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Working as a Concept Artist in the Fast-Paced Film Industry

Pablo Carpio shared some insights into his profession: what big companies expect from concept artists nowadays, where to start, what reference to use, and more.

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Pablo Carpio: I am a Spanish concept artist. Right now, I live in Jaén, it is a tiny town in the South of Spain, very close to the sea. 

I have been working as a concept artist for the last five years or so. Art has always been involved in my life. When I was a kid, I was painting and drawing everywhere. At some point in my life, I decided to make living out of this, or at least give it a try. So, I started focusing my studies on fine arts and traditional art. I went to a high school specializing in art, then studied fine arts at university. Everything there was related to traditional art – hand drawing, oil painting, sculpting, a lot of lighting theory, art history, composition, photography, and stuff like that. 

In 2010, when I had been studying traditional art, I also found out about digital art. Video games and movies, like Star Wars, have always been my passion. So, I saw that there is a link between all of those passions: video games, cinema, and art. Then I found out about the job of a concept artist, who figures out and designs things for movies and video games. I started learning that by myself. While studying at university, I was checking tutorials, learning how to work with a graphic tablet, trying different software, like Photoshop, ZBrush, Octane Render, Blender. I spent around 5 years studying at university and preparing my own portfolio focused on concept art at the same time. 

In 2015, I started moving my work online, meeting more people on social media. I started traveling, trying to contact people at art events to get a job, and it was in 2016 when I found my first one. I started working for companies such as Ubisoft, then I worked for MPC which is a VFX company, similar to ILM. I also worked for ILM, Pixar, Marvel, Riot Games, Insomniac Games, Warner Brothers. Currently, I am working with HBO.

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Traditional Concept Art Is Dead 

In 2015, the artist from One Pixel Brush, Shaddy Safadi, did a talk on GDC, which was called “Concept Art Is Dead”. I think the way Shaddy presented it sounds kind of violent but I can agree with him. The thing is, we have to differentiate concept art as a job, and concept art as an art. As a job, concept art is solving problems for a film set or a video game. Art itself is a craft you can develop all your life. In my everyday work, I almost never take a pen or pencil, I am always working with photos, painting them over, mixing some with others. Sometimes I don’t even need to touch Photoshop, working purely with 3D. At the same time, you have to deliver your work to the production designer or art director within hours. I pretty often send new works to my clients every day. Sometimes you just have five hours to apply some changes to the painting. So, that’s true that spending five days on a piece to make it look perfect in traditional style is no longer possible because of the speed of the production. 

I remember, when I was working on Captain Marvel, we were doing around twenty designs of the spaceships every day. All of them were random kitbashes, we were putting 3D pieces in different positions, combining them. Everything was super rough. In the end, it doesn’t have to look beautiful, it must transmit the idea. Something that clicks in the director’s mind, and he’ll say: “Yeah, I want something done in this direction!” So, you’ll take that, and only then you start polishing it.  

Nowadays, if you don’t know 3D or photobashing techniques, it is pretty much impossible to get a job at a company like ILM. These companies get new CVs from candidates every day. When we looked at their portfolios, the first thing we wanted to know was: “Is he fast? Can he do it in time? Can he deliver the job in 3 hours or a day?”

The process is definitely changing. When making Lord of The Rings in the 2000s, they spent about eight years on the production, figuring out all the designs. That’s no longer available! Now, every team spends no more than two years before the movie is out. In Captain Marvel, for example, we spent nine months on the pre-production, when they had already been shooting the stars. The concept art which takes 1-2 months, often happens during the filming, and then you jump to the post-production which is designing whatever it is, like explosions, all the VFX, matte painting, and things like that. In general, the time you spend there runs so fast, that there is no way you could do it with acrylics on a canvas. It would be definitely beautiful if you could keep doing it like that, but the consumption of this kind of entertainment has been growing so fast, that it is impossible to continue with that craftsmanship, and that quality of the work. So, we definitely have to find different ways to be able to keep producing and give people entertainment.   

