I quickly realized that I wanted to pursue a career in this industry.
I wanted to make images, tell stories
and give life
to my ideas […]
Julien Gauthier is a French concept artist who’s currently working at Industrial Light & Magic. Because France is well known for its 3D-oriented art schools, he chose one of the more renowned ones and studied for four years, learning everything he’d need to know before setting off to work at a big studio. After graduating, he was a lighting technical director for Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) in London, and shortly after, he’d be on his way to Paris, then Vancouver, and finally Singapore.
Every move brought a new project with it, but Julien was growing dissatisfied with the lack of creative input artists get when working for big VFX companies. This burning desire for more creative freedom eventually led him to learn more about concept art. He got himself a pen tablet and took an online class, then he quit his job in Singapore to take a leap of faith. He told us that:
This is how I landed my first concept art job at ILM, with my first project ever being Jurassic World 2. I was the happiest guy on earth! Of course, I was also super stressed […]
If you visit his ArtStation now, you see how his 2D and 3D skills meet and complement each other in ambitious personal projects like his futuristic Japanese palanquin, which is something he’s going to breakdown for you in a moment! Through his answers, you’ll learn even more about Julien’s experiences so far.
There’s also an opportunity to read about his work on both Aladdin (2019) and Aquaman (2018). Lastly, there’s a rich answer that explains how a 2D-centric artist could benefit from using 3D more, taking any potential pitfalls and overreliance on 3D into account. So, here’s our newest exclusive. We hope that you enjoy reading it as much as we have enjoyed making it!
Tell us a little bit about yourself. What sparked your interest in digital art?
I’m a French concept artist working at ILM for four years now. I grew up watching Jurassic Park over and over again until the VHS was so damaged that I had to buy a second copy of it. I loved dinosaurs and loved drawing them at that time. My interest in movies started from that. I was amazed by how VFX could create and put entire universes into motion. Giving life to things that were not supposed to exist was such a powerful tool to stimulate the imagination of millions.
I got attracted to the CG aspect of film making very quickly. But at the same time, the way in which they were achieving things wasn’t that interesting to me, it was mainly what they were showing. I could see striking compositions, beautiful lighting, superb design, etc., etc. I love that there were tools to transform simple drawings into images that people would drown in and expend on in their imagination. The same way all of these great movies did to me. This passion combined with my love for drawing, creating universes and designs on paper, and I quickly realized that I wanted to pursue a career in this industry. I wanted to make images, tell stories and give life to my ideas.
Cyberpunk 2077 Contest Entry
CD Projekt Red + Wacom contest
How did you break into the film industry?
I never really thought about concept art first. I wanted to be the guy who builds things in 3D and makes them look beautiful and impactful. In France, we have more and more 3D-oriented schools which teach us all the fundamentals you need to be able to work in any CG company. I picked one that had a good reputation, with old students already working all around the globe, and did my 4 years of studying. It was very intense. I learnt everything from modeling to compositing, as well as rigging, animation, etc. But also story writing and a bit of drawing and Photoshop.
I really liked doing everything (except animation. I’m pretty bad at animation!) but my favourite moment was at the end when we did the shading, lighting and compositing. When the image becomes what it is supposed to be, and when most of the artistic decisions are made. Every step of the pipeline is obviously important but I really like setting up lighting and choosing the mood and the colours.
So after I was done with my graduation movie, I got the chance to work in London at MPC as a lighting TD on the Guardians of the Galaxy. Then I moved to Paris to work on the animated Minions movie at Illumination, followed by some time in MPC Vancouver and ILM Singapore. But during all this time, I was more and more frustrated by my job. It was very technical and not really creative. That’s the problem with big VFX companies… I was doing the lighting of scenes but I didn’t have that much choice in the aesthetic. It was mostly technical problem-solving. How to render this or that without breaking the render farm…
It was actually during my first job at MPC that I was introduced to concept art and digital painting. Somebody was painting an image and I had to replicate it in 3D. I wanted to be this person! That’s when I decided to slowly learn on my own, how I could use what I know, the digital tools, and remove the technical aspect of it to keep mostly the creative part. I bought myself a graphics tablet and started learning how to paint on computers.
Like this, rather than spending hours learning how to render something, I could just paint it in a few minutes! I took some online classes and tried things on my own, creating a portfolio. And that’s when I was doing my time at ILM in Singapore, and I had finally decided to quit and give being a concept artist a shot. Being in the company already really helped me to get the contacts that I needed. I just wanted some advice on what I should be working on if I want to get a chance one day. Surprisingly, they liked my portfolio as is and decided to give me a chance to work for them at their London studio.
This is how I landed my first concept art job, at ILM, with my first project ever being Jurassic World 2. I was the happiest guy on earth! Of course, I was also super stressed.
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom – Indoraptor
Art direction by Jason Horley and Kevin Jenkins
Could you tell me a little bit about one of the challenges that you and your team had to overcome during the production of one of the many films you’ve worked on?
Every movie I had the chance to work on had its own set of challenges and was interesting in its own way. For instance, on the Aquaman movie, we had to deal with the fact that everything was taking place underwater. Physics works differently and we had to think of clever ways to convey scale and giant cityscapes without losing too much of the realism that we were looking for. The most difficult challenges also came because of weird plates that were done without enough thinking about what the CG is gonna be like. It created all kinds of issues that were hard to solve when we did the integration.
