December 6th, 2013

Production design of “The Wolverine” – interview with François Audouy

Make a list of your top favorite tentpole productions in the past 15 years, and you can count on having François Audouy be part of at least one of them. He started his career as an illustrator and concept artist on movies such as Men In Black, Pearl Harbor, Spider-Man, Minority Report and Avatar, shifted to the art director position on Transformers, Watchmen and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and then moved to be the production designer or Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and the recently released The Wolverine. In this interview François talks about his work on The Wolverine that brought him back to his days of reading comics books growing up, researching the history, art and architecture of Japan, designing and building the main sets for the movie, and collaborating with visual effects departments on big-budget sci-fi productions.

François Audouy

Kirill: Please tell us about what you’ve been doing lately.

François: I was the production designer on Wolverine, which was an incredibly exciting and rewarding project. It took seventeen months to complete from start to finish. And I just finished another movie, Dracula Untold, and I’m very excited about Wolverine coming out on DVD.

Kirill: How far did you get into the X-Men universe preparing for the movie? Did you treat this movie as a standalone production not necessarily connected to the rest of the franchise?

François: When I first heard about the project, the only thing I knew about it was that it was set in Japan. And to be honest, that was the thing I was the most excited about. It was a dream of mine to design a movie set in Japan. Every movie is an opportunity for a designer to become an expert in something. So I really thought it was exciting to learn more about Japanese culture and architecture. You’re always looking for an opportunity to learn something.

Having said that, I was also really aware of Wolverine because I was born in 1970s, and I’m pretty much the same age as Wolverine. I remember the comic books from the late 1980s, which, looking back, is probably the golden age of Wolverine. My feeling was that the movies featuring Wolverine hadn’t really tapped into a lot of what I loved about those comics, and a lot of detail with the Logan character who’s so interesting. And I read the script, I thought that it was a great story where we really get a chance to get to know Wolverine a little bit better, and we get to focus on him for an entire movie without the distractions of all the tertiary characters. That was very exciting.

Yashida cottage. Concept illustration over location photography. Courtesy of François Audouy.

Kirill: The Japanese culture is rather closed to the outsiders. How did you approach your research phase?

François: It was kind of terrifying in the beginning, honestly. It’s so different, and so deep. There’s so much to learn.

First thing I did was to hire a researcher in Los Angeles to pull images and references. And Jim [Mangold, director] early on decided that he wasn’t interested in making a movie with cliches, like little temples or bamboo forests. I went hunting for settings and places that felt unique and different. One thing that I’m really proud of in the film is that we have this intimate story, but it also takes them through places that are understated, grounded in real, and not so Hollywood-phony [laughs]. I was trying to do something that felt real.

What helped tremendously was that I had the art department in Tokyo, and a group of people who were helping me with the locations. I had a great location manager. I scouted many places in Japan, in the mountains, north of Tokyo, Nagasaki, Hiroshima, Kobe, Kyoto, Osaka. I went there six times, and over the course of the travels every time I learned more about the culture, as I was surrounded by my Japanese crew going to all these interesting places.

Left – Tokyo love hotel, set built on stage. Right – ice village, set built on location. Courtesy of François Audouy.

Kirill: The family compound is one of the central sets in the movie. How much time did you spend on it?

François: That was probably our biggest set, and it was my favorite. It was a very immersive set, a set that you walk into and it feels totally real, even though it was built on a soundstage. Jim was referencing and inspired by “Rear Window” with Jimmy Stewart. It had an apartment looking out into the courtyard, and you can see the world outside and all of the different stories happening. And he wanted the Yashida compound to have the same feel, where you could look and have these views across the central courtyard, and see Mariko’s world, and Yashida’s chambers, and the story dynamic of this complicated family.

I created a set that was pretty much in-camera. We had a big central courtyard with water element, and all of the interiors, and it was very much an in-camera place. And it was a very hyper-modern Japanese aesthetic that was ground and rooted in the ancient flow of Japanese architecture.

And to answer your question, it probably took five or six months to design that.

Yashida compound. Set built on stage. Courtesy of François Audouy.

Kirill: And the other big set for the final sequence in the science lab was done with some digital extensions?

François: It was originally scripted as a cave [laughs]. But I wanted to bring it back to a more Japanese setting. The movie has a little bit of everything – an old cottage, a billionaire’s compound, an ancient Buddhist temple in Tokyo – and I thought it would be really cool to have a modern industrial lab.

This set was pretty big, 42 feet tall. We built two floors of the tower that was supposed to be 30-40 stories high. The idea was to create an action sequence that happened vertically. Normally these sequences are very horizontal, and we wanted to go down and up instead of just horizontal. We kept redressing our two floors as different floors going down, and extending those floors with the digital set extensions.

Yashida lab. Set built on stage. Courtesy of François Audouy.

Kirill: You’ve worked on quite a few other VFX-heavy productions. How is the balance of responsibilities between you as the production designer and the visual effects supervisor working for you? Are you losing some of the control over the final look of the digitally augmented scenes?

François: You’re right, as a lot of these films are becoming more synthetic, relying on digital set extensions and digital building out of environments. The studios and the directors realize that too, which is why we bring in the visual effects supervisors quite early in pre-production, so that they can be involved in what we’re doing. I try to keep a very close collaboration with VFX supervisors, and I also try to make sure that I design the digital sets – or sets with digital extensions – in the same way that I’m designing a set I’m building. I don’t really see a distinction whether it’s going to be digital or physical. It doesn’t matter to the audience. They don’t know and they don’t care what’s digital or what’s physical. I really treat that job in the same way.

