The Gnomon Workshop

Interview with Ryan Church - part 2


GW: When you were at Disney Imagineering you said that there was an offer from ILM on the table, how did that come to be?

RC: At Disney I was introduced to the theme park aspect of entertainment design, which is really cool. Working on designs for Epcot Center and all that, it was awesome. As for the ILM offer, they did end up calling back and they said that they had a digital feature which they were going to be making and Steven Spielberg was going to be directing. I thought, oh this is going to be cool, so I dropped everything in Southern California, moved up to Northern California and got on this movie with ILM. Well, I was there for two weeks and the show was cut. I was able to then jump onto another digital feature up there, and even though that never got made either, the point is I got into ILM and was exposed to that whole digital feature thing. Being part of ILM, which was a dream, I knew I was a little bit closer to working on Star Wars so I knew that that is where I wanted to be and that's where I wanted to go. The little dream back in the corner of my mind was, wow, this actually might happen.

GW: When you were at ILM you started as a concept designer and kind of worked your way up to Senior Art Director if I'm not mistaken?

RC: Yeah, I was doing concept art for a Universal digital feature called Frankenstein which never went anywhere, but it was great training ground. The thing is, at Art Center I was doing all these shiny industrial design shapes and going on to this show at ILM it was a completely different aesthetic. It was drawing Romanesque churches and windmills and cliffs and stuff like that which really helped me grow as an artist because you're pining down both sides of the spectrum and everything in between is just kind of taken care of. At that point I was still working in pencil and traditionally as well, it wasn't until towards the end of that that I started working digitally.

GW: A strong part of being a concept artist is imagination, obviously, how much play does reference come into it?

RC: The really fun part of being a concept designer is that whatever you're working on, you're working for someone else, you're called onto a job to make their vision come to life, but every time you go onto a new job you get to become a different expert in a different thing. You get to learn about Romanesque churches or Gothic churches or high-tech industrial processes for making automobiles or whatever so you have to crave that kind of detail and all kinds of subject matters from the industrial design aspect to the more film oriented stuff of just making a generic environment look cool. You have to act as a cinematographer almost, you have to get in there and read the story. You have to think, what's the subtext of this? How should this room be lit? How should I show it off?

GW: : Have you left ILM or are you still with them?

RC: yeah I'm down in LA full time and the last thing I worked on up there was War of the Worlds after Star Wars so yeah I'm down here full time now.

GW: So you've worked on some pretty big projects and some pretty big names, what was it like working with Spielberg on War of the Worlds?

RC: That was really cool actually, he came up and we showed him around the ranch where we were working on Star Wars and he actually noticed some robots and droids I was designing and he said, oh these are really cool, and I was appreciative, but thought it was a generic compliment, what you say to be nice, but then about 8 months later I got a call from the producer Rick McCallum and he said oh, Spielberg wants you to design the tripods in War of the Worlds based on that vehicle he saw that I was designing. So that was really cool.

The way he described his designs was that he wanted them to be like ballet dancers, very sinuous, so it's more like impression, He really gives the artist the freedom to do the nuts and bolts stuff. To make it scary and to make it graceful, but then also to come up with all this stuff like, this is how the pincers deploy out or this is what the carapace is made out of, it's got this iridescent translucent thing and that kind of stuff. And he'd just say yeah, let's go with it. And that was an extremely compressed design process too, that was a lot of work.

GW: That tends to be a fairly uncommon thing in this field, to be given that much freedom. Have you found in your career that you have been given a lot of freedom or are you heavily directed on most of the projects you've worked on?

RC: It depends, on Star Wars, having worked on Episode II; I kind of knew what George was going to want on Episode III so I kind of threw my own ideas out there. Some of them were shot down, some of them he went with, but he always was molding it like, this is the type of thing this thing has to do. I need a big scary place for this to happen. Star Wars has this long history of great design coming from it and you just kind of draw from that.

GW: So, since those experiences, what have you been doing with yourself for the past year?

RC: Well, I moved back down to Southern California, which is where I'm from. I knew that ILM and Northern California was where I would spend some time, but I always wanted to get back down here. When I was just finishing up Star Wars I got a call to work on Kerry Conran's version of Princes of Mars. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow had just come out and it looked fantastic and I though oh this will be cool. That's where I've spent a lot of the last year, working on two versions of Princes of Mars. Cary's blown out epic version of that tale and John Favreaus more intimate, realistic approach to it. So it was interesting to design the same thing two different times with two completely different aesthetic directions and stuff like that, so that was fantastic. And I also worked with Ian McCaig, who I worked with on Star Wars, on those and on a little film called Outlander, a little low budget horror film. Totally fun, I've always wanted to do something like that where it's more realistic, smaller budget and stuff like that. I've been working with Disney Feature Animation for the last 8 months on a far future project of theirs, I worked on Transformers for a bit and all that stuff lead up to the project I'm working on right now which is the latest Jim Cameron feature Project 880 over at LightStorm.

GW: Now, I know that you're recently married and with all of the projects you're talking about right now, how do you find balance between your personal life and your career?

RC: It is THE challenge. You've always got this little carrot dangling in front of you of all this potential work. For a while I was working at home freelancing which was great because I got to spend a lot of time with my wife and work on my own schedule. I'm kind of a night person, which I think a lot of concept artists are, I think I developed that habit in school. But since I've taken this full time job at LightStorm and finishing up on all these outside projects, it's been rough. Your weekend is when you say, this is my time and carve that time out.

GW: So what are your plans for the future?

RC: iIn the immediate future I'm planning for a 4 or 5 month vacation, just to go back and recharge, seriously refertilize the brain. You've got to take time off and see stuff otherwise you don't know what you're drawing anymore. In the long term I'll probably be doing a lot more video game work other than film work. I enjoy the film work and it's always there and I will always be looking out to work with directors I like, but the video game stuff is pretty neat. Video games feel like film did 10 to 20 years ago. There's a lot more enthusiasm rather than the political film thing. Film is an established 100 year old industry, they have ways of doing things, it's fine, but in video games the door's wide open. Who knows what a video game is going to be in 10 or 20 years. AND you get to design things to be seen in the round, which is nice, and you design environments not just to be a shot, but you are designing real spaces. I don't' play to many video games but I love the creative process of making them.

GW: That’s interesting because up until maybe the last year or two it was sort of taboo to move from film to video games, but that seems to be very much the trend right now. Do you think it’s more from the creative side or the money or just a nice combination of both?

RC: It’s a nice combination of both, it really is. The project I’m working on right now and most of the projects have such a heavy virtual aspect. It’s almost indistinguishable from film work now. They are both creating a virtual world that looks cool and helps the story. That’s the way the structure is set up and I think it’s only going to get better. The reason it’s happening now too is because the fidelity of detail that is available. Five years ago even you would design this awesome thing and it would get boiled down to this not so great thing, but now it is indistinguishable from film in regards to resolution and detail.

GW: Great, well thank you so much for joining us today!

RC: Thank you!

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