You started out as a comic book artist. What led you to concept art? Growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, I was a cartoon fanatic. After-school and Saturday morning cartoons, like Transformers, G.I. Joe and Robotech, were my passion. Then, in my adolescent years, I discovered comic books. They were essentially extensions of the cartoons I was watching, but they opened up a whole new world of stories and characters that I fell in love with. I mostly read Marvel Comics. My dream was to become a comic book artist.
I achieved that goal during my sophomore year at University of California, Los Angeles, when I went to the now-famous San Diego Comic-Con with my portfolio in hand. I waited for hours, and, to my surprise, my work caught the eye of Image Comics cofounder and Deadpool co-creator Rob Liefeld. I had gone to Comic-Con with the intention of getting my work critiqued by an actual professional, and I left with what was essentially a job offer.
I left college to pursue my dream. For the next three years, I had the best experience working in a bull pen of young artists at Extreme Studios, Rob’s division of Image Comics. But, strangely enough, I started to get an itch. Up until that point, I had been a self-taught artist. I knew how to draw comic books with a pencil, but I didn’t know how to do anything else. I didn’t like that limitation. I wanted to expand my horizons and learn other aspects of art, like how to paint with different mediums and how to see color. So I decided to take a hiatus from my career to study as an illustration major at the ArtCenter College of Design.
Eventually, I ended up drawing comic books again. I worked for Marc Silvestri, another Image Comics cofounder, drawing the Tomb Raider series at his Top Cow Productions, and I did some X-Men work for Marvel for about a year. But then that itch came back. I had gone to art school to learn how to paint, and now I was back in comics, only using a pencil again.
The internet was thriving at the time, and there was a lot more exposure to the art world beyond comics. Though concept art was a relatively new field, it really captured my imagination. Fully painted characters, scenes and other types of designs were being created by artists all over the world for films and video games. I realized that this was what I wanted to do. So, I started to build up a brand-new portfolio. I had to show that I could do digital paintings of conceptual character, creature and environment designs. It felt like I was combining all the knowledge I’d acquired up to that point from my professional comic book experience and my formal art education.
Today, you’re the director of visual development at Marvel Studios. As a film progresses from early development to its final stages, how does your role on that film change? I lead a team of artists in designing the characters and illustrating keyframes during the pre-production phase. I also do a lot of the design work myself. This stage takes an average of six to eight months. After our character designs have been approved, I work with the costume designers as they start making the costumes for the actors. We look at materials and explore different ways of creating a costume, all while staying true to the concept design of each character. I will also go to actors’ costume fittings. There’s a lot of back-and-forth and problem-solving that happens, and I’m always impressed with the supremely talented costume designers and artisans who make these designs come to life. If it’s a character that is more computer generated, like Hela, I will help the VFX supervisor get the character to look as great as they can on-screen. Designs will continue to evolve as new ideas or solutions are presented.
Who’s been the trickiest character to design? Ant-Man was tough because his original design was so “comic booky,” with his huge helmet with mandibles and antennas. It looks cool in the comic, but we knew it couldn’t look exactly like that for the film version. The other part that made it challenging was that the suit was built by Hank Pym in the ’60s and is worn by Scott Lang in the present day. So I had to make it look retro and old, but it still had to look cool in our modern times. That’s the challenge, but honestly, that’s also the fun part of being a concept artist. The other part that made it challenging and fun was that it had to be distinct from a Tony Stark design. Iron Man’s suit and Ant-Man’s suit are both high tech, but in different ways, and I had to make it clear that a different designer, Hank Pym, had made the Ant-Man suit. The temptation was to make it totally sleek. I had to tread a line of making it cool, but not too cool. I really enjoyed designing Ant-Man.
What advice do you have for creatives on working with source material? Respect it, but make it believable. Think of creative ways to achieve the designs from the comics, but in our real world. Comic book artists back in the day had a lot of leeway because of the times they were creating in and the fact that comics are a 2-D medium. Iron Man is a good example. He was drawn in a way that looks like the metal is always moving. So, for film or TV, you have to translate how to put metal armor around a human figure and still have that person be able to move.
Why do you think Marvel characters have such visual staying power? They feel like real people with real problems. That’s why the films have done so well in the past ten years. Everyone comes to the theater because of the superpowers, but they stay because of the characters. We love to watch Cap beat up bad guys, but we care about him as a person. Iron Man, with his powers, is a total fantasy we would love to experience, but it’s Tony Stark we are compelled to watch. Marvel has made these characters compelling people we’ve learned to care about. That’s what Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and the writers and artists of Marvel Comics did so well for decades.
What opportunities do you see for concept artists in the next few years? Concept art is a continually growing field, as more and more stories are being told in film, television, streaming services, video games, theme parks and other entertainment avenues. People are more creative than ever, and the opportunities are growing. With these creative endeavors, artists will only be more in demand.