Art Directors At Comic Con – Returning To Adoring Fans

Cannes Film Festival

Warner Bros. Pictures

Illustrators are a natural fit for Comic Con, being the artists who first breathe visual life into the written text of a graphic novel, comic, or script.  This year the Art Directors Guild presented two panels for fans: an illustrators panel and a production designers panel.  Neither panel had an empty seat to spare.  411 Publishing caught up with three of this year’s panelists to discuss their work and their experience at Comic Con International 2012.

Dominic Watkins

"The fans were avid and rabid," said Dominic Watkins of his experience discussing his work in front of enthusiastic fans eager to hear how he brought "Snow White and the Huntsman" to life.

The opportunity to re-imaging the fairy tale was what initially attracted Watkins to "Snow White and the Huntsman.”  He was eager to bring a visual quality that was in line with the original intent of the Grimm brother’s writing.

"It’s a nine page story written during a dark age," said Watkins.  "We weren’t playing to the expectation that children want a happy story.  I really wanted to push the boundaries."

With 70% of the structures built on the Pinewood Studio sound stages in England, Watkins was able to develop every detail exactly the way he wanted.  The set he enjoyed bring to life the most was the castle.  Watkins covered the outer walls of the castle with a maze of vines, using them as a metaphor indicating Snow White’s life being throttled.  He also incorporated architectural details from the 1350s to ensure the sets had a realistic grounding in a period of time.  While he did introduce elements from other periods, using one period to anchor the setting in was crucial to making the fantasy become a reality for the viewer.

One aspect of the production design that did prove daunting for Watkins was working with the dwarfs.

"There was very little CGI for the dwarfs," said Watkins.  "I learned a lot about shortening from watching ‘The Lord of the Rings.’ The actors are all thespians – their gate and affectations relayed that they were dwarfs.  We incorporated platforms and prosthetic makeup.  It was a huge relief once that nut was cracked."

Up next for Watkins is a prequel to the Peter Pan story entitled "Neverland."

Rick Heinrichs

It had been three years since Heinrichs had been on a Comic Con panel, and he found the fans to be as passionate as ever.

"It’s fantastic to be in front of these fans," said Heinrichs.  "As art directors we spend time creating real environments.  It’s great to meet people who not only appreciate this work but take it so seriously."

Heinrichs wasn’t very familiar with "Dark Shadows" when frequent collaborator Tim Burton approached him about the project.  He knew that the series took on the form of a soap opera, but wanted to be very careful about winding that aspect into a formula that illustrated emotional shifts steeped in a horror setting.  Adding to this challenge was incorporating period elements of the 1970s.  Heinrichs played with colors and textures in the interiors to evoke all these elements.  

 

Filling out the coastal town would become paramount to the production design, and it was Heinrichs greatest challenge.

 

“We had the same problem with ‘Sleepy Hollow;’ it’s impossible to find settings that match the story because the style is so different,” said Heinrichs.  “New England is very different from old England.  By default we get to build a lot, but actors love having real environments.”

 

As with actors, art directors have become used to incorporating visual effects into the production design.  To create the harbor that was the setting of the two competing canneries in “Dark Shadows,” a huge tank on the studio’s back lot was suited with a green screen.  Heinrichs then worked closely with the VFX team to fill in the details.  Heinrichs embraces the relationship the art department cultivates with the visual effects team.

 

“Visual effects are a great tool,” said Heinrichs.  “Everybody realizes that.  We’ve become an important team.  Now art directors work into post – our voice and authorship continues through every frame of the film.”

 

Trevor Goring

 

The shifts that Trevor Goring has experienced as an illustrator has mirrored the shifts that have affected Comic Con over the last twenty years.  Once a celebration of all things story-based and visual, the convention has become a breeding ground for public relations and marketing.  It’s the connection to the fans that keeps Goring coming back.

 

“In 1970 there were just 80 people at the convention,” said Goring.  “It’s really grown, but they are still into the art.”

 

Although he’s moved into directing and is currently working on a series for the web called “Belgrade,” Goring remains an illustrator at heart.  While many productions have turned to previs to explore visual elements of a film prior to shooting, Goring feels illustration and previs can work hand in hand.

 

“The effect of previs has been good and bad,” said Goring.  “What many directors are aware of is these two disciplines work hand in hand.  Illustration helps define the visual style and that helps in the storytelling.”

 

Directors such as Ron Howard still work with Goring to explore the visual feel of their script through illustrations and storyboarding before moving forward.  To work more effective with modern technology, Goring recently made the transition from paper to computer.  “Now I draw on a screen.”

 

Coming soon from Goring is a book on the history of storyboarding in Hollywood, a labor of love that was seven years in the making.  The book will feature storyboards from 120 films ranging from ”Gone with the Wind” to “Psycho.”