How did you discover your love for visual imagery? I picked up my first pencil at the age of two, and I’ve been drawing for as long as I can remember. I have always been completely obsessed with visuals, whether it’s nature, fashion, vehicles or monsters. I can attribute my love for visual storytelling in film to the first time my dad showed me Ridley Scott’s Alien—secretly, when my mom was out of town, since an R-rated movie wasn’t appropriate for a nine-year-old! That movie left a tremendous impression on me, and showed me how different visual mediums—like illustration, cinematography, acting and set design—can come together and create an experience for the viewer.
What are the opportunities and challenges of working as a concept artist for film and television? As a concept artist, there is an immense opportunity to design something that is unique, riveting, and creates a novel and beautiful experience for an audience; but, of course, this is the challenge too. It’s incredibly difficult to perfect an art form, and, nowadays, artists must perfect many styles at once to create something that resonates. The temptation to recycle material and to rely on properties that already exist is enticing—and all too often lucrative—and that makes it hard to create works that can stand on their own. I have had the incredible opportunity to work on many established properties, and the challenge is always how to breathe new life into these ideas and push the story forward. It’s a great time for storytelling though—just think about how many properties have turned into entire franchises and continue to push new boundaries!
You’re currently the lead artist at Aliza Technologies, which is creating artificial intelligence (AI) solutions for animation. What new skills did you need to learn? First, it’s been an opportunity to further develop my background as a digital artist, by learning a variety of new software packages, from rendering engines, texturing software, hair generation, look development and working with 3-D assets, to skills like compositing, beauty retouching and color correction. It’s also given me the opportunity to improve my understanding of how to build a business and lead a team. But the greatest challenge has been working on new understandings and skills entirely, namely in the field of AI. I’m always trying to develop a conceptual understanding of artificial intelligence so I can work with our developers to figure out what is technically possible while still being aesthetically appealing. The greatest challenge going forward is using the tools we’re developing to create an entirely new medium: character animation using AI. We’re creating a new art form, and I’m beyond thrilled to be a part of it.
How can AI empower visual storytellers to push the boundaries of traditional film and animation? There is a lot of justified fear surrounding AI, especially given the idea that it can take away creative jobs. But I see it differently: I see it helping entire industries level up and get access to better and more-cost-effective methods of visual storytelling. In the same way that working with 3-D used to be expensive with a hard learning curve, but now has become cheaper, easier and better to use, AI will go the same way, but with much broader applications. In the past, it took massive studios with immense budgets to create the visual effects of the time; now, a small team of passionate creatives can create world-class content at that same level.
At Aliza, we’re working on opening the doors for small teams and individual artists to have the ability to create world-class character animations. Technology like this will give storytellers the ability to bring characters to life without having to go through bulky 3-D rigs and traditional techniques. I see a future where actors will be able to play any character, regardless of their age, height, ethnicity and jawline. I see a future where triple A–quality visual storytelling is in the hands of every individual creative, and anyone who wants to tap into the full power of this type of animation can, with just a single-user software package.
What tools do you find indispensable for your work? My mind. It’s cheesy, but it’s true. I keep this important tool sharp with a good diet, lots of exercise to combat the many hours spent at a desk, daily readings, mindfulness and time spent drawing in a sketchbook. My favorite tools are kettlebells, yoga mats and ballpoint pens. On the more practical side, my RTX 2080 graphics card is pretty indispensable for the high-end 3-D graphics work and generative model training I do. I also couldn’t function without the software programs that are a staple to my craft, namely ZBrush, Maya, Redshift, Photoshop and KeyShot.
What has been your favorite client project? I’d have to go with American Horror Story (AHS). I’ve worked as a concept artist and costume illustrator for four seasons of AHS, with studios like AFX Studio and 21st Century Fox, and costume designers like Sarah Evelyn and Lou Eyrich. I’ve had the pleasure of designing, illustrating, and 3-D modeling a diverse range of subjects, like costumes, props, jewelry, characters and creatures. I love the horror genre, so it’s been a career highlight to be able to design for that world.
Which artists have had the greatest impact on your work? In the world of concept art, my favorite is Maciej Kuciara, who is known for adapting any medium to fit a vision and being incredibly versatile. He has shown the possibility of being fluent in a wide variety of mediums, from traditional painting to hard-core 3-D visuals in Unreal Engine. My other favorite concept artist is my mentor Jerad Marantz, who is a character and creature designer for some of the biggest modern franchises and is currently at Marvel. He taught me how to take an analytical approach to design and meld it with a scientific worldview. It’s not about creating the most fantastical design, but creating a design that is believable and grounded in physics and biology. I attribute a lot of my success as a character and creature designer to his teachings.
Going back to my childhood, my favorite painter is Gerald Brom; his imagination is unparalleled, his paintings are some of the most incredible feats of the human imagination, and his storytelling capability through a single image is something I strive for. The artists who have influenced me the most in fashion are Alexander McQueen and Iris van Herpen; in music, Danny Elfman and KMFDM; and in philosophy and writing, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris.
What’s one thing you wish you knew when you started your career? That failure is not such a bad thing—it might even be a great thing. I have failed many more times than I’ve succeeded in my career, from missing the mark on a design to not hitting a deadline to failing to understand a concept or a piece of software. But the thing I’m very gradually learning is that failing is an extremely crucial part of the process, and one to be used as an advantage. A failure can be the moment where you learn the most, by having humility to the situation, looking at it analytically, and making the necessary adjustments to your approach. It’s also an expedient way to move forward with a greater vision, as the more failures you get out of the way, the sooner you can get to the solution. But it’s very difficult to do, as the pain of failing can get in the way of gleaning any valuable insight from the process. And that’s the part I wish I had known when I started my career. If only I had a less emotional and a more analytical approach to my failings, I could have learned a lot more from them and actually put them to good use. I encourage all artists to take their failures in stride and put them to good use through reflection.