Alex Nice is a veteran visual effects art director and concept artist, currently working in the art department at Lionsgate on multiple feature films, and who recently wrapped on Beau Willimon’s sci-fi series The First. You can follow him on Instagram and Facebook. Having started out as a forensic animator, Alex quickly made the move to matte painting and then art direction, on movies including The Jungle Book, Oblivion, Pacific Rim, Tron: Legacy, and 2012. His first tutorial for The Gnomon Workshop, Creating Key Art Illustration for Film and Games demonstrates his own working methods, which are marked by a versatility in software and strong focus on storytelling. Below, Alex discusses the key moments in his career, the current trends in the industry, and how success in concept art requires a constant drive to stay abreast of new technology: most recently, the advent of virtual reality.
GW: How does key art differ from concept art?
AN: Key art is more about mood, and leans more towards illustration. You generally get more time to create a polished piece of work. A lot of people go to websites and see beautifully rendered illustrations – of space vehicles, say – and think that’s concept art, but in reality, the majority of a concept artist's time is spent working out problems visually. How does this spacecraft land? Will that landing mechanism support the vehicle's weight? Concept design is very enjoyable, but key art is a blast. It’s all about making great art.
GW: When creating a concept, how do you decide what to photobash and what to sketch by hand?
AN: According to what I think is the quickest way to get an idea in front of the production designer or director for review. Time always dictates my approach. It's important to understand that in production, you aren't going to get all the time you want to create a piece of concept art. Every time I turn in a new piece, I say to myself, 'Man, if I only had one more day.' This is why it's so important to take whatever shortcuts you can. Photobashing, 3D, photography – use whatever means you can to tell the story quickly. A lot of people get intimidated by the quality of the art on popular gallery websites, but there's a big difference between the work you see online, which was created in artists' free time, and what they create in production.
GW: How did you settle on the combination of 3D software you use in your work?
AN: All of the standard 3D programs – 3ds Max, Maya, Modo, and so on – do a good enough job for concept art. I was exposed to 3ds Max at a young age because a family member worked at Autodesk, and because of that, it's remained my main choice for over 15 years. I've also started using great apps like ZBrush, 3D-Coat, Marvelous Designer, Quixel Suite, and V-Ray, but I’ve never settled on a definitive toolset because there is always some new and exciting tool on the horizon. This industry is all about adapting and learning.
GW: How do GPU-based renderers like V-Ray RT lend themselves to concept art?
AN: GPU renderers are changing the game, and I've watched their use grow exponentially within art departments. GPU rendering is so fast now that it allows you to have interactive sessions with your lead, finding camera angles and lighting in almost-real time.
GW: You started out as a forensic animator. How did you make the jump to matte painting?
AN: I’ve always been a workaholic, almost to a fault. When I was doing forensic animation, I was moonlighting pretty much the entire time. I took whatever side jobs I could pick up – medical visualisation, engineering training demos, illustrations for a card game similar to Magic: The Gathering. At some point, I landed a gig doing CG car commercials for a company called SWAY Studio. It was unique at the time, because it was one of the first shops to use a V-Ray-Nuke pipeline. I would fly down to LA, get a hotel room, rent a car, and just grind on those commercials, sometimes for 24 hours straight... and I loved it. I was so green at that point, and it was such an incredible opportunity to learn on the job. The contacts I made at SWAY eventually got me my entry into film.
GW: Were there any Gnomon Workshop tutorials that helped you in your own career?
AN: Absolutely. In the early 2000s I would save up and order Gnomon DVDs because they were the best tutorials you could get: they were done – and still are – by professionals actually working in the industry. A couple of my favorites back then were Ryan Church's concept design series, Rob Nederhorst's Nuke series, and Neville Page's creature design series.
GW: You later taught at Gnomon. Did your own industry experience affect the way that you taught?
AN: When I was representing Gnomon, I knew it was my responsibility to present students with real industry challenges. I wanted them to develop skills that would get them hired. For instance, in the matte painting course I taught, I made sure that the students were painting on 3D tracked moving plates. At the time, other matte painting courses were working on locked-off camera plates – basically, just teaching students how to paint pretty pictures. If I recall, two students got hired at major studios directly from the portfolios they created in my class. That was a great feeling.
GW: On The First, you collaborated with NASA. How easy did you find it work with engineers?
AN: I’ve worked with several major space agencies over the years, including a few I’m not legally allowed to disclose. Each time, it's a huge challenge marrying the art with the needs of some of the world's smartest and most detail-oriented engineers. For The First, it was a delicate dance between making the spacecraft functional and having a visually interesting design. If you look at the Apollo [program rockets], for example, they're functional, but not exactly exciting-looking. NASA spacecraft are typically just cylinders and boxes. On jobs where I’ve collaborated with space agencies, there tends to be a lot of detailed discussion about things like whether there’s enough room for fuel – at times, I feel more like an apprentice engineer than a concept illustrator! But it’s these kinds of jobs that make this an amazing career to be in. I’m very lucky.
