Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Mortal Kombat X: Flying Oni


(The Flying Oni reigns death from above and wonders why Skeletor doesn't call him anymore.)

     Taking concepts to the 3D stage can be fun. It helped improve the ability to sculpt as well as concept for 3D. Netherrealm's Character Artist team is insanely talented and being able to get their feedback was critical. Every sculpt was a step forward and their guidance was a big part of that. Reaching out for constant feedback outside of the usual set of eyes is important. Sometimes someone seeing something out of context is very revealing. The truth of a piece of work can be revealed in a passing statement. Most critiques grow from the initial gut reaction.

(The back view of the sculpt with some snazzy lighting and comping to try and make up for the shortcomings of the sculpt.)

        I was very lucky, I can get bored quickly when working on a task if there isn't something else to juggle alongside of it. Most of the time it is a matter of soldiering through that. However, at Netherrealm it was fun to get sudden shifts in gears from 3D to 2D. There was no getting bored. There were often sudden changes in subject matter and tight deadlines that required quick thinking. Reaching out to awesome artists like Ian Nuad and Jonathon Sabella really helped push the quality of sculpts. 

(Close up shots of the sculpt with quick shifting in values to identify changes in material. When comping a sculpt you realize quickly all the touch up in the world won't save you. This sculpt uffers from a lack of balance between noise and rest. Something to consider for the next one.)

     This sculpt ended up being changed quite a bit after I left. This is probably due to the mistake of  piling on too many busy details. At first it was disappointing, but looking at the final changes it made complete sense. The design seen here calls for some extra work in weighting and rigging. The bone plating on the torso is a tricky area and the segmented jaw requires a specialized rig. All fine, if this were a more of a major player in regards to screen time. The final design simplified the body and face which makes for a shorter pipeline to the engine. Stylistically the darker shade and glowing elements read better in context of the scene. This design had a better chance of survival if I put a little more thought it to potential technical issues that become bigger issues on tightening schedules. Simpler design does not mean less design, in some cases it means smarter more efficient design. The other solution would have been to put in extra hours to rig and weight the creature myself, unfortunately I had to move onto other tasks which also required extra hours.

(Quick turnaround of the full sculpt. A ground element and a little more time on the pose could help improve presentation. At this point this is an old piece and figured time would be better spent on newer pieces currently in development.)

    Dusting this off and reviewing it leads to quite a few cringing faces. The large wings will establish a strong shape, but designing the silhouette so it is equally as strong without wings could have helped. The balance between areas of rest and noise also could use more nuance. Although I am not satisfied with the end result I am satisfied with the step forward it represented. I have a bit of way to go with my sculpting but have way more tools at my disposal. Hoping to finish up some new pieces in the next month or so. I'm coming out of a 6 month hiatus from sculpting so looking forward to firing up that part of the brain. 

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Creature Concept: As I Lay Trying

(The final concept - "He got them teeth")

      This idea spawned while working out some thumbnail iterations and looking at reference of a bat crawling. There was a weird optical illusion with the way the webbing between the legs folded, making it look like it had a 5th appendage. I decided to take that optical illusion and flesh it out. The evolutionary "logic" behind it would be that what was once a tail, is now a crude foot like appendage used to spring onto larger prey. While on the prey it can jab at it with the exposed bone jutting from the main structure of the appendage. Originally the 5th limb rested under a traditional tail when I realized I could create an evolutionary feature, where what was once a tail evolved into a bulkier appendage.

(Reference sheet used during the early thumbnail stage as well as rendering.)

      The goal early on was the design a creature that was a real pain in the ass for it's environment. Something that was a scavenger and predator with attributes found in real life animals like otters, baboons, hyenas and wolverines. The baboon influence lead to the exposed gums and the otter influence was eventually abandoned. The first direction for a more otter like creature can be seen in an image below.

(The main render with a few additional story notes.)

      At one point when working on this concept I was on my back staring at a static ceiling fan, my arms sprawled out. Working long hours tends to wear down the nerves a bit. Since I'm working from home I did what I do best, angry nap. I fell asleep for 10 minutes and woke up completely out of my mood and knowing what I needed to do. Mood is a big part of working, the technical side is critical but painting with feeling is important. There are a number of ways to brush off discouraging moments and plow ahead. Sometimes stepping away physically and mentally is the best option. When working on site it involved going on a brief walk or in the case of Netherrealm, playing a quick game of NFL Blitz in the arcade room.

(The call out sheet detailing behavior, physical details and even hints at domestication.)

      Music can help, but also acting out the creature and character helps as well. Yes. I will make dumb noises, pose or act out to understand the weighting or demeanor of the subject manner. Especially at home, at a studio I'm not as bold so usually do so more subtly or when no one is around. I may look like an asshole, but I have no problem with that if the concept quality is improved.

 (The uncertainty and grinding of gears is reflected in the thumbnails. They are a bit sloppy but needed to be moved forward with one of the designs. Above are the second batch of thumbnails alongside a quick value exploration of a design that was scrapped.)

     In this case experimenting helped jar me out of a block. When struggling with the anatomy I took out some clay and built a very crude model of the creature. It helped me understand the macro forms and also find the gesture in 3D. The execution wasn't perfect but it definitely pushed in the right direction. If time permits the clay exploration will be revisited as it is quick and profoundly helpful. In the future will utilize this more for anatomy and lighting as well.
     Currently I am finishing a beast of burden concept that was meant to be paired as the prey to this predator/scavenger. A hint of the creature can be seen in the call out sheet above, Hoping to finish that by next week alongside more Mortal Kombat X work. 

