You can learn something new about colour or design every day for the rest of your life and still have so much more
to learn […]
“Could we get much higher? Could we get much lighter?” We are a radio too, meaning we put the music on the pedestal right next to the stories we publish. Listening to “In high Places” sung by John Roy Anderson while reading through this interview clicked! We have just read that we can.
Zac Retz is an artist who truly lives for his art, and our talk with him will give you a peek at his inspiring philosophy. Because it’s really the thousands of hours spent hard at work that will get us into the studios we dream about, and in his case, the practice helped him to become an art director at DreamWorks Animation. This job is incredibly challenging, but there’s also a big reward for the people that can do it well. An art director has to make sure that the style of the movie is consistent and high-quality, he needs to talk to his director and production designer about where it’s all headed, and finally, he must communicate his vision to other neighbouring departments. But how could we get there, too? In the interview, Zac shares an integral part of his humble beginnings:
I was spending every waking moment taking Schoolism classes, painting outside, and making portfolio pieces. Even when I was at work, I was doing a little master study at the bottom of my monitor so my boss wouldn’t see. I did at least a couple of studies every day. I’ve heard some artists say that you have to do a thousand paintings before you do a good one. I believe this is true.
In the past, he had the opportunity to work at Blur Studio, Sony Pictures Animation, and Laika. He’s a brilliant visual development artist with an adventurous spirit and an eye for colour. In reading this interview, you’ll even get to hear a little bit about his childhood escapades involving trespassing in old abandoned buildings, hiding away from police flashlights, and how that shined through in his art later. It’s almost like you’re reading a real adventure book in some parts!
For those of you who are regulars, you can be sure that this interview is going to be a bit different. Now, join us and find out how Zac went from sleeping on the floor of a NY apartment to being a successful art director at a world-famous animation studio and bringing us blockbuster movies like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018). Here’s hoping you all enjoy the ride!
What sparked your interest in digital art?
I love both digital and traditional art. I have gravitated towards digital because of the speed of the medium, it’s also a great way to try anything I want without wasting expensive paint or paper. What first sparked my interest was seeing how the entertainment industry moved in this digital direction. I knew I had to learn digital if I wanted to keep up and be valuable. With digital, I’m able to make adjustments to colour and values as I go.
Overall digital is very freeform, it allows me to create what’s in my head. For example, I can do a little value sketch, duplicate it many times, then try dozens of different variations or colour schemes. This process of trying tons of different options is so valuable. A lot of the time after I finish a painting, I will mess with the colours and adjust things just to experiment and see if there’s something new I can come up with.
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Interesting lighting during the rain.
Could you tell me a little bit about the first artwork you were genuinely proud of?
For me and maybe a lot of artists we start out looking at all these amazing concept pieces, vis dev work, and landscape paintings, but we have no idea how to make something like that. I would get an idea and spend days painting it and when I was done I was always very disappointed. It seemed so far from the master paintings I was looking at. When artists start out they have no idea how to get to that quality.
Fundamentals aren’t developed enough and you haven’t put in the years of failed paintings to know what decisions to make. For me, I didn’t do a painting I truly liked till about 2 years after college. I remember the painting taking me less than a day to do and it seemed to come together very smoothly. At this time I still didn’t understand the basics of value structure and composition but I randomly stumbled upon a good value structure and composition with this piece. Even though I didn’t know how to analyze these things I could tell this painting was successful. After this point, I started to grow more rapidly.
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Ship breaking Mech
Lunch experiment 082 – Been really inspired by the mechs some of my friends have been drawing.
Wanted to try.
How did you go about finding a personal style that’s unique to you? I personally love how you use colour and light in your work, as well as emotions created by them. Do you have some kind of goal when it comes to the atmosphere/mood in your work, too?
I never thought of myself having a “style”. I always just painted using my brushes in a kinda painterly way. I have literally done thousands of master studies, film studies, photo studies, and plein air paintings, just trying to capture the colour and light. I would look at some of my favourite artists like Richard Schmid, Edgar Payne, Tibor Nagy and many more. I would analyze how they built up their colour and brushwork and try to do something close to that digitally. I never thought about “style”, I was just trying to emulate bits and pieces from other artists who I admired.
Recently many people started asking me about how I do my style, and I was very confused because I didn’t think I had one. I spent some time thinking about it and talking with artists who helped me analyze my work. Others described it as a painterly style with a particular way I utilize lost and found edges and abstract details. I thought this was just painting, but now I’m seeing that these elements help make up “my style” I guess. As for my goal with atmosphere and mood, I think of it this way.
I want to create realism in the lighting, I want the viewer to be able to relate to a scene, and part of this can be done with the lighting because that’s how you create a mood. I then like to push some colour in the scene or sprinkle pops of colour to draw the eye or push the imaginative quality. I’m careful not to push these saturated colours too far everywhere, or that can take the viewer out of the moment and can feel unpleasant. Of course, if that’s what the story needs, then I will push that way.
Walk us through the processes you used to create your favourite portfolio artwork.
Portfolio pieces take a bit longer than my daily sketches and studies I do. My more finished personal work, I spend a lot of time writing down story ideas, doing little beatboard sketches, and collecting references. With my portfolio work, I really take the time to try and create a lot of storytelling, character design, mood and environment design into the pieces. I treat them like pitch paintings I would do for a movie.
I love doing quick paintings but i also love slowing down sometimes and really pushing myself to fully think about the story and what I am trying to say. I have so many almost finished paintings on my hard drive that just need another day or two of work for finish up. I am extra picky with these because they are more than just a sketch, and it’s a personal story I am trying to tell. I know I probably make these paintings too pressured in my head and they take me too long but it’s something I’m working on, haha!
