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We’ve talked with the concept artist Pat Presley about his approach to the creation of amazing virtual worlds. A great look at the role of matte painting in game and film concepting.
I’ve been a concept designer in the entertainment industry for about 12 years now. I’ve worked on a wide range of projects such as Films, Animated Series, Games, Theme park and VR design.
After working on PS3 title LAIR at Factor 5, I went on to Lucasfilm in Northern California where I worked on two Star Wars Animated Series; Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Star Wars: Rebels. Since then I’ve been a freelance designer working for various clients like 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros, Lucasfilm, Walt Disney Imagineering, etc. I am also part of Massive Black working for their client base on various projects.
Another project I’ve worked on that’s been released is Subnautica. It’s a Sci-fi underwater exploration/adventure game developed by Unknown Worlds. It’s been a really refreshing experience working with the indie developer on this unique project.
The Biggest Troubles of Visual World Building
You can’t create from a vacuum. I tell my students that there’s no output without input. This applies to world building as well. You let the real world inform and inspire your design.
When I designed various underwater biome for Subnautica, we did a massive amount of research and reference gathering. We came across some amazing things like “underwater lake” which is a body of water that has such high level of salinity it doesn’t mix with the overlying ocean. We loved it so much, we used this as a base for our “Lost River” Biome where a toxic “river” snakes along the ocean floor filled with alien creatures.
I believe that in order to create or simulate a believable world, there has to be some visual clues as to how that world operates.
Approach to Environment Design with Matte Painting
My main approach, which is typical for my professional work, is through problem solving. It’s a simple idea of identifying problems that need visual solutions. For example, if the client asks for “a futuristic city”, then you start asking various questions that are pertinent to that. What is the location and why do they build there? What type of architecture makes up the city or what modes of transportation are there? Sometimes I ask those questions to the clients, other times I just ask myself those questions. It helps me to identify a clear target. After you identify the “problems”, you start doing research, which can mean a lot of reading or collecting tons of references relevant to those questions. These early steps of the process are actually the most important ones.
The Sense of Grandeur and Epicness
You create that sense of scale by comparison/contrast along with hints of human factor. When I work on a large environment I usually try to use some form of familiar visual cues to help inform the scale. For example with a piece like Heaven’s Throne it can be as simple as a staircase or the frequency of the columns.
Another important thing is lighting. I am actually still learning about this. Everything that makes up what we see has to do with light. It informs not only form and texture, but distance as well.
Building Believable Technology
I feel it comes down to being a well-rounded designer. You need to read and learn beyond your interests.
When I was teaching a Vehicle Design class at The Academy of Art, I saw kids whose sole interest are anime or video games. They kept drawing influences from these narrowed sources without understanding why things look the way they do. I tried to teach them to have a good understanding of how real world technology works. If you are designing a ship, your placement of various elements from fuselage, engines to ventilation details shouldn’t be arbitrary, there needs to be logic or system to it.
To help my students with basic understanding of technology I would give them crash courses on things that people take for granted like cars or motorcycle, but also complex machines such as modern jet-fighters and submarines. Together we would look closely and break it down into smaller parts to help them inform their design choices.
Environment and Character Design
I don’t think character and environment always have to correlate. It comes down to the purpose of why things look a certain way.
A good real world example are Gothic Churches. Architecturally it has nothing to with its surrounding at all, visually its purpose is to convey “vision of heaven” onto earth. Essentially it’s an “alien” structure that has nothing in common with the people and the place it’s in. Yet it serves a purpose.
Contrast and Color
Designers employ visual language to communicate various ideas or achieve certain results. Not everything in my images has a “reason to be”, but when they do they can serve different functions. Sometimes it’s narrative driven, like using color to convey personality or emotion. While other elements are composition driven, like using shapes to dictate the eye movement or contrasting elements to balance out the image.