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.