From Concept to Creation: Where to Start?
When beginning on a VFX project, there are various briefs and directives delivered, which structure the coming weeks and months of work. But where does it all really start?
Well, what is a story without a character?
Words brought to life
In the initial stages, the characters that we come to know start outside the visual spectrum. At the beginning, we typically start with a text description of the character. It’s a basic piece of writing, summarizing who they are and what they may look like.
Following this, references are provided or sought out. Anything can be used. Other characters from fiction, famous people, elements of images online. A belt here, a jacket there, a perfect haircut or style. And, in the event no references are provided, the text description is expanded upon. In there, we’d learn more about who they are, their motivations and goals, their experiences, and their general style or attitude. All of this serves as a base to find visual life for them.
Finally, in this stage, we get a technical description. This isn’t so much creative as a mechanical structure. Here we get gender, appearance, ethnicity, age.
This serves as the earliest step of character creation. And from there, concept artists take it forward.
Silhouette, outline, words take shape
While the character concept artists deliver different potential looks, the parties involved would have a single person or small group deciding the final image. Typically, we’re looking at the director, art director, or producer.
What they’re deciding upon are iterations. These are different executions of the same character. And they start with the silhouette first. We talked in detail about shape language and the importance of the silhouette, here. This section is effectively the main physical characteristics. The things we see even in the way they stand or their expression.
From there, concept character artists look into filling the character out. More colour, different haircuts, overall styles, their proportions. It’s a bit of playtime here for artists as they can take the character in several directions seeking the best iteration.
Timelines and decisions
We would usually average it around five to fifteen days for a single character’s concept art. This number varies based on the complexity of the character. And it can take longer or shorter depending on some variables. Such as pre-existing references that fit perfectly, this would cut down the time to create. Or perhaps there’s a large change in the project. An artistic or significant plot change that must cause changes to the character.
Once we reach the end of this process, the concept artists and team lead would deliver between three and five iterations to the table. Up to this process, those involved would be engaging in an evolving process. Some iterations are removed, some have elements taken and inserted into other, stronger iterations.
And once we have the three to five iterations, how do we decide what works best? Well, there are three key points we always look for.
1. Can the model be created in 3D space?
A cool piece of concept art can sometimes be too complicated. The modeler, in the next step, would be involved in this section. Ensuring that whatever reaches the modeling desk is something that can be created.
2. How close does the final iterations fit the original description?
As much as it’s an exploration, the initial description is the heart of the character. And each iteration must have that description in mind. There are keywords to be considered. Does the iteration look like you imagined? Do they look as if they’d act and carry themselves as described? And while the description is key, any variation is to be considered. Sometimes the best characters are found in the breaking away and exploration.
3. Finally, the quality of the concept art.
This might sound odd, but a quality is promised by the studio at the beginning. And the final sketches must meet that quality, those standards must be met.
The process is one of careful exploration. Sometimes we jump away from the initial design or idea, but it is a considered move. Our VFX concept artists are working with the references on hand and the world described.
It is all about combination and delivering iteration upon iteration until the character reveals themselves.