Friday, October 21, 2011

An Interview with Character and Creature Designer Joseph C. Pepe

 I met Joseph C. Pepe in 1990 when he was working as an effects animator and I as a key clean up artist on the Walt Disney Feature Animation film "The Rescuers Down Under". Since then Joe has created effects for every animated Disney Feature leading up to "Home on the Range" (2004), Including "Aladdin", "The Lion King", "Tarzan" and "Mulan". But when Joe left the Feature Animation studio in 2004 he made a career change, becoming a sought after conceptual artist and designer on films like "AVP: Alien Vs. Predator", "War of the Worlds" (2005), Fantastic Four" (2005), "Skinwalkers", and James Cameron's "Avatar". Joe has generously granted us an interview to give us a peek into his experiences, thought processes, inspirations, and tips for succeeding in a very competitive industry.   - Jennifer G. Oliver
  What kind of an art education did you receive?  
I grew up in a household of artists. My father is a doctor and art is his hobby. My mother still creates artistic quilts and wearable art. And both my older and younger brothers are in the film industry. I’ve been around art and artists throughout my childhood. My parents took us to all the museums and art galleries in NYC and D.C. as well as visit family artist friends’ studios. I also participated in local art festivals in Central Pennsylvania. While in high school I started taking formal art classes at a local art studio. From there I studied Industrial Design and received a B.I.D. at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY. 
Did you always envision yourself in this type of career, or did you arrive at it through a series of unplanned events? 
 I always loved to draw and I loved film but there were no schools that we knew of that had an education program that taught you how to draw spaceships and creatures. My parents did some research on automotive design and that the artists at ILM had degrees in Industrial Design so I headed in that direction. My goal was always to get into live action film design but my career didn’t start off that way. I was accepted into an internship at Disney Feature Animation in Orlando, FL in the summer of 1990 and followed a great career in animation for over 10 years. Then I transferred to the Disney Animation studio in Burbank to “be in Hollywood” hoping that I would start meeting artists that worked in live action. And to my surprise two of the Effects Animators that I worked with both had been long term ILM animators. Gordon Baker and John Armstrong animated on WILLOW, Witches of Eastwick, Terminator 2 and several other live action films.  

 Could you tell us about some of the artists who have inspired you over the years?
 One of the biggest influences is Robert A. Nelson, father of Mark Nelson. My father collected Robert’s art. He is a fantasy illustrator that my father met back in the late 1970’s. Others include: Leonardo Da Vinci. Michelangelo. Bernini. Egon Schiele. Gustav Klimnt. John Auguste Dominique Ingres.  Jean Leon Gerome. Degas. Hans Bellmer. Arthur Rackham. Heinrick Kley. H.R. Giger. Wayne Barlowe. Moebius. Bernie Wrightson. Nirasawa. Kathsuhiro Otomo. Syd Mead. Sorayama. Katsuya Terada. Takayuki Takeya. Mamoru Nagano. Shirow Masamune. Neal Adams. Barry Windsor Smith. John Bryne. Simon Bisley. Joe Johnston. Frank Frazetta. Renzo Piano. Lebbeus Woods. Joel-Peter Witkin. Peter Beard. Herb Ritts.
What mediums or programs do you use to create your art? 
I use pencil on animation paper or Arches watercolor paper; and Photoshop. I have a digital camera to take photos for integration into Photoshop also.

