I Can Get Paid for Concept Art?!
Imagine you’re with someone who wakes up from a vivid dream and starts to describe it: There are lucid parts filled with distinct individuals and specific action, and others with just a vaguely articulated vibe. It's an entire world that's completely unfamiliar to you; now, you’re asked to draw it.
If that sounds daunting, welcome to the world of concept artists. They translate the dreams of directors, art directors, and production designers—AKA movies, before they’re made—into images that form the basis for what audiences will eventually see onscreen. “We create a visual language for films,” says Bob Cheshire, a concept artist in the United Kingdom whose IMDB page is a who’s who of superheroes (Superman! Guardians of the Galaxy! Avengers!).
Concept art provides the blueprint for sets to be built, costumes to be fashioned, props to be constructed, special effects to be planned. It’s essential pre-production work that requires stylistic flexibility, creative speed, and a knack for something akin to ESP.
Concept Art Is a Broad Concept
Distinct duties and deliverables vary depending on the director, the crew, the stage of the project, and other variables, but the goal remains the same. “Film is a continuum—images run end to end. Concept art is our best attempt at conveying specific design ideas at specific points in time,” says Paul Inglis, an art director and production designer in the UK whose recent gigs include Blade Runner 2049 and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.
“Sometimes we’re working at the very beginning of a film,” says Kei Acedera, co-founder of Imaginism Studios in Toronto, whose credits include Alice in Wonderland and Niko and the Sword of Light. “We might not even have a script; there could be just one sentence, or a pitch idea, maybe a couple of characters, and it’s all very abstract.”
In these instances, it might be more useful for a concept artist to go big and broad with loose, impressionistic sketches. “A general palette can be more powerful early on because the director themselves might not yet have a fully focused or clear idea of what they want,” Inglis says. “You’re looking for just the right thing to get the conversation going.”
Yet as production develops, so too does the need for more elaborate, meticulous art, often for what are called key frames. “These are particularly important moments or storytelling beats,” says Cheshire—and within each of these scenes might exist a nesting doll of concept art requests. “If there’s a blaster, a piece of police procedural equipment, a futuristic holographic jukebox, or whatever it might be, then we’ll need a highly rendered piece of art for that as well,” says Inglis. “Sets, costumes, and prop makes are quite expensive. When you're going to spend $20,000 to $30,000 or more on a specific problem, you better make sure that everyone's expecting exactly the same thing.”
Communication Is Key
Aligning those expectations requires the ability to listen—to directors, art directors, special effects supervisors, production designers—and generate clarity from chaos. “Communication is an essential skill for this job,” Acedera says. “You need to be able to communicate through your art, but also face to face with all different kinds of people who have a ton of abstract ideas that can be difficult to understand. At times you have to play a kind of mind reader.”
Briefs are issued regularly throughout a project, but each one will likely be completely unique. “Certain illustrations might have a very well-defined brief,” Inglis says. “Some will be as loose as saying it needs to have a ‘grandmotherly’ feel—not even as clear as ‘happy’ or ‘sad’—because that’s the closest someone could come up with to describe what they want in a nuanced way. The discovery of what that actually means is up to the concept artist and can be incredibly tricky.”
Become Best Friends with Failure
Successful concept artists understand that the creative process is inherently complex. “Ideas become like the ball in a tennis match, going backwards and forwards until we collectively come up with something that the director is happy with,” Cheshire says.
Between each of those back-and-forths, the concept artist is receiving feedback, gleaning critical information, and creating images that will get them closer to consensus. Along the way, they produce a lot of work that will be discarded. “One of the most useful skills for any concept artist is the ability to not get offended that someone might take a thing that they've really enjoyed producing and say, ‘Look, this is absolutely fantastic, but it’s not quite what we're looking for.’ You certainly have to have a thick skin because creating a piece of artwork is a very personal thing; that ability to shrug off what feels like a bit of a rebuke is tremendously important,” Inglis says.
Cheshire frames it in a different way. “Failure is a concept artist’s best friend,” he says. “Any image can be broken down into formal elements: color, composition, lighting, texture, mood. If you’re trying to find the right mood for, say, a spaceship, you might draw ten images that fail. But that ultimately helps tell you what they don't want, which will lead you to what they do. You have to work tenaciously, and it’s very important to fail because it is the only way you're going to get better.”
Align Your Toolkit and Storytelling
There’s no one medium that is make or break for concept artists to master, but it helps to have a working knowledge of—and ability to dabble in—a variety of creative tools. “Concept artists are there to generate ideas as quickly as possible in response to a brief, and we’re generally fairly agnostic about how they go about doing that. The vast majority use Adobe Photoshop, because it’s a far less destructive process to explore new ideas if you're in the digital realm,” Inglis says—but that doesn’t rule out the most basic of creative tools.
“Pencil and paper is so immediate,” Cheshire says. “If I’m standing next to Rick Carter [production designer on Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker] or J.J. Abrams, I can draw something right there and then and ask directly, ‘Is this what you mean?’ They might take the pencil and add to it, and the idea will literally start to grow. I can then take that and expand on this shape we’ve come up with collectively, and off I go.”
Regardless of how work is produced, a concept artist should always consider the "why" behind their pieces. “In a way, I think it’s a mistake to concentrate purely on technique, because technique is not an idea. It’s just a veneer; a surface covering,” Inglis says. “It’s more useful to understand the fundamental content of an illustration, not just the finish. You need to care about story.”
Put Yourself Out There
The industry is relatively small, which makes it tough, but not impossible, to break into the biz. “Everyone is pretty connected; very ‘six degrees of Kevin Bacon,’” says Acedera. Because of this, many, if not most jobs are offered through word of mouth. “Once you develop a solid shorthand with a supervising art director or production designer and there’s a good relationship there, they tend to use you again,” Cheshire says. “Everybody on a production from the top to the bottom is a freelancer; we get picked up at the beginning and dropped at the end. It doesn't matter what school you went to, your age, your gender—it really is a question of, ‘Can you do the job?’”
Bobby Chiu, who is Acedera’s husband and her Imaginism co-founder, established online learning hub Schoolism to give beginners and career concept artists a chance to hone their skills and practice their craft.
To get signed onto big-budget productions, it’s all but essential to have a proven track record, but newbies can increase their chances of breaking into the field by establishing an online portfolio that shows what they’re capable of, giving those on the hiring side—such as Inglis—a chance to see your work with a single click. “If you’re introducing yourself to a supervising art director, include a link to your portfolio but also always include an image in the body of the email,” he says. “They’re going to be busy, but if there’s a great visual it gives you that much more of a chance they’ll put a pin in your note and think, ‘Right, I should check out this person’s work.’”
Building a presence on social media can be a good way to engage with others in the industry, but Acedera also suggests attending IRL events to connect with the community in person.
Have an Open Mind
Making movies can be magical, but, like any job, it can also be a grind. “You’re working long hours. It can be frustrating. You’re dealing with so many things, emotional and creative and technical. To make a movie, the littlest and the biggest elements imaginable have to align,” Acedera says. “The final product is great and all, and it’s so exciting to see it come together, but I think the number-one thing is to enjoy the process.”
It helps to be confidently curious with a fresh perspective. “I think it's best for everyone to discover inspiration for themselves,” Inglis says. “If everyone uses the same resources, everything becomes a bit cookie cutter.”
Loving film is obviously a must, but it’s not the only thing. “I think people need to approach this profession with an open mind to everything,” Acedera says. “It's about building a library in your head of films, art, but also life to draw from.”