You’ve been working in the industry for over 20 years. How have things changed since you first entered the business? How have you had to adapt?
This is a great question. First off, the market for artists was much smaller and the required skill sets very different. Artists worked traditionally and were just learning digital skills. Today, the capacity to produce at great speed has sometimes overshadowed genuine design. Work was also mostly in California for film and now it’s global. In my career, I have embraced opportunities to work as a texture artist, matte painter, illustrator and other relevant genres to keep working at a high level. Adaptability is vital in this industry. An artist must adapt to the evolving technology and at times, a project’s locale.
As a visual development artist, you’ve worked in live-action, feature animation, commercials and video games. Could you talk a little about the transitions between industries and what strategies you’ve used to navigate the freelance/staff markets?
I started out at ILM as a concept artist and was given many opportunities to work in live action, animation and commercials. The experience was fantastic because each day was different. From that, I acquired a pretty deep skill set and worked with amazing people. In total I have worked on nearly 70 films, not to mention commercials and games.
Tax subsidies have driven much of the change since 2008. Because of this, much of the work is being done overseas. Having grown up in Pittsburgh, the trend of seeing the steel industry be diverted from a region is something I am all too familiar with. The results for friends and colleagues have been hard to watch. Communities and families have had to do things that most other industries have not. Having grown up in Pittsburgh PA, I saw the same thing happen to the steel industry.
Today’s navigational skills require passion, fortitude and the desire to work with and stay connected to honest, talented people. Many of these people move throughout our industries and are often your link to work opportunities. The best creativity flourishes among a team of collaborative, honest, technical, and artistic folks. A successful group can work together to develop aesthetic solutions to any challenge that comes their way. The best teams develop a camaraderie. If an individual moves onto a new exciting project, they often carry the names of those like minded individuals with them. It is imperative to do your best work and work well with others. Anything less than that hinders creativity and affects the end product. Because of all of the changes, it’s important to stay well informed with industry trends and look out for one another!
One of your recent projects was “Alice Through the Looking Glass.” What were some of the artistic challenges on that project?
I had the great pleasure of working with some of the same people I worked with on “Polar Express”. The folks at Sony are fantastic and provided an excellent platform upon which I could truly collaborate and create. The work involved designing VFX sequences, creature design, props and overall mood paintings. It was a diverse set of challenges that was a joy to be part of. While we as artists have little control over story, we had great fun working together to solve some pretty unique visual challenges. The “Time” creature was an interesting problem to solve, as we had to combine the “minutes” characters into “Time”. The VFX sequences played with time travel and dream like imagery.
Outside of the studio system, you’ve explored original stories of your own. Tell us a little bit about your personal projects?
After so many years within the studio system, it becomes a natural growth progression to want to have a voice in story. So much of what’s going on these days is regurgitation of old franchises and never ending prequels and sequels. This is talked about all the time in the trades. Having three grown and amazing kids, I get to see their view of the world and how different they are from the kinds of nostalgic material they are exposed to. I read a lot and try to listen to the more forward thinking voices which have a vast and deep bounty of story opportunity. My hope is to collaborate and partner with global voices, not just the same old system.
Like politics, the system is rigged towards insiders and players whom want to ride the same wave of nostalgia. However, what made Hollywood so great was taking risk and doing things that had never been done before. What attracts me are those individuals and studios who wish to be the next visionaries. Wherever they may be. Recently, after a studio pitch, the development executive said that they have no desire for stories that have a message and that they want to tell bright, happy, technicolor stories. That remark speaks for itself. My slate consists of animation and VR experiences, which have relevant and thoughtful messages! We explore science, education and art weaving contemporary and global themes.
As an artist, why do you think it might be important to have these side projects?
Each one of us has a crucial voice and that’s what must be cultivated. I once worked for an Academy Award winner who said that his entire goal was to give them (the studios) what they want. In the end, that attitude only contributes to the continuing decay of originality and authentic storytelling.
Art is disruptive by definition. That’s the nature of it. Without your own personal belief and your own voice, art becomes a service.
I speak with friends, colleagues and students about the fact that this inner most part of who you are must be well cared for, especially during times when servicing sequels is so prevalent. Remember, Pixar was once a side project.
Balancing work demands with your own unique creative vision is what is strived for.
What do you find exciting about exploring these new stories in a variety of media (film, vr, print, etc.)?
Simply put: opportunity! Pathways to content continue to grow in all media. It can be daunting at times but remember how important your voice and stories are in a time when originality is most needed. Storytellers and artists around the globe have tremendous access to platforms through which they can be heard. Success should not be just measured in terms of box office but how genuine you are to your own experiences and to the world around you now. Each of these mediums can be utilized to move storytelling forward! Stories exist across all of these media. New people are entering now looking for fresh and unique stories to tell.
Drawing from your own experience, what recommendations do you have for concept artists/visdev artists to keep their work fresh and set themselves apart from the competition?
I love this question! There are many pressures for all of us. Whether it’s trying to get a start, pay bills or to keep fresh, my opinion is that it is important to keep up with the infinite ways we create art. It’s easy to get drawn into a genre and feel as if you need to refine sub sets of skills to be in demand as an employee. As I mentioned before, the “work” you do is a part of your total creative capabilities. The industry partners with a portion of those capabilities. Some do that better than others, but try also to be part of the amazing and huge expression of art we see each and every day. Architecture, music, crafts, dance, design, fashion, and on and on and on. I say again, no one else on this amazing planet is you!
What trends in the industry (whether that’s film, VR, games) do you find hold the most promise? Conversely, are there any trends that concern you for the future?
Trends are funny things. My belief is that great stories, no matter what the medium, will always be with us. Storytelling has been with us as long as we have had recorded history. It’s part of who we are. Stories move us and bring us together. Sometimes they are funny and at times very difficult, but, in the end, all mediums are available. Whose hands are they in and for what purpose?
I must say that my biggest concern is too much content. Great work is being done everywhere. It’s just harder to find. I prefer looking at Netflix, Amazon and other emerging content creators.
Any advice on staying inspired?
Stay true to yourself! No one else can tell your story. No one else has lived your life. I believe that to be one of the most precious things we have. Great stories touch that and inspire us to grow and connect. I’m a big fan of Brene` Brown, whom I highly recommend folks listen to. Our world must change in order to grow. Otherwise it’s just one never-ending sequel! Be with loved ones. Be in nature. Take the time necessary to see how amazing the world is around you. Don’t always rely on the industry to validate your own creative gifts!
All images by Randy Gaul.