Friday, April 17, 2015

Mortal Kombat X: Mileena's War Camp

      This was a fun project, I was tasked with developing the look of Mileena's traveling war camp. I wanted to introduce traditionally Sci-fi forms or silhouettes into the template of barbarian/older technology. The elements all had to look like they could be easily assembled and disassembled since the camp needed to be easily mobile. So the designs feature a lot of cut lines, ropes and caps that hint at areas of attachment/detachment . That said they couldn't be too clean or clever since we decided the Tarkatan soldiers in this camp would be on the rougher side. The tents and chest can be spotted in story mode from what I have heard. Not sure if the war wagon made it into the game or not, a couple of things were cut or changed.

(The war wagon render with some line work call outs.)

     Again, working with Pav helped push this designs along since I was out of my comfort zone having not done a lot of vehicle work. For the turnaround I utilized a very rough 3D block out to establish a clean perspective so my time can be spent focusing on detail and functional information. I did quick line work over the 3D render then removed it. In the future I need to be smarter about this tool and utilized it for lighting as well.

(Thumbnails for the wagon. After reviewing these the plan was to do two wagons, a large war wagon with a smaller wagon if time permits. Time was a jerk and didn't permit.)

(Some quick sketches and notes on the objects that populate the camp as well as a sketch of the tent interiors.)

     The secondary elements were fun but designs and rendering are hurt from the lack of attention. The first week of development I worked under a long term deadline but that changed. The priority for the environment was bumped up after the first week. The production plan laid out had to change to accommodate the new deadline, which meant the secondary items didn't get as much attention as I would've liked. There is only so much time and room in the budget to justify spending hours on assets that will not be shown front and center.
     Shifting deadlines can be discouraging, but there is a part of me that likes being under the gun. It is a different kind of challenge. It calls for you to really push problem solving skills and the ability to test all that you have learned up until that point.

(Chest for an amulate, protected in Mileena's war camp.)

     There was a exhausting balance required when producing concepts. It is important to try and out due the last concept, however deadlines can make that a difficult task. Often times in order to push beyond my limits and improve each piece, it required many late nights of painting. There are a  lot of tricks and philosophies which gives abilities a bump but I'm quickly learning that mileage is not something you can shortcut.
    Words are done now, pardon any grammar errors. I'm grinding to get the next wave of personal work done so hopefully I can show that soon. OH MY GOD THAT STAR WARS TRAILER!!!!!!!!!!!

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Mortal Kombat X: Demon Goat Horse I of II

    Mortal Kombat X is out and will be digging through some older work. This is the concept sheet for the horse Quan Chi uses to ride into battle. It was done summer of 2014.July I believe. It was labeled the "Demon Goat Horse" by IGN and people seemed to dig it which was exciting. It began as more of an alien design but was eventually reset to be much more horse like. The work on this creature was particularly memorable because of the deadline and the juggling of tasks to get it done in time.

 (Final concept sheet for Quan Chi's Demon Horse.)

     Along side this concept we were developing a couple of snakes for the background of the jungle stage. I was working on these two concepts side by side in the early stages. Having two tasks to bounce between can help keep things fresh and delay any fatigue from staring at the same thing too long. The demon horse went with a design that was closer to "reality", so I decided to try to do the same with the snake. The designs are a bit too simple and looking back at it, I could have done better in pushing design within the constraints.

  (Final concept sheet for jungle snake.)

      The plan was to debut Quan Chi with this horse in a trailer along side a particular event (forget which one as there were many where we would feed the media with content). Meanwhile, there was a jungle snake and drone I was developing. It was a drop everything and focus on the horse kind of deal, as there was only a few weeks to concept, sculpt and texture then pass it off for engine prep (by the awesome 3D artist Jesse Graybeal). I had to let go of drone which was already being developed in the 3D phase. However, I took a risk and promised both the snake and horse done by the deadline.  It was a challenge which required long hours but it was a great learning experience. It got done with the insight and critiques from my awesome co-workers Pav Kovacic, Ian Nuad and Jonathon Sabella. 

(The plan for my subtools in ZBrush. I find that this approach helped speed of the 3D phase immensely. Understanding my sub tools, where to save time and what needs the most attention before even stepping into ZBrush.)

     It came down to the wire and during the final days all I could do was occasionally bother Jesse to see it in engine, or see how the glowey parts look, or how about the skull, is the skull working? Jesse really knocked it out of the park and improved the creature with his shader work and texture clean up. The month was a blur and before we knew it we hit the deadline and delivered. It felt good, even though on the day it was due we found out the Quan Chi debut was switched for a later date.
     It felt like getting the rug pulled out from underneath you but that happens. I was annoyed but the silver lining was the team having more time for polishing and animation. In reality, it was a very small part of a much larger machine that needed react quickly to sudden changes in the road. So keeping the proper perspective is important as there is always more work that needs to be done. 

(The thumbnail sheet for the newly reset task. The original thumbnails were too alien and would have created overly complicated rigging and animation for a creature that didn't play a big enough role to justify the complexity.)

(Snake thumbnails, the original plan was to develop a second one with eithe 2A or 3A, but other things came up and they fell through the cracks.)

