Gurney Journey | category: Movie Studios


Gurney Journey

This daily weblog by Dinotopia creator James Gurney is for illustrators, plein-air painters, sketchers, comic artists, animators, art students, and writers. You'll find practical studio tips, insights into the making of the Dinotopia books, and first-hand reports from art schools and museums.

Reality vs. Screen Illusion

Rob Legato creates visual effects for big-budget movies.

(Video link) In this TED talk, he shares how he created effects sequences for Apollo 13, Titanic, and Hugo. In the first two cases, actual documentary film footage exists of some of the scenes he was visualizing. The real footage served as a reality check against the cinematic invention.

One of the surprising revelations is that our sense of what looks real is greatly influenced by the emotional processes of our memories, which reorder reality into a composite fiction.

That emotionally tinged version of reality is what moviemakers need to bring to life if they want to create convincing illusions. The same general principle applies to painting. Often it's necessary to go beyond optical or photographic realism in order to achieve psychological realism. It's the difference between mere accuracy and true believability.
Rob Legato on TED: The Art of Creating Awe

Matte Artist Peter Ellenshaw

To create the film illusion of an imaginary landscape or city, nowadays moviemakers create 3D digital environments, generally by replacing the greenscreen behind the action with a layered virtual environment.

But in the early days of film, the art of matte painting was the province of oil painters with traditional skills. Their scenic paintings had to seamlessly match the photographed action, but they also had to convey the emotional spirit of the scene.

(Video Link) One of the most remarkable pioneers in this field was a British-born painter named Peter Ellenshaw (1913-2007). In this video, he tells his story: how he started painting scene extensions for Thief of Baghdad (1940) and how he got some dream jobs for Walt Disney on Treasure Island, Mary Poppins, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and Darby O'Gill and the Little People.  

The hour-long video is broken into six chunks of 10 minutes each.
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Previously on GJ:
Digital Matte Painting
Blending into the Background 
Book: The Digital Matte Painting Handbook

Jordu Schell's Monster Sculptures

Jordu Schell wants to scare the daylights out of you.
Jordu Schell's Monster Sculptures
In Allentown, Pennsylvania last weekend, Schell gave a lecture about designing monsters for Hollywood movies. I'm an admirer of his work, so I sat up front and sketched him as he spoke about the things that scared him as a kid.

Jordu Schell's Monster SculpturesHe started out by showing examples of weird animals in nature, then gave an overview of creature design in movies, and spotlighted some of his inspiration from the field of illustration, ending with examples of his own work.

Schell has done concept work for “Avatar”, “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian”, “300”, “Hellboy”, “Aliens vs. Predator – Requiem” and many other films since he began in the field in 1987. He also makes props, masks, model kits, and effects — and he offers classes.

Jordu Schell website gallery
Video of a sculpture demo
Large gallery at Monster Brains

WETA Creatures

The digital artists at WETA Digital’s creature department have breathed life into Gollum, King Kong (video below), and the creatures of Avatar.

They are experts in anatomy. They build creatures from the inside out: skeleton, muscles, skin and hair. Then they apply their knowledge of physics and acting to make their creatures move.

Digital creatures must share the stage with live-action actors. They have to perform every kind of movement from a subtle eye twitch to a deadly body slam.

Simon Clutterbuck of WETA’s digital creature department, (click to enlarge/ Photo by Julian Butler planned a fun New Year’s gift for their team: a set of 47 signed copies of Color and Light. They went outdoors yesterday in that fine New Zealand summer weather to take this group photo. These artists been living for weeks in the caves with the dragon Smaug so a little sunlight won’t hurt them.

Since they ordered such a big batch of books, and since I’m such a huge fan of WETA, I wanted to make the gift extra special. So I carved a unique rubber stamp using craft foam glued to a wood block.

Each book got the custom stamp, as well as a one-of-a-kind creature sketch that I made with pens and colored pencils. I imagined them as the “47 Creatures of Whangakokototoi Island,” —a tiny island off the coast of New Zealand that no one has discovered yet.

