Today we have Chris Bonura, Junior Concept Artist at Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), with us to answer a few questions on what it's like being at ILM, life as a concept artist and tools of the trade! Recently, Chris worked on Thor, Star Trek Into Darkness and Transformers: Age of Extinction. He also recently posted an in-depth tutorial series which teaches viewers tips and tricks of the trade. The image at the start of this article is the result of that tutorial series. He walks you through the entire process. See the link at the end of this article! In the mean time, lets take a moment to learn about what it's like being a junior concept artist at ILM.
For those not familiar with ILM - if you've watched a feature film in the last 40 years you've likely seen the visual effects work of ILM: "Star Wars," "Avatar," "Harry Potter," "Pirates of the Caribbean," "Transformers" - basically a longer filmography than you care to read here. ILM is big time.
Thanks for joining us today to answer a few questions for our readers, Chris! Let's get down to it:
As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up? Was it always an artist?
When I was a kid, I loved monsters and cars. So for me that translated into wanting to do practical effects. I was very drawn to prosthetic monster makeup work and model making. Being able to physically create something new and tactile has always been extremely rewarding for me.
Did you ever think you'd make a successful career out of being an artist? What was plan B?
I always knew I would do something art related when I was younger, but did not know exactly what. When I first started college, it was for 3D modeling. My thought process was traditional model making for film, which was becoming more of a novelty and this seemed like the smarter route. LOL, that being said, that path led me to concept design halfway through my schooling. As for a plan B, that’s a hard one when you enjoy something so much. Definitely something else in design – whether in games or product design, both of which have always had a heavy influence on me. If I had to pick something unrelated to art, it would probably be working with cars.
According to your website, you've worked at ILM since circa 2011. It must be awesome to be surrounded by so many talented people. How long have you worked as an artist professionally and what brought you to ILM
I always strove to work at ILM. In fact, one of the factors in choosing to go to The Academy of Art University was because of its proximity to ILM and the film industry in California. My very first job toward the end of college was as an intern at a small game company. Shortly after that, I became a concept artist at the same game company.
I interviewed at ILM three times over the years for a production assistant position in the art department. Each time I was in a concept art role, and I am pretty sure their thought process was I would not want to do the grunt work that came along with this position as I was already a paid artist.
For those who are unfamiliar with what a PA does, you assist the art department in any way possible. This may mean running for lunches, doing reference searches, printing/mounting art and anything in between. At the same time, if you prove yourself, this may come with the opportunity to work on art for some of the best visual effects films out there.
You might be thinking why would you take a job as a PA when you were already a concept artist? ILM is extremely difficult to get into, they tend to hire the best and the brightest – this was the ticket into the art department. Right where I always wanted to be!
It was on my third interview in 2011 when they decided to give me a shot on a contract basis. I knew if I didn't take the position when the opportunity presented itself, I might not get a second chance. This might sound like an easy decision to some, but the offer came as I was already in a well-paid concept art position and we’d just experienced the birth of our first child. So, there were many factors involved to say the least.
Do you miss the cozy atmosphere of working at a smaller studio? How is ILM different? Was it scary going to work for such a big name?
They both have pros and cons. At a smaller studio, your art goes through a smaller chain of command, and you usually have more creative input. ILM is a visual effects house that works for a variety of clients. These clients are usually well-respected directors in the film industry. To make a long story short, your work sometimes goes through a long chain of command in-house until it hits your client’s hands. This can be challenging at times, but at the end of the day it usually means the quality of your work is far superior than it would be elsewhere, and rightfully so, as it should be for a feature film. It takes a lot to have a single piece of art help drive the storyline of a film and hold up in a live action film.
It was pretty intimidating going to work for ILM. I would be working with a lot of artists I had looked up to for years. Not to mention, being a part of a project with a director that usually has more film experience than years I’ve been alive. The fact that I interviewed three times over the years probably helped a little : ) I have to say, I wrote some of the art directors over the years before I came on board, and they were always extremely down to earth. I would always get a great critique of my work and honest feedback. The feedback wasn't always what I wanted to hear, but I’ve learned if you want to grow as an artist, surround yourself with those who are better than you and take their feedback to heart.
What exactly does your job as a `Junior Concept Artist` entail? If you could, briefly walk us through a typical work day and your responsibilities on any given project. Basically, what's a day like in the life of Chris Bonura?
My focus is on hard surface and vehicle design. So this could mean anything from detailing the side of a sci-fi building for a shot to helping establish the look of a vehicle.
