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.