     Part II will show the sculpt for the Demon Goat Horse as well as the improvements which were made in engine by Jesse Greybeal. This is the first of a handful of posts so maybe occasionally click on it if you see it on your feed and are bored somewhere. Below is some footage of the horse in game:

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Keep the Aquatics Flying part II: Taking Risks, Then Failing

(The last piece from JP Targete's creature design class at Gnomon)

      This was the last piece from JP's creature design class over at Gnomon. I almost didn't post it. Then I remembered the purpose of the blog was to track my development every shitty step of the way. So not that this piece is a complete failure, but it just fell very short of what it could have been. Rather than toy with it, noodling over it here and there, I decided to just cut it off and move on. Sometimes when working on personal pieces it's the right thing to do, the lessons learned can still be applied and executed on whatever comes next. 

 (The project was very open in regards to design criteria, the result was a pretty exploratory thumbnail phase. The aim was to try and reach in different directions with each iteration while maintaining a similar mood.)

     Above is the original thumbnail sheet. This branched off of the visual development for the Landria character posted previously. Instead of picking one out of such a wide range of thumbnails, I split the character into two and developed them side by side. Which may explain some of the shortcomings. It could have been better if I focused the time and energy into just one of them. All things considered, it was a very challenging creature with lots of light sources, material changes and movement. It was a little over my head in regards to rendering but turned out to be very educational. As is the case with most things, a lot of growth comes from rough terrain. 

 (The disappointment in all it's disappointing glory. Look at it, flying all disappointmently.)

     A lot of energy was lost during the render process, at the same time a lot of the flaws I overlooked in the sketch were exposed ten fold as the render progressed. Since this piece, I've developed a much more extensive checklist of design and technical principles. The checklist is pulled up during schedule review times that are now much longer than before. A quick minute or two doesn't cut it. A good 10 minutes, blurring eyes, away from the desk and checklist in had. Doing this will slowly bring a lot of the issues out of hiding.
     One major issue with this creature: way to busy. There is almost no rest. Too many materials, light sources, too many fins and too many wings. A busier design can work but it needs a lot of finesse to pull off. There wasn't much iteration on this design and if there was I'm sure a lot of the excess would have been addressed. The cost of rushing a piece without having a concrete work flow established.

(The notes featured above are just the tip of the iceberg and are written in much nicer language than what I hear in my head.)

     So just a quick (er) post this time. I'm considering posting some things in mid-development as it may be interesting to see things come together in a "live" sort of way. The idea of opening up the iterative phase to feedback on here could be interesting as well. 
     There are new works and other opportunities for better execution during the render phase. As discouraged about this piece, there are plenty of new pieces in the works that are encouraging. This month has been about getting back to a more rigorous visual development phase before rendering. The the idea is to merge what I learned last Fall with designs that are much more thorough. So hopefully sooner than later there will be plenty of stubborn beasts, homeless aliens, flying hot rods, and disgruntled mechanics populating the blog.

I'm going to go breathe somewhere else now. 

An inspirational message from Danny Glover....
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Friday, January 9, 2015

Consider the Vulture Part II of II: Final Render

(A banner of the final render, changes are subtle from the last one. Adjustments to the form, material definition and edge fidelity help create some depth.)

     Below are the final stages of this creatures render. This piece took a step further in merging a presentation that focuses on rendering while still includes some simple but effective call outs. The goal is to be able to quickly knock out a somewhat detailed rendered "scene" and still have time for an extensive call out sheet like the ones completed for my Phantom Tollbooth project. 

     (The final render, she will soon have a partner in crime. Another fun challenge in design to characters in relation to each other. Plan to have that up in a week or so.)

      The final render, with most pieces it is like whack-a-mole with areas that could use improvement. At some point you have to cut the losses and move on, implementing lessons learned into the next one. In a studio setting I would include notes or talk to the 3D artists with some ideas for additional design elements. Often times I can root the lacking areas to indecision. Often times feeling like something could be better and changing your mind too many times can leave things muddy. The best solution for my tendency is my checklist of design and technical principles. If I am feeling fickle, the list will sometimes say "leave it alone!". As the old saying goes, the enemy of good is better. 

(A collection of quick call outs and story notes help bring the character to life. The call outs are a bit too stiff and lost some of the early sketch energy. This was due to rushing the clean up. Some patience would have allowed them to develop without killing the acceleration of the initial strokes.)

    Once the base form is down on the main view, I usually take breaks from building up the concept to move around to some rough call out sketches. Before detailing the main form, sketching views from the side and back help build an overall understanding of the anatomy which helps identify necessary changes to account for limb clearance, weighting and the imagined anatomy. Sometimes these sketches look like animation rigs (or stick figures), straight to the point to understand where things sit in space. In this case the secondary limbs could have been designed better and were a bit rushed. Playing with a gradient on the atmospheric depth and pushing the form a little helped connect it to the body better than the previous render, but it still feels a little tacked on. 

(A few renders showing the tip of the iceberg for design language and intentional eye guides in the pose and composition. The colors represent different design language elements and on the right the dots represent potential points of deflection, guiding the eye back to the creature. Framing could have been a little stronger, with more cohesive environment elements giving a better sense of context.)

      For the final render I experimented with some photo blends in and depth effects. I am not entirely happy with the outcome but some valuable lessons were learned from the attempts. Obscuring the right foot with a foreground object was more of a composition decision. As a concept it is better to keep the foot visible, which explains the absence in the production ready version. However, for the main render it really propped up the detailing on the limbs and tool closest. The high contrast in focus and detail really places the character in space while giving more value and illusion of detail to that area of the creature. It is not the most effective use of the technique but it helped my understanding for a more impact application in the future. Great artists really wield this tool in magical ways, James Gurney does masterful work with these kind of effects. My work is a crayon drawing in comparison.

