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Designers: Behind the Walls of Lee McKenzie's Empire



First interviewed and profiled on TuckCase for his work with with Ellusionist in early May, Lee McKenzie is currently in the middle of his first ever solo playing card project - EMPIRE. One look at Empire's Kickstarter page and you will find out that Empire is not just about a design, Empire is about a man's self discovery. Empire is the passion and determination that is Lee McKenzie. Lee literally designed Empire on sheer will and drive with only a bootstrap budget and no real place to call home.

In this follow up to the first post on Empire over two weeks ago, we go deeper into what makes Lee tick. We also learn more about Empire and how it evolved from idea to a fully designed deck of cards and the sacrifices Lee made to bring it to life. What you will soon find out is that Empire is not just a deck of playing cards, Empire is a mentality and a vision for greatness.  Read further to learn just how Lee put it all on the line to pursue his dreams and build and Empire.


Tuck Case: This has been a year in the making, was Empire the original name for this deck?
Lee McKenzie: I must admit, I was leaning towards a few others, that I might still use, but Empire seemed to just fit perfectly for the bold story I wanted to tell with the deck. It's quite a common word these days, some might even say cheesy. However, I believe that when we apply the right visual story and meanings, and present them in the right way, they can take on a new, strong personality of their own. That is what I planned to do with Empire. For example, if you think of 'a galaxy far, far away', and then think of the word Empire, suddenly you have a completely different picture in your mind!

Tuck Case: How has the design evolved or changed over time since its inception?
Lee McKenzie: It has never really changed, strangely. When designing for someone else, there's always a vision to fit into and you're never really sure of what that is until you share it with them. It may hit or miss and then you go back to the drawing board. When designing for myself, I take the role of the critic, the cardist, the magician, the collector, the artist, hustler and the poker player. So if I don't like something, it is usually a good sign that others won't too. I could always end up being completely wrong on that, but so far it's really helped create work that many people appreciate as I edit long the way.

Empire was just built, naturally progressing from beginning to end. There are always small shifts and placements to figure out what works best where, but there was no big change of direction. There's not 5-10 different versions that didn't work, just one that slowly came to be 'the one' that I was happy with.

Tuck Case: A lot of collector's look for the Bicycle logo or only collect Bicycle decks, how did you decide to leave out the Bicycle name?
Lee McKenzie: I love Bicycle cards and I'm a huge fan myself. However, having another well known brand all over this deck really didn't sit right with me. I didn't feel that Empire could actually exist as powerfully as I wanted it to, as it's own identity, if the Bicycle brand was used. I didn't want to use it as a tactic to attract collectors, because I felt stronger about it as it's own identity. Now Empire is funded (which is incredible!), I hope it will lead the way to lots of new custom deck opportunities and new avenues to explore. I don't want to have to rely on using the Bicycle name to push me forward with that. I wanted people to like the decks for what they are, all by themselves. I'd never really know if people liked my work for what it is, or because it was just a Bicycle deck they had to have. I'm a great fan of the Bicycle cards finish and stock, which is what I'll be using on Empire. So in every sense of the word, Empire may as well be seen as a Bicycle deck, just without the brand name adorning the box.

Tuck Case: You mentioned the deck will feature Bicycle stock and finish. Can you talk more on why you went with that?
Lee McKenzie: Empires stock is to be the classic Bicycle paper stock with the air-cushion, magic performance finish. I love the weight of that stock, not too thick or thin and with the right amount of ink coverage that will make it a very nice deck to handle. Some of Empire's backers have suggested that they'd like to see an upgrade to Bee casino stock. Although it's a fantastic stock, it's also pricey. The deck already has a lot of care added to the details, which has resulted in a premium price to manufacture. However, if we manage to continue to sky-rocket the pledges, it may be something I'll look at doing.

Tuck Case: The tuck case/box will feature embossing, correct? Any other premium features?
Lee McKenzie: Yes, the tuck will have gold foil stamping on the front and sides and also embossing that raises that foil and highlights it even further. I only wanted to use gold foil as a highlight to accent certain features as I think that too much of it can really look tacky and cheap. The inside of the tuck will also be a deep scarlet red and will include a secret message that I haven't shown on the Kickstarter images. I want it to be a nice surprise for all of the backers :)

Tuck Case: What do you design with? Software? Hardware?
Lee McKenzie: I design using a pen and paper at the beginning. As soon as I have something looking pretty cool I jump on to Adobe Illustrator or Adobe Photoshop to trace and begin the process of designing the concept. I love the unlimited potential of using software. If you have enough experience, you can recreate any vision you see in your mind, which is amazing to me. As a motion graphic artist too, I used Adobe After Effects for all of the animation and composting you see in the Empire trailer. Some people think I had a whole team of animators and big studio help. I wish! It was all me, sitting at my laptop in the cold, using Adobe After Effects. When it's time to pull the story together, I edit with Adobe Premiere. I had some help from a fantastic 3D artist (Adam Sacco), who took my sketches of the Warrior Card Armour and created an amazing 3D render of it. I then used that and all the tools and software mentioned above, to create the epic Empire story and bring it to life in the exact way I had always envisioned.

View the video Lee created for Empire Playing Cards:




Tuck Case: Lets talk more about your vision. The design and concept are pretty epic, when and how did the concept come to you?
Lee McKenzie: I love cinematic themes and powerful names. Empire was inspired by some concepts I first came up with for Ellusionist a long way back. I created a few ideas revolving around grand epic names like Legend etc... but they didn't really go anywhere. When it came to start creating my own deck, I found the list of names I had written years ago. Seeing as though none of them were used, I decided to see what 'fits' best in my head, and what kind of theme I could build around and really create a vision that would excite people.

