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October 16
2018

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

Inside ILM’s Art Department

By IAN FAILES

Several visual effects studios run their own art departments, often contributing designs and concepts beginning with pre-production and working all the way through post.

Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) is one such studio, and has a strong history of delivering concept art and visual development for the many shows it works on. ILM gives VFX Voice an inside look at how its art department operates, with imagery direct from the studio’s recent work in a galaxy far, far away.

Department details

You’ve seen ILM’s art department in action on the latest Star Wars movies, including Solo: A Star Wars Story, Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Other major films featuring ILM concept art and design development are Ready Player One and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. Sometimes the art department even delivers designs on films that ILM won’t actually complete the final VFX for (examples are Beauty and the Beast and The Jungle Book).

Concept for the ‘summa-verminoth’ monster featured in the Kessel Run sequence in Solo: A Star Wars Story. Artwork by Chris Voy.

“In the beginning, we saw designs [for Solo: A Star Wars Story] coming over from London, and it became a sort of friendly challenge: ‘See if you can beat that!’ We would go back and forth getting wilder and wilder. Right up until the end, there were several artists here in San Francisco all collaborating on one huge sequence…”

—Chris Voy, Concept Artist, ILM San Francisco

ILM’s art department is usually involved on a project from the very early bidding stages, then once a project is awarded, the VFX art director and concept artists will work closely with the VFX supervisor.

“A lot of our concept work is done up front towards the beginning of the show,” notes concept artist Chris Voy, who is based in ILM’s San Francisco office. “But as the film moves further into production, we have a chance to get much more specific and start to consider how designs work within shots. Often we are asked to rough out some ideas just to verify we’re on the right track. Eventually, we may start painting over frames or layouts, and working with other VFX or design elements as they become available.”

So where is ILM’s art department? Artists are located across the studio’s different offices in San Francisco, London, Vancouver and Singapore. Vancouver-based Art Director Tania Richard, who joined ILM in February this year and is currently working on the live-action remake of Aladdin, notes that the art department also collaborates regularly with other departments at the studio, locally and globally. “The art department works closely with the generalist (GEN) department, where some digital matte painting (DMP) artists now live, as this discipline has evolved into more 3D work, as well as the digital model shop (DMS) department, which does assets, modeling and texturing. There is usually a bit of back and forth during the development of ideas, and there is no question that the talent level in each of these departments is quite high at ILM.”

Design for Solo’s Imperial blockade. Artwork by Chris Voy.

“I’m on a Cintiq most of the day, but like a lot of the industry, I’m starting to see the benefit of VR tools in my workflow and am starting to do some modeling that way. I still love to draw, so when not using paper it’s nice to use tools that are as close to paper as we can get.”

—Chris Voy, Concept Artist, ILM San Francisco

In London, Senior Art Director Stephen Tappin, who joined ILM in 2014 and most recently contributed to Ready Player One and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, says he enjoys the sharing of materials amongst the team.

“We like to pin our current work, and some older inspiring work, on the walls so that we create an environment where you are always aware of the images that we’re producing,” describes Tappin. “We also like to print out and pin up reference boards, again to constantly and subconsciously inspire us.”

Gear choices

The tools that ILM’s art department team members choose to use vary greatly. “For me,” says Voy, “the main tools are Photoshop, Maya and, to a lesser extent, a whole slew of apps that I’ve learned only enough to collaborate with those who know them well. I’m on a Cintiq most of the day, but like a lot of the industry, I’m starting to see the benefit of VR tools in my workflow and I’m starting to do some modeling that way. I still love to draw, so when not using paper it’s nice to use tools that are as close to paper as we can get.”

A mock-up of a scene featuring Kylo Ren in Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi. Artwork by Chris Voy.

“I can also recommend a cool little app I and other colleagues use called PureRef. It’s essentially a drop and drag virtual pin board for organizing and containing reference images. Pinterest is also useful for this, and it’s easy to collaborate with others on Pinterest while working on the same project.”

—Stephen Tappin, Senior Art Director, ILM London

Tappin adds that another tool regularly used is simply an internet browser for gathering reference. “I can also recommend a cool little app I and other colleagues use called PureRef. It’s essentially a drop and drag virtual pin board for organizing and containing reference images. Pinterest is also useful for this, and it’s easy to collaborate with others on Pinterest while working on the same project.”

In her previous roles at other studios, which included DNEG and Animal Logic, Richard regularly utilized more traditional media, including willow charcoal and acrylic on paper to complete character studies. “I try to also use NUKE whenever possible, as I find it a strong art directing tool,” adds Richard. “Often the output is something that can easily be plugged back into the pipeline, and there is no question regarding color space, something that Photoshop seems to struggle with.”

For Rogue One, Chris Voy helped explore how the giant Star Destroyers could collide once disabled.

“I try to also use NUKE whenever possible, as I find it a strong art directing tool. Often the output is something that can easily be plugged back into the pipeline, and there is no question regarding color space, something that Photoshop seems to struggle with.”

—Tania Richard, Art Director, ILM Vancouver

Recent highlights

Tappin’s recent stint on Ready Player One saw him work directly with the film’s production designer, Adam Stockhausen, and then transition into post as a visual effects art director. A design challenge that lasted all the way through making the film was the main character, Parzival. “This guy went through hundreds of iterations and involved many different artists working on him, sometimes simultaneously,” outlines Tappin. “Not just the artists here at ILM, but also the on-set artists and other art departments attached to other post houses.”

For Voy, another example of the significant contribution made by the art department proved to be the Kessel Run sequence in Solo: A Star Wars Story. Over the course of making the film, various artists from ILM’s different locations worked on the sequence, from pre-production through to the very end of production.

“When I started on the show,” says Voy, “VFX Supervisor Patrick Tubach had me make a little map so we could get some context for what the ‘12 parsecs’ route might look like. Along the way there were changes in the story, a new director, and the sequence seemed to get bigger and crazier as it went further into production.

 

An eye study for the Kessel Run monster. Artwork by Chris Voy.

“In the beginning, we saw designs coming over from London, and it became a sort of friendly challenge: ‘See if you can beat that!’ We would go back and forth getting wilder and wilder. Right up until the end, there were several artists here in San Francisco all collaborating on this one huge sequence: James Clyne, Brett Northcutt, Aaron McBride, Yanick Dusseault, Steve Zavala, others, and myself all trying to figure out gravity wells, carbonbergs, buoys, a giant space monster, and how the Millennium Falcon fell apart along the way.”


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