(Some snapshots at the piece in progress. It can be a good or bad sign if from far the changes seem subtle. If things are working, that means the foundation is strong, if things aren't working you have water damage. So studying masters and also photography helps train the eye.)

     That will do for now as things are ramping up again and  I'm getting back to working on some exciting things as well as revamping the main portfolio site. This means increasingly shorter and tolerable blog posts. Remember, Danny Glover was never actually too old for any of this shit.

- Artist Referenced -
James Gurney -

Friday, January 2, 2015

Keep the Aquatics Flying Part I of II: More Gnomon Creature Work

(Close up of Landria, inter-dimensional being that kind of creeps people out but is still cool to hang out with.)

      The first post of 2015! Still catching up on stuff from 2014. This is another look at some of the work from the creature class at Gnomon. Throughout the class I jumped around as far as reference goes, but early on I knew I wanted to tackle some aquatic inspired creatures. The reality is they allowed me to make some mistakes now to spare me trouble later.

     Once again Pav Kovacic was able to boil things down. He pointed out my tendency to design ugly, knobby, disgruntled looking creatures. This is somewhat intentional, as part of my overall design goal is to try and bring some appeal to traditionally off putting designs; develop empathy in unexpected places. However, a good designer can't get tunnel vision and I need to be able to show I can tackle more elegant, beautiful designs. The render above is a half step in that direction. The image below on the other hand, is an example of the scumbags I have a tendency to design.

 (Another attempt at re-thinking the eye-less creature approach. It roams the beaches, chain smoking, pushing over tourists and looking for his drug of choice. The drug is conveniently found on a particular species of washed up jelly fish. I really like this character and plan to revisit the concept based of some feedback from JP Targete.)

      These are a couple of the first sketches for the class. They are unrelated to the concepts below, but they show a little bit of where my head was at and how it progressed by the end of the class. It also shows how taking a step back and consciously push against instincts can sometimes be a good thing. There is some solid progress in the local value variation, rhythm and range. The form is a little clearly defined but could still use some improvement. The creatures are a little more graceful, elegant and aloof. All aspects that are key to the character description and purpose in the narrative.

 (The second pass on more advanced thumbnails for Landria. I made sure to explore some other approaches with the bird and bone inspired designs. The floating head design actually worked well with the aquatic design, but it was too busy for the overall idea and it made the character feel less empathetic. It was important to really walk that tight rope of being able to empathize with the character and also have it right on the edge of being alien.)

     The character description and narrative context was given by JP. It was our job to develop the characters and the world. The character I worked on was Landria, a god-like character of sorts who serves as savior to a humanity facing impending doom. Her special ability allowed her to spawn creatures by request, her only limits being the imaginations of those requesting. When reading the character description I had a strong sense of the ideas I wanted to tackle. For the most part my thoughts on the characters are embedded in the images so I will refrain from repeating it here.

     These iterations were actually spawned from a previous sheet that I will post in part II. The original sheet had a little too many crazy iterations. The result was the overall presentation feeling a little unfocused. The solution in this case, was splitting the sheet and developing two different creatures alongside each other, but going in two different directions.

(As I wind down, I have a layer with some notes supporting design elements to keep me from straying off track during final polish. The simple break downs also help catch other areas that can be changed to support the foundation of the design. The expanding rings are reminders for time management, with ring #1 being the area of render priority. That way the eye is pulled to the face in the level of detail alone.)

      Instead of showing the concept in landmark stages I thought it might be helpful to look at some tools used during the last 10-15% of rendering. A big part of what I learned is understanding the time needed for the last stages of polish. The render above is just a quick idea of what I use to maintain fundamentals late in the production. Making sure the S Curves are organic, the forms guide the eye and that I am sustaining a consistent design language. There were a few simple languages I was developing and layering in order to try and deliver a more sophisticated language. I feel like I was close but ultimately fell short of the target. The plating on the chest and entire bottom half are a bit lacking and would of liked an consistent design strength throughout the creature. The post stiffened a bit as I rendered and could have used a little more gesture and energy.

(The flowers on the ground were a last second addition. I really like the idea of the creature radiate such a powerful life force that vegetation rapidly grows with in a certain range. It supports the character's role but also provides a potentially impressive visual effect or touching story moment.)

     This is the render at it's current state. I may do a quick pass of tweaks before it goes on the revamped portfolio site. At the moment the saturation may be a bit blown out. I did want to push the use of bolder colors but it may be a bit too much. Sometimes the subtle changes in a monitors display can make a significant difference. In studios there can be some level of consistency, but when working from home it is important to review work on multiple monitors. This includes sending it over to a smartphone to look at it and shooting some WIPs to fellow artists for their input. Making sure others are seeing the work as it should be is key, it can make a difference on whether a concept connects or not.

     When getting input from other artists I'm looking for things that are in my blind spot but also seeing if their critique lines up with some issues that are nagging at me. Sometimes they confirm issues while other times they just let it be known I am making mountains out of mole hills. It is good to prioritize the issues and not flood someone with questions. When sending work out for critique it's good to find people who you know will be blunt without being a dick, but also people who have a sense of your overarching goals. On occasion it is good to find a forum somewhere and throw some raw meat to the wolves.

(Final render with some story notes and a quick head call out. The title bar at the bottom feature a list of adjectives I write down before sketching. It helps frame the visuals with out being constricting. This is a technique I learned from Scott Campbell during a lecture at GDC. Writing these lists and short stories have been powerful tools for concept work.)