I work hard to have everything designed and figured out before I leave the production. We hand over all the assets to visual effects for the assembly in the same way that I would hand over designs to a construction crew. They would get a full set of construction drawings, paint references and color ways, with everything figured out before you go and build the set.

Kirill: Although the difference is that for physical construction you’re still on the project, but for digital in post-production you are, for the most part, gone.

François: That’s true, and that’s why it’s important to have a close relationship with the visual effect supervisor which will be overseeing the final construction of the digital assets.

One thing that was great about Wolverine was that Jim had me come by the editing suite at Fox every two weeks over the course of six months. He showed me new things every two weeks, and it was a really great opportunity. He pulled me in, valued my opinion and kept me as a part of the team.

Kirill: And the last question is about 3D productions. How is it working out for you. Is it here to stay, perhaps confined to the tentpole sci-fi productions, or do you see it fading away?

François: I think stereo’s here to stay. I like it, but I don’t like it for all films [laughs]. It can be a great added experience to certain films, and kind of a distraction to others. It’s here to stay, but I don’t think we’ll be doing all films in stereo.

Yashida compound. Set built on stage. Courtesy of François Audouy.

And here I’d like to thank François Audouy for taking the time out of his schedule to answer a few questions I had about his work on The Wolverine and about his craft in general. Special thanks to Mitzye Ramos at Think Jam for putting me in touch with François. The movie is available on DVD, Blu-Ray and in your favorite digital distribution channels.

December 5th, 2013

The craft of screen graphics and movie user interfaces – interview with Paul Beaudry

Continuing a series of interviews with designers and artists that bring user interfaces and graphics to the big screens, it’s my pleasure to host Paul Beaudry. You have seen his work on “Avatar”, “The Hunger Games” and “Ender’s Game”, and in this interview Paul talks about what goes into designing screen graphics, drawing inspiration from the latest explorations in real-world software and hardware, holographic and 3D displays as a possible evolution of human-computer interaction in the next few decades, challenges in using technologies such as Google Glass or Siri in film, the ongoing push to create more detailed and elaborate sequences, and his thoughts on working remotely with the current crop of collaboration tools.

Kirill: Tell us about how you started in the field of motion graphics.

Paul: I started out wanting to be an AVID editor, editing documentaries and similar productions. As soon as I finished school and got into the industry, I found out that what I liked the most was coming up with graphics for documentaries and shows that I ended up working on. From there I started teaching myself motion graphics, moving into opening title sequences and getting some cool opportunities.

There are really good communities online for learning. At the time for me it was talking with other people at the great site, talking about how to get into the industry, the challenges and technical issues. That’s how I got my start. The software itself is not crazy, and a lot of people learn how to use, for example, Photoshop even though they’re not professional graphic designers or photographers. They way I look at After Effects and other 3D tools that we use is that they are more complex than Photoshop, but not so much so that it’s not impossible to learn on your own. It was years going crazy, huddled over my computer, teaching myself in every bit of free time I had during late nights, not having much of an outside life for sure [laughs].

Kirill: That’s on the technical side of things. What about the design side?

Paul: I hope I’m still learning as I go. It was a lot of the same, learning design and technical stuff together hand-in-hand. I think it’s important, actually. A lot of the conversations we had online was about getting critiques of your work, moving forward in design and technical side at the same time.

Kirill: How did you start building out your portfolio?

Paul: A whole bunch of spec pieces. My interest at the start was not really in UI design for film. At the time not that many people even knew that could be a full-time job. I was more on the television side of things, doing commercials, title sequences, more traditional motion graphics. And it was also doing my own stuff, building up reputation to get real projects.

Kirill: What were those first real projects?

Paul: I was working with the company Frantic Films on a half-hour documentary show for the Discovery channel. I don’t think it ran in US; it was a Canadian thing. I got a chance to do the opening title sequence for them, expressing my interest in doing that, and they gave me my first shot. From there I started doing a lot more work for them, and some stuff for HBO and A&E a few years later, and as a freelancer I kind of branched from there.

Kirill: What’s the story of the iOS music app Anthm that you have in the portfolio section on your site?

Paul: Anthm came out in February 2012, and actually the name is now Jukio because we ran into a bit of a legal issue. That’s something I did with my friends in our free time. It’s me, Tyler Johnston who is a graphic designer, and Ben Myers who I worked with on Avatar. We were having drinks at a bar, and we were annoyed at the music they were playing. So we came up with an app for iOS that lets you request and vote on the music playing in your location from your phone, like a jukebox with millions of songs.

Kirill: Perhaps jumping a bit forward, your work for movie UIs is the tip of the iceberg above the surface, with playback loops or basic interactivity that mostly focuses on the presentation layer. And on the other hand, creating a real application that people run on their devices forces you into the full design and implementation cycle, complete with crashes, bug fixes, feature requests etc.

Paul: My first passion is to create fantasy user interfaces for film, but at a certain point you want to make something that’s real, something that a real user can use. Something that doesn’t only look like magic, but hopefully feels magical to use. Not that Jukio is earth-changing or anything, it’s simply a music app, but there are small UX choices there that feel magical to us and that’s not always something you can do in film. It’s definitely something that we’re really interested in – getting real feedback from people, making something real that can be used to solve real-world problems.

I should mention that none films I can talk about right now had real software in them, everything that’s been released was done in post, but the company I’m working with now, G Creative Productions, has the ability to create real software that’s used on set by the actors while they’re filming. It’s all done using live playback so it’s not a post-production thing at all  – they create real software that the actors can tap, change on the fly and really interact with while they’re filming.

Kirill: And you’re focusing mostly on presentation and interaction part?

Paul: Absolutely. We fake a lot of the underlying pieces. But it’s still more involved than what you do in the post process. There’s a lot more interaction involved, and I think there’s actually a lot more thought that has to go into it. There’s a programming level involved that isn’t there when you do it in post.

Kirill: Is it more challenging to do something that actors interact with on the live set?

Paul: I’m definitely still more comfortable with post production, as I’m still on my first couple films doing playback on sets. There are benefits to both ways of doing it. On the playback side it just looks more realistic. In post production there are different challenges to consider, like the interactive lighting, how the the light from the screen will reflect off of someone’s face, for example. If you do it in post, it becomes a big job to fake the light created by these screens, whereas in playback it’s not really a concern anymore.

In most cases it’s a lot more practical, as the director can actually see the screens while he’s filming on set. On the other hand, in post we can do all kinds of crazy stuff like holograms, the craziest ideas we want and there’s really nothing stopping us from doing it.

Kirill: Well, except for budget and time.

Paul: Time and budget, yeah. We push those pretty hard [laughs]. I think I still prefer doing things in post where we can create this crazy stuff. That’s really where a lot of fun is – envisioning these really far futuristic pieces of technology without concern for what’s technically possible.

Kirill: Avatar is your only released movie so far that did 3D effects. Did that add a lot of complexity to what you did?

Paul: Absolutely. Avatar was the only one that we did that way. It was definitely challenging. It looks great in the end, but it’s not something I’m super-anxious to do again, I’ll say that [laughs].

It’s a lot more interesting to think about something in 3D space. If the user actually has to use it this way, how would you use the layering to enhance user experience, and how would you use the layering in film to help tell the story better. And at the time, getting the technical aspect across was hard because the software tools didn’t have much stereo support. I was at Prime Focus for Avatar, and they had great custom-made tools that would take our After Effects layers and disperse them in 3D space within the scene, really making the compositors’ lives a lot easier.

I worked with Ben Myers and we had basically wrapped up a month and a half early, getting everything into position to be approved by James Cameron, and seeing the end in sight. And we decided that for a lot of hero screens we would rig our own stereo cameras within After Effects, and use those to actually render hundreds of layers of depth rather than just 3-5. That was cool, to come up with that process on our own before it was really a common thing, before the software was geared to allow us to do that easily.

Kirill: Was that for the big holo table?

Paul: I didn’t do the table, but rather all the other 30 or so screens you see in that set. The holo table was fully 3D, and I believe they used 3ds Max which I assume was a bit easier to work in stereo than After Effects had allowed. For us the challenge was to get After Effects to render things in stereo quickly and efficiently, which was a big hassle. We were taking care of those 30 screens across a bunch of shots, so it was a big job to do everything in stereo.

Kirill: Leaving the technical side of things, what about the initial explorations of the overall space? Do you sit down with the director, the production designer or perhaps the VFX supervisor to discuss the general interaction aspects? I’m looking at the list of films you worked on – Avatar, Hunger Games and Ender’s Game – and it’s sufficiently far in the future that you don’t necessarily have to be bound by the limitations of the current technology. Who is involved in defining the interactions?

Paul: I don’t really interface directly with the directors. Usually there’s a layer between us as Gladys Tong is in the case of G Creative right now. There’s a lot of back and forth, pitching the craziest ideas, throwing a lot of stuff out. On Avatar, for example, a lot of things were set out before we joined. James Cameron was on that film for 14 years, I think, and Ben Procter had already done a lot of designs for our screens. It was working under our Art Director Neil Huxley with Ben Myers and others to animate them.

On The Hunger Games we looked at a lot of real-world references, extrapolating them into the future. Where would the surveillance technology be, how it would look in this dystopian future where they can really watch and control everything that is happening within the Games. We looked at Microsoft Photosynth, for example, and we really loved the idea a 3D interface traveling between photos to see something from a different perspective. We used that in some of the screens – if the game keepers have the technology to see and control everything, they surely have some way to view the arena and view everything within it.

Kirill: I loved this idea that you have removed all the intermediary steps for controlling the arena, where the keepers operate on the scaled down digital replica and are able to virtually touch and control every part of the terrain, to manipulate the digital representation and have the physical counterpart immediately “react” to those manipulations. They don’t type, they don’t move a mouse in some kind of intermediate plane.

Paul: That was definitely the most challenging set I worked on. You have 24 people controlling the same computer essentially. They all touch and control the same centered model, and it was a challenge to think about things like what do they need to control, how do they control it, what kind of interactions are necessary when it comes time to throw a fireball at Katniss, for example. What type of stuff they need to do when they knock down a tree? When they unleash the dogs? It’s a fine line as you’re trying to figure out what would the user would want to do in that scenario, and what’s going to tell this story in the most effective way possible, and how we can walk that line. How we can make this look futuristic and feel like a really intelligent all-encompassing model of the arena?

Kirill: Do you still need to stay at least somehow connected to the current technology, to not get too futuristic?

Paul: It’s difficult. Our first focus is on telling the story. We always start from there. Someone needs to throw a fireball at Katniss, and how do we show that? You take real-world references and extrapolate to technology that is more advanced by a certain number of years. What would make that process simpler? What would someone want to see?