How did you come to work for Stan Winston Studios?  
My older brother Louis introduced me to a friend of his named Kevin McTurk who is a veteran practical FX artist. He liked my portfolio and we kept in contact. After being laid off from Disney Feature Animation Kevin contacted me to see if I was available to interview with Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff Jr. at ADI because they were looking for a concept artist. They hired me on AVP back in July of 2003 for three months to design the weapons and armor for the predators. Once AVP was finished a friend named Chris Grossnickle asked me “where are you going next?” and I said disappointingly “home.” He said that he would introduce me to a friend from Stan Winston Studio that was coming to pick him up and that he could set up an interview to show my work. Fortunately I carried a portfolio with me every day just in case. I showed Christopher Swift, a veteran Stan Winston artist, my work on the spot. He liked it and I gave him my info. A few weeks later, while brushing my teeth, I received a call from Swift in which he asked: “How fast can you get over to the studio?” and I gurgled “15 minutes.” And that turned into my four year adventure with the gang at Stan Winston Studio.
Pepe's first Na'vi Male and Female designs done for James Cameron. 12/06/2005-AVATAR
  How did you come to work on "Avatar", and how far had the creature designs evolved before you began to work with them? 
 While I was working at Stan Winston Studio about mid 2005, Stan Winston brought the entire studio to the display room for a meeting. He said he spoke with “Jim” (Cameron) who had already spent a year developing his next film, and that we have been given two weeks to show him something “new” and “spectacular” for his secret film “Project 880.” Winston said that only two artists would be chosen to try and accomplish this daunting task. A day later, Christopher Swift and I were called into Stan’s office for a meeting. He said that the two of us “better show Jim some cool shit!” We met with Jim Cameron that week in his Santa Monica office, were given two hours to read the scriptment (which was more than a two hour read!) I didn’t get to finish it!! I’m a slow reader. Then Jim gave us the ultimate download of images from ILM, Neville Page, Yuri Bartoli, Jordu Schell and Wayne Barlowe. I was really excited and intimidated all at once. I went back to Stan Winston Studio and started a lot of research on the Internet. Once I got to the point of starting my first image I put 150% of my time and energy into doing the best work I possibly could for the next two weeks.  Lucky for me my wife was just as excited that I was working with Jim Cameron and didn’t mind that she didn’t see me for two weeks. I spent about 20 hours a day for the next 14 days cranking out artwork. Our first presentation was on my birthday, Dec 07, 2005. It was kind of surreal. It was my birthday, I was getting to show my artwork to Jim for the very first time, and both Chris Swift and John Rosengrant, our Supervisor, were telling me horror stories about working with Cameron on Terminator 2!! I was getting real nervous. In my mind, I was telling myself don’t worry, if Jim yells at me for any reason, just think “C’mon, it’s Jim Cameron yelling at me!” Fortunately, although with a poker face, he really liked my work and the two weeks turned into two months. And after Cameron’s hiatus to finish the script, I worked on Avatar for over two and a half years.
LEFT: Pepe's first version of Tsu Tay 12/14/2005 RIGHT: Joe's final version of Tsu Tay, 1/15/2007 designed from a photo that he took of actor Laz Alonzo
Was a there a character or creature design on Avatar which was particularly challenging? Do you have a favorite design from the film?  
The most challenging creature to design was what became the Thanator. It was originally called a Manticore and everyone took a stab at the design. It was the only design that I know of where Jim didn’t have a complete vision in his head. He had the basic concept “ Toughest carnivore in the known universe. It is a black six-limbed panther from hell, with an armored head, a venomous striking tail, and massive distensible armored jaws.” It took months of artists and hundreds of illustrations. And still Jim didn’t like any. Then late in the production Cameron did a sketch, Neville Page fleshed it out and built the ZBrush model and it’s what you see in the film. I did over 50 iterations myself.
My favorite design in the film is Neytiri, not because I was a key character designer, but because she worked out so well in the film as a character. Jim Cameron really designed her. A lot of artists contributed to her overall appearance. WETA did all the hard work making her look incredible while Zoe Saldana brought her life. It just worked out incredibly well.
Evolution: Joe Pepe's first photo-realistic concept of Neytiri from James Cameron's concepts 12/06/2005 (left), and Pepe's final design, based upon a photo he had taken of actress Zoe Salanda 09/22/2006 (right).
Could you tell us about the process you used to create Na'vi characters who resemble the actors who portrayed them?  

All of the main characters resemble their actor counterpart. Since no one would see Zoe Saldana or all the other Na’Vi human actors it was decided to use the lower third of their face as a reference for the performance capture. Joe Letteri from WETA, Cameron and John Rosengrant agreed that this was a viable approach. Cameron, John Rosengrant and I developed the initial design of Neytiri with Saldana’s photo over a two and a half month period. From there I photographed all of the actors as they were cast for the film and took each one of them and put them through the Photoshop process.  After the initial design was locked down with Neytiri, I was able to do a design for each actor between 2-4 days.
Pepe's final designs for Jake, Eytukan, and Mo'at, designed from photos he had taken of actors Sam Worthington, Wes Studi and CCH Pounder, January 2007
Do you have any fun experiences or stories from your time working on "Avatar" that you can share with our readers?
My favorite experience on Avatar was meeting and working with all the talent that came together to make this behemoth of a film. Working with Cameron was a lot of fun. Watching him work and listening to him think out loud about making a film was amazing.
Pepe's one and only infant Na'vi design appeared in the final film.

Many of my students consider the use of a lot of reference in creating a character or creature a "crutch". What's your position on using reference? 
 Let me start my answer by saying that if H.R. Giger didn’t reference the human body (i.e. the penis, skeleton, and BMW car parts) we wouldn’t have the original 1979 ALIEN creature. If Stan Winston didn’t take Jim Cameron’s “crab mandible” reference idea, we wouldn’t have the original PREDATOR. Not using the world around you is disempowering to the creative process. There should be no rules or boundaries to creativity and art. I don’t know of any master artist or contemporary that doesn’t or hasn’t used reference for inspiration. Everything that you have imagined is from something you have seen or experienced. I believe this is called reference. Truly creative people break barriers and don’t put limitations onto themselves or to their art. Why would you limit your creativity and art by creating rules?

What part of designing a new creature or character is the most fun? What part is the most difficult?
The most fun I have in designing is the research. I really enjoy it. The fun for me is reading about and discovering new things. Learning and seeing something new with research fascinates me.
The most difficult part is split into two sections for me. The first difficult part is starting. The second is getting an approval. A lot of the time I find it difficult to start the design unless I’m under a tight deadline. Deadlines force me to start immediately.  Approvals are a whole other matter. 

