Creating worlds for animated feature films takes equal parts imagination and research. Having created some of the most memorable worlds in films like DreamWorks Animation’s “The Croods” and the “How to Train Your Dragon” series, visual development artist Nicolas Weis shares his thoughts on world-building and what it takes to stay inspired and fuel the creative process.

TXCOLOR4 copyYou’ve shared some beautiful examples of environmental design for feature films like “The Croods” and “How to Train Your Dragon 2”. What sparked your interest in designing environments?

I have no idea, honestly. I could tell you that it was part of the job description, I could tell you that it is the first thing I think about when I explore imaginary worlds, I could tell you I am as lazy as anyone else and that I mostly do what is easier to me. I could confess that I recently realized that even while taking photos I wait for people to leave the frame before pressing the button, I could also tell you I spent three years studying Art History in mostly empty museums filled with extremely old artifacts.

All that said, I am addicted to fiction, therefore to character stories. I played roleplaying games for years when I was younger and imagined thousands of them. I also learned my craft while drawing the human figure, so I obviously have nothing against “characters”, per se. Hell, who knows, maybe I’ll work on characters some time soon?

2In your opinion, what are the most important aspects in designing a world and what are some common things that are overlooked?

It depends on the media. If it is animation, we usually are talking immediate and bold concepts, often exaggerated statements. And I think that animation is amazing for that reason. We are trying to create fantastic worlds, whimsical universes that take us away from reality. So the most important aspect is this: the enchantment and the marvel.

Now, to achieve this you need to balance it with a certain amount of reality and logic, both on the visual and on the concept front. If everything is magic then nothing is, really. If we are talking animation, obviously the message needs to be immediate, clear. It may seem like you have more liberties because you stylize everything or that take some shortcuts with reason and physics. Unfortunately, the only thing that is often overlooked is logic. I am not talking about realistic logic, I think even a goofy world needs logic, actually the goofier it is the harder you need to work on its inherent logic. So we need to take this goofy logic as seriously as possible, because as any constraint it is an excellent generator of creative ideas.

FEEDINGSTATIONI’ve heard a few times, “It’s Animation. We don’t care about how it works” and it drives me nuts, especially because our audience is young and we should respect them and treat their reasoning with respect. It does not mean that we should spend months thinking about every detail, but there has to be a middle ground because if this thinking does not happen, it shows. And more often than not it takes you out of the world, it reminds you that it is all fake and part of a big joke, and entertainment is gone.

So the more whimsical the world should feel, the more serious I am about finding a way to make everything look like it is working.

This is what I loved about the Lord of the Rings. Reading it, I felt I could ask Tolkien what was behind any tree trunk or under any stone. Just knowing the answer was at hand, I did not feel the need to ask for it and could dive into the story with delight and confidence.

Now if we talk video games it is a whole different story since the audience is a player that can and will take his time to explore the world. And this is another extremely exciting path to follow, even though the realistic logic system that holds everything together often takes its toll on the visuals.

cavenewWhat would be your absolute dream project to design for? 

I like anything heavily relying on imaginary worlds of any kind, I like history, mythology and folk tales, I like organic shapes (it can be tree roots it can be any kind of engine, I am not particular), I like lyricism, excessive and “over the top” universes. Talking about “universe” I have to confess that I recently stumbled on the “Master of the universe” art book and, as cheesy as it is I have to admit I thought that would be fun to work on that.

I guess it proves that a project does not have to be tasteful to be exciting…trees2ndact_1What advice would you give to aspiring Visdev artists or professional artists looking to shift gears and try something new?

I don’t have anything but the obvious in store: behave (no one wants to work with someone who is not nice), work hard (competition can be pretty tough), be patient (there are as many ways to get in this industry as there are artists and it is mostly not an entry level position or at least should not be considered like such).

I would add two things though: first, the path that will lead you in this industry will define what kind of artist you will be. As a creative professional, you are carrying your own universe with you and it is what makes you special. Down the road, it is probably your most precious asset, because everybody that works ten years on it will get the technical basics. But who YOU are, YOUR vision is what defines you. It is also what will help you to stand up and be recognized as someone unique, someone that can’t be easily replaced.

And the second thing is a very practical advice. When putting together a portfolio, cater to the need of the studio you want to work for. No one is going to hire your potential future self. So do your homework: look at the “art of” books, watch the movies, check out the blogs of their artists.

8b3026f1-27fb-4a77-9b3d-72a0f39123cb-largeIn your career, what artists have been your biggest inspirations? What do you do to stay inspired every day?

Here is a list of artists that really inspire me. They are not all visual artists, but their work deeply influenced me as a person and even more as an artist. I am probably forgetting a lot of them but anyway, here is the list: Tolkien, Toppi, Franquin, Rembrandt, Victor Hugo, Miyazaki, Brian Froud and Alan Lee, Dave Mc Kean, Gustave Doré, Piranesi, Ian McQue, Stephane Levallois, Giambattista Tiepolo, Jean-Philippe Jaworski.  

For daily inspiration, I regularly update and maintain a list of blogs, websites, flickr streams, tumblrs. I used to do it with Google Reader but they shut it down so I am currently using feedly. The topics are extremely diverse, from zoology to plane design, they can be the work of someone whose vision I love, whatever they do. Then I download the images that interest me the most and patiently and lovingly organize these collections in my reference database. I also pick up a lot of stuff whenever I go camping or hiking: branches, rock, pieces of shell, bones, leaves, which makes me the urban version of a pack rat I guess.


To find out more about Nicolas’ work, check out the following links:

– Zerply profile: