How did you originally make the jump from working as a comics illustrator to being a conceptual artist?
That was quite a journey because, as you know, I started in comics. I did comics for Image and then for Marvel for about 10 years – that was a childhood dream. And then I ended up going, in the middle of my comics career, to get an art education, so I went to the ArtCentre College of Design in Pasadena, California, and that’s where I learned to paint and how to use traditional media like oil, acrylic, and water colour. Conceptual art was becoming a bigger thing, especially with the advent of the internet – you could see more what was out there, and conceptual art for video games and film was all predominantly done digitally, using programs like Photoshop and Painter. So, I basically had to teach myself how to paint digitally. I knew how to paint and how to use colour and composition, but now I had to learn how to paint digitally. So, while I was drawing comic books I was building up a portfolio, knowing I wanted to make a transition to concept art.
The first job I landed in concept art was the God of War video game series by Sony Computer Entertainment. That was in 2005. I worked on the God of War series for about five years, and that’s where I met Charlie Wen and Ryan Meinerding. Charlie Wen was the visual development director of the time, and Ryan was a freelancer that came in after me, and then eventually Ryan got into film, got into Marvel, then he brought on Charlie. Then right around the time Avengers was happening, [Marvel studios executives] Kevin Feige, Louis D’Esposito, and Victoria Alonso decided it would be to their advantage to create an in-house group of artists, knowing that they would be creating a whole connected universe of films with these characters. They put Charlie and Ryan in charge of creating that team, and I was the first one that they contacted and hired. I’ve been here ever since, for almost eight years.
At what stage of development do you come in? Is there a script in place and a director, or do they look ahead and say, “Well, we’re planning a Captain Marvel movie down the track, so start working on designs for that.”
We’re in the very beginning. A lot of times we’re even before there’s a script. That was the case with the first Guardians of the Galaxy. Most of the time we don’t know what the story is yet, but obviously with Captain Marvel there’s a comic, there’s source material. So they tell me and the other artists to come up with designs: what it could be. We just kind of blue sky, come up with things that could be similar, or different – we come up with our own ideas.
We did the same thing for Guardians of the Galaxy – they came to us and gave us two weeks, and between myself and five other artists we spent two weeks on Guardians of the Galaxy and what that could look like. Obviously that was an unknown property so, for me, when I was designing it I was like “I can see Guardians of the Galaxy being a mix between Star Wars and Mad Max”, so that’s kind of the spin I took when I was doing the initial designs. And it’s the same thing with Captain Marvel, her designs.
Then the script comes in, they hire a director, things start getting fleshed out, and we start designing and catering to specific needs.
When it comes to Marvel, many of the older, classic characters were designed for the page – a 2D environment rather than the 3D environment of film. Is it a challenge translating these ideas to the screen? What have been the toughest to design?
One example is Ant-Man. I did the design for Ant-Man, from the first Ant-Man when I was working with [director] Edgar Wright. He’s a beloved character but when you look at what he looks like in the comic book, he’s very goofy with a big old mandible on his helmet and a big bulbous head. It looks fine on paper but you just know that if you translate that into film, people are not going to take it seriously.
The great thing about that was that we knew from the get-go that in the story that Edgar came up with initially it was not the present day, but the design came from the past, in the ‘50s or ‘60s. I believe [in the final film] it wound up being in the ‘80s, somewhere around there, so the fact that it was more of a retro suit helped a lot. It’s always fun doing retro suits.
A lot of the time we discuss with the director what the conceit is for these characters. So with Ant-Man, for example, it’s a containment suit – gas goes inside the suit with Pym Particles and that’s how he stays small. But the gas has to stay contained within the suit for him to survive, like an astronaut. So, in the comic you can see his mouth in the open but in ours we decided to cover it up and make it a full gas mask-style helmet.
So that’s what we do – we look at the conceit to see if there are story points, we have conversations with the director to see what they want to get out of the character and what is the point of the costume. Our job as character designers is telling a story through the costume. It’s not just taking a costume and making it look cool for film, but creating a story through the costume that explains who this character is. It’s not just standing out as a superhero with a symbol – a lot of times there are practical reasons for what these characters wear. That’s the fun of my job.
What were some of the design goals and influences you had in mind working on Thor: Ragnarok?
Taika Waititi came in and he wanted to fully embrace [seminal Marvel comics artist] Jack Kirby. We’ve done that in our past films, but this is the one where we went full out. Taika was having us do designs with Jack Kirby in mind, we did a lot of research on Jack Kirby, and then Taika himself is an artist, so he would do little doodles on paper and his drawing style, funnily enough, has something of the clunkiness that Jack Kirby had.
He would push us. If you look at a lot of Jack Kirby designs they’re amazing, but they’re seemingly not translatable to live action. Taika really wanted to push us to come as close to Jack Kirby as we could. I appreciated that, it took us to places that were a little uncomfortable, where you think things look a little too goofy for cinema, but that’s part of the job – we went there and then we were reeled back in. Taika, he pushed it.
Thor: Ragnarok is out on digital now and will be available on on 4K Ultra HD, 3D Blu-ray, Blu-ray, and DVD from March. 7, 2018.