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Concept Art Teacher Interview - David Gordon


David Gordon Short Bio

David Gordon has art directed and/or worked on visual development, layout, and character design for numerous production companies from Lucasfilm to Pixar, including such movies as Toy Story, Monsters, Inc., A Bug’s Life, and Cars; BlueSky’s Robots and Nickelodeon’s Spongebob Squarepants

; as well as animated commercials for companies like Cheerios and Nike. He has also written and illustrated many children’s books, among them Hansel and Diesel, The Three Little Rigs, The Ugly Truckling, and Smitten. He is one of the authors of the acclaimed graphic novels Out of Picture I and Out of Picture II, and one of three illustrators of Jon Scieszka’s 52-book, N.Y. Times best-selling series, Trucktown.



How would you define Concept Art?

Concept art is literally conceptual or idea sketches and paintings for characters, locations and anything else that needs to populate a world that is

"Being asked to do some very very preliminary drawings and paintings on a one page treatment call The Toy Story, 1993."

being creating for a film.  This usually happens after or sometimes during story development, but sometimes it works the other way around - characters and worlds are sketched up, then stories are developed around them, and then artists define them more, ultimately concretizing them for production.

For me, concept and visual development is the funnest and most exciting part of the process - everything is wide open, ideas are flowing (but are also being shot down) and anything can happen.  Most of the inspiration for SpongeBob Squarepants came right from Steve Hillenburg's

Did you need to explain to your mom that this is an actual career?

I was lucky that way - she "got it" and was thrilled that an artist could actually make a living doing what we do.

What’s a day like as an Concept Artist?

david gordon robots

David Gordon - Robots, Blue Sky Studios

I'll tell you the ideal day and the not so ideal day.

Ideal day: get into the studio around 9-9:30, have some coffee and start drawing or painting immediately without interruption until there's an art review meeting with a director/art director/production designer. Then you hang up all the art you've been working on for the past few days or week and everyone loves it and you feel all energized and inspired.  Lunch, more coffee and then you go back to your desk and produce a bunch more awesome art without interruption for the next four or five hours.  Hard out of the studio by 6-7 and then go have dinner and drinks with your art department pals.

Not so ideal day: Crunch time: get into the studio at 7:30 or 8, a producer comes by your desk with his hair on fire; forget the location you've been working on for the past two weeks, it no longer exists because the story meeting did not go well and everything has changed in that sequence. More coffee, 20 minutes for lunch at your desk.  But there's still an art review meeting and you have nothing to hang up.  The director is in a bad mood and there's lot's of tension and you have to completely re-design the location that just got killed.  So back to the drawing board until 10-11pm, knowing you have to be back at the studio the next morning by 7:30…

What was your big break into the industry?

Being asked to do some very very preliminary drawings and paintings on a one page treatment call The Toy Story, 1993.

david gordon pixar 01
David Gordon - Monsters, Pixar Animation Studios

What are some of the cool things of being a Concept Artist?

I think the absolute coolest thing is working with other artists that are way better then you and feeling like just by osmosis and proximity and pushing yourself you'll get better.

What's are some of the challenges of being a Concept Artist?

"Not taking things personally."

Not taking things personally when my work isn't what the director wants.  Also; being patient with the meandering path that a production takes, knowing that, as a concept artist, I'm usually working very early in the whole production process and things may change drastically at any moment and lots of my work gets thrown out.  That sucks, but it's just part of the game.

Can you mention some of your career highlights?

david gordon pixar
David Gordon - Monsters, Pixar Animation Studios

I've been lucky to have many, but one stands out. At Pixar, early on A Bugs Life, I had the pleasure of being in the same room as John Lassater, Bill Cone, Bob Pauly and Peter deSeve, watching a first animation test of some ants carrying a huge leaf.  Steve Jobs walks in and says "wow! looks great!" and then walks out.  Pretty cool.

How do you stay awesome?

By being humble and knowing that there's much better artists than I am out there. Knowing that there's lot's of stuff I don't know and being curious and driven to learn more.

Where do you think the bulk of work is for Concept Artists? (Animation, Video Games, VFX)

Seems to be games, but correct me if I'm wrong.  The intrinsic, unavoidable drag on animated feature production is cost.  Animated features are sometimes three or four times more expensive than live action films, even though it's the sexiest venue to be a concept designer.  To give an example, FLIGHT with Denzel Washington cost USD 31 million, whereas BRAVE was USD185 million.  That's because it takes so long to make animated films, sometimes 3-4 years from concept to can.  A live action film is about 18-24 months.

That makes animated films riskier and art departments more competitive and therefore harder to get into.  That's not to say that there's not work to be had for an awesome artist.  But look at all the beautiful HD gaming platforms there are now, especially phones and tablets.  Games are selling like hotcakes, there's game downloads from the iOS app store are literally approaching the hundreds of millions and, most interesting to me, is that games are looking and acting more like movies everyday. Sometimes I'll glance at a print or web ad for a new game and think it's a live action movie.

And profit to production costs are higher, particularly the lower end games.  I mean, how much did angry birds make?  Not the most complicated character design, but look at the market! And every year the platforms get faster and the screen resolution gets better.  It's very exciting.

David Gordon

What advice can you give to aspiring Concept Artists?

"By being humble and knowing that there's much better artists than I am out there."

I was telling a student today that it's super super important, when you're creating images for your portfolio, not to just look at and emulate other production and concept designers but look at the world around you, look at the master painters, look at master film makers, look at nature and get influenced by all of it.

We all drool over the latest Art Of books, and we want our work to be that good.  A concept artist must always be educating his or herself.  There's centuries of art history at our fingertips, millions of hours of film, and we can always look out our window and see the way sunlight falls on a tree or a building.  But really take the time to LOOK.  I mean really stare at a Vermeer, and if you're lucky enough to live near a major museum, GO and LOOK at it and stare at it until a security guard throws you out.

Look at the way the masters painted flesh, drapery, sky, clouds furniture, mountains, LIGHT. Master paintings were kind of the first movies in a way, right? They didn't have the technology back then to make the images move, so the masters had to tell whole dramatic stories with one static image at a time.  But look at how enduring and powerful those images are still, centuries later. Watch the films of the best directors, pause it on important scenes and look at the way those frames of film are lit, acted, art directed, lensed colored and composed  and try to intellectually analyze why they evoke the emotion they're after.

Why are Kubrick's films different from David Lynch's?  How did Kubrick inspire Lynch? Why is Contempt by Jean-Luc Godard so amazing? Don't be ignorant of film history and art history. Look and then Know, and make that an important part of your practice as a concept artist.


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