You’ve worked with famous clients like Sony Pictures, Dreamworks, Laika, etc., so we want to know what the most exciting project you’ve worked on so far? It must be a tough choice with so many cool projects to your name!
My favourite project I have ever worked on was a movie at Alcon Entertainment called Darkmouth. Alcon is a live-action studio and this was their first animated movie. It is still in the works now and has been announced. The studio had a relationship with Warner Bros. so the art and story team worked on the WB lot where they film all the live-action movies. This was a cool experience to take breaks in the day and walk around and see sets from old movies or see them in the process of filming something new. I saw an old Batmobile in the woodshop one day!
I would see movie stars walking around. Great experience! This was a pretty low budget movie, but we had a very cool story. Something I was super excited to work on. It was a bit darker and scary. I love darker stuff made for more mature audiences. We had a small but really great little team of artists. I really felt like I was going into work with a bunch of friends or family every day. The only reason I left this movie was that I was offered a job at Disney feature. I have always wanted to work there, and I know they don’t hire too often, so I felt like I had to go. I was very sad to leave Alcon, but I had to check Disney off my list.
Hour paintings done during a lunch break.
Please give us your No. 1 piece of advice for aspiring artists who are looking to break into the industry.
I mentioned earlier that I have done thousands of studies. That’s what you have to do. You have to put in the hard work. Don’t expect anything to be handed to you. If you see others getting jobs who seem not as qualified as you, don’t get bitter. Tell yourself you will get so good that every studio will need to have you. I was living in upstate New York with just a little bit of money saved up, sleeping in a sleeping back on the floor in my friend’s apartment. I was working at a small game studio at the time. I was spending every waking moment taking Schoolism classes, painting outside and making portfolio pieces.
Even when I was at work, I was doing a little master study at the bottom of my monitor so my boss wouldn’t see. I did at least a couple studies every day. I’ve heard some artists say you have to do a thousand paintings before you do a good one. I believe this is true. I’m still doing these studies every day because I know that they will just broaden my visual library and help me push my skills. I also don’t believe inborn talent. I think talent is learned through your experiences in life, your upbringing, your focus, hard work, sacrifice and smart learning. Do your research, study from the right classes and artists.
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Quick lunch paintings.
What inspires you to create your artwork? Who do you look up to and why?
I’m inspired by my life experiences. Ever since I was a kid, I loved exploring outside and trespassing in old abandoned factories, hospitals or subways. Many times I would have to run away from the police to not get caught. I guess I liked a bit of the danger and creepiness. You get a rush when you are climbing many stories up in an old factory on a rickety old rusted metal staircase. Not knowing if it will fall. Or when you see a police flashlight, and you have to run and hide.
These kinds of adventures really sparked a lot in my imagination and inspire the work I do. I start to think about alternate realities, and take bits from my experiences and bits from just my imagination and make something out of it. Also, being outside in nature, exploring mountains, beaches and observing light and the design of nature helps me to bring that design and natural lighting into my work. I look up to people like Craig Mullins, Richard Schmid, Alberto Mielgo, Peter Chan and many others.
Something I admire about these artists is that they are always pushing themselves. They are all a little older than me, and I consider them masters. They could easily just settle down and be comfortable in their careers, but they keep going. Being an artist is a lifelong journey. You can’t know everything. You can learn something new about colour or design every day for the rest of your life and still have so much more to learn. It’s crazy to think about, but that’s why I love art so much. There is no cap to what you can learn.
Kael Ngu is a freelance illustrator from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. His focus is on creating cover art for various publishers as well as original artworks for private collectors from all over the world. In the past, he has had the opportunity to work for renowned clients like Marvel Comics, DC Comics, and IDW Publishing.
If you’d like to learn more about Kael and what he can do for you, visit his website at www.kaelngu.com
What’s being an Art Director at Dreamworks like?
Being an art director at a huge studio is very challenging and very rewarding at the same time. I am dealing with so much all day every day. Most of my day is meetings and because of the lockdown, we are all at home in-video calls. I’ve been making protein shakes throughout the day just so I can get some food in me haha. Yes, sometimes it gets that crazy! Part of my job is to manage the art team, make sure they are doing well, have assignments to do and help them along the way. I make sure the style of the movie is consistent and at a high quality. I launch the modeling and surfacing department on locations and characters and work with them to match the art. I meet with my director and production designer to talk about what is going well and to help realize their vision for the movie.
Sometimes, I will present to the whole art department at the studio, and give updates on how our show is going. On top of all that, I have my own assignments to do. I’m designing locations, working on characters, and working on colour pallets for the film. This is a crazy amount of work but very rewarding. It’s nice to have a bit more of a say in the look of the movie. I’m thankful for this opportunity and I am growing a lot as a team manager and artist.
What’s next for Zac Retz?
I will have to see what comes after this movie. I only want to work on movies that I feel very passionate about. The great visual style and great stories. I’ve worked shortly on a couple super generic movies, and I was very unmotivated. I, of course, did the best work I could, but if it’s not something I’m very interested in its hard at times. I could tell the studio was just doing it for a quick buck. I just don’t want to waste my time on movies like that. If there’s another great movie for me to do vis dev on or art direct then I will go do that movie.
I’m talking to some studios about moving into a director role, so maybe that could be the next step for me. A goal of mine is to start my own studio where there’s a few of us doing art for many different movies/games, and we develop our own movie pitches, and video games… It’s basically what I’m doing now, outside of work, but doing this full time would be amazing. Getting a chance to create your own stories and see them come to life would be the most rewarding thing as an artist and storyteller. To do this with a couple talented friends would be amazing.
Visit Zac’s ArtStation
By Vox Groovy staff writer;
All images used with permission by the artist
© Zac Retz or respective copyright holders
Article in Slovak language;