Interview With Concept Artist Adam Kuczek
Today we feature the work of concept artist and matte painter Adam Kuczek. Adam’s work has been featured in various publications such as Imagine FX and Advanced Photoshop, and his artwork was featured in the recent Hollywood blockbuster Jupiter Ascending.
Hey Adam, can you talk us through the journey you’ve taken as artist. We’d love to know about the roots of your artistic nature and how you got to where you are today?
I was one of those kids that had more sketches and drawings at the back of their school notebooks than the actual notes from the classes. Art was obviously my all-time favorite subject. Naturally, as a child, I had no idea that you can actually design for films or games as a career path; even as a teenager it never occurred to me.
In Poland, there were no materials about things like concept art or matte painting. Back then and even at a time when I was entering college, the only known art-related path was fine art studies or architecture. Digital graphics was just starting out and there was no real school of design. Fine art has never been considered a ‘real’ career anyway, unless you wanted to teach at school or sell your paintings on a street corner. I figured that architecture, although heavily relying on mathematics was the next best thing. However, after a year spent at the faculty, I decided to find a different path, much less structured and far more creative. I knew that there must be another way.
Eventually, I graduated with a degree in English Philology and after a few years I decided to go to Asia as I was always fascinated by the Far East. At the time, I was toying with some simple 2D and 3D software that I’ve discovered thanks to CDs attached to computer magazines. It was only after I ended up in China in 2007 that I eventually discovered concept art and found out people actually make a living out of it. As a foreign teacher at Chinese university, I had plenty of time between classes, so I started training myself more seriously, studying Photoshop and 3D applications. By 2010, I put together my first online portfolio and a few days later I got my first real commission. That how it’s started for me.
A lot of budding artists dream of pursuing art as a full time career. Is there a particular point in your career that you would describe as the moment you made the transition from drawing as a hobby, to becoming a professional concept artist?
Once I started getting commissions, I switched careers from teaching to full time work as a concept artist within just few months. I’ve realized that THIS is what I was looking for. I never considered teaching to be a career, for me it was just a way to go abroad. From then on, I focused my attention on becoming more proficient and on getting valuable contacts within the industry. Once you decide to do that, you have to be tough, though, because the beginnings are not easy. It may take a while to get your name out there. Especially now, the Internet is flooded with tons of aspiring artists and simple hobbyists, so your designs may easily be buried under heaps of digital noise.
You’ve just come off working on the concept art for the Hollywood blockbuster Jupiter Ascending. What was your involvement in the project and what was it like working on such a huge movie?
I was invited to work on ‘Jupiter’ by the production designers, since I worked with them before on ‘Cloud Atlas’ in 2011 (on Neo-Seoul part). My part was to come up with ideas and designs for one of the ships, Aegis cruiser, its exterior look and various interior locations, like the bridge, medical chamber or a brig. I also worked on ZEROs (flying mechs), the hangar where they’re kept and their complex assembly/deployment system. Unlike ‘Cloud Atlas’ where part of the work was done in Berlin, in Babelsberg Studios, this time I worked remotely, from Shanghai, submitting my work via online collaboration platform.
It was a very interesting project although very clandestine. I knew little about the actual story and the parts of the script I received were just compiled of bits and pieces, with cut out dialogues and character’s names. However, the stage of the project I worked on, which was basically the initial one (first half of 2012), didn’t require much detail – one or two sentences were enough to start generating ideas. It’s also the most liberating because you can come up with literally anything you want. The drawback is, by the time everything’s decided, year or two later, only few of your numerous ideas can be still floating around.
When looking at your work you can clearly see Sci-Fi themes and influences. Are there any Sci-Fi films, books and games that have had an influence on your development as an artist?
I think, as a child, I was inspired and encouraged to dream by the movies I saw at cinemas, the original ‘Star Wars’ trilogy, ‘The Neverending Story’ or ‘The Willow’. That really does it because a child doesn’t think about any technical aspects of movies; just take them as a whole. Later on, of course, were various books, comics and board games. Nowadays, it’s even easier because of the Internet. You can be up to date at all times with current trends, upcoming movies, the newest game trailers, etc.
As for the sci-fi, I have always found it interesting because of all the technology, robots, spaceships, cybernetic implants and such. With all the technological advances we can see in recent years, many aspects of sci-fi are also more real and closer to us than any elements from a typical fantasy world.
What’s your process for approaching a project like Jupiter Ascending? Do you have a specific way for developing ideas based on clients brief, or do you let the inspiration come naturally?
That really depends on the clients and their requests. Sometimes you’re asked to come up with a number of ideas based on a simple description. Some other time, you receive a very specific instructions and your job is to give them visual shape, following the directions to the letter. Typically, it depends at which point in the process you’re in.
For example, during ‘blue sky’ phase, you’re encouraged to produce many artworks using your own imagination with little restrictions, so the production designer and director have many things to choose from. Typically, you’re given some reference but the rest is up to you. All you can do is to make the designs feel unique and, at the same time, make them fit the world the director is trying to create. While working on ‘JA’, I used a lot of organic shapes as reference for ships and ZEROs launch pods, like prehistoric fish, tortoise shells and even flower petals.
If you work in the final stages, you’ll be doing very specific things like overpaints over actual footage, e.g. to guide the VFX team or to show how the existing partial set would look like with digital extension. At this point, you have to follow the already established visual language.
How would you describe your studio setup? You clearly do a lot of work in digital, but do you ever play around with other media?
From the technical point of view, my personal pipeline may differ from project to project. The beginning, however, is almost always a pen on a paper. I used traditional media a lot in the past. When I worked on ‘Cloud Atlas’, almost half of my works were traditional sketches. I did some traditional work for ‘Jupiter’ as well. In my home studio, I still have a drawing desk and tons of pens and markers, even a light box. Unfortunately, nowadays, I rarely use any of these, since digital tools have became so robust and quick. I use quick sketches often, though, before sitting in front of the computer to do the ‘real work’, because I think better with just a pencil and a paper. I don’t have to worry about any brush settings, layers or saving my work.
The next step depends on the subject matter and the amount of time available. I may scan the drawing into Photoshop and go from there. I can also start directly in 3D, in software like Maya or ZBrush and bring the elements to a certain stage before going to Photoshop to finish the design. My work is typically a mixture of 3D, photo elements and digital painting.
Sometimes, for a change, I may try some unusual software or completely new technique. Changing your standard approach may help you to come up with shapes and designs you wouldn’t normally end up with. As an example, in order to come up with unusual and unique textures, I sometimes play with various fractal generators, tweaking the parameters until the shapes look like something I can use and far from anything I would be able to create ‘manually’ or even think about.
What can we expect from you in the future, are you working on any exciting projects?
At the moment I’m involved in a couple of projects. One is called ‘Ceek’, which is a next-generation fully immersive entertainment and social virtual reality platform. For this ground-breaking project, I designed the main locations to be visited and explored in VR, many promotional materials as well as Ceekars™ – high-tech audio headset, an integral part of the whole experience. Designing an actual product, as oppose to a film prop, was challenging but also very exciting.
Another project is soon to-be-announced computer game for which I created numerous concepts of key locations, characters and items. It’s a mixture of fantasy and sci-fi, so for the first time in a long time I played with some swords and castles.
Finally, I also started working on one of my own IPs, an action-packed project called ‘Razordome’. Currently, the only problem is the lack of time I can spend on it but hopefully I can give you all a small preview soon.
You can check out more artwork from Adam’s portfolio on his personal website.