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Concept Art and VFX: Managed Collaboration

J. Paul Peszko finds a collaborative relationship between conceptual artists and vfx teams on the biggest of visual effects blockbusters.

Testing out the look of a scene from X-Men: The Last Stand.  and © 2006 Twentieth Century Fox. All rights reserved. X-Men character likenesses  and © 2006 Marvel Characters Inc. 

Testing out the look of a scene from X-Men: The Last Stand. and © 2006 Twentieth Century Fox. All rights reserved. X-Men character likenesses and © 2006 Marvel Characters Inc. 

Although the collaborative relationship between conceptual artists and vfx departments appears to be improving on larger, effects-driven features, the people skilled with pen and brush that design the overall look of a film still find their craft a solitary one. As Daren Dochterman, a veteran concept artist, puts it: By the time the vfx company has started, and brought their own artists on, the pre-production artists have been laid off.

As for collaboration between the two, Dochterman suggests it is very rare in the early stages. The only people actively working on the film early in pre-production are the people in the art department. If it is a visually complex movie, this usually includes concept artists. At this point, the company that will ultimately perform the vfx duties isnt even chosen. So, there is little chance for collaboration.

Dochterman, with a long list of credits, including Poseidon, X-Men: The Last Stand and Monster House, believes this is an effect of compartmentalization. Hollywood has always involved different factions working on a film, from the director to the art department to production to special effects to set dressing to visual effects. The only real collaboration happens in countless early meetings where the department heads and their key people discuss the script.

Mark Goerner, who has worked on such features as Minority Report and Constantine and is currently working on James Camerons upcoming Battle Angel, agrees: The collaborative relationship between post-production artists and concept/pre-production artists is a rarity in feature film work. Most of the translation of content is done through the art directors and agents for the vfx companies. My personal belief is that any production that has interest in breaking new ground, or at least achieving an especially honed product would benefit from the occasional cross-pollination of ideas and methodologies from those two spheres of labor.

James Clyne, who is also working on Battle Angel and lists X-Men: The Last Stand, Poseidon and Polar Express among his credits, doesnt experience much collaboration in the early stages of a production either. When I first start, its usually only myself, a director and maybe a production designer. We go over the broad strokes of a script with the director or production designer or both and hack out or block out the beats of the script. Then as the production progresses, I get more involved with collaborating with set designers, art directors and nowadays theres lots of collaboration with the previs guy.

Neil Miller paints the New York skyline for United 93. © Universal Pictures. 

Neil Miller paints the New York skyline for United 93. © Universal Pictures. 

&atypeFor Neil Miller, an artist/matte painter who has worked on The DaVinci Code and United 93 for Double Negative, echoes that the process in the beginning is a solitary one. Each new matte painting/concept requires a research period to source subject, materials and specific periods in time. Beginning this process and developing the matte/concept work is normally fairly isolated: usually just dealing with the vfx producer and director to establish the required look. When a shot is more complicated and needs 3D elements and big camera moves, this is when teamwork is essential, but this is later on in the process, after the look/concept has been approved.

Dan Bethel, lead td and R&D, who worked with concept artists on the X-Ray shots for Superman Returns supplied by Rising Sun Pictures of Australia, adds that the amount of collaboration depends on how abstract the concept is. Sometimes its great to be handed concept artwork and told simply make it look like this. It can provide something to aim for aesthetically but also provides some context to what youre working on. For abstract concepts, I prefer working in a team with a concept artist. As a td, it gives me an opportunity to communicate directly with the artist and understand exactly the idea theyre trying to convey. At the same time, it allows me some input into the design to make sure its actually achievable in shots.

Dylan Cole helped conjure the creepy designs for The Ring Two.

Dylan Cole helped conjure the creepy designs for The Ring Two.