     Time was tight and with double the creatures to deliver time ran out. I would have liked to include a composition like the one above along side a separate sheet detailing the back view as well as some feature call outs. The compensation was sketching out a quick front view of the head. The head is probably the most complex form in the concept and a call out here would save a lot of wrestling with form during the sculpting phase. It could also inform the rest of the undefined areas as the form language is consistent through out the body.

    On top of the call outs there are plenty of story and function notes. These are not only for the context of the character, but sometimes this information can help flesh out the character for the 3D phase. I am not experienced enough to point to a mountain of evidence, but I am beginning to feel that even notes unrelated to defining form help during the sculpting phase. It can help inspire an approach to sculpting tools, expression in the cuts and direct the improvisation of the forms translated into 3D. Sculptors much better than myself do it with such ease that they can add completely new elements that improve the concept while still making it seem like it is still a direct interpretation of the 2D image.

     That does it for this post, as usual pardon spelling errors and grammar crimes. I am gearing back up after the holidays so I will do my best to keep posting, but they will be much more concise, which is probably a good thing. There are a few more posts reviewing older work. After that the posts will be more of a live diary of current work that isn't NDA. Hopefully by spring one of the two personal projects will be ready for a sneak peek. 

This weeks referenced artist:
Scott Campbell -

Monday, December 29, 2014

Consider The Vulture Part I of II

(Sneak peak at the render at 80%. After some touch ups the final render will be posted next week.)

     This is another creature concept from the Gnomon creature design class. This time around I really pushed the linework and pose before moving onto value and color. This creature began with a strong  narrative for one of my upcoming personal projects. It is a minor role, but a role that takes place in a specific action sequence. Without giving away too much, this creature quickly strips vehicles for parts in a tight window of time. He does so using an unconventional method of senses and a few key tools. So before even laying down a line there was a distinct feeling established.

     I have been looking at condor heads for a bit, trying to figure out an interesting way to rework the form. This concept didn't quite land what I was hoping for, but it was a step in the right direction. In getting this iteration done, it forces me to push the next use of the reference. This piece already provides some new ideas for the next one, being able to see missed opportunities is good way to improve on future concepts.

 (The rough color pass was done in a little bit under an hour. I used the extra time to double back and refine the linework as I found myself with some sloppy details. Working up the line detail allowed me some time to think things through a little more.)

      Most of the time, a separate collage of reference material fills my second monitor while working. There are a few sets of reference. There is a general collage, anatomical collage and style/color collage. For this tighter turnaround, I dropped a narrower set of reference on a separate layer in the PSD file. I would keep it hidden, then switch it on when reviewing. This is a good reminder to make sure I'm not forgetting design elements, it also helps build a visual library by drawing without looking at reference too much.

     I wanted the creature to be a bit of a spectacle while moving, similar to when a chimp grabs a branch or object and runs with it. So elements like the bag dragging, ropes dangling, dust being kicked up and feathers flowing all support that. These extra elements also make for a more dynamic stride, as the creature will be somewhat inhibited, making for a more distinct motion. If this were taken to animation and the character's role justified the budget to pull it off, he would be a challenging but fun character to animate. Designing for animation is something I have been trying to keep in mind. If you can get animators excited about working on a concept it can create a valuable energy amongst a team. A strong concept can help re-ignite enthusiasm in long term productions. That said sometimes a creature/character's role doesn't justify the budget and time spent on an elaborate design. It is important to design with constraints in mind. Sometimes those feathers, furs or tentacles just won't be worth the resources.

(The simplicity of the background really pulls the character forward. It looks as if it is standing in a foggy environment. After pushing passed this point I found myself wondering if a simpler approach is better. There may be a last second decision to bring back that fog.)

     The value painting went relatively quick and not too much texture was lost from what was added to the original flat fills. The volume of the forms could use more refinement. There is enough information there, but with improved rendering of the forms it could have popped more. Especially with a pose that creates a lot of overlapping. There is also a bit of a tangent where the tip of the tool in his right, front hand crowds the foot details. The back right arm also crowds the left edge of the image. During the final polish some of this is accounted for; But it is better to establish the fundamentals early so the final rendering more about lighting and material definition.
     The secondary arms were a late addition which lead to them feeling a little disconnected. In part II of this post improvements to this area will highlight ways to bring some unity to these forms. The same goes for the material variation. I feel good about the variety and rhythm but the transitions from one organic material to another need some more nuance.

(The blue color was a surprise. It was inspired by the color found in a turkey vultures feathers that accidentally fell into place when dropping in the growth reference.  The blue pulls him out of his environment and also is a bit of a visual curve ball as blue is not as common of a pallet for creatures.)

     As far as the physical features I wanted to push a simply understood base form with accents of oddities. I imagined the rocky growths weren't necessarily a natural aspect of the creature, but a sign of some growth defect or condition. The natural fleshy build up on his head needed visual function as well as sensory function. This lead to developing the idea that the form is actual a temperature sensitive area, allowing it to compensate for the lack of eyes. There are a few other elements that provide alternatives to vision that will be noted in the next entry. As the concept progresses smaller design elements are refined or added. In this case a lot of scarring, dirt, hue shifts and story details will be added to break up monotony across the forms and continue to push the eye where I want.

     When developing creatures it is helpful to narrow down some idea of an environment of origin. That way you can find what is most comparable on earth and run a Youtube playlist of Nat Geo documentaries exploring those areas. As you pull from your memory, these documentaries work like a sideline coach. In the brief moments you glance over some great ideas or visual elements get tossed your way and fluidly get thrown on the page. 

This is turned out to be the last post of the year and not the last one. So whatever I wrote at the end of the last one should be here.

Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Phantom Tollbooth part II: It was the Age of Foolishness

(I imagined Phantom Tollbooth as a film packed with literary reference from opening quotes, character details, name and environments. It seemed a right approach considering the message of the story, but also as an alternative to the current trend of pop culture references within pop culture references which is starting to feel cannibalistic and overtly commercial.)

     The major goal for this experiment was to develop an art direction that nudges at the current constraints of children's movies. The imagined film was to look back at some classics and what made them so memorable. Often it was the willingness to not speak down to children, take their personal issues seriously and not feel pressure to constantly jingle the keys in front of them. That said, they were also masterful in their strategic placement of whimsy, nonsense and goofiness to give the audience rest and rhythm. 

     The wonderfully chaotic world of Phantom Tollbooth is perfect for this approach. So far, I fell a bit short in my goal in that I leaned too far on the serious side. I forgot to include some whimsy, some rest. Fortunately, this is an early development and the problem can be addressed in two ways. Iterating on what is there, or balancing it with other characters and environment concepts (which will be reviewed in a delayed part III).

(I wanted to pull specific film inspiration that relied on writing; treating special effects as the bonus opposed to CG fests that rely on cheap emotional notes. There is a type of movie that seems to be missing. A lot of films have a lot of pressure to kick off the next 8 entry series or Dorito Bag campaign. There seems to be some space for thoughtful, more personal stories.)

      Slowing down a pace of a movie while keeping it interesting, particularly with movies aimed at a younger audiences, has to be challenging. So it is always magic when someone pulls it off. The collection of frames above are examples of movies that sometimes stand still, but through incredible set design, cinematography and narrative context, always deliver a high energy level. The team behind Big Fish does it so masterfully and confidently that the movie almost toys with the pacing. When ever working on a project I try to pull benchmarks that may not necessarily influence the look, but are inspiring in the effort put into the details.

(Same as when collecting the warm reference, I gathered cool pallet reference from films that do a lot with less. Not necessarily limiting myself to children's stories. In the middle the frame represents the crossing of the two pallets. It is from the incredibly underrated animated film The Croods. It weaves imaginative world design with meaningful story.)

     This brings us to a problem with the character concepts. As mentioned above, things got a little too serious. The character concepts may be a bit dark or creepy and need some balance. Pav Kovacic once again helped snap me out of my gritty tunnel vision. He suggested to loosen things up by playing with proportions. The proportions, although designed for practical effects, are a bit too conservative. The basic forms could be improved with more energy, movement and rhythm.

(The mustache like appendages and costuming reference the original illustrations. His additional name is reference to Kafka's The Metamorphosis. Seeing how Gregor turns into a bug, it seemed like a natural connection to Humbug being a panicky door to door salesman overwhelmed by the world he lives in.)

      I decided to develop Humbug over Tock as I felt his character is a little more important for a live action film. A giant gentlemanly bug is going to draw a lot of attention. A dog alongside a little boy has a lot of history and does a lot of the work for you, so both visually and with story I wanted to bump up the significance of Humbug's role. He is a potential future of Milo if he continues on a thoughtless path. He is the result of lacking critical thought and letting systems make decision for you as you stumble along. Additional character notes are embedded in the concept sheet.

(Originally he is referred to as The Terrible Trivium. I dropped the "terrible" as I wanted to play up his sneaky, deceiving character and it seemed a bit on the nose for a live action story. The numerical addition was to establish the character's sense of self-importance.)

     Trivium represents the illusion of power working with in a system that looms over a world. He wants Milo to see him as the boss but the reality is he is merely a puppet. This brought about the trim design and butler (conductor or as it has been described) feel of the costume. He represents another possibility of Milo's mentality carrying him away. In this case it is what happens when Milo not only embraces a system and allows it to do his thinking, but let's that system motivate his decisions rather than lead them. In the narrative he has Milo move grains of sand one by one. The leaking sand from his pant legs and sleeves connects him to the mundane work and show he is literally become a construction of the work. The fragile mask ends up falling off and shattering on the ground as he is completely rendered powerless by Milo telling him no and walking away from the mundane work.

     Overall I am satisfied with the general direction of the designs. If this were for a project I could follow through on, a couple more tweaks and it would be in a strong place. The production sheet could use another rendered pose to detail the range of personality and also show some more ideas in regards to how the sand leaks and fabric moves with the body.

     This might be the last post of the year, if it is Happy Holidays, Happy New Year. It will be 2015 and according to Predator 2 Los Angeles is 18 years behind falling into complete chaos. That is a good thing. If this isn't the last post, un-read the message above so I can copy and paste it into the next one.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Phantom Tollbooth part I : Pre-Emptive Apology to Norton Juster

 (The original story by Norton Juster was a favorite when I read it as a kid. The Charles Dickens quote was relevant to the meaning of the story and also to the modern condition this adaptation was examining. The mismatch I found reinforced the unpredictable, off the wall nature of the story while setting the tone for other literary reference.)

     While studying at Gnomon I had an opportunity to build a film pitch for Phantom Tollbooth. A course called Visual Structure, taught by the awesome Andrea Adams, allowed some freedom to establish my own guidelines. I decided to use the course to build out an Art Direction and Pipeline that I could effectively use for the content at hand but also carry over into future projects. The course was a thorough breakdown of narrative structure and meaningful visual design in film.

    The goal was to imagine a film that could fall into the "middle" budget category. The target of an 10-13 year old audience, with the idea of including parents, allows for a fair amount of freedom over simpler films aimed at young children or trope ridden films chasing the full blown teenage, Hunger Games crowd (enough with the love triangles!). It is also an age that a story may have more impact as it is right before the distractions of the average teenage life come into play. I was inspired by great films like Iron Giant, Labyrinth, Where the Wild Things Are and Big Fish.