For example if we’re working on a medical animation for a film, what would a surgeon want to see if he had limitless technology. What is the ideal way to perform a surgery? Is it wearing something like Google Glass and seeing an augmented reality display in front of you, showing where to make the incision? Maybe the medical animation is using nanobots instead, and the doctor’s interface is used to control them. A lot of this comes from current technology that we see and that we extrapolate into the future. What would someone ideally be using, and can we get that across in our film and still tell our story?

Kirill: You mentioned Photosynth, and I’m sure you have a whole bunch of other references. Are you trying to stay current and read about all the new technological explorations, even if they are not necessarily commercialized? Is it a big endeavor to stay aware of all the new things?

Paul: It’s a big job. I’m interested in these things anyway though, so a lot of my free time is spent looking at new technology. Any time we start a job, we’re looking at references and what kind of crazy stuff is coming out right now – robotics, networking, holograms – really anything. We’re trying to keep afloat of that so we can use it in film and hopefully try to figure out where it’s all headed in the future.

Kirill: I hate bringing up “Minority Report” as I’m sure you’re sick of hearing about it again and again, but it’s a popular example of things going the other way – interactions portrayed in a film that find their way into real-world products. Is this be a two-way street, a sort of a feedback loop between fantasy UIs and cutting-edge actual products?

Paul: Absolutely. “Minority Report” is funny, I don’t think I’ve ever been on a project where it wasn’t referenced by somebody. They did such a good job that it’s still relevant, and I’m sure had a lot to do with things like Kinect. There is that feedback loop.

You look back at old “Star Trek” episodes and how that’s now inspiring people to do medical apps on smartphones. I would love if what we’re doing will inspire people to make something in real life the same way real life is inspiring us to put these things in movies. I saw a Twitter exchange between Elon Musk and John Favreau about Elon trying to get his team to make some of the Iron Man interfaces for real, with holographic displays. And I think that’s powerful. You need people dreaming up the crazy stuff that’s not limited by what’s possible now, and movies are a great outlet for that.

Kirill: You mentioned Google Glass which is, for me, an interesting piece in the sense that it is a very personal gadget. It’s this screen that nobody but the person who wears it actually sees, which makes it hard to use in a movie, as you’d need to switch constantly back and forth between that small screen and what happens around the person wearing that screen. And that’s not necessarily the best story-telling experience.

Paul: That’s actually one of the challenges we’re having now. We’re working on a concept and we unfortunately can’t have something like Google Glass, as the viewer isn’t able to see it easily without switching to a first-person perspective. You see the trend in films for the past few years to use transparent displays, which is maybe not the most useful thing in the real world outside of goggles or windshields – I don’t really want to see through my laptop right now to the wall behind it. But in a movie it helps a lot where you can have a reverse shot of an actor’s face looking through his display. It’s a wonderful device in a film.

And things like Google Glass, as much as we want to put them in film, that’s exactly the challenge. It’s difficult because you can’t really see it all that easily. You have to walk the line, throwing some of your favorite ideas by the wayside because it is a film and we have a story to tell first and foremost.

Kirill: Are you afraid of people watching your films in 25 years and seeing how off-mark they were, or is each one just the product of its time?

Paul: I’m not afraid of it. You look back at some of the great stuff – like “Blade Runner”, for example – and it may look dated now, but at the time it was incredible. I hope my stuff looks really dated in 10 or 20 years, because that means technology has become so advanced that we’ll have better technology in real life than we ever dreamed of in movies, and I’d love to have real technology that actually works like this.

I think anytime you’re predicting what the future will hold, it’s inevitable that some of the stuff will be fodder for jokes. In 10 years we will look back and think “What was that, that’s so ridiculous that they thought in the future we’d be using interfaces like that.” It’s not something that necessarily “scares” me though, I hope that happens.

Kirill: It’s my impression watching sci-fi movies in the last few years – like Avatar, Prometheus or Avengers – that the trend is to use screens everywhere, putting glass surfaces of all sizes and shapes all over the place. That may not necessarily be the way of the future if you look at something like Google Now, Siri or Glass where the visible surface of the technology is receding and shrinking into the background – instead of expanding around us as portrayed in these movies.

Paul: Absolutely. That’s the trend now in real life – smaller screens and more info that is intelligently designed to fit into smaller spaces. In a movie that doesn’t work so well. It’s a double-edged sword. We can’t always put what we think it’s going to look like in 30 years, say. In 30 years I don’t think I’m going to have these giant monitors sitting on my desk anymore.

Holograms are fun in that way. They can get out of your way. They feel a lot more amorphous, taking whatever shape you want. That’s an interesting thing to think about. These little gadgets don’t always translate to film very well, so we’ll always have these giant operation centers [laughs] with huge screens everywhere, whether or not it’s the best user experience.

Kirill: You say that you don’t see your desk in 30 years’ time having these gigantic monitors. How would you like it to look? What kinds of obstacles do you wish to see removed in your interactions with computers in our lifetime?

Paul: It depends on how far into the future we’re looking. Direct brain-to-computer interfaces are absolutely the holy grail, but that’s obviously a long way out. And that’s not something that is going to work well in movies at all.