Even someone who wears both hats such as Dylan Cole, a concept artist/matte painter and an art director, acknowledges this separation. I was visual effects art director on The Ring Two, and in that case I did the concept painting and then I would sit with the lighter or the compositor and actually talk about different elements and what I was thinking. If Im just doing the concept art/matte painting, then its more or less just me polishing it and making it work. It kind of depends because Ive had several different roles, either concept artist or art director.

How are concept artists used? Well, that can vary from production to production, as Dochterman points out. Sometimes concept art is used to give a best possible scenario idea, i.e., presenting concept paintings or renders of scenes where budget and feasibility are not a concern. These are used as a target for what the optimal scene would be like, but everyone knows that the reality will be somewhat below that standard, simply because of the restrictions of real world needs.

Sometimes, concept artists are used to flesh out ideas which are only partially formed in the production designer and directors mind. Talented concept artists are good at taking sometimes minimal instruction and reference from the designer and synthesizing it into a scene that is appropriate and corresponds to the designers vision.

But the real collaboration, Dochterman notes, happens between the vfx producer, or supervisor, and the director. The production designer is sometimes called into this equation, but more often than not, an fx company has a separate art department that is working on the film in parallel to the production art department.

Marty Kline has helped design some of Sony Pictures Imageworks biggest projects such as Stuart Little and Spider-Man.

Marty Kline has helped design some of Sony Pictures Imageworks biggest projects such as Stuart Little and Spider-Man.

From a studio perspective, Marty Kline, a visual effects art director (Stuart Little) and senior concept designer (Spider-Man) for Sony Pictures Imageworks, explains how this division works. What were doing here is more on the order of managing the artwork that comes from concept artists, making sure that everything we do fits the vision that was developed independently (by the production company). A lot of these projects develop independently because its a process that takes place at a different time and on a different budget than our actual shot-making time frame.

So, what were doing is picking up the concept art as it is delivered to us. People will be doing designs for characters, creatures and sets. We use concept artists at Imageworks to respond and maybe have a dialogue over designs. Well get designs and redraw them and send them back and say this would be more effective for us, this would be more efficient or this would be more practical with our pipeline. This design change fits certain of our needs and how do you feel about that? We engage in a dialog with the production designer over what choices wed like to make. Sometimes they absolutely insist on the designs theyve come up with, and we respond to that by adjusting our development to get that. But sometimes we can convince them of a possible different solution that will create the same image quality for them, but it will be easier for us and, therefore, cheaper for them and we can spend money elsewhere.

I think, if its possible, you should bring on a concept artist as soon as you have something you want to make. It cant be too early a time to have a concept artist even when youre scriptwriting. Everything that we do is going to turn into something visual. Ultimately, when you turn a script or a book into a film, youre going to make a certain amount of adjustments and compromises. Concept art tells you what you can put into the visuals that dont have to be said in dialogue or exposition or storytelling verbally. You can know right away, if you bring in a concept artist, exactly what you dont have to write or dont have to explain because its all there in the scene for the audience.

Immediacy is another key factor in employing concept art, as Kline points out. As long as we have a concept or story, whether people are familiar with it or not, a totally new project or a well-known book or a sequel to some existing project, everybody wants to start developing it. They want to start writing. They want to cast it. They want to know its release date as soon as possible. Its a given that we have to do concept art to get this thing moving along.

Goerner believes that having concept art available in the early stages is crucial. If you look, for instance, at what it used to take to pitch a film visually, most of the times films werent even pitched with visuals. Now its almost imperative that in order to get a project off the ground there are visuals that correspond to it. If they (the executives) dont see visuals, they dont think its viable. Its a bit of a shame because people are not leaning much on their imagination, reading words or hearing somebody describe something and then in their minds eye imagining it. They really do now require visuals, and pretty highly detailed visuals.

But a lack of collaboration between concept artists and visual effects early on is not always the case, especially on larger budget features with complex visuals.

Im heavily involved with trying to collaborate with the production designer, the director and the visual effects supervisor in coming up with the big picture, the visual stylization of the whole film, offers George Hull (V for Vendetta). My process on the The Matrix and its typical of many films was to collaborate closely with the production designer and director to come up with the look and style of the film from what The Matrix set pieces should look like to the designs of Zion, the futuristic city and hover craft as well as the color palettes for the visual effects scenes and for mood and lighting.

On Poseidon, the concept work, at times, was directly related to the final look of the film. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.  

On Poseidon, the concept work, at times, was directly related to the final look of the film. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.  

This was similar to Dochtermans involvement on Poseidon. At times the concept work was integral and directly related to the final look of the film. Production designer Bill Sandell gave me the task of being responsible for the look of the exterior of the ship. I decided that the best way to get a consistent look and have a valuable asset for vfx to use would be to create the ship as it was being designed all in 3D.

I started with the basic shape of the ship in LightWave 3D on my Mac PowerBook (which I used throughout the show) and augmented it and refined it along the way to get the script specific features incorporated in the design, and to maintain a believability factor that would have no one question that this could be a real existing cruise ship. Renderings along the way of different angles were submitted to the director and other key personnel, and to the studio for approval. As it turns out, these key angles were used in the amazing opening shot of the ship. During the three months or so that I was modeling the ship, I would give updated model files to vfx supervisor Boyd Shermis to be used in his previs shots, and the final version of the model, when I completed it, was given to ILM for use as a template from which to build their final model in Maya. As a result of this direct connection to the visual effects department from the art department, a very consistent look was achieved between the early concept work and the final result.

As one might expect, performance capture and 3D-animated films require more collaboration between concept artists and digital artists than live-action films. With Monster House, theyre doing that more in an animated/cartoon environment, Kline explains. The performance of the characters is developed more from performance capture [of the actors] rather than keyframe animation by an animator. We do a lot of effects animation and matte painting design and development for the animated films (e.g., Open Season), and the animators will do a lot of animation for CG characters because not everything is always complete in performance capture: theres a lot of cross-talk between the disciplines.

Dochterman had an opportunity to experience this cross-talk first hand. On Monster House, the fx people were involved from the beginning. That film was a good example of an efficient pipeline of art department to fx house, mostly because the art department had to design everything in the film, much like a regular animated feature. Weekly status meetings involved presentation of concept art. Often, as we went through the different parts of the film, director Gil Kenan and production designer Ed Verreaux had daily walkarounds where they could check on the progress of everyone. This was great, because it gave immediate and direct feedback on the process. As a result, it gave us more information up-front, so that we could be more accurate with the artwork, and give well thought out renditions to the folks at Sony Imageworks. Subsequently, it turns out that the final film looks a lot like the concept work, which means that it looks like what the director and designer intended.

Many of the The Da Vinci Code productions locations were first constructed in the minds of conceptual artists. All Da Vinci Code images © 2006 Columbia Pictures Industries Inc. All rights reserved. 

Many of the The Da Vinci Code productions locations were first constructed in the minds of conceptual artists. All Da Vinci Code images © 2006 Columbia Pictures Industries Inc. All rights reserved. 

Nick Pill, a vfx art director with Rising Sun Pictures, explains that collaboration and communication are built into the companys structure. The structure at Rising Sun Pictures is very much team based. Each team consists of artists from different skill sets, tds, lighters, compositors, animators and a coordinator. This promotes communication between departments and cross-pollination of skills. Everyone shares ownership on all shots or tasks that are assigned to their team. But the early stage for Pill is very much the same as it is for most other concept artists. The first part of my process, however, is isolated as I receive the brief from the client usually in a cineSync session or from our vfx supervisor. Then I research as much as I can on the subject and start my initial designs, again mostly in isolation. It is when I have these initial designs that I start to involve others from relevant departments. Improvements can be made and then options delivered back to client.