      Phantom Tollbooth is a story that could be properly adapted and updated for live action without betraying the source material. Having read and loved the book as a child, I felt confident in respectfully interpreting a story that stays true to the source material. That said, this may very well piss off Norton Juster. If this had been a professional project I would do everything I could to get the involvement and support of the original creator.

(Phantom Tollbooth Synopsis for context -

(It was exciting to approach color scripting in a layered manner. Whether or not this would make a difference in the end is uncertain. I would have to see this followed through to determine the value. It could be that this is simply spinning the wheels more than necessary. A simpler color scripting may achieve all that is needed just the same.)

     The Hero's journey is a traditional and widely used structure. I wanted to rethink the idea of that journey and introduce the philosophy behind the journey. This brought about Plato's Journey, a scripting that mashed together the Hero's Journey and a cliff note version of Plato's Cave (

     The early colors are inspired by the pallet of a cave lit by dim lights casting shadows on the wall. So I wrapped Milo and the world in warm but subdued pallet inspired by fire, ember, wood and cave walls. The movement to a more diverse and cooler pallet represents the leaving of the cave and opening up of cloudy skies and vibrant nature.

     The relationship between Milo and the world also needed to be distinct. This was done by establishing a similar but ultimately independent color script for the lead character Milo. One that reacts and moves with the world but follows its own course of transformation. Although the world moves about chaotically, Milo's progress is steadier than expected when he reflects at the end of the journey.
(Expanding on the usual art direction approach, I gathered reference for specific pallets. Embedded in the reference is additional style, tone and visual reference.)

     While collecting warm pallet references I wanted to keep them tight so the latter stages of the color script would pop with a wider range, more contrast and saturation. At the same time I was wary of the direction feeling to bland or static. In order to avoid this, I researched great artist who wield subdued pallets while maintaining a sense of energy. In some cases, pulling frames from films and editing them with saturation shifts in Photoshop helped narrow down pallets.

(Before working on character concepts, gathering visual character reference but also voice reference is essential. So although the look of the people may play a role, their voice and personality serve as another form of influence. This alongside art direction notes serve a a compass..)

      Great character visuals start with great personality story and voice. It helps to see them before you see them. Even if the visual development strays from the original reference it helps set a tone and emotion. The aim was to really establish characters that fill the screen and stir distinct feelings in an audience. Doing so while reaching for some unexpected inspiration helped build enthusiasm.

(When re-reading Phantom Tollbooth I understood Milo to be depressed, something that may have not been recognized or spoken about at the time of the original release. A modern interpretation can develop these ideas without changing the story or character. This was done by referencing both stories I have read or have known personally.)

      The visuals would work well if they could deliver the original message but also reward the application of that message (importance of critical thought) to the design. The notes in the image detail some of the ideas behind the design. Below are additional bullet points.

- Milo's warm pallet wraps around him and connect him to Plato's cave. The stripes represent the feeling of being bound by his original mind-state. The logo that looks like an upside down exclamation point is a hint at a key hole, further pushing the idea of being mentally and emotionally locked up.

- The heavy bag represents traditional education. Something that needed to be left behind for the journey into searching out ones own education. The bag's strap lock is a seat belt buckle in order to visualize the safe and necessary side of structured learning. The damage and roughed up look is also meant to express the risks and dangers of unstructured education if done with out persistent critical thought.

- The rendering was inspired by J.C. Leyendecker and Norman Rockwell. The aim was to create a new American nostalgia that properly represents the diversity of American culture; as some of the old paintings represent a specific type of American life.

- Milo slowly looses apparel representative of confinement. The deconstruction of his military school uniform. The creation of his own super hero suit and logo with his painted hand. The colors are reference to a sequence in the story where the orchestra plays the color into the world every morning. I imagined the color would be like wet paint before settling into the world.

- The extension of Milo's name (giving him an initial and last name) was inspired by the civil rights leader A. Phillip Randolph. There is value to creating new images and also referencing real life people who are inspiring without the use of religious undertones. It delivers a more universal message.

     Another pass will help push a detailed, painterly and expressive direction while being assisted with photo call outs to define materials. The last two iterations suffer from some slightly wonky proportions that need to be tweaked. The poses can also be adjusted for more weight and expression. The notes could due with a larger font and more concise wording.

(Scuffs and a mocking sign stuck to his back hint at being bullied at school. The book sized package expands into the tollbooth. The changing package pallet is meant to foreshadow Milo's transformation. With more time, showing the vibrantly colored tollbooth concept along side the different package stages would make for a stronger concept sheet.)

     The call out sheet needs a bit more work. The front view could deliver more information rather than just repeat the view from the first sheet. The package concepts would have a stronger initial read if they were included in the scale line up. Right now with out the text the size in comparison to Milo is a little uncertain. Both sheets in general could do with a bump in contrast and form definition. Going forward I have quite a bit of feedback from some great artists that will help improve the concepts on every level.

     When it comes to developing human and costume concepts, it is important to capture the magic of classic artists. There is a warmth and character in the proportions of Rockwell's work that really sells the personality. A modern artist who nails this is Moby Francke. I admire his ability to produce painterly expressive strokes while balancing the high resolution areas that masterfully define material and form. I have a long way to go before catching up to his work, but thanks to Andrea Adam's insight, the concepts really pushed me into new territory and I feel good about the direction it is headed.