The theme of Empire seemed to really light me up and it was quite fitting, as I was just one guy, trying to take a bold leap forward and finally lead a greater, more passionate life. It was a reflection of what I was trying to do in my own life by actually creating the deck. As Morgan Freeman (done by impressionist Charlie Hopkinson) put it in the Empire trailer "Every man's life is his Empire...Live one worth remembering". That is a combination of an amazing Bruce Lee quote and what Empire stands for. When I really grasped what Empire really meant to me, and what a powerful message it could be for others to live by, no other concept mattered.

Tuck Case: You talk about putting a lot on the line for this playing card project, can you talk about some of the sacrifices or risks you are making in order to get this project off the ground?
Lee McKenzie: I left the UK 5 years ago with my Australian girlfriend when her visa had expired and we decided to travel and explore the world. I ditched my decent paying job, sold my car, motorbike, cut off my phone, etc... Everything. It was the first of many scary times I'd face in the coming years. It's at that point, I had gotten in touch with Ellusionist on a chance, with a deck I had been working on for about a year in my spare time. They instead hired me to work on Arcane, which was amazing! So I at least knew I had some kind of way to make a living on the road.

We traveled to many places the entire time I was freelancing, but it was incredibly tough. To be away from family and friends and to not really knowing where the next dollar is coming from is a hard way to live that almost pushes you over the edge. However, you learn a lot about yourself. You learn to live with your fears, to live outside your comfort zone and discover your resilience to keep going even when you can't see the next step.

We did this for the last 5 years and spent a lot of time living in places like Thailand, which may sound luxurious, but it was simply survival tactics. It was so cheap to live, which meant the pressure of finding the money for our food or for rent was lifted for a while. Eating one bowl of noodles per day because you're trying to save money (in a cheap country too), is not luxurious I assure you. But I wanted a life of freedom, creativity and experience. I wanted to try and figure out the bigger picture of myself and how to live a life of passion. How could I make a real contribution to the world and maybe even make a decent living so I wouldn't have to return to the "noodle diet"?

Bouncing to and from border to border from England to Canada to Australia and more, meant that we couldn't ever get things like a credit card, or a place we could call our own. Things that people consider very ordinary and things that help you feel a little more secure, weigh very heavily on you and restricts life a great deal.

We've been living with my girlfriend's parents for most of the past 2 years in Australia because we haven't been able to afford to make a start of our own. We've always been trying to figure out a way to combine our passions and build a pathway that would let us share those passions with the world. It's definitely not an easy road, but giving up, forgetting about those dreams and getting a job, was and still is something that I KNOW would kill my dream. We were just lucky enough to have such supportive people in our lives, but the guilt of not being independent is always hanging over us. It's a frustrating, limiting and soul crushing position to be in when you have to depend on others to help you survive, even if they wouldn't have it any other way.

Enough was enough. I started work on my own deck, Empire. I didn't know if it was the right move to make at that moment. However, after years of freelance and Ellusionist work, I just couldn't see a future for myself designing solely for other people, hired to help them build their dreams instead of my own. Empire became my mission and after around 6 months of starting it, I got word that my grandfather was in a critical condition in the UK. Cancer! We didn't even have enough money for flights back to the UK if we planned to continue living after the flight was over. After a nightmare dealing with the airline and prices being raised an extra $1000, we were in a bad way.

We got to the UK, in what turned out to be, just in time. Even though he couldn't speak, we knew exactly what he was trying to tell us when he clutched so tightly onto our hands. I'd never lost anyone before. It was chaos in my mind. At the hospice, the night my grandfather passed away, I made a commitment to dedicate Empire to him. That was what continued to drive me, no matter what. We were staying on a fold out bed on the floor of my friend's house. We couldn't afford an actual place to stay. It was here, for the next 2 months that I turned all the frustration and anger, inwards, towards working on Empire and I officially declared that I would not be doing anymore freelance work. I effectively cut off what small amount of income I had coming in. It seemed like the most stupid/best thing to do, but I had to focus my every effort if I was to make a real success of this deck.

With our very last savings dribbling away, our future was looking the most unstable it had ever looked. We'd become somewhat used to living with the unknown, but this was extreme. We didn't have a place to call home, almost no money left, a head full of dreams and a commitment I'd made to my grandfather resting heavily on my shoulders. We had no future as far as we could see in reality. With some amazing support from family and friends, Empire was finally finished. My commitment was complete and I was so happy I could share my passion and my Granddad with the world.

This has been a dream I've had for a long time. We're still scraping by on the actual last drops of resources we have. This is real. Empire launched over two ago, and about 4 days after that we reached our funding goal. I cannot believe it! Words can't describe the elation I'm feeling right now. It's been one hell of an emotional ride, especially even before Empire. For all of the sacrifice, effort and hardships we've been through to try and live my dream, I finally see a light at the end of the tunnel. If I can just reach that, the last 5 years was worth living every second of. I can finally get some kind of strange closure for my Granddad, knowing that Empire was dedicated to him and has been a success. The battle has been won, but the war isn't over.


Empire Playing Card Project will be in funding for 11 more days when it will cease receiving backers on July 18th. The deck is scheduled to ship in December 2013.

Click here to join Empire on Kickstarter! 

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