As an example of this teamwork, Ben Toogood, a td, outlines the steps involved in creating the X-Ray shots for Superman Returns at RSP. Generally, the collaboration would be a three-step process, starting with the concept artist laying out the initial design of the shot based on the brief. Then we as shot artists would rough out the actual contents of the shot and then feed this back to the concept artists. This would provide them with a more specific structure to build look paintings from, which would then be used to drive and guide the execution of the final imagery.

Toogood worked very closely with the shot compositor and 2D team lead, Kyle Goodsell, to realize the X-Ray look for Lois Lanes house. The shot started with David [Scott, visual effects art director] and I working on the previs and modeling the house in Maya, explains Goodsell. The initial previs from PLF/RSP gave us a quick indication of what to begin with. From that point it was quick and easy to map out the camera path to create the initial feeling for the shot. This also gave us a chance to work with the Superman Returns art department on how the top part of Lois house would connect with the bottom of the house, as they were shot in two entirely different locations. Once the animated camera was completed, it was then fed into a motion control rig on the set. When the film plates were received from production, we began working on the shot. David started his rough concept art and Ben, Dan [Bethel] and I, with the help of our vfx supervisor Tim Crosbie, started on rough layouts of the shot put together. From there we worked daily with each other to find the best way to realize Davids concept art (which he updated based on client feedback).

Cole, who, along with Doug Juhn, did concept paintings for the interior of the Fortress of Solitude on Superman Returns for Rhythm & Hues, explains: Once the concept is approved, then the vfx team assembles and will discuss it with the vfx sup, vfx art director and/or concept artist. That piece of art becomes the guide for everyone involved with that shot. Sometimes a look will evolve and it is not uncommon to have to do another piece of concept art as the process unfolds. Usually one will just take a frame of the current comp and paint over it as a reference to keep everyone heading to a common goal.

Matte painter Neil Miller helped establish the general look of the Castle Gandolfo shots for The Da Vinci Code. 

Matte painter Neil Miller helped establish the general look of the Castle Gandolfo shots for The Da Vinci Code. 

Matte painter Miller points out that sometimes concept artists are needed for specific scenes in which collaboration with a 3D team is essential. On the Castle Gandolfo shot for The Da Vinci Code, I had to produce a night-time concept and a matte painting of the castle in daylight. The concept artwork was used to establish a general look and feel for the castle and the surrounding area. It was vital to get these aspects approved so the 3D team can build, texture and light the scene. All of this can be very time consuming so the closer we come to an established look at the concept stage, the more efficient the 3D pipeline can be.

The daytime matte painting shot of the castle, was mainly 2D. I rendered some basic 3D geometry with an ambient occlusion pass for the three domes, which I then painted in Photoshop. A general 3D line up was also provided at a later stage to help establish the chapel perspective. Working closely with the 3D artists on this and earlier projects has definitely given me a better understanding of what can be achieved in 2D and 3D combinations, which can only be positive.

Most concept artists have strong feelings about how much their work has improved due to collaboration.

Without a doubt it has helped me improve my skill set, says Miller. But with regards to matte painting and concept work, the most important skills are the basics: color, form and composition learn these first then use any tool set to realize your and others ideas.

Adds Hull: I worked in visual effects for 12 years, and Ive been able to see the benefits of a 3D model, having that and going back to the drawing table and drawing over models. I just like having so many tools at your disposal instead of just having a linear process where an artist draws something, designs it, and then passes it over to a person who models and lights it. Now the test is gone, and you are both working together, handing things back and forth. It really helps both of our processes.

Both Hull and Cole are featured in dartiste: Concept Art by Ballistic Publishing, available at their respective websites. James Clynes work can be found in Concept Design 2 available from Design Studio Press and his website.

J. Paul Peszko is a freelance writer and screenwriter living in Los Angeles. He writes various features and reviews as well as short fiction. He has a feature comedy in development and has just completed his second novel. When he isnt writing, he teaches communications courses.