If you ask about our lifetime, it’s a tough question. The idea of 3D displays is interesting. Right now we’re using stereo displays for entertainment purposes, but I’m really interested in trying them out while I’m working. What kind of interfaces can we design and what kind of obstacles can we overcome if we think and operate in 3D – instead of the 2D aspect that we’re locked to right now? If we can break the 2D plane of our screens, what kind of interactions and experiences can we create?

It’s possible now, but you don’t see many tools using it. I’m looking at After Effects right now, and I see how having depth to not just the viewport, but the interface itself might be able to communicate some ideas better, make the interface more efficient and powerful to use. Perhaps some subtle depth cues could make an interface feel more natural to use.

Kirill: You’re dreaming up these futuristic interfaces and showing us how the interaction feels, and yet you’re still bound to the capabilities and limitations of the current crop of software tools. Is that frustrating in a sense?

Paul: It’s definitely frustrating from the human perspective. I look at a 3D model on my computer, but I can’t actually reach out and touch it, I can’t manipulate it with my hands. I have to use a mouse or a pen tablet and a keyboard in order to manipulate these things and work with them. The idea of a Kinect-like sensor that I can use – and I hate to bring up “Minority Report” again [laughs] – that’s exactly what I’d like to do. It doesn’t need to be an Iron Man style hologram. It can be in front of a flat screen, or augmented reality like Google Glass, for example.

Being able to move my hands forward and manipulate these models that I’m working with, to animate the camera with my hands – as opposed to a mouse and a keyboard. It’s a lot more natural and opens up a lot more room for creativity, if we’re using it in a human-like way with our hands and our thumbs instead of the makeshift interfaces of the mouse and the keyboard. Those are really there because the tactile interfaces were not available. There’s a lot of power there if we can work that way and remove some of the tools coming between our brains and the software we use.

Kirill: Waving your hands around all day long to complete tasks might not be the most ergonomic way…

Paul: To be clear I don’t ever want to be waving my whole arm “Minority Report”-style. That would get very tiring, but the idea of being able to use gestures in 3D space with your hands – and I mean very minimal stuff, not necessarily waving your whole arm around although that does work well in film – I mean letting go of the mouse and the keyboard, and working with your hands like you would if you were molding clay or sitting at a work bench. Not just sliding fingers across a flat piece of glass, but letting go of the glass and using the movements and gestures your hands have evolved to perform naturally.

Kirill: Getting back to your released movies (four so far), has it become easier to do the interfaces on the technical side of things, or do you see the matching rise in demand for details from directors or VFX supervisors? Do those demands scale with the capabilities of the tools you have at your disposal?

Paul: Absolutely, like anything else in visual effects. It scales with the toolset. When we were on “Avatar”, it was a big technical challenge to just account for how much time it took to render something. And that’s not always a concern anymore as computers have become more powerful. A lot of the time I can render something in 30 minutes and it’s not really affecting my day. But at the same time the demands from directors are getting crazier – a lot more 3D holograms etc.

You look at the holograms in “Avatar” – only four years later – and it’s pretty simple in comparison, which, to be clear, is not a knock on “Avatar”. I watched that team go through making it, and it was a huge challenge, and it took a lot of people to make it. And now it’s kind of par for the course in these movies, if you look at the crazy holograms in “Iron Man” and “Prometheus” for example. As our technology to make these films progresses, the demands from directors get more elaborate. We have to always look for new ways of doing things, new ways of tackling those challenges that a new film may bring.

Kirill: So it’s never going to get to a point where the director will say that what you have is good enough and you can stop.

Paul: [laughs] I don’t think so. Usually no matter how good your first version of something is, you’re going to do 30 more versions before it gets approved. That’s good though, you’re always pushed to make something more elaborate. I don’t think anything we’re doing now is any easier than what we were doing when I started out. It’s an arms race. As the technology improves, the demands get more and more elaborate. Even if the software got to a point where designs and animations were mostly automated, I don’t think the directors would want that. They’d want a custom solution, always raising the bar.

Kirill: And there’s also the part where you and your team don’t want to repeat what’s been done in the past on other films.

Paul: Always. We always want to push the ball forward with each project so we’re not just rehashing what’s been done before, by ourselves or others.

Kirill: You’ve talked about the technical aspects of doing 3D, but what about your personal opinion as a moviegoer? Do you think it’s going to take over more genres, or perhaps it’ll remain confined to tentpole sci-fi productions?

Paul: I think it’s going to be a sci-fi, fantasy-only thing. I don’t think it’s going to become more prevalent. The audience has spoken. For huge movies like “Avatar” it works great. It was filmed in 3D which makes a huge difference – as opposed to the post-conversion process where they convert a movie into 3D later. As a moviegoer, I’d rather see a 2D version of the film than to see something that was post-converted. And unfortunately I don’t think the average viewer knows the difference, so they see “3D” in the marketing materials and they think it’s going to be the same as a truly 3D movie like “Avatar” was. I don’t think that effort of post-conversion is worth it, and I hope people vote with their wallets – showing that they don’t like it. And correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think that 3D television sets are selling particularly well either, because the content isn’t even there.

Kirill: It might be slightly different from movies where you pay slightly more every time you go to see a 3D movie. For a 3D TV set purchase you have to have a really good reason – such as a wealth of live and recorded content to justify paying a hefty upfront premium for the device. And that content just doesn’t exist yet.

Paul: Yes. I think in the case of huge blockbusters like “Avatar” it adds to the experience. I won’t name any names, but I can think of some post-converted movies that were very distracting. Post-conversion will hopefully go away, and true 3D will be reserved for the big-budget spectacles who can do it properly. I hope it does, as it definitely adds to the experience when it’s done well.

