Monday, May 4, 2015

Art of Wards: Sky Ships

For a couple years now I've been experimenting with designs that capture the feel of sailing ships.  The giant sails constitute so much of the profile of a ship or sailboat.  The other day during a video presentation I was doodling with a pencil and yellow highlighter, sketching the basic forms of these drawings.  I finished them later with French Gray Prismacolor markers and Micron 01 pen, then removed the highlighter yellow color in Photoshop.  The result is Sky Ships, capturing some essence of sail ships... and Ginkgo apparently.

© 2015 Carl Erickson

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

PLUG - A Refreshing Take on Classic Sci-Fi

Imagine earth, in the perhaps not-so-distant future, now a lifeless desert wasteland and all humans have escaped the planet to find a new home.  After a nuclear holocaust, Robots are now the only inhabitants... except one young girl, left behind and forgotten; on a quest to find any remains of life.  If you haven't had a chance to watch the trailers and short film PLUG, David Levy's refreshingly grass-roots sci-fi concept production, then you are missing out.  Do you remember what it felt like to watch Star Wars for the first time?  I remember being captivated by the believable used universe of Star Wars.  It struck chords deep within my imagination because it was so consistent with my own extrapolation of reality.  It's the same with PLUG, thanks to the countless hours, over weekends and holidays, that Levy and his team spend converting sprinkler heads into laser blasters, and jet-skies into dune-buggies.  It's a return to raw ingenuity in film production and home-spun adventure.

Late in October, 2014, the PLUG short film premiered at the Gnomon School of Visual Effects in Hollywood.  There, Levy, his production team, and the cast shared about the 4-year-long process of making the trailers and short.  Interestingly, the trailers were filmed sequentially before filming the short, and served as a sandbox for production ideas.  Consequently, there's a natural flow in the story from trailer 1 to trailer 2 and then the 18 minute short.  Levy shared the initial idea that got the project rolling: "What if this bad-ass girl plugs in an old robot and it comes to life and starts attacking her!" A simple idea, but it grew as he brainstormed it with friends.  The story evolved into a complex post-apocalyptic adventure of a girl and her robot friend in search for human life; a story Levy felt he had to turn into a film.  The title of the production is both a nod to the original idea and an acronym for Political Logistic Unifying Genome, the film's villainous computer mastermind.
Production Design panel discussion at the PLUG World Premier,
Gnomon School of Visual Effects, Hollywood, CA
From the left: David Levy, Dylan Cole, Ben Procter, Alex Cunningham, and Lex Cassar

Comparing the hyper-realistic style of today's sci-fi with the more fantasy-dominated style of the 70's and 80's, Levy said he wanted to incorporate it all in the look and feel of PLUG.  But he specifically wanted that vintage Star Wars, 80's sci-fi style to dominate.  In the case of PLUG, the low budget necessitated an old-school style of modding cheap hardware and scrap into props, but actually worked to great effect in achieving that vintage sci-fi look.

Dylan Cole (Prometheus and Maleficent production designer, now on Avatar II with Levy ) commented on how his job at a big studio with a large budget is easy compared to what was done for PLUG.  But the downside of a big studio is complex bureaucracy; something the production team for PLUG never had to deal with.  Production designers Alex Cunningham and Lex Cassar (who also played Marker in PLUG) talked about how much freedom they enjoyed in the making of PLUG, "We had a lot of control, David [Levy] gave us a lot of trust!"  Levy's open-minded approach to the process, treating his actors and production team as collaborators and fellow artists, he believes led to a better production.  "At the end of the day we're all story tellers," said Cassar, in his appreciation of Levy's openness to input which enable him to contribute valuable elements to the story.

Buggy concept
David Levy
Cunningham and Cassar made two custom helmets from scratch for Marker and Ray, complete with blinking LEDs.  All the other helmets in the film were kit-bashed.  They recounted moments of frustration and joy as they learned molding/casting through a trial-and-error approach.  But perhaps the most infamous prop by far turned out to be the buggy.  Starting with an old dune buggy, the production team worked through the night, before their first day of filming, to complete the body work and paint.  The most characteristic features were scavenged from an old jet-ski; the bottom hull actually became the buggy's hood.  Though they completed the buggy in time, it caused hours of frustration throughout filming.  The buggy would suddenly stall and refuse to start, often during key action sequences.  "I hate that buggy!" said Levy, "I want the first scene of the next episode to be that buggy exploding!"
Robot concept art by David Levy
Robot concept art by David Levy
Robot concept art
by Alex Cunningham
Kit-bashed helmet
Closeup of helmet damage detailing
Marker's helmet concept
Marker's helmet concept
Alex Cunningham
Marker's helmet
Actual costume
Ray's helmet
Actual costume
Ray's helmet - Actual costume
The fans work, and were added
to make the helmet more
comfortable to wear during filming 

Some sequences were done with visual effects.  Levy did much of the work himself, even learning visual effects software with online how-to videos so he could complete certain sequences.    Probably the most exciting and visually striking sequence of the film is the Bashunter.  The range-of-motion testing, and final sequence were done by Ray Pena of Moontower VFX based on concepts by Cunningham and Levy.  Commenting on the final look of the Bashunter, Pena said, "I know David likes big clunky machines, so I focused on that."
Early Bashunter concepts by David Levy
Refined Bashunter concept sketch
Alex Cunningham
3D modeling of Bashunter
Alex Cunningham and David Levy
Still shot of Ray Pena's final Bashunter in the film
The 4-year production timeline has provided a unique perspective on how technology has progressed in entertainment.  When they started, their cameras and equipment were cutting edge, but things like GoPro didn't exist yet.  Now, Levy says he wants to incorporate the concept behind what people are watching on YouTube, like those elusive moments caught on a cellphone camera.  But looking back, the biggest thing Levy said he would change is sound.  "I would have spent a lot more on sound." he said, "Sound and music is 50% of the feeling of a movie."