    That is it for this post, trying to make these a bit shorter. There are a lot of better things to be pointing your eyes holes at; like videos of kangaroos fighting or Danny Glover's sweaty forehead.

Below are the artists referenced above:

Moby Francke -
JC Lynedecker (Google Him!)
Norman Rockwell (Google Him!)

Saturday, December 20, 2014

It Was The Best of Times, It Was The Blurst Of Times: Chicago to LA

      While I chip away on some personal projects, I decided to take some individual course at Gnomon to stay sharp. Gnomon has been a great experience that I would recommend on any level. The classes have been quality and they also have an awesome community of talented and enthusiastic artists that really makes the experience their even more valuable. 

      This entry is the first of a handful that break down some of the work I did while at Gnomon. Below are works done while taking a class by JP Targete who is an insanely talented concept artist and Illustrator. The class was a Creature Design class with a focus on fundamentals of anatomy construction and design grounded in believability. Improvement was notable weekly and with every sketch. The first image is a collection of rough sketches and idea development for a concept focusing on believability and imagined anatomy.

(Toolshed Design - If time permits it is valuable to explore every possibility. These sketches play with a range of creatures covering humanoid, domesticated and wild. This stirs the brain for the piece at hand while creating new design tools for future projects. I won't copy and past but will redraw and redesign with old ideas as additional reference. Things get cut but some are stored in the tool shed. For example, the saddle, the head or the ostrich legs might all find their way into future concepts. Future posts will highlight this as well.)

     The image above is a collection of imagined studies and not the iterative process. Depending on the task I usually switch up my approach to iteration. Sometimes I paint silhouettes with simple value (usually when working on a "hero" character, costume or something that needs an "iconic" feel).

     Tasks with a narrower focus or with tighter turnarounds, I tend do as many rough sketches as I can with in a set time and flesh out a little more detail if I am trying to sell a more subtle design. Then once the sketch is done I go back in a create a fill to highlight the silhouette next to the sketch. This is quick and easy way to deliver more information and also double check your silhouette read. It isn't orthodox and involves a little more work in the earlier phases but I have found that it can really pay off if the presentation is clear and concise.

      That said, some studios or even leads with in a studio may require that you take a certain approach and the ability to adapt to that is important. Other scenarios may require results so quickly you need to effectively work things out on your own and deliver. This concept being for a class with a relatively tight window set for myself, I skipped a lot of steps to focus more on improving my rendering. I did a series of loose sketches until one really popped out.

 (First pass on value and call outs. I pushed along pretty quickly as I wanted to focus on the rendering. This lead to some shortcomings in design. It could have done with a much stronger silhouette and more playful proportions.)

      It has proven valuable to treat every angle and call out as a valuable resource, I can burn it up with static poses which will still deliver important physical information, or I can go all out and deliver additional info within that space. So back, front or side views also tell you how the creature runs, reacts to distant threats or how it balances itself.
     It boosts the value of a concept if it not only gets artists excited but designers, animators, sound engineers, programmers and even the occasional marketing face person that may swing by to see how things are going. I have found you can tell who is who by how much they are smiling. Even if designing something that walks passed the frame in 5 seconds, it helps to be able to explain every last detail, down to why the nails are shaped the way they are. Ultimately concept art is more storytelling than it is illustration. This is something I am really trying to develop in my work.

(Early stages of color, bounce light, temperature shifts and filters. It is a little flat and the canvas lacks unity. That is okay for now as I am still playing around with certain details.)

     One of the most valuable lessons I learned from JP Targete is not only stressing anatomy, but developing some noise/texture to the concept early. This can be done with a dirty custom brush to break up flat or clean fills before you dig into blocking light and pulling out forms. By the time you get to the stage above, a lot of the sense of dirt,texture is engrained into the foundations. It creates a sense of surface without literally painting skin detail or dirt.
     This piece doesn't best represent it as it was the first one I did with this particular technique. The sense of volume and light could have been a lot stronger. Additionally, the striping on the skin could have and should have been a little bolder to create some organic rhythm and eye movement. I also should have really placed more weight on the front left leg. Often times when working in a new technique uncertainty or even the time spent working it into the pipeline can take away from other areas.

(The concept as it stands today. This piece was done with a quick turnaround and a lot of experimenting, so it isn't my ideal presentation. However, I made sure to have most of the building blocks in place: dynamic pose/action, Material changes, alternate views, story notes, function, atmosphere and scale reference. It is missing some photo reference and notes.)

     For color I have two approaches, with a enough confidence and vision I will jump straight into color from line work. I then check my values using a hot key to switch on and off grey scale. The sacrifice is in simple form reads but the plus so far has been bolder color pallets. In time that will eventually balance out but for now it is something I need to be aware of.
     The other technique is to really work in values and not only define volume, but also design local value rhythm. Using the change in value to move the eye around. Then when the value is at about 70% I work in color with blended layers (I used a combination of Color, Overlay and Color Dodge). I find my pallet is not as bold with this technique but it is slowly improving with time. Anthony Jones is a master of stunning light and form and watching more of his tutorials will really help me in that area.
     Moving forward from this concept I needed to deliver a more believable anatomy, define macro forms more precisely and really punch up my pallet. Before this goes on the revamped portfolio site I will run in through another hour or so trying to fix some of these issues. In the following days I will post some newer work that succeeded and failed in various areas. There will be some tie ins and hopefully the posts with work with each other in a helpful way. If not I apologize in advance for the waste of time, poorly written word things and long winded blog posts.

Below are the links for the artists I referenced.