For instance, if the character was shot in overcast/diffuse lighting, but the scene was supposed to take place in bright sunlight. We had to find a way to design the shots in order to justify this or to cheat it as well as possible with some relighting. When working on the VFX side of the art department, we are also used to help and support the other departments. We often do paint overs and explorations on renders and turntables to give direction on what the other artists should aim to do. We allow for faster iteration and exploration without the technical limitations that a normal 3D artist would have.
You’ve recently worked on Aladdin (2019) at Industrial Light and Magic, how was that?
It was a fun project! I was involved in the pre-production as well as the post-production of the movie. At the beginning, I helped develop the genie’s appearance as well as the cave of wonders design. The tricky part was to find a design which was respectful to the original genie design while adding Will Smith’s traits. A lot of iterations were done to find the sweet spot.
During the post-production, it was mainly shot-by-shot design. I helped the ILM generalist team develop the city and made the keyframes for the whole new world song sequence.
Please walk us through the work-flow for the futuristic Japanese palanquin piece. I’d love to hear all about it, how you came up with the idea, the techniques and processes used, etc.
It started as small sketches to develop the idea of the sci-fi palanquin. Then I moved to 3D as I used this opportunity to learn Blender at the same time. It’s a very promising software, completely free and powerful. I use it all the time now. Then I decided, why not create an environment around it? Having fun with the Japanese house elements, I set my mind on a composition, did a quick render in Eevee and started painting over it.
I don’t like pushing the render quality too much, sometimes they are just grey shaded models, so a lot of painting was needed to bring this piece to its conclusion. First balancing the value and lighting composition. I like to do this kind of small project and push them in some direction. I think it’s important to keep practising and exploring new techniques when we have the chance.
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Cave of Wonders
What should a novice artist expect out of their first concept art job?
My first task as a concept artist was to produce small B&W story sketches. It was for Jurassic World. The director wanted to explore some ideas for the action sequences. We knew a character needed to move from point A to point B in an environment, and we had to come up with possible interactions and cool shot ideas that could happen. It was so much fun, but I also learnt a lot doing that. I think it’s important for a concept artist to generate compositions like this quickly. Usually, this is the stage during which the most important part of the image is made. If a small thumbnail, at its basic stage is already appealing, the rest of the image will be easier to do.
You can practice this by doing movie studies. Maybe keeping them in B&W and with limited values. Using 3D to do them is also a good idea, but sometimes, it’s faster to do it by painting. The 3D can be limiting and end up dictating the outcome instead of being in control of the image. Sketching with just lines is perfectly fine too. But for me, it is about not being afraid of iteration and being able to judge an image at its basic level. That is the most important thing, not how to paint eyelashes.
Futuristic Japanese Palanquin
Spare time project
How could a 2D-centric artist benefit from delving into 3D more?
In my opinion, fully painted images have way more appeal than 3D rendered ones or heavily photobashed ones. But I’m not skilled enough to do that. Especially when the deadlines are short, which is almost always the case unless you are working in the illustration industry. 3D gives you flexibility because it can produce a good image fast. But as I said earlier, it can also be a trap. For instance, if I was working on the Palanquin only in 3D, I may not have ended up with the same design. Simply because some elements are complex to model and I may not have ended up with the same idea. Being able to draw is important in my opinion. Although there are some very good concept designers only working in 3D and doing just fine of course.
These days in the industry, knowing 3D is a huge plus. You can generate multiple angles of your model quickly. The production designer can visualize the set and judge it more easily than with a 2D drawing. The nice thing about being at the concept stage of a production is that our 3D doesn’t have to be clean. I modeled a bunch of vehicles for the Aquaman movie, all very rough with a terrible topology and zero UV, millions of polygons. But it didn’t matter. I was only focusing on the design. After a paint over on it and once it’s approved, I just pass the model along to the modeling department where it is redone properly.
So.. 3D is a very good tool, but it’s a double-edged sword, too. Yes, it can be very useful for 2D artists, but I also saw beginners going into it too quickly and making poor design decisions because they lack judgment and get carried by the software. Everything here also applies to photobashing by the way.
If you could go back in time to give the 16-year-old you advice, what would you say?
I regret I didn’t spend more time drawing and painting… It’s never too late to start learning, of course, as we actually never stop doing it. But I regret not doing more traditional art.
I’m trying to slowly catch up as I only now understand the value it can bring to my skill, even if I mainly work digitally. Painting from life, having to mix colours, not being able to undo. It trains our eyes and we become way more efficient in our decision making than when we’re back at the computer.
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What’s next for Julien Gauthier?
These days I’m trying to refine my workflow and spend less time in the 3D world, trying to get the perfect render. Bad habits are hard to erase but I’m trying to paint more rather than moving the camera around my model forever. Easier said than done as we always have to rush to finish our images… I really admire people like Jaime Jones or Jama Jurabaev who can mix 3D and painting so well.
I’m also currently working on a short animated project based on the Windup Girl book, all done in Blender. But trying to give a painting/2D spin to it. It’s going very slowly but I like working on it sometimes. I’m using this opportunity to explore ways to smudge the like between 2D and 3D and include these in my professional work.
Visit Julien Gauthier’s ArtStation
By Vox Groovy staff writer;
All images used with permission by the artist
© Julien Gauthier or respective copyright holders
Front slide: Artwork made during the post-production of the Last Jedi, art direction by Kevin Jenkins.
Article in Slovak language;