Kirill: I went to see “Ender’s Game” and it had two surprises. The first one was that there was no 3D version, at least in my area. And the second one was that I didn’t miss it at all, especially in the last part where they are in the simulation cave. It was staged and shot in a very immersive way that made me feel like I was right in there with Ender. I thought I’d be missing the extra dimension, but it wasn’t even necessary for me as the viewer. Maybe I’m too “conditioned” to expect these blockbusters to be in 3D “by default”, and “Gravity”, for example, is pushing that even further by having audio panning around you to follow the camera direction.

Paul: Exactly, it’s not necessary for every viewer. But that being said, if you did see that scene in 3D, I bet it would be just mind-blowing. I generally don’t buy 3D tickets, but for things where I know it was filmed in 3D, or rendered in 3D like the Pixar movies for example – those I find worth it, having millions of layers of depth. And when you have three or four layers of depth in post-conversion, I don’t find it’s worth it. I think people are going to slowly learn the difference. And we’ll never know for “Ender’s Game” unless they post-convert it.

There’s this amazing thing about movies. It’s a whole bunch of people, thousands of people coming together to form this amazing whole. And you go to the theater, and you notice these things, like audio following the camera movement and actors’ positions in “Gravity”, or the screens that we’re doing – that’s exactly what it’s all about. As individuals we’re small part of the massive whole that becomes a movie, and hopefully these details come across.

Kirill: How do all these thousands of people collaborate? As a freelancer working on a particular facet of the much bigger production, do you need to be on the set, to sit in the same physical space with your team, to be available to other departments? How much can be done remotely with the current crop of software collaboration tools?

Paul: I do enjoy sitting with people and working together in the same room. But for the past two years now I’ve worked almost exclusively from my home office. For “The Hunger Games” it was half-and-half, where I’d go to Montreal for a while and then come back here. It worked well, but the tools are sufficient enough now that there are more benefits to working remotely for me personally. You can work on your own time, which is perfect in a creative field like this. Contrary to popular belief, you actually put in a lot more hours than you would clocking in and out of an office every day.

Using tools like Basecamp from 37 Signals, Skype and Google Docs makes it so easy to collaborate online. I personally have never had to be on the sets – there are other highly skilled people on our team at G Creative who do that part of the job. As a designer and animator, it’s not really necessary for me to be there, so online collaboration actually works really well and allows me to just focus on the creative side of things.

Kirill: Is this your field for the foreseeable future – mixing screen graphics for movies and your own software projects?

Paul: That’s my plan for now. I have 3 movies yet to be released that all involved the design and animation of screen graphics. I formed a bit of a specialty before joining G Creative – and it’s their specialty as well so it’s a natural fit. I have this great opportunity to work with Gladys Tong who has over a decade of experience bringing this cool technology to life in film. And in my free time we have a lot of apps and real software we’re working on. It’s definitely a different challenge from film, and I love both aspects. I love making the fantasy UI stuff for film where we can make it as crazy as the director will let us, and not to worry too much how usable something really is. And then in my free time it’s rewarding to make something that does have the constraints of real software. It’s rewarding to make something that people can download and use in real life.

And here I’d like to thank Paul Beaudry for taking the time out of his busy schedule to talk about crafting screen graphics and user interfaces for movies.

November 23rd, 2013

Illustrators at work – interview with Riccardo Guasco

Riccardo Guasco is an illustrator and a painter working with a variety of styles and mediums – ink, watercolor, acrylic, Chinese brush – in addition to creating digital illustrations for clients such as Eni, Diesel, Rizzoli, Moleskine, Thames & Hudson and TBWA. In this interview Riccardo talks about what influenced his taste, not wanting to be tied to a single technique, and conveying motion in a static medium – particularly in his collection about cyclists.

Photography by Lorenzo De Simone

Kirill: Tell us about yourself and how you started in the field.

Riccardo: My name is Riccardo Guasco, I am an illustrator and a painter born in Alessandria, a small town in the northwestern part of Italy. I’ve always been drawing: since I was a little boy, I’ve always got the chance to attend art schools, till the School of Fine Arts in Turin. And this experience helped me to improve my hand and my style, up to turn my passion into a job.

Kirill: What informs and shapes your taste and style?

Riccardo: My style has evolved over time, matured with the passing of the years and with the settling down of my passions. During my studies, I got very interested into Picasso’s, Futurist painters’, Russian Suprematists’ and contemporary street art. Later, my passion has been enriched with comics – with the characters coming from Il Corriere dei Piccoli, the first Italian weekly comic magazine -, posters, or thanks to artists creating advertising placards since the Forties – such as Savignac, Cappiello, Seneca, Dudovich. It is a style taking inspiration from simple images, made up of few lines but full of expressive and emotional content.

Kirill: Your portfolio has work in multiple mediums – ink, watercolor, acrylic, Chinese brush. Is this a challenge to yourself to explore different directions and styles?

Riccardo: I love my art can become a language applicable to all media and through every technique. Technique is just a tool, a mean to communicate; the most important thing is having a message. I don’t want to tie myself down to a single technique or even worse to a single software, I want to try them all. My next collection I have in my mind, it will be a ceramic dinnerware set; this technique is really attractive to me, but I have never tried it up to now.

Kirill: What are your thoughts about digital illustration hardware and software tools?