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Right Brief for a Concept Artist

First of all, communication is key. But speaking with artists is not the same as communicating with a director who has probably never drawn anything, or with an executive producer who only puts money into the project – he might not even know how to use a computer. The same thing is with a production designer, he is thinking about the schedule, the money, the budget, if something can be built in 3D or not. During production, you can meet different types of people and each one of them speaks a different language somehow.

For me, the most important part of a brief is knowing from the very beginning that the person you are working with is open to different ideas. If your boss, be it a production designer or director, tells you that he is open to ideas, it gives you some room to try different things. Or he might tell you that he wants something super specific, and you literally copy his idea. Sometimes I have a production designer who tells me something like: “Have fun in the first weeks, and then we will start shaping everything.”  Sometimes I get somebody who says: “Grab these two images, I want something that is in between.” Depending on the cases, I would ask for more or fewer references. 

I would say that a good brief would be a description of what the project, the scene of the keyframe is about. If, for example, it is a vehicle design, I would ask: “Who is piloting it?”, “How many people are inside?”, because I need some general idea about the size of it. Another thing to get would be the level of detail or some references of other spaceships that the director likes. Any kind of artwork that has some link to what he is thinking about. It can even be a reference to a full type of art, like Russian Constructivism, for example. (It is the thing I am really interested in, by the way! I am a big lover of all this kind of brutalism in architecture.) It is what I always put in my works. Even if you are designing a spaceship, it could be a reference of a building or something that reminds you of its shape.

You also need to adapt yourself to every kind of scenario. It's not always going to be easy. You are not always going to get what you want. Some people don't even know what they want until you give them different ideas. Some people are super sure about what they are looking for and they’ll give you everything you need. It can vary from one project to another. 

I prefer to spend a week trying to investigate the idea, send my own references to the director saying: “Hey, this is what I think.” And then we start building it together. But if someone wants something very specific, I’ll be asking for more stuff, even a super rough drawing or some photos and references the director likes. It could be buildings, textures, colors, artworks from other people, anything, and the more the better. 

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References vs. Originality

Most of my inspiration doesn't come from a specific place. There is a difference between taking as reference a particular building, vehicle, or character, and, for example, Star Wars or Halo in general. Instead of referencing something physical, I think about things like gravity, size, composition, and lightning.

I don’t like calling myself super original, but if there is a place where my originality shows itself, it might be in the way I use my cameras, composition, shadows, colors. If you look at my portfolio, most of my paintings have a super low camera and I also often use the Ultra Panavision type of canvas. In the color palette, I love purples and oranges. I always try to control the balance between details and massive shapes, comparing the size of the humans with the biggest structures.

As for the gravity, I always try to make my buildings look as if they are floating. I use a lot of tools to add antigravity to the idea, like floating columns or stuff like that. I think that in the end, these tiny things give a specific flavor to my portfolio.


I remember designing a spaceship for Captain Marvel. We had to build it inside of a set, so it couldn't have super long wings. But then we realized that to make it look more cinematic, we needed the ship to have wings once it was out of the bay. The question was, how do we make it so that the spaceship doesn’t have wings when it is inside but has wings when it is in the sky? And we just imagined the wings were like holograms that appeared later on. It’s sci-fi, we don’t need to give any kind of explanation for that. And it worked in the movie! 

Sometimes you go against functionality when you need to speed up. Think, for example, about Iron Man using nanotechnology that builds all the armor around him. The reason why they did that is not that they had some scientific explanation for that, it is just because there are so many things happening in the movie at the same time, that it is impossible to have Iron Man pulling the armor on as it was in the first movie. He has to be in the middle of the battle, so he clicks the button and the armor is appearing around him. It is just because it is cool and fast!   

Other times you just have to make something disappear and appear to cut a scene from the movie or cut down the budget. You have to find a way to do it, and normally it will either involve holograms, or nanotechnology, or some sort of magic. 

Sure, sometimes things need to have an explanation or be physically correct but sometimes they don't. It also depends a lot on whether something is going to be done with VFX or built. For example, when I am designing a cathedral, the whole design might be super magnificent and physically impossible to build, but at the same time, there is a tiny part where the action happens, and the environment there must be more down to earth and basic. This part might be actually built in the film set later on. 

