Welcome to a look Inside the Holocron. A collection of articles from the archives of *starwars.com no longer directly available.
(*Archived here with Permission)
The Art of Visual Storytelling
Ryan Church and Erik Tiemens
Previsualizing Lighting, Mood and Color
A common notion is that when a film is as deep in its post-production phase as Episode II is, the concept art work has long been completed and the Art Department sits empty. That is not the case for Erik Tiemens and Ryan Church, two talented artists that were brought in late last year to offer their talents in developing Episode II’s rich palette of color and mood.
“We provide key-frame production illustrations that are the link between the concept work that Doug [Chiang] and his group did, and the final work that the ILM matte painters and the effects crew will be doing. It’s kind of previsualizing lighting, mood and color schemes,” describes Church.
“Studying footage that has been shot in Australia, London and elsewhere, we are sometimes dealing with lightly constructed sets and lots of blue-screen captured on digital plates,” says Tiemens, “Our job is to take that blue-screen void and make it come to life as environmental landscapes via production paintings. This provides a method of blocking out scenes, quickly giving George Lucas a flexible template in the editing room. In collaboration with the animatics artists’ 3-D work, we can deliver a complete rough cut to ILM as a reference guide.”
“Some of the colors we’ve been working with are very bright reds and oranges,” describes Church, “very passionate and luminous, hearkening back to historical illustration. There are foreboding color schemes and atmospheres that go with the story as well. It’s all very dramatic.”
The heightened dramatic potential drew Tiemens to the project. “I was delighted to hear that [Producer] Rick McCallum and George wanted to intertwine a feeling of drama and moodiness as often seen in turn of the century American landscape painting, like that of Thomas Moran and Albert Bierdstadt. When I see a stormy sky over the bay, with one little glowing pocket of sunlight glittering near the horizon, I am struck by the emotions it carries –- something mysterious and hopeful. Observing different lighting conditions, colors and how you frame the subject matter are all crucial to the visual storytelling process.”
In addition to quick yet detailed color studies, the two have delved into concept designs tied to specific shots and camera angles, as well as conceptual work on new elements that have popped into the evolving storyline. “There are a couple of major sequences that weren’t completely fleshed out. Erik and I have had a chance to get into it, and design it from the ground up,” says Church.
The two artists bridge the Art and Animatics Departments, working to produce illustrations keyed to specific animatics camera angles. “It’s designed for a shot,” explains Church of some of his work. “It examines an environment that was roughly designed by Doug’s group. What does that environment look like with this specific plate? What does it look like in this shot?”
Once the artwork has been completed and approved, usually on a very tight schedule, the digital art is carefully composited into the animatic to fill in the empty blue and green-screen currently throughout Episode II. “The animatics demands are so heavy that often we’ll get something in the morning that will be due at the end of the day,” says Church. “Erik and I did 14 paintings in two weeks of the end battle, and they got all approved by George. That means we were really on the same page, conceptually, because we kind of went crazy. We were kind of pushing things.”
“We have a quick turnaround rate,” concurs Tiemens. “I think that’s good, because as artists we can be overly precious with details in artwork. It’s refreshing to me. You are literally working at a gut level response. If George wants a rich, moody sunset in a decrepit warehouse district, you may not have the time to explore the idea with various color thumbnail sketches, but rather you just get it done on that one final.”
For scenes that will be entirely computer-generated, like some of the epic vistas seen in the last quarter of the film, Church and Tiemens have produced rich, colorful production paintings envisioning these important events. These paintings serve as valuable reference for the finished shots that will be delivered by Industrial Light & Magic.
“It’s like doing a digital feature,” says Church. “Doing these all digital environments where you have to design everything about it. You’re building, and designing and lighting everything. This is more similar to that than a typical live action show.”
The two artists, though traditionally trained in hands-on brush and paint, use digital tools to mimic the look. “It’s for the time-constraint,” explains Church. “We’re working over digital files that are sent to us by the Animatics Department. It’s always quicker to work on the computer. You’ve got the flexibility that you don’t have with a traditional painting. It stays within the digital realm instead of having to go back out and be scanned and taken back in and adjusted. It just saves a lot of steps.”