Riccardo: I often use hardware and software tools in my job. Photoshop, Illustrator and Cintiq digital tablet are useful but not essential tools, luckily. As I told you before, I don’t want to tie myself down to a single software or a single hardware. Almost all my works arise from the paper first, and several times I prefer not to switch them into a digital format because I do not want to loose the freshness they have on the paper.

Kirill: How do you approach capturing and conveying movement in this static medium, particularly in your illustrations of cyclists?

Riccardo: My collection about cyclists was one of my earlier works. I wanted to convey the more introspective side of each cyclist, rather than to portray them just as racers; my attention was addressed to their thoughts and their soul, I wanted to tell something only through their profiles. So, I decided to eliminate the bicycle and everything that was redundant for me. And I was left with faces belonging to heroes, profiles speaking about struggle, noses stuck out in order to reach the finishing line they would have passed shortly.

Kirill: Do you ever find yourself so immersed during painting that you lose track of time?

Riccardo: If I could, I would draw nights and days, and if I am doing a job I like I don’t care about tiredness and time passing. I experience like a trance and my attention is completely enchanted by the work till the end. On the contrary, I never spend too much time on the same painting or illustration because I do not want to loose the freshness and spontaneity of the very first idea I’ve put on the paper.

Kirill: What goes through you head when you look at your own work from a few years ago?

Riccardo: It is a continuous metamorphosis, my works and my style change with the passing of the years (luckily). When I go back to my old works, I see naivety and defects that I would not make again now and I think the same painting or illustration would be different today.

Kirill: As you went back to the academic world, do you miss the more hectic side of client work? Any plans to go back to freelancing or agency?

Riccardo: I like to work with customers and/or agencies that ask me for unusual illustrations. I think that facing and dealing with brief and customer’s requirements is like a training. Usually, I try to explain to the customer that first of all we need to rely on each other and have a mutual consideration; only in this way it is possible to discuss and create an illustration satisfying both. I know I have a really peculiar and codified style, and this is a luck that helps me to meet customers who are exactly looking for my illustrations because they appreciate and consider them interesting from a quality point of view.

Kirill: What do you do when you run out of ideas and get stuck?

Riccardo: I think inspiration does not exist. Creativity and ideas are the result of a teamwork of eye, brain and hart. At the end of this process, the hand realizes what the other three players have imagined. This process cannot be stopped because it is like breathing or running: you need training and perseverance.

Kirill: What’s the best thing about being an illustrator?

Riccardo: The best thing about being an illustrator is the availability in your own hands of a universal communication medium: “drawing”. Having the opportunity to create an image able to reach and touch millions of people in a short time; if you try to think about an image, you realize it is more straightforward than a book, or a song, or rather a movie; but it has a strong tension inside that needs to be well and carefully handle.

And here I’d like to thank Riccardo Guasco for his outstanding work, and for taking the time to answer a few questions I had about his art and craft. You can find his work online at his main portfolio site and his Behance profile. Selected works are available for sale at his Society6 shop.

November 13th, 2013

Illustrators at work – interview with Morgan Schweitzer

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with illustrators, it is my pleasure to welcome the talented and prolific Morgan Schweitzer. He splits his time between editorial illustrations and motion work that includes character design, concept design, asset creation and storyboard art. His clients include Penguin, Businessweek, Maxim, Psyop, Buck, Stardust and many others. In this interview Morgan talks about his roots, his creative process and designing for various media.

Kirill: Tell us about yourself and how you started in the field.

Morgan: I studied Visual Communications at Washington University in St Louis. When I first graduated I blindly emailed over 100 commercial animation studios all over the world to see if they had openings. It was only one studio, Nathan Love in New York, that started offering me some freelance work here and there. I did some odd-jobs as a freelancer starting out. I was hired by a talented graphic designer/developer and family friend, Gretchen May. She was working for Massachusetts General Hospital at the time, and hired me to build an illustration library for them. Selling the copyrights to all the images allowed me the financial freedom to move to New York City. Once in NYC I started working for Nathan Love more regularly. In fact, the day they called me in to start was the same day I was supposed to start work as a waiter.

I dropped off my portfolio, sent out mailers and started getting some editorial illustration jobs. For about a year I illustrated a weekly column for the Village Voice. Meanwhile, as other freelance coworkers migrated to other studios, my name got spread around and I started working for more animation studios.

Wraparound cover for PK Pinkerton and the Deadly Desperados book published by Penguin.

Kirill: What informs and shapes your taste and style?

Morgan: I have a real compulsion to discover new artists, designers, and illustrators online. It’s inspiring and eye-opening to see how different artists work, and how they work differently from me.

Kirill: Is there a danger of absorbing too much from what influences you and not finding your own unique voice?

Morgan: There is certainly that danger. My influences are so vast, that I’m never influenced by one artist in particular. I strive to become an amalgam of everything that I love in all that influences me.

However, I struggled for a while…or rather, I thought I was struggling for a while with finding a focus and a voice. As a concept artist I work to invent new styles and aesthetics for each project. Some, styles that I would never pursue within my own artistic exploration. So, for a while I felt like concept art muddled my focus and my own voice. I got confused and thought I needed to stick to a “style” or come up with a “style” that was unique to me.

Then, I stepped back and realized that when given an illustration assignment I would go back to my own default and illustrate the topic in the way that was most comfortable for me. And, while I never equated that with a “style,” what I realized was that the most genuine artistic voices are not determined from a lineup of styles, but rather, just a way of working which is most comfortable and engaging for the artist. That said, I still don’t feel like I have a “style,” and I don’t anticipate ever feeling that way.

