CGheute: Talking about film production I would like to address the subject of time schedule. A director or production designer won’t wait until inspiration finds the concept artist. Tell us what you usually do when you have lack of time and need to get inspiration in order to get the work done?
Peter Popken: Time is a major issue. We only have a couple of weeks to come up with the design for a whole film. Meaning we have to generate ideas on a regular basis. The process of creation differs and frequently the solution for shortening the process is teamwork, e.g..: I would paint over a 3-D model already produced by a previs-artist or use a photograph made by location scouts etc. Thorough research and the reference you collect on the way is usually the best inspiration. If I don’t even have time for that I use my own library I have set up for exactly this case. It contains thousands of photographs I found worth keeping and which are organized in folders called architecture, interiors, vehicles, color-keys etc. I also keep .psd files of work I’ve done before and take a chance to reuse some layers, textures, figures with little changes on a similar task.
CGheute: It is the task of the director to create his vision of the story. What about the goals you are pursuing as a concept designer while painting an image?
Peter Popken: This is a very interesting question and very likely holds the key to creating good design for a film. As a concept designer I am expected to come up with entertaining concepts an audience may find interesting and had not yet seen before. The challenge is to find an unusual design that supports the story and is affordable for a reasonable amount of money. Very often I find myself searching for a good balance between both, in the meaning of being the middle man between director, designer and producer. At some times my boss needs the artist in me – at other times a supportive team player. The trick is to turn the switch at the right time.
CGheute: Please tell us more about the actual design process for a Hollywood movie. Do you have to get a preliminary sketch approved first before moving on to the final image?
Peter Popken: Since I started to work on the computer I hardly don’t do preliminary sketches any more. Not because I think they are dispensable but because of the experimental tools that Photoshop offers already. It only takes a second to fill the canvas with color and texture and changes can be applied instantly. I do work very close with the production designer and director too. Most of the time I would receive a sketch or just a rough idea scribbled in a scrap book and discuss the subject while flipping through the script. First thing is to get an allover feel for the scene and it’s relation to the storyline. Color is the main tool to capture an atmosphere and defining my palette is necessary. Next step is to gather my references whether from the internet or other departments involved into that scene, f.e. Costume, Armor, Location, or Stunt Dept. to mention just a few, may provide useful information about what a scene should look like. I use whatever I can get my hands on to shorten the process, whether it is a photograph or a simple 3D model I quickly set up to establish the perspective. Knowing that my image will undergo a couple of changes lets me we work rough and not worry too much about the finish but more about how to get the general idea across. I allow myself to play around with shapes and colors until I find a decent composition. From time to time my boss would take a peak over my shoulder and mumble things like “looks good, carry on“ or provide me with reference and new directions. Once we are happy with the illustration it will be presented to the director, even producers for publicity purposes or simply to give an update on production progress in general. As mentioned before it is very likely to be changed again for film production itself is in permanent flux. Concept illustrations have the effect of emerging new ideas out of people’s minds which mostly help to improve the scenario.
CGheute: What was the biggest number of concepts for one project?
Peter Popken: I think Speed Racer was one of the films that needed massive amounts of concepts. I don’t think I know the exact numbers but suppose it must have been thousands. Planned as an animated feature with life-action characters most of the environments, vehicles and props had to be computer generated. For five months more than 15 graphic- and concept artists created each single detail of the film. To be able to handle all the files and keep up the communication between each other a file-system was created and stored on a secure server on the net. When connecting to it in the morning I would instantly see what other artists have been doing before or view the progress in terms of 3D modeling, animation and compositing of a scene I’ve been working on earlier. A good cause I would like to see more often on productions.