Here’s a sampling of the sketches, about one third of the whole set. Of course I didn’t know what each of the artists looked like, or what sorts of animals they liked, so I just guessed and drew the whatever popped into my head.

Simon and Rachael, I thank you. And WETA Creatures, I salute you!

If YOU, dear blog reader, are part of a large game company, movie studio, or art school, maybe you can get your department head or club organizer to put together a group purchase of Color and Light or Imaginative Realism. If there are more than 30 books in a single order, I’ll do a some sort of special design for you. Also, with a big order, I can ship internationally.
Color and Light signed from the Dinotopia Store
Questions about group ordering: jgurneyart
Color and Light on Amazon internationally: USA | CA | UK | FR | DE | JP
WETA Digital 
Weta Creature show reel on YouTube (Caution: includes movie violence and disturbing images)
King Kong climbs the Empire State

Masterminds of Megamind

This photo panorama stitches together the north campus (PDI DreamWorks) and the south campus (DreamWorks Animation SKG) of the DreamWorks concept art team, the masterminds behind Megamind and many other films. (Click to enlarge.)

Masterminds of Megamind

In the left picture, I’m holding an advance copy of “Moonshine: DreamWorks Artists After Dark,” which showcases the private artwork of each of the concept artists.

The book has over 150 color illustrations by 47 artists. Images include wonderful characters, real and imagined creatures, moody cityscapes, and dreamlike wild lands. The artists at DreamWorks are equally at home in many different media: ink, charcoal, pastel, watercolor, acrylic, oil, and digital. Most switch comfortably back and forth between digital and traditional.

Paul Lasaine (far right) recently did an in-house demo where he painted the same image in acrylic and Photoshop, and got almost identical results.
Moonshine: DreamWorks Artists After Dark
The Art of Megamind
Paul Lasaine's blog post "Traditional vs. Digital"
Previously on GJ: DreamWorks Dream Team

How to Criticize

Artists rarely create in a vacuum. Even if you paint alone, you’ve got to consider the feedback of art directors, patrons, or galleries. If you’re a student, you have to present your work to teachers and to your peers for critiques, and sometimes you’re called upon to criticize others’ artwork.

How to Criticize
When you work for an entertainment company, such as an animation or game company, your efforts are part of a larger shared vision. Developing the diplomatic skills both to give and receive constructive criticism becomes especially important.

This subject has come up during our recent visits to entertainment companies. Angela Lepito, manager of art development and training at DreamWorks, told me that entry-level artists are assigned a mentor to help them learn the company etiquette. It can be vital to the career of a concept artist to know when it’s appropriate to speak up in meetings—and when it’s best to keep silent and listen.

Kevin Bjorke of Trion World Network, a massive multiplayer online game company in Redwood City, told me about how Phil Perkis teaches critiquing to his photo classes. In a nutshell, “It’s about the work and not about the person who made the work.”

Perkis lays out the following rules for in-class criticism, which are strictly followed:

1. No rudeness
2. No competition
3. No telling the artist what the work means about them (a critique is not psychotherapy)
4. The class chooses what work will be talked about (Students should feel free to ask that their work be dealt with because they need feedback). No need to address every work in every class.
Here's the main principle:

“The person whose work is being addressed can answer factual questions in the beginning, i.e., where was the picture made, what film, lens, etc. They can say nothing about intention, content, or other meaning. At this time, the rest of the group can say anything they like about the work, be it craft, aesthetics, politics, art history, et al. The are free to say anything. They can report associations in their minds, dreams and fantasies as long as it's about the work and not about the person who made the work.

“Something very interesting starts to take place if this is done with openness and intelligence; the student is getting real information about what their work is communicating to a group of people who are being as honest and caring as possible. This information is for the use of the student and they can do anything they want with it. The work never has to be defended, justified, or explained. At this point, if a student wants to talk about the work just discussed, they can do so as much as they would like, and a long back and forth discussion can take place.

“The role of the teacher in this process is to moderate, and to be a participant along with everyone else.