Illustration for an article in American Cowboy Magazine about the old Clint Eastwood classic, Fist Full of Dollars

Kirill: There’s a lot of momentum and energy in your illustrations. How do you approach conveying motion in a static image, particularly for human subjects?

Morgan: I’m glad that comes across. My sketches are generally very loose and gestural at first. I try to incorporate some of those gestural qualities to help guide the finished illustration and to exaggerate aspects of the figure that help convey movement.

Kirill: What is the process of designing a book cover? Is it about capturing the story in a single image, or a somewhat looser interpretation that gives you more freedom?

Morgan: For book covers I’ve worked on, I would say it’s not about capturing an actual scene or events from the book, but rather a more general expression of the most iconic elements from the story into an image (without giving anything away). It’s also important for the image to be iconic and readable from afar.

Kirill: Speaking more broadly about cover design, what are your thoughts on increasing prevalence of digital stores – for both music and books? As you’re blocking out the cover elements, do you factor in that people will see the cover – possibly significantly scaled down – on a variety of screen sizes?

Morgan: I think a good cover will hold up. These factors make it even more important for the image to be readable at a small scale. I do tend to examine my illustrations at thumbnail size whether it’s for a cover or not. I find it helps me to see the image more broadly to make sure everything is working together.

Left – illustration for New York Times Magazine, right – illustration for Westchester Magazine.

Kirill: What’s the technical process? Pen-and-paper first, and then transition to digital tools?

Morgan: While I love working with traditional media, my process has become increasingly digital. It’s a time-saver with tight deadlines, and for working in animation with continuous revisions it’s a must. To avoid the sterile, lifeless qualities that digital art can often produce I have amassed a library of paint, ink, and charcoal textures that I use to give my images a bit more of a tactile quality.

Kirill: Once the specific illustration is out of your hands and becomes a part of the final product, do you ever wish to go back and tweak it? Has it ever happened that you had what seemed to be an even better idea after the process has been completed?

Morgan: I have a bad habit of staring at my illustrations for a couple days after I’ve already sent them in to the client. Even when they’re approved I’ll sometimes send in my own revisions after the fact if something starts bugging me later. That said, once I’m finished staring at an illustration, I tend to close the book on it mentally. Overtime, I develop a constructive hatred of all my earlier work. I think that’s an important sign of growth. I’ll never be content with a piece that I’ve improved beyond, so if I weren’t hating everything I’ve ever done, I’d be worried.

Self-initiated work for imagined comic book covers.

Kirill: How do you preserve color fidelity when the final product is targeting print media, such as album or book covers?

Morgan: I’m not as much of a stickler about color as maybe I ought to be. Every monitor is different. Every printer is different. So, it’s kind of an impossible pursuit. I think if the overall color palette is strong as a unit, then it will hold up if all the colors are uniformly shifted.

Kirill: What’s the weirdest client feedback that you’ve received so far, if you don’t mind sharing? Is there any difference between working for smaller publications as opposed to larger corporate clients?

Morgan: To be honest, nothing too weird comes immediately to mind. There are certainly client decisions that I consider to be strange within the context of certain projects, but I can’t think of anything too crazy. Things like the typographic design working against the illustration, or character designs that move away from what the characters are trying to convey.

Type Design for “Crime of Passion” album cover for “Hollywood Kill”.

Kirill: One of the sections on your site is about your lettering projects. Do you see yourself branching out in the future to do type design?

Morgan: I have a background in typography and design, so lettering is something I enjoy. Type is most exciting to me when it’s combined into an illustration. So, I try to incorporate illustrated lettering here and there in my illustrations when possible. However, I don’t have a dedication to type alone the way most type designers do. So, I don’t see that becoming a more prominent aspect of my career.

Kirill: How important is it to invest time in personal projects?

Morgan: I would say it’s very important. It helps to stretch your creativity farther than assignments may allow. Exploring your own creativity in that way is perhaps the most important tool in developing an identifiable voice. All that said, I rarely work on personal projects…something I would very much like to change in the near future.

Storyboards for “The Catch” Coca-Cola pitch.

Kirill: What do you do when you run out of ideas and get stuck?

Morgan: I suppose my idea process is a little different for each field. If I ever get stuck coming up with a concept for an editorial illustration, it’s generally as simple as starting to sketch some thumbnails. Seeing different ideas on paper gives way to expanding on those ideas, changing and combining them in different ways. If I ever have trouble starting to sketch thumbnails, I find it helps to start writing down a list of words that correspond to topics in the article.

For character design, when I feel I’ve exhausted all the forms for a particular character exploration, I start to sketch almost without intention. Almost random scribbles. Then I’ll start to turn the scribbles into different forms and generally more exaggerated interesting characters will start to take shape.

Kirill: What’s the best thing about being an illustrator?

Morgan: Hard not to say something totally cliché here. I’d like to say something like…because I love the pursuit of illustration, I rarely feel like I’m working; exploring one’s own creativity is a valuable window oneself; it’s a fulfilling and exciting pursuit to work toward the impossible goal of artistic perfection; but really it’s the danger…and the power, fame, money, cars and women.

Illustration for

And here I’d like to thank Morgan Schweitzer for his wonderful work, and for taking the time to answer a few questions I had about his art and craft. You can find his work online at his main portfolio site and his personal Tumblr stream. He’s also active on Facebook and Twitter.