With projects such as ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’, ‘Doctor Strange’ and the upcoming films ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ & ‘Star Wars Episode 9’, Bob Cheshire has established himself as one of the top concept artists within the industry today. Lift-Off spoke to him to find out how his relationship with Marvel started, his inspirations & influences and his helpful advice for aspiring concept artists.
When did you decide that you wanted to pursue a career in the industry and how did you go about making it a reality?
When I was 9 or 10 years old, I’d always be drawing. Drawing all kinds of stuff. But, when I was 9 or 10 “Star Wars” was making a massive impression on me. So, inevitably, I was drawing spaceships, aliens, Luke Skywalker, Stormtroopers, more spaceships. Drawing was playful and inventive and about what I wanted to draw, my take on it. Because drawing has that wonderful freedom. Not that I had the objectivity to understand that back then. I knew I loved drawing, but it’s only in retrospect that I can appreciate that. But, being a concept artist today, I need to, at least in part, engage with that part of me which is playful, open to different design solutions, that wants to explore and enjoys inventing.
There isn’t a month or even a year that I could point to and say that I knew what I wanted to do. I always drew from a very young age and certainly from as far back as I can remember. I always had a drawing on the go, drawing what all kids draw. I’m not a believer in ‘talent’ because a skill is knowledge and experience and you can’t be born with either of those. So having drawn from a very young age is why and how I’ve developed a skill for it. So, in short, it’s something that I’ve always done. Obviously it’s changed over time drawing spaceships, cars, people, cartoons, copying other artists’ work (which is very informative actually) you know, a healthy mix of inventing stuff and observation of real world stuff.
Eventually formalising all that through art courses – a Fine Art degree etc. I knew that cinema had something about it that I related to, but I didn’t understand how or why because at the time, being 10/11 years old, I was obviously ignorant of the visual language of cinema at that age. But because I always drew, I went in the direction of fine art, so I became a painter – as in oils and canvas. As I studied fine art masters and learned a visual language of composition and light and all the other formal elements, I appreciated that film was doing the same thing. At 10 and 11, I was making my Super 8 films with my brothers because even then, at Christmas they’d show a ‘making of’ on tv like Star Wars or Indiana Jones. So I could definitely point to an interest, but it really was a different world. I’d watch and go “wow, if only…”. I didn’t think it was realistic or possible.
It wasn’t until I had some professional expertise, both practically in an art sense, but also the application of a visual language, that I thought I could be in with even a vague chance. So bit by bit I engineered the direction of my work towards film because I realised that was the work I wanted to, at least, try and get. Freud said that adulthood is often spent pursuing childhood dreams. I guess I’d developed drawing skills but also loved the movies and that that put me in a good position. But…that makes it sound SO easy…to coin a phrase, the bigger your dreams the more prepared you have to be for failure, and I was well aware of that.
Is there a specific film that sparked your interest in the industry?
I was 10 when I saw “Return of the Jedi”. Twice. The cinema then was “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, “E.T.”, “Ghostbusters”, “Back to the Future”…I mean, wow! C’mon.
What is the role of a concept artist? What does your day to day consist of?
Mm…I’m stuck as to how to answer that. Concept artists are one part of a wider art department, who collectively create the look of a film. Day to day that means a lot of sketching, a lot of thinking, a lot of starting again, a lot of refining, more failure, more sketching….again and again….and again.
How do you choose your projects?
I’m a freelance, commercial artist. I don’t really choose them much more than a plumber chooses which tap to stop leaking. A lot of it is availability….I might get a phone call asking if I’m free to join a certain title but if I’m already on a title then I just have to watch it go by, just out of commercial courtesy I suppose you could call it. It would be lovely though, to be able to choose in that way. But, I’ve bills just like everybody else and so work is work.
You have an extensive list of notable credits, such as Guardians Of The Galaxy, Avengers: Age Of Ultron, and Mute, to name a few. Was there something in particular that drew you to any of these projects?
Luck. That’s not actually a great description for what I mean because that sounds like superstition. Maybe, being ‘fortunate’, is closer to what I mean. Yes, I have a set of skills which are valued and so on but, I also happened to be available at the right time, have the right experience at that time, be asked in the first place. It’s all a cocktail of circumstance, right?
But beyond that, I don’t take what I do for a living for granted. There are so many people who’d want to work on movies, let alone get to work on the kinds of titles I’ve worked on. Yes it’s difficult, yes the hours are very long, yes you have to make sacrifices and all that kind of thing…but I am working on these celebrated titles. I’ll make hay while the sun shines because it won’t be forever.
Aside from many working on many previous Marvel films, you also worked on the upcoming Avengers film, Infinity War. How did your relationship with Marvel start? Are these your favourite genre of projects to work on?
There is so much to do on a massive title, production designers will often want to crew with freelancers they’ve worked with before….they need to know you can do the job. If you’re already familiar with a colleague’s design strengths, working methods, design sensibilities and so on, a short hand can be understood. It’s quicker and easier for everyone. So it was actually the production designer, having worked on one film together, I was simply invited to move on to the next production he was working on which happened to be Thor: The Dark World and it simply went from there. The timing simply worked out that way.
As for my favourite genres? Well, again, I grew up watching “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, “Ghostbusters” and “Return of the Jedi”, you know, 80’s sci-fi, fantasy, escapism…and a little bit older that became “Bladerunner”, “Alien” and “Terminator”. I think part of Marvel’s success is that they’re not afraid to explore different flavours…”Doctor Strange” isn’t like “Thor Ragnorok”, which isn’t like “Iron Man” which is different again from “Black Panther” and so on….so genre? If you just call them superhero movies you’re not actually watching them.