“The sole purpose of the critique is for students to gain insight about their work and have information that will help them proceed to the next stage of development. As a group works together from week to week, a level of trust and understanding can develop so that people are more willing to take chances both in the discussion, but more importantly, in their work. Then you've really done something worthwhile.
“It is vitally important for the group, and especially the teacher, to make clear the difference between fact (a smaller aperture gives more depth of field) and opinion (this picture has a violent edge). Making this difference clear allows the discussion to range much bigger.”
The Perkins method of critiquing
DreamWorks Animation
Trion Worlds
Photo is of Bill Eckert, Gary Geraths and me at Otis College of Art and Design
Thanks, Angela and Kevin!

DreamWorks Dream Team

DreamWorks Animation has an elite group of concept artists divided between its two campuses in California. I visited with the dream team at the Redwood City campus to share my presentation about color and light---and to show the panda a few kung fu moves.

DreamWorks Dream Team

 We then went upstairs to their very inspiring creative habitat. When they're not working on new character designs and environments for movies like Puss in Boots, The Croods, Kung Fu Panda: The Kaboom of Doom and Megamind, they have an art room for figure drawing classes.

DreamWorks Dream Team

Ruben Perez is holding a demo sketch I did of him using water-soluble colored pencils. And we're holding each others' one-of-a-kind advance copies of upcoming books: Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter, and Moonshine: DreamWorks Artists...After Dark.

That "Moonshine" book, which should arrive in stores soon, showcases the personal work, done after hours, by each member of DreamWorks's creative crew.
DreamWorks Animation SKG
Moonshine at Amazon
Thanks, Angela, Katie, and the awesome DW Team!

Blizzard Entertainment

Blizzard EntertainmentLast October I gave three different hour-long lectures to the senior concept artists at Blizzard Entertainment—the company that creates World of Warcraft, Starcraft, and Diablo online games.

Blizzard EntertainmentIt took a while to get past the rather tight security at the headquarters in Irvine, California. The sleek white buildings inside contain some of the company’s employees.

Blizzard EntertainmentThe public areas of buildings are decorated with impressive sculptures of horned warriors, dangerous females, and loathsome monsters.

Blizzard EntertainmentThe guys in the art department have a pretty well developed sense of fun, like chopping up visiting artists into sausage bits. That’s senior art director Jeremy Cranford on the left.

Blizzard EntertainmentI drew a portrait of Jeremy after the lectures. I asked him what advice he’d give to a young artist who dreams of working at a place like Blizzard. “Everyone wants to be a character designer,” he said. But portfolios that show other skills are more likely hires. Get good at environments, backgrounds, props, and vehicles. A generalist who can draw and think well is always valuable.
Official Blizzard website
Wikipedia on Blizzard
Career opportunities at Blizzard

DreamWorks Animation

DreamWorks Animation is best known for the Shrek franchise, which they followed up with Over the Hedge, Madagascar, Flushed Away, and the Bee Movie.

DreamWorks Animation
They were the first CGI animation company to release two features in a single year. At any given time they have as many as five films in development. Jeffrey Katzenberg, the “K” in DreamWorks SKG has said, “Walt Disney made movies for the child in every adult. We make movies for the adult in every child.”

DreamWorks Animation
DreamWorks Animation occupies two campuses, one in southern California, and one in the Bay Area of northern California, linked with a high tech video conferencing system. Both campuses have designers, animators and technical wizards, but the architecture and atmosphere of the campuses is quite different.

DreamWorks Animation
The southern campus in Glendale is Spanish style, with fountains, goldfish ponds, tile floors, and arched hallways. The northern facility, called PDI DreamWorks, occupies a modern but attractive building overlooking the baylands of Redwood City. We arrived early, and I did a quick watercolor study of the industrial architecture nearby, which I have a fondness for.

DreamWorks AnimationThe studio works hard to create a “culture of mentorship” at both campuses, with free classes offered after hours in life drawing and character design. There’s a hallway space called the “Blue Sky Gallery” where artists can show other facets of their creative life beyond what they do from 9 to 5. Breakfast and lunch are free, and we were told that most new hires gain ten pounds in the first month or two. Free food! I gained five pounds just at lunch!