Contrary to what many people think, the majority of what concept artists do is postproduction concept art. That usually means helping shots work to fill in the blanks. For example on “Star Trek Into Darkness” I was tasked on a shot where they were loading torpedoes onto the Enterprise. I was not designing the whole shot but filling in the blanks. This meant I had to come up with small cargo type ships that held the torpedoes, and for lack of a better word, little forklift type ships that would transport the torpedoes to the loading area. Even though this is the type of work we primarily do, when the big blue-sky design work comes in it’s usually pretty great! At the end of the day this is what helps ILM stand apart and make our shots truly believable.
As an artist, you must feel at least some pressure to consistently turn out great content. We all do. How do you deal with that stress? How do you avoid burnout?
Yes, we have extremely tight turnarounds and deadlines, which can be stressful. The key for me is getting solid feedback from my art director during the process and time management. It is pretty crucial to come up with a game plan of how you are going to achieve any certain piece of art within the deadline and then execute it. Sometimes, when we’re given extremely tight deadlines, it does not allow us to turn out the beautiful concept art we all think of, and that’s fine. But it must convey all the information and general mood needed. Touching base with other artists in the art department always helps. The gym is another big one, and foosball : ) I don't consider myself an athlete or even think I'm in great shape, but I can't say enough about how important it is to get away from your desk sometimes and do something physical. It helps clear your head and sometimes, you come up with some great ideas while your doing something different.
You just released a set of tutorials on `CG Circuit` about vehicle design. First, congratulations and thank you for an awesome series! I just got done watching it and there is a lot of great content, great techniques, tips and tricks. It walks the viewer through the initial concept phase, sketching, working out the initial design, to modeling in `Autodesk Maya`, kit bashing and rendering in `Modo` through post painting in `Adobe Photoshop`. (You guys should definitely check it out!) What inspired you to start releasing tutorials on CGCircuit?
Thanks for the kind words! To be honest this is not something I would usually do. I am a pretty introverted guy, but thought this would be a good opportunity for me to step outside my comfort zone. Not to mention, a lot of techniques used to design in the film industry are not widely shared on the Internet or in books. Given our tight deadlines and tasks of working within shot parameters, we use a lot of 3D to achieve this. There are plenty of 3D tutorials out there but not many that focus on vehicles and helping bridge the gap between 3D/Concept Art. I hope my tutorials will help shed some light on the process.
Can we look forward to any other tutorial projects being released in the near future? Any budding ideas?
I would like to say yes, but it's a pretty large undertaking from the recording process to final edit. I won't say no, but just not right away. I will be focusing on some personal projects for the time being.
For the work that you do, what are your top 5 favorite tools? Pencil on paper, Autodesk Maya, Adobe Photoshop? What gets it done for you out there in the trenches?
Oddly enough I usually start with very, very loose post-it sketches. They are usually just for me to generate an initial idea, not typically something I would show to a client. I’ve always liked sketching with Prismacolor’s Col-Erase pencils. I used to take my thumbnail further in Photoshop with a tighter line drawing, but that is more of a novelty for me nowadays. After my thumbnail I will model//kit bash in Autodesk Maya, render in Modo, and paint in Photoshop.
Finally, if I can sneak in another question: Any parting advice for artists trying to escape the starving-artist phase?
A lot of classmates I had in college always thought they would just shoot for the biggest best studios right out of college. I think it's great to aim high, but get into any studio, whether games, design or film, any way you can. There is no shame in being an intern or production assistant. It's an extremely hard industry, and the chance of you getting the exact job you want with no experience is pretty slim to none. Even if you have an amazing portfolio with no experience, the studios look at it as a risk not knowing if you can perform or not in that type of environment. A lot of the guys I look up to were always super talented, but got there by starting at the bottom and working their way up. It will show a lot of perseverance if you are willing to do it.
Okay, I've got one more and then I'm done, I swear. Favorite Star Wars movie quote?
"It's a trap" – Admiral Ackbar
Again, thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions and giving us some insight on what it's like to work a dream job, and to be part of one of the most well respected studios in the world. Thanks again Chris!
Readers can check out all of Chris's tutorials hosted on cgcircuit.com, including the new 4 volume VEHICLE DESIGN series available for $7.50 per volume. That's less than $8 for well over an hour of content and workflow insight from a talented ILM artist. You can also see more of Chris's skills on display at his personal website:
Kurt Foster (Modulok) falls somewhere between programmer and visual effects artist. When not sifting through technical manuals, he takes on freelance roles in both programming and visual effects, attempting to create a marriage of technical knowledge with artistic talent. He can be seen helping out on the Renderosity Maya forum, when time permits.
July 7, 2014
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