As a concept artist and art director, Levy talked about how patience is the most valuable skill he's developed through making PLUG.  He talked about how he's gained much more insight into the process of film making; designing characters, props, directing actors, visual effects and editing.

PLUG is a pleasure to watch, and knowing the amount of creative effort behind it only makes it better.  What impresses me most is that a group of busy professionals, with limited time and resources, invested their best effort in a dream and made something amazing.  Clearly David Levy and his team love what they do, and the world of sci-fi is richer for it.  Last month, PLUG won the Media category of Script Pipeline's annual contest... So here's to the bright future of an awesome story from some really cool people!

Share what you think of PLUG!
Concept Art, David Levy, based on Lex Cassar Design

Lots more cool PLUG stuff here:

Official Website: Short Film, and trailers

Facebook Page

World Premiere Event 2014 - Gnomon

Note: all photos taken by Carl Erickson, 10/25/2014, used here with the permission of David Levy

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Happy Easter!

A cartoon I did in my representation of the Bunny Suicides style by Andy Riley

Friday, February 6, 2015

The Art of Guardians of the Galaxy

Marvel's Visual Development Team discusses their design process, in typical design review format, at the Gnomon School of Visual Effects in Hollywood, California, February 5, 2015.

The more I learn about concept art and the field of entertainment design, the more I'm impressed by the artists behind it.  Their productivity and boundless creativity fills the imaginary worlds we all know and love, from video games to movies.  Star Lord's mask in Guardians of the Galaxy is instantly recognizable to anyone who has seen the film; it's famous.  But there's a great story behind the a design; a process full of serendipitous accidents.  Meeting the Visual Development team from Marvel was a rare opportunity to see the concept design process explained by some of the best in the industry.

During initial stages of design, Star Lord's mask was part of a fully enclosed helmet.  Then they decided his hair should be exposed, to make the character more personable.  This led to a series of designs in ZBrush.  At one point, Josh Herman, Lead Character Artist at Marvel Studios, accidentally revealed all his design variations on the screen at once.  "I thought it looked really cool, and it actually looked a lot like the final design that got approved," he says.  Josh went on to talk about the evolution of Groot's character, and especially the eyes.  "Groot is like Rocket's pet, but Rocket is kinda like a dog, so Groot is like the dog's dog," as he explains, "I wanted his eyes to have this wisdom and innocence, so I actually painted my dog's eyes on Groot, which made it into the final design.  But James [Gunn, director] doesn't know that, because he actually wanted us to use his dog's eyes."

The team talked about how Marvel is becoming more unique in the industry because of it's continued dedication to traditional art methods.  The concept art for The Phantom Menace was all hand drawn and beautifully rendered with Prismacolor markers, and of course Doug Chang's amazing paintings were done with real paint.  Since then digital painting has become the standard.  And now, the latest trend in conceptual design, at least for movies, is photo manipulation.  Some directors may feel that drawings and paintings are to abstract, or perhaps traditional methods take too long (At marvel, the artists are usually given one to two days for a thumbnail painting, and up to a week for a full production painting). Whatever the reason, Marvel is becoming one of the few studios that prefers to work from concept paintings and drawings.  "I think it's because of Marvel's rich history in art that they can appreciate working with paintings," said Rodney Fuentebella, Senior Illustrator at Marvel Studios.  His main focus is key frames, which are fully painted out still-shots as they will appear in the movie.  These help solidify the look and feel of the movie, and also serve as selling features to potential directors, and actors who join the movie project later.  Rodney currently uses one of the most interesting hybrid techniques of the the entire team.  He showed how he starts with a simple 3D mock-up of his initial sketches, which allows him to test out the soundness of the design from all angles.  Then he begins a 2D painting over be best angle, using the 3D mock-up for reference with perspective and ground lines for guidance.  Rodney concluded, "It's currently my proffered process, but who knows, next year I may be doing something totally different!"

In addition to key frames, Rodney does everything from character design to toys and merchandising for Marvel, which highlights an important aspect of job seeking in entertainment design.  He and others pointed out that artists are hired based on their specialty.  "When an art department needs another character designer, they hire one, but then everyone ends up helping out with everything," he said, which is true of almost any industry.  Their point is, everything is fun to do, but in order to market yourself successfully as a concept artist, you have to have your niche - the skill that gets you in the door.

These guys work long hours, and have demanding schedules, but they still make time to practice in their sketchbooks and enjoy oil and watercolor painting.  Rodney shared his excitement about having moved into a house with a garage so he can set up his oil paints, and said, "Even after seven years of working on the computer I'm still not totally comfortable with it."  There's something very fulfilling about interacting with tangible materials.  There's no substitute for smell of the paints and markers, or the feel of the papers, pens, and brushes.  But even if some of this must be sacrificed in the interest of efficiency, the creativity of the artists is always present, bringing our wildest dreams into clear focus.