I was in my local cinema (I live in Warwickshire) to watch one of the Marvel titles and there was an 8 or 9 year old boy a few rows in front, dressed head to toe as Captain America. He was clearly, utterly devoted to this character. It made watching that movie even more enjoyable because it was a great reminder to me why these movies are great to work on.
You also are working on the third instalment of the latest Star Wars Trilogy, Episode IX. The Star Wars films have such a specific look and feel to them. Do you find that it is easier to work on a project when there is previous work to be inspired from? For example, The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi.
It can be both. It can be a help and a hindrance. It can free you up and tie you down. Not a helpful answer to your question, but true. It’s both.
When coming aboard a project on a big budget film, how does the process generally work? What is the general working relationship and process between a concept artist and the director?
Not only does that change throughout the production, that also changes from director to director and even from production designer to production designer. Some directors would want to work directly with their concept artists and do exactly that. But then some directors say ‘hi’ once and you don’t get to talk to them after that. Some production designers are happy with that and some aren’t. There isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ approach, it’s really down to all the personalities involved at each level.
Of course you’re being hired for your skills, your knowledge and expertise, but different productions, different directors and different production designers will use those skills to varying degrees. Some a lot, some not very much.
What have been the most challenging and most enjoyable projects you have worked on?
The job is at its most enjoyable when I can clearly see my creativity is being valued, used and contributes to a solution….because then it’s meaningful.
Beyond that, it’s about the people you work with….and the vast, vast majority have been creative, positive people. That’s one of the best things, getting to work with people who you know are brilliant at what they do…they’re resourceful, imaginative, positive, open thinking, creative people. That bit is always a joy!
What would be your dream project to work on?
There are two ways I could answer that. The first would be very selfishly…in other words my dream project would be my own project(s). We all have our own projects on the go, whether they’re our own concept art, our own small films or our own screenplays even. I’m very aware that as a commercial artist it’s not about what I want. If a production wants a big purple elephant, then I work on a big purple elephant. It’s not about me. So, sure, my dream job is working on my own projects….which I have by the way. A screenplay (a WW2 horror), a book (sci fi) and some horror shorts (about 3 mins each). But, I’m guessing the question was really asking about what sort of titles would be my dream job, right? Well, the 10 year old me would say “Star Wars” before you’d finished asking the question.
What do you think the biggest surprise about the role of a concept artist would be to an outsider?
It’s difficult to assume what an outsider thinks I do. I know that a lot of times some people have thought I do the visual effects. Or storyboards. Concept artists are there day 1 and work from the script. Sometimes, even before a script. Concept artists are there to work with the rest of the art department to develop the look of the film.
If someone wants to pursue a career as a concept artist, how would you recommend they go about it?
Well, the first thing I’d have to say is that there isn’t a monopoly on what creates a good concept artist. Some have come from architectural backgrounds. Some from automotive design, some product design, some fine art….there isn’t a ‘this route is the best route’ answer. The common denominator is in being visually literate. Whatever an artist’s art and design background they’ll have an understanding of colour, form, composition, light, visual storytelling, proportion, texture and so on and that comes through a lot of trial and error, working and reworking, basically building up of knowledge and expertise through experience. So, really, there isn’t a right or wrong way.
What would your top three tips for aspiring concept artists be?
Eeesh, only three? What are my top three tips for aspiring concept artists? You know I don’t know if I can limit it down to three but I suppose my top three would have to be;
- Don’t be afraid of failure. Art is not an easy option. You’ll fail a lot. Just learn as you go and you will improve.
- Learn your craft…about composition, proportion, tone, light, visual storytelling….very easy to say, very hard to do. This is something that takes time, tenacity, failure, study, reflection, refinement, learning and dedication. Unfortunately I don’t know any shortcuts.
- Be polite and be professional. Be a radiator, not a drain.
(But if I am allowed a couple more they’d be…..)
- Be careful monetising something you’re passionate about. I know artists who loved drawing and painting so they made a career out of it…and like all jobs, it can be draining, difficult and for some, able to suck the passion right out of them and then they resent it. I’m lucky, drawing will always be with me hopefully.
- The work you do does not belong to you – you are doing a job.
(Any other advice you would like to voice in order to help the next generation of concept artists? Or what is next for you?)
Well, that’s pretty easy. There never used to be courses or the tutorials and seminars that there are these days. Nothing like it. So, if you’re starting out now you’re already ahead of me. I used to be a secondary school teacher and still go into schools now, to push the arts as a viable career option. Even today the arts are perceived as an easy option or something you do to ‘lighten your timetable’ and not really considered as a career option. Which is weird to me.
I was in a school recently and asked the students and parents who were present about this. I asked them to look around the room we were in and to think about how many objects have been through a design process…pretty much all of them of course. From phones, clothes, clocks, desks, shoes, the building we were in and so on and so on….they’ve all been through a design process, which means someone, somewhere, designed them.
From the biggest skyscraper to the paper clip, design is everywhere…and we question if art and design is important? How’s that even a question? I really don’t understand how that’s even a question. So in terms of whether you should chase a career in art/design? Absolutely! So, if you are that next generation of artists/designers and want to think about concept art, I’d simply encourage you to go for it.