So, when you are designing this tiny portion, you need to take care of all these things like the size, whether it is actually possible for the actors to walk around, make sure that the ground is flat and doesn’t have any protuberances or anything that can make the actors feel uncomfortable. But after that, if the rest of the building is going to be done with a green screen and VFX, you can go completely crazy with that. In the end, it always depends on the director. If he wants something sci-fi or a fantastic movie where everything is possible, then your freedom is absolute. But if something needs to be real and natural, they’ll give you the information and references beforehand. There are a lot of times when you also have to do some research to make things look realistic. 

For example, I was working on a project based on one of Stephen King's novels, and we had to design a lot of corpses, very accurately. We were looking at a lot of photos of how bodies start inflating because of the fluids appearing when you die. It was horrible! But sometimes you have to go through that kind of research to make it look accurate.  

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How to Get a Job in CG

In this regard, the path is very different for everyone. It might be better for someone to start at a tiny studio to get some experience in-house, and then try to move to a bigger company or start freelancing. Or you can start directly in freelance and then jump into a studio or continue freelancing forever, it doesn’t matter. Nowadays, the only difference between working at a studio and doing freelance is that you either go to another place with more people around or work from home. In the end, what you do is pretty similar: you deliver work and communicate with other people – if not through email, they will be sitting at the tables by your side.

So I would say the key is not where you start but how. A good way to find a job is to start going to art events, meeting people when it is possible. Right now we can’t do it but when the time comes and we will be able to do it again - go there! Build your portfolio, show it to other people, art directors, recruiters. Contact people online, maybe on Linkedin, Instagram, or Facebook. Find art directors or other artists working at these studios. Try to see how they can help you, ask them to share their experience.

As I said, it's different for everyone but I can tell my story. I decided to take part of my savings and go to different events around Europe, and then I also took a trip to LA for about fifteen days. When I was there, I started meeting some people that I had met before at those art events in Europe. I also kept posting my works online, everyday I was posting one or two pieces. It took me about two years to find my first job since I started doing this. I worked as a freelancer for a year, then got a job at Marvel and worked in-house there during the production of Captain Marvel which was about 8-9 months. After that, I got back to freelancing, then went to London to work for ILM, then Duncan Studio in LA for about three months. Finally, I came back to Spain and now I am working as a freelancer again.     

It is always up to you where to start. If you are more social, you might prefer to be at a studio. Or maybe you like to work alone and focus more on your stuff – then freelance is better. 

If you want to get a job in this industry, it is more about posting your work online, meeting people either in person or on social media, creating some connections. Make sure that you are active all the time on social media and events, post your works and get people to know you. Then, opportunities will start coming. Of course, start applying for jobs, and if they say no to you, try to ask for some feedback. Like: “Hey, what can I change to get the job?”. Or just try again later on in the future. And always try to look at the projects these companies have worked on and copy that.       

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Pablo’s Course «Expedition to an Alien Planet. Environment Concept Creation»

We've recorded this masterclass together with CGCUP,  and we discussed topics like 3D, photobashing, and how the workflow can change during production. As part of the masterclass, I took the Randomizer challenge, which assigned me a creative task to make a planet with different human fears. While working on the concept piece for the masterclass, I was also having a conversation with the host, explaining my process, and discussing the topics mentioned above. We also talked about approaching production designers, art directors, or other concept artists and how they differ from each other. 

Besides sharing my tips and experiences, by watching my masterclass, you'll also learn how to solve any given brief quickly with simple photobashing, ZBrush, and Octane Render techniques. You will see how I start from a simple sphere and work on the environment using downloaded models, add and adjust the lighting and textures, and then photobash over it. It is a straightforward process you can easily learn, and it's great for those who want to work in the CG industry. By learning this workflow, you will improve your skills with 2D and 3D tools and feel more confident in your process; the masterclass suits both beginners and more experienced artists.

You will also learn how to quickly make creative decisions and solve a task within 5-6 hours or a day of work. It's an important skill to have since most art directors in big studios will be expecting it from you. 

In the end, you don't have to know any crazy techniques to be able to create amazing concept art, and you can find out how and why in this masterclass.

Pablo Carpio, Production Designer/Concept Artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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