GW: You've recently been using VR as a pre-production tool. Has it changed the way you work?
AN: Definitely. Virtual reality came out of the gate perceived solely as a gaming system. I think because of that, its adoption has been slow, and there’s a lot of debate about whether it’s just a fad. Personally, I don’t see VR as a game system at all: I see it more as a tool for pre-visualization. I’ve fully incorporated VR into my toolset for film pre-production. For film design, It’s a huge game-changer.
One example: I worked on a sci-fi feature set for release in 2018. For that film, I was tasked with designing a small escape-pod-type vehicle. I created a couple pieces of traditional 2D concept art to lock down the aesthetics. Once that initial design was approved by my leads, I created a 3D version of the vehicle specifically for VR. The director was then able to sit inside in the virtual cockpit of my vehicle and make decisions about where he wanted the control panel and whatnot. This is the beauty of VR for concept design: you can now be inside your designs instead of looking at them on a monitor screen.
Another cool example: I’ve partnered with a developer and created a suite of custom VR tools that allow a director to film within VR, using a virtual camera. The director can stand inside my 3D concepts for the sets, choose a lens focal length, and record videos of motion-captured characters. All of this takes place before a single nail has been hammered on a physical set. I’ve basically made a tool that allows the director to test filming months before the production has started. These savings in visual development time are worth their weight in gold. I've now used VR on multi-million-dollar sets on multiple projects, and to quote my production designer: “This is now an essential tool in my art department.”
GW: Do you have a dream project you'd like to work on?
AN: Currently, I'm interested in creating educational VR experiences. I think there are some great teaching opportunities that can be gamified. For example, I’ve wanted to partner up with developers and educators who would be interested in creating a VR educational experience where the user interactively edits the genome using CRISPR technology at the molecular scale.
GW: What makes you a successful artist?
AN: I never consider myself a successful artist: I consider myself to be a student that just happens to be working at the moment. If I was to point to one specific quality, I’d say it’s my drive to learn. In this industry, it's a constant challenge to stay on top of your game, and the fear of not finding your next gig definitely creates a drive to learn and improve continuously.
GW: What are the key qualities required to become a successful matte painter?
AN: I think students should be looking for a good balance between being a specialist and being a CG generalist. When I was a matte painter – which was at a time when '2D only' matte painters were more common – I focused heavily on incorporating 3D into my work, and understanding 2.5D projections. In the old days, matte paintings were usually locked-off establishing shots with little to no camera movement. Nowadays, the camera moves all over the place, Michael-Bay-style, and understanding how to project your 2D painting onto 3D geometry is fundamental. You need a general understanding of every part of the process.
GW: What qualities do you need to move from matte painting to supervision or art direction?
AN: That's a very complex question. It takes a lot of different skills to become a good team supervisor. Experience and ability are not the only required traits: you also need qualities like communication, time-management, and client-handling. Typically, in a studio, one rises though the ranks, from artist to lead to supervisor. It’s hit and miss because being able to scale this ladder doesn’t necessarily make you a good manager. There are a large number of supervisors out there who have no business being in supervisory positions. On top of that, artists tend to self-title. Every job board online is overrun by green artists giving themselves the title of 'VFX Supervisor'. I think this is something that needs attention: after all, there are entire team-management courses at colleges across the country.
That being said, as someone who has acted as both art director and VFX supervisor, one of the most important skills is knowing how to communicate to your artists not only what they’ve done well but how they can improve. It’s so easy to fall into routine and just give your artists tasks and check them off when they’re complete. But your artists are on their own journey, and as a manager, you are in a unique position to guide them, challenge them to develop new skills, and give them the tools to exceed in life.
GW: What do you do in your time away from the monitor?
AN: I know it’s a bit of a clichéd answer, but I travel. There’s nothing better a person can do to broaden their horizons. I don’t mean going a resort and hanging out on a beach while locals serve you, but actually immersing yourself in a different culture. There’s a palpable feeling of increased creativity when I travel.
GW: What's your main piece of advice for other artists?
AN: I've been working in this industry for over 15 years in both pre-production and post-production. In that time, the most important thing I've learned isn't where buttons are located on a piece of software, or even a specific technical trick. The most important skill you need is how to communicate effectively, both with your peers and your leads. This is something I am still working on today. Making a film, or a game, or a TV series, is a massive collaboration and you are a very tiny piece of that. When you come into a studio, how you interact with your team should be your number one priority.