The Beginning

Early 2004, in less than 3 months as a matte painting apprentice at ILM, I found myself in the art department showing my portfolio to a few of the art directors. I was asked if I was interested in pursuing a career in concept art. Talk about dreams coming true. Of course I was interested in becoming a concept artist, it was all I dreamt of since I was 5 years old sitting in the theater with my father, watching The Empire Strikes Back.  At the same time I was extremely hesitant- Was I good enough? Could I create designs worthy of the ILM name, and could I create them fast enough? At that point in my career, I spent very little time creating digital art, I only worked traditionally (I still have trouble with the disconnect between a Wacom tablet and the computer monitor- Thank you Wacom for the Cintique). I wasn't hesitant- I was terrified.

I had been given the opportunity to prove myself in the matte painting group by the department supervisor at the time. I couldn't walk away from that opportunity. How could I accept the apprenticeship and then immediately pursue a transfer to another group? So I answered, "I would love to come over to the art department,  but I have so much to learn in DM (digital matte) land". In fact I did, and to this day, 9 years later, still do.

One art director in particular asked me if I wouldn't mind helping him with a personal project of his. At the time I thought it was a test, a proving grounds, and his way to ease me into the art department. He needed some vehicles designed.  They were to have no hard edges, 3 wheels, and insect like in appearance. He showed me a few examples of designs done by other artists, they were very Dr. Seuss-like. He wanted me to create variations that were more "real", designs that would be practical and functional. For months I created hundreds of thumbnail sketches, picking a few to refine and create more finished renderings, solving issues as I went along considering both form and function ( "Bauhaus"). I can't simply put something down on paper that "looks cool" without regards to function and how it's going to be manufactured. I must confess, this process can slow down my output.

 At the same time I was knee deep in learning about state of the art matte painting techniques. Working around the clock to prove myself worthy of a contract extension. As the weeks and months passed, the designs piled up and I didn't feel any of them were good enough to show to the art director. I'm sure he thought I gave up, or wasn't serious about becoming a concept artist. In fact I was very serious, and it was my search for the "perfect design", the desire to impress, that had crippled me. At the same time I started to fall in love with DM.

The matte painting department at ILM is unlike matte painting departments at most other facilities. When I arrived on campus my first day, the DM supervisor had taken me on a tour of the facility and introduced me to the DM group. 20+ DM artists all creating work that made my head explode. I met a senior matte painter that worked on the VERY FIRST Star Wars film, Emmy award winners, VES award winners.  Talk about ego check. These extremely talented DM artists were modelling, texturing, lighting, and rendering futuristic cities, forests, mountain terrains. Then taking their hero renders into photoshop and painting massive cycs. These practises may seem like common knowledge now, but at the time they were relatively unknown to those outside of the industry or top tier VFX houses. This was before VFX schools, training DVD's, and tutorials were everywhere on the web.

The DM artists were taking concept art and building entire worlds all by themselves- no other groups involved. I was blown away. All done with off the shelf software! The final Star Wars prequel's environments were modelled, textured, lit in 3ds Max and rendered with Brazil (with city structures from previous films modelled in FormZ then migrated to Max). Those renders were "sweetened" in Photoshop, then composited in After Effects! My mind exploded (3 times now?). This amazing, talented group, was giving concept art the ILM treatment. I thought that If I could hang around there long enough to learn the techniques and work flow, that I could take MY concept art, and make it photo real. I wondered "Could I tell my stories with ILM quality VFX???"
Keep dreaming.

After a couple of months, I finally felt I was ready to show something to the art director, hoping that my opportunity to transition to the art department had not passed or at the very least, maintain a good relationship with the art department. I emailed the art director to show him the fruits of my labour. Little did I know he moved onto other things- bigger things. My offers to meet with him had pretty much gotten no reply.

Even though the art director no longer seemed interested in my concept work, I found that I couldn't stop drawing the vehicles. The main reason is that I wanted to keep exercising my traditional rendering skills- I didn't want to forget how to draw! So I sketched iteration after iteration. The designs started to evolve. The 3 wheeled trikes became bikes, the "insect look" melted away and since he wasn't going to collect the designs or use them, I decided to keep them for myself.


 

 

 
 
These images represent the beginnings of my experiment. Something that has grown far beyond what I initially planned.

Some of you might be thinking, "Hey! Those bikes look a lot like the bikes from Tron Legacy!"...
And that will segue nicely to my next post.



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Hello, I'm Bryant Griffin and I've been a matte painter at ILM for the past 10 years. Welcome to my blog.

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This is my journal documenting the development of a sci-fi/adventure Cinematic Graphic Novel- my personal little project. Thanks for visiting.