“The software we use bridges the gap between digital art and my preference for sketch painting outdoors using gouache and pastels,” explains Tiemens. “You can bring some of that spontaneity into the digital medium with these programs. A quick pencil layout can be scanned in the computer, providing a base for a digital painting. We also send digital files to Animatics and see how lighting on the actors holds up with our backgrounds, to see if we are getting a match.”
“I was the last person to ever want to touch a computer as far as art is concerned,” recalls Church. “I studied transportation design, and it was all markers and pens and tracing paper and hands-on. But you really can’t argue with the power of a computer for commercial artwork like we’re doing, where there’s going to be a lot of revisions anyway, and the deadlines are so tight.”
Church grew up surrounded by artistic influences, as his father is an industrial designer. Citing such inspirations as Syd Mead and the original art of Star Wars, Church began down the path of commercial art with the intent of being a car designer. “I was pretty focused in car design all the way until about fifth term of school when I started doing real car design, as opposed to fun, splashy concept car design. I realized that the entertainment art industry offered a lot more fun stuff to work on, instead of designing a functional product like door handles all day.”
Following the freedom that movie concept work promised, Church eventually found himself working in the Digital Features department of Industrial Light & Magic. From there, he was contacted by Iain McCaig of Episode II’s Art Department. “Iain said that they were looking for painters, illustrators and designers, and he used the term ‘Ralph McQuarrie-types.’ He said I should submit my stuff. So I did, and got a call a while after that, to come up and join the team. This is obviously the realization of a lifelong dream, since looking at the Joe Johnston sketchbooks,” recalls Church. “That’s the stuff I copied when I was a kid.”
Also inspired by Star Wars and classic movies in his youth, Tiemens studied traditional drawing and painting at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, graduating with Distinction in 1990. “I developed a deeper appreciation for the arts there, especially 19th century painting. The learning there has brought references into my film work. In the digital medium where we need to invent new things, like environments, it’s always nice to create a link to the visual past. I believe if we’re only looking at what’s been done in the past few years or so, it gets tiring to the audience. To look back on the layers of history, early photography, sculpture, painting and the arts in general gives us a more rewarding experience.”
Specific to Tiemens are influential painters like John Singer Sargent and muralist Frank Brangwyn. “They are a rich source of inspiration for me not only in their amazing skill but sense of spirit in their works, something always alive there. I can only hope to aim in that direction.”
Tiemens, too, was recommended by Iain McCaig from work the two did on an ILM project. Tiemens’ previous experiences included such films as Forrest Gump, Jurassic Park, Contact, Star Wars: Special Edition and the Emmy award-nominated effects in the opening title sequence from Star Trek: Voyager.
“Last fall I was in Europe for a couple of months on a painting trip, seeking out inspiring locations,” recalls Tiemens. “I think it’s always good for artists to go out and recharge your batteries, creatively speaking. Traveling about in southern Italy at the time I found a café to check my email. I was astonished to get an email from David Dozoretz. He asked if I was interested in working on Episode II; they were looking for someone to produce dramatic environmental landscape paintings for the film.” Rick McCallum and George Lucas took a look at Tiemens’ portfolio on his personal website, and from that invited him to join the Episode II production.
Visiting five planets, the film has a lot of territory to cover in its allotted running time, and Star Wars films are not known to dawdle about in any one given location. “We’re visiting a lot of places from Episode I, but we get to see a lot more of them,” reveals Church. “We’re literally going below the surface of these locations. And there are these new worlds, just like the other Star Wars movies, with color schemes that seem to be very deliberately picked by George to reflect and mirror the story. It’s very subjective visual storytelling that supports the script.”
Artistically, Church and Tiemens are in a unique position of being able to touch the whole story — from beginning to end — with their art. “We’re covering a lot of ground,” says Tiemens. “Typically, a matte painter would spend maybe two weeks — at the shortest — or about a month or two on a complex shot. They may have a few very important shots in the film at a high degree of detail, but we’ve had the rare opportunity to go over the entire film. We view it from a global perspective in a rather short amount of time, touching on most of the environments through production illustrations. Abstract color and lighting themes are closely kept in mind.”
Concludes Tiemens, “Working on this project is similar to designing a digital feature; you try to look at the overall, in each reel, and ask yourself, ‘does this time of day support the story? How does the character feel right now? Can a busy sky with clouds compete with the actor’s somber lines?’ A million puzzles like these come up all the time. That makes for a challenge experience, full of surprises.”