Concept Art Gadgets

The framework of imagination

Vehicle design for Netflix's 'Spectral'   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

As we anticipate the release blockbuster VFX feature films, the enthralling visual masterpieces known as concept art are usually the first thing we see. Production houses such as Marvel and Warner Bros. Pictures are clever about this, moulding the audience’s collective excitement. But who are the imaginative maestros behind these works behind the final film’s panoramic beauty? Raj Rihal comes to mind.

All Rihal does and has done within concept art is in the name of his passion for creating something unique and pervasive for film crews and audiences. Having grown up in a strict Punjabi household, Rihal pursued a degree in biology while still fuelling the long-time passion for art when he could.

Raj Rihal

Raj Rihal   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Eventually, he made the decision to switch career paths and has never looked back. Attending ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, Califormia, he describes the lasting value of an arts education, “When you go to these schools, you pay to make these contacts and friends, and to be in a creative pressure cooker, you keep getting better and better. I learned more from the people around me than from the teachers. That’s really where you grow– when you create these relationships.”

Fast forward 15 years, Rihal runs his own company cleverly titled Total Rihal, and is stamping his name on prominent projects such as The Avengers, xXx: The Return of Xander Cage and Divergent, to name a few. His adoration for a realm of art has only grown as he continues to progress, stating his design style has also evolved in positive ways, “Design is a lifelong journey; as you get more familiar with the tools you use, the tools interfere with you less. So when you’re conceptualising an idea, you’re not fighting the tool. So the better you are at drawing or at using Photoshop, the easier it is to express your idea. And that’s the last hurdle I overcame in the last five or ten years.”

From mind to matter

Concept art, as Rihal explains, is not storyboarding as many people assume. He explains that storyboarding and concept art do fit into the pre-production of a film, but concept art is about envisaging the future. “Movies tell a story and most nowadays are about some other imagined time and so concept artists get tasked with this idea of having to fill a blank piece of paper with something really riveting. It ultimately comes down to this idea of coming up with something that people haven’t really seen before and that is your mantra. It’s an interesting challenge where artists are solving visual problems.”

The pre-production stage in which Rihal is fully immersed in is both a creatively stimulating and exhausting time, brimming with collaborative forces. He is hired by production designers to help them actualise a vision. Usually it starts with a researcher who wrangles copious amounts of data – usually in the form of image referencing and text – and presents it to the production designer who picks out what will steer the direction of the art. That’s where the concept artist steps in.

Rihal explains that a lot of what binds the concept art together is defined by the script. “The script and the story dictate the design; you want the design to accentuate all those things in the story and support every moment of a film. Even if it’s a simple shot of a table and chairs, how that is designed, presented and lit should support the moment in the story.”

During this process, Rihal admits that digital tools are best. “Everything we do in concept art is digital and it’s very fast-paced and tons of changes do happen so digital platforms have that affordability in moving back and forth between ideas very quickly. I mostly use Photoshop and 3D applications such as Modo by Foundry, Pixologic’s ZBrush – the typically big ones in the industry. And with new programmes coming out all the time, you really have to be on top of things.”

ZBrush is a highly-optimised CPU based software that does not require a special video card and writes a large number of temporary files in order to ensure fast performance. Depending on the model, this can quickly reach several gigabytes of data, and works best with a Wacom graphic tablet.

The on-screen legacy

Concept art from 'Divergent'

Concept art from 'Divergent'   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

As predicted, the best of concept art out there looks like it takes a knuckle-cracking amount of time. Rihal reveals that with the natural changes that come with making a movie, concept art does not always go as planned, “I’ve run the gamut completely from having what I made almost identical to what I created, to the complete opposite end where I’ve worked on something for six months and it’s just not used in the end. There’re so many people working on a single project; as it goes along the production line, the people who are working on it tend to change things for their personal vision.”

Rihal highlights the value of having a concept artist on board, “As concept artists, we usually get to start with the very first idea so we’re the inception stage, however it may change along the way. But to get a fully-formed idea onto a blank page is the biggest leap in the process. It’s easy to change and adjust when you have something in front of you but it’s much more difficult to come up with an idea.”

Naturally, there’s a great amount of pride associated with any form of artistry. While Rihal and other concept artists work under production designers, he points out, “We get to play this integral role and the most exciting part is we get credit for doing the big impactful images and so that’s where get the most value and pride out of it. When you see your work in the film, you’re so proud that you’ve put something out into the world.”

Keeping it fresh

The framework of imagination

But with the number of VFX films coming out on an almost monthly basis, how does a concept artist avoid repetition? Rihal explains, “A lot of the time, we reference the same things and we watch the same movies and in a certain way, cultures get homogenised with that globalisation. So projects can get a bit staid and repetitive and that’s the main challenge; how do we create something new every time? I personally try to find something new in everything I do, whatever the scale. So through using new techniques or new mediums, I find it keeps things fresh for myself, and that’s expressed in the final product. And as creators, we do not want one movie to look exactly like another.”

However, it should be noted that each project presents its own set of really unique challenges. Rihal, who’s worked on a quite a few Marvel movies such as Thor, The Avengers and Thor: Ragnarok, comments, “They really want to stay true to their brand and their artistic heritage. So there are these old artists, such as Jack Kirby, that did the comics years ago. And to translate this style from a comic book into film was extremely challenging. I also worked on Netflix’s military sci-fi Spectral which was a fun movie to do. It was a fun technical show and very much a guy’s movie, featuring a lot of gak, making everything look cool by adding a lot of grunge, dirt and wires everywhere.”

It’s clear Rihal gives a lot of himself to the ever-evolving realm of concept art, a part of film production we need to pay attention to in the coming years, globally and locally.

Check out Raj Rihal’s expansive portfolio on Total Rihal.

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Printable version | Aug 1, 2021 11:16:44 AM |

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