Creature-personal concept
 Are there other creature designs that you have done that are favorites, either in terms of the design or work experience, and why?
 One that stands out for me that was also on Avatar was the Direhorse. It started with Wayne Barlowe who did the concept of the small jointed head with the rigid neck/mane.  Neville Page and Jordu Schell did concepts and sculptures before it was passed to Stan Winston Studio to flesh it out. Since I began working on Avatar I had an ulterior motive, which was to see maquettes and sculptures created for the film by some of the top talent in the effects industry. The first artist was Christopher Swift, who designed, sculpted, supervised and puppeteered the velociraptors in all three Jurassic Park films. The second was Joey Orosco. Orosco designed and sculpted the triceratops in the first Jurassic Park and the Spinosaurus in JPIII. I wanted to see these guys sculpt! Because I was using photos in my design work and Swift wanted to sculpt I asked him to sculpt a small maquette of the direhorse head so that I could photograph it and do color designs on it. It was an awesome experience to work with Swift on that. Ultimately he sculpted the final direhorse maquette for the film. I did design modifications and color designs in Photoshop that were the finals in the movie. With Orosco, it was all about seeing him sculpt all of my character designs on life casts of the actors. Seeing my designs go from Photoshop to 3D clay sculptures was so amazing. Both are incredible artists and it was such a pleasure to be part of the process and integrate our techniques to develop the Avatar designs.

Mariq "injured" design and an unused concept for CONAN 2010
 Who are some of your favorite creature designers working today?
Wayne Barlowe. Takayuki Takeya and Yasushi Nirasawa. They still stand out from the rest. I see too many creatures looking like they come from the same designer, film or videogame, even though they don’t. These three artists still stand apart and have broken visual barriers and set higher standards of creativity influencing a lot of artists. 

Personal project-Phantom
 What projects are you currently working on?
I’m currently working at Technicolor in the 3D Conversion Unit trying something different and new. I’m involved in converting a traditional Chinese animated film into 3D. As for design work, most recently I worked on several Tom Cruise films, One Shot; Rock of Ages and Mission: Impossible-Ghost Protocol, doing makeup, hair and prop designs. Not too long ago I did some creature and character design work on Conan the Barbarian, a live action Monkey King film with Donnie Yen, and set, prop, weapon and armor designs for Predators.  

With a busy career in the film industry, do you ever find the time to work on personal projects?
I try. I’ve been itching to do figure drawing again. It’s been too long. I think the last time I did figure drawing was at Disney. Although I do have a couple of personal film ideas or drawings that I try to keep active so that I can express my own ideas instead of others.
Unused concept

What haven't you done yet as an artist that you would still like to do? 
 That is what I’m trying to figure out. I’ve been joking around with friends that I have a creative bucket list and I have been able to check some important artistic items off that list. But the one that escapes me is the one I haven’t discovered yet.

Personal project- Bloodrayne
Do you ever have "artist's block"? if so, how do you overcome it?
Of course I have it. Work usually is the problem! Sometimes all it takes to overcome the block is a swift kick seeing a friend just drawing or painting like crazy and it’ll inspire me to return to my own work. Sometimes I’ll watch a favorite movie to fire up the inspiration also. 

Can you tell us about one of the most important lessons that you have learned from a fellow artist?
Don’t’ let anyone talk you out of putting your best foot forward.  And don’t let anyone knock your enthusiasm. I had one artist friend tell me that I was a “show off” for producing too many designs on Avatar, after a meeting with Cameron. Although I’d like to say he was joking I believed he was trying to knock my overenthusiastic attitude and abundance of work. It just made me produce even more for the next meeting. And a close artist friend said that it would be impossible to make photorealistic designs that looked good when I started working on Avatar. He apologized to me a few years later. 

Unused concepts
Can you tell us about one of the most important lessons that you have learned on your own as an artist
There are so many talented artists out there, but there is just one of me.
Early "Blackhat" concept 06/07/2006-PRIEST
What do you think is the key to creating a character or creature with "appeal"?
The key? When I find out I’ll let you know. LOL. I just go with what I think looks good. I’m not into thinking I could create an “iconic” character. The public’s response to the whole film will decide what makes a character, creature or the film appealing.
There are some artists that throw the words “iconic design” around like they can design an “iconic” character with a subtle flick of the Wacom pen. That’s quite an ego. I just don’t think that’s how it works. To me it’s the film and story that are appealing, the characters and actors then add to that.

Do you have any additional tips, advice or words of wisdom that you could give to a character or creature designer, or an artist who is just beginning their career in the film industry?
Jump in the industry and enjoy it.  Don’t turn other types of artwork down. You never know who you’ll meet that could hire you on another project. And although there is a lot of negativity in the film industry, ignore it the best you can and concentrate on doing art and being creative. If you don’t, you can get caught up in some crazy shit and derailed from your goals.