DreamWorks AnimationA huge visual research library (above) is available on campus. Each film takes about four years in the pipeline. “Each project has its own aesthetic,” explained John Tarnoff, head of Outreach, “and it grows out of its story and characters.”

DreamWorks AnimationAfter my presentation I was honored to meet many of the DreamWorks artists, including Shane Prigmore. He did the sketch above just for fun in a character design class where the assignment was to imagine how Ronald Searle would draw Conan.

I also met artist Nathan Fowkes (below), whose "color keys" help establish the mood and lighting of the show—in this case Shrek the Halls. Other artists bring a different range of talents to the production process: modeling, rigging, texturing, lighting, and effects. “One of the strengths of our production process,” John Tarnoff said, “is our facial animation system.”

DreamWorks AnimationStudents who are interested in working at DreamWorks animation might want to keep a couple of things in mind. I asked John Tarnoff what skill sets are not always covered in art schools. “Any visual designer who wants to be in this business,” he said, “needs to know what writing is about: motivation, characterization, and plot. The zeitgeist of this company is that we’re all storytellers.”

DreamWorks AnimationJim Conrads, my host in the northern California studio answered the same question differently. He felt that artists need to develop the social skills: teamwork, compromise, and respect for others’ points of view. “Artists are usually taught to come up with their own personal expression,” he said, “but rarely encouraged to carry out another’s vision or blend with another’s style.” Below: The Redwood City campus of PDI DreamWorks.

DreamWorks AnimationAnd the portfolio you present should go beyond the common cliches of fantasy art. Kathy Altieri, head of Show Development, told me that she gives a presentation at art schools called “Chicks and Guns,” to make the point that you need to show a lot more than sexy girls and weapons. Your portfolio will stand out if you can draw all kinds of architecture, costumes, animals, and characters.

DreamWorks AnimationThanks to everyone at both campuses, and best wishes on your ongoing projects.

Some photos of facilities courtesy DreamWorks.

Rhythm and Hues

Creating lifelike digital animals is one of the greatest challenges for CGI artists. We’ve all seen film footage of real penguins, pigs and polar bears, so our eyes can instantly recognize anything that doesn’t ring true.

Rhythm and HuesThat makes the accomplishments of the team at Rhythm and Hues all the more remarkable.

Founded by John Hughes and Pauline Ts’o (below, left), they created award-winning special effects for films like Golden Compass, Night at the Museum, Narnia, Charlotte’s Web, and Babe. Rhythm and Hues is a complete digital studio, with not only post-production FX, but also CG animation (such as Happy Feet), and a range of design services.

Rhythm and HuesWe toured the campus, housed in a 70,000 square foot building in west LA, just north of the airport. The facility includes a sound stage, screening room, work areas for the animators, and conference rooms, all brimming over with works in progress. In the center of the building is a light-filled open stairway that serves as a mixing place for workers as they go about their day.

Huge rooms filled with humming computers do the vast amount of rendering work.

Rhythm and HuesThe founders, Mr. Hughes and Ms. Ts’o, are each a remarkable combination of business-person, technical-wizard, and art-lover. Their original art collection includes drawings by great Disney animators, Garth Williams, and Jules Feiffer.

Rhythm and HuesThey have clearly worked hard to attract and keep some of the best talent in the industry. Stacy Burstin, our host, travels to art schools and software conventions to recruit top talent. Animators are allowed to bring their dogs to work, so many of the cubicles have child gates with a canine companion at the artists’ feet.

Rhythm and HuesAfter seeing a collection of gorgeous original production paintings and sculpted maquettes, I was a little disappointed to learn that both the painting and the sculpting have all gone digital, and physical sculptures of the characters are no longer necessary. But that seems to be true at all the movie houses we visited.

It was a real honor to meet so many of the artists and specialists after my Dinotopia presentation, and I congratulate them on their magnificent work.
Reality vs. Screen IllusionMatte Artist Peter EllenshawJordu Schell's Monster SculpturesWETA CreaturesMasterminds of MegamindHow to CriticizeDreamWorks Dream TeamBlizzard EntertainmentDreamWorks AnimationRhythm and Hues

Report "Gurney Journey"

Are you sure you want to report this post for ?