Film is a visual medium, but rarely is a film so visual as After Earth, M. Night Shyamalan’s latest. The beautiful sci-fi landscapes can be attributed in part to concept artist Jason Dunn at Robot Rumpus, who kindly sat down with me to discuss his work.
What exactly does your role as a concept artist involve?
The concept artist takes the first crack at creating any imagery of a script. Before anyone is cast, anything shot, any set built, any costume designed, the concept artist considers all of these things to conjure a glimpse of the finished product before anyone else. It’s a challenging craft with lots of room for imagination.
What inspired you to begin working in the industry?
I was drawn to it from as early as I can remember. At first I wanted to be a Disney animator, but Star Wars, Tron and the films of Ray Harryhausen drew me into visual effects. It was a craft which combined my parallel interests of art, computers, animation, and design.
What was your toughest challenge working on After Earth and how did you solve it?
One of the trickiest things to deal with on this project was the amount of secrecy surrounding it. When I first started working on it, I was not shown the whole script, and didn’t know the title or director or anything about it. I only was given one page of script at a time, without knowing how it fit into the big picture, and only a vague description of what this future civilisation is like and what kind of technology they use. That made it a lot harder to be on the same page with the rest of the production.
Take us through a step-by-step of an average piece.
I usually start with a photo, or a collection of photos, and cut and paste them together. Then I will freehand paint on top of it in Photoshop. Other times I start with pencil on paper, and then scan them into Photoshop to paint over. I will usually get through a draft in a day, but then make variations once I get feedback from the director. Sometimes that back-and-forth process can go on for weeks or months.
Who are your biggest inspirations as an artist?
Among the masters, Rembrandt and John Singer Sargent inspire me in particular. They both hd a gift for making images that truly feel alive. More modern artists who inspire me are Syd Mead, Craig Mullins, and Ralph McQuarrie.
What tools do you use?
I use Photoshop, After Effects, Nuke, Lightwave, as well as pencil and paper.
Do you have any tips for budding artists?
Keep a sketchbook with you at all times, and record ideas as they come to you – even if you don’t know what to do with them at the time. Sometimes ideas take a while to develop. Also, get out into the world with it, and draw the things around you – people and places. And draw them from life rather than photographs. It will help you develop your observation skills.
Do you have any upcoming projects you can tell us about?
I am working on some book illustrations which I hope to unveil soon.
To find more of Jason’s work, check out Robot Rumpus.
To read more about movie concept art, find out what happened when I interviewed Peter Popken.