons and computer games. I did read a lot back then, mostly short stories. Like many other kids, I did draw a bit, a lot of badly drawn Son Goku. There were a bunch of kids in my grade who could draw better than me.

One thing I remember that sent tingles up my spine was “Fantasia.” My father rented a Betamax — or VHS was it? [The film] blew my mind as a kid. The music, the animation, the different illustration styles. I didn’t understand anything technically about it, but it was just beautiful. Made me want to be an Imagineer.

On average, Banzuela says that it takes him two months to work on a 24 x 36-inch piece, especially when he juggles two or three of them at once. Photo courtesy of RAF BANZUELA

But design and illustration didn’t factor much in my life until late in college. I [went to] law school [but left] to pursue a passion with the creative visuals and landed a design job at a studio in Manila. Went back to the province eight years later to do freelance work that eventually led to a bunch of illustration work. When the schedule permits, I try to do things opposite of sitting in front of the table, like hiking, cycling, riding the motorbike, working out, maybe boxing.

What do you think are the essential traits of a creative person, especially in your field?

What I feel recently is to be curious and enthusiastic, have a childlike wonder. Which gets harder to do when you get older and the reality — the realness of life creeps in. For someone whose job requires [one] to daydream, I think that’s an essential trait. Working smart and actively learning are important too, I think.

Your posters have a ton of detail in them and are very carefully composed. Can you talk about the planning and research involved in making these elaborate pieces?

I used to create pieces more instinctively, flowing and more open to mistakes. I would create loose sketches then ink over them. Which turns out to be more time-consuming than creating tighter sketches as preparation for inking.

I pretty much have the same process in creating illustrations. Let’s say the Majora’s Mask [poster] for example. Since I don’t know the game that much, I put in time watching playthroughs, diving into forums and wikis. Just trying to be familiar with the story, characters, gameplay, and the game experience. Theoretically, a backseat gamer putting on the shoes of player one. I will also look at previous artworks done about the game. Looking for iconic or visual elements that found its way into a niche [audience’s] subconscious. In addition to having a source for inspirations, knowing about the previous pieces will help me avoid creating similar concepts.

After that bit of research, I create a lot of thumbnails with notes. I look for the ones that capture the story and the experience of the game or whatever is the subject. That affects the composition of the piece. The detail is just the result of my style but also hoping that the detail helps tell the story. I draw each line — not a very optimal technique in a fast-paced world, I think.

Banzuela hand-draws each line from sketch to final output, like in this poster inspired by the game “Uncharted 2: Among Thieves.” Photos courtesy of RAF BANZUELA

By the same token, how do you know when to stop working on a piece?

It’s not a solid practice but I place mental objectives during the process. Like having to finish this part at this time or day. Tiny steps like that until the final stroke. As Rocky said, “One step at a time... One round at a time.”

I would spare a couple of days re-working the piece when I’m not yet satisfied. But definitely no big changes.

How would you compare your earliest works with your most recent ones? Has anything changed or stayed the same?

I think it has changed a lot. I’m doing more pieces within pop culture rather than more personal, surrealistic works as it was a few years back. Although I still use essentially the same line-based style. But yeah, the theme and technique have changed quite a lot.

What subjects or themes are you particularly attracted to as an artist and why?

For images, film and literature it would be: the fantastic, the surreal and science fiction. I don’t really know, they just appeal to me. Like a pillow on a cold, rainy night.

What has been your most interesting project so far and why?

I think most of the projects I had were interesting in manners of sameness and differences. But among the finished pieces, the one that pops in my head at the moment of writing this is the “Metroid” piece, not published currently. I haven’t done that many sci-fi pieces and it was fun drawing those crawling tubes and monsters and Samus! I’m a simple man. That made me happy.

The book cover for “Lambang Ika, Kita Gabos” embodies the same heavy line work in Banzuela’s other works, albeit wielded more loosely and figuratively. Photo courtesy of RAF BANZUELA

Who or what served as your early influences in your illustration career?

A lot! But to go into the very root of it I’d say Miami Ink and Chip Foose who had a show on the Discovery Channel. I didn’t have that much resources about the creative field growing up and these were the portals available. Gotta take what you can. Then in college, I discovered the Juxtapoz magazines. I found out about Crayola, Audrey Kawasaki, Alex Pardee and a whole lot of other amazing artists. That would eventually spark a crawling interest in illustration and art.

What secondary, non-art skills help you in your work?

Does riding a bike count? It helps a lot with my well-being, mental state and all. Oh…and I am pretty handy with building DIY furniture. I can build a computer table in a jiffy.

How important is social media in your work?

I think it’s a cool way of discovering and talking with people from different parts of the globe. But the algorithm, jeebers!

How has the pandemic and the community quarantine affected your work?

The latter part of 2019 wasn’t all too peachy for me. I was in all sorts of hurt and healing, literally and figuratively. Whatever the pandemic brought just piled up on that. That includes losing work. I played a lot of “Warframe” and spent many hours looking for Korok seeds [in “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild”].

I work from home and rarely go out so I didn’t mind the quarantine that much.


For commissions, message Raf Banzuela through his Instagram.