Written by Tiffany Lim. An updated version of this article may be found on Media Context’s online portal.
Avner Geller is a Visual Development artist at DreamWorks Animation. Having worked at DreamWorks for three years, Avner has discovered what it takes to be a concept artist, and knows much about the animation industry.
Here’s what he had to say:
About the Artist
In 50 words or less, please tell us about yourself.
I was born in the states. My parents are from Israel and they lived here for a few years. When I was 4 we moved back to Israel where grew up. In Israel you have to do three mandatory years of military service, so right after high school I joined the army. When I completed my service, I kept living with my parents, working as a freelancer around the clock to save money for college. I finally graduated from Ringling college of Art and design with a BFA in Computer Animation. I recently moved to Los Angeles after living in San Francisco for three years, and excited to explore this city.
What inspired you to start drawing?
Hmm… I honestly can’t point that out cause I was way too young to remember. I was always drawing from a really early age. I guess I always had a great passion to observe the world around me. My mom tells how when I was three or four we would go to the lake by our house and I would sit for hours and draw the ducks. Later on when I was about 10 I started to get really interested in comic books, and that’s when I started to try and learn drawing more seriously.
Being a Concept Artist
What qualities do Concept Artists possess?
I am a big believer in having a strong drawing/painting foundation and understanding the fundamental “rules” before starting to stylize things. This requires studying and practice. I feel like it’s a norm that musicians and dancers practice 10 hours a day to get better, while drawing is more of a natural ability. I think “natural talent” has its place, but true skills come from many hours of practicing and learning. As a Visual Development artist you are often required to work in different styles and adapt different techniques depends on the show you are working on. Once you understand the principles of how to draw form, how to paint and render, you can “break” those rules and work more towards designing and stylizing. Some Artists have a very specific style that they might be known for and they can provide a lot of inspiration and a unique point of view. While this is great, I think that having strong foundations and the ability to draw anything, and jump between styles gives you more flexibility and make you a more versatile artist. Personally I like to try different techniques for different assignment. I feel like different projects or even assignments could benefit from different treatments. Also I think it helps with keeping things interesting to yourself and help your growth as an Artist. I am still learning every day from my talented fellow artists.
Many of Cartoons Underground’s young followers would like to know more about finding jobs in the industry. How did you start your career?
I actually got started working as an Animator. I went to school for 3d Animation, knowing that I want to be an animator. In my last year of school, while working almost only in CG I started to have doubts about this choice. I really missed drawing and painting and wanted to get back to it more and more. I was very fortunate to intern at Pixar as an Animator. While this was an extraordinary experience and I learned a lot, I also realized that animating for 10 hours a day is not what I was meant to do. The first job I got however was still in animation. I worked as a facial animator at Cinderbiter on Henry Selick’s shelved project in San Francisco. It was a really cool project, but unfortunately the studio got shut down after a year I was there. Like they say in animation, timing is everything and just around that time I got contacted by Dreamworks to see if I can interview for a Visual development position. They asked if I had an updated portfolio, since I applied almost a year and a half ago! Luckily, that whole year I was working at nights on new art so I had new work to show. I was really excited to finally start working in the art department.
How did you progress over the years? Was it a difficult process?
Progress is something that is very hard to feel over time. When you are a student you may feel like you progress rally fast, as you are constantly learning new things. Then you get to a certain level where the “jumps” are smaller and more refined, and then it’s a little harder to point out. I think that as your skill set develops you learn to recognize your weaknesses or when you reach a plato. As frustrating as those moments might be, these are the ones that will make you try harder to improve and become a better artist. I keep a big box with all my old sketchbooks, and it’s nice to go back to it every few years, and see that the work actually has improved, or at least changed, and that even if it didn’t feel like it at the time, I did make progress.
What is your current role in your company, and what are your job requirements?
I currently work as a visual development artist at Dreamworks Animation, on the upcoming film Trolls which will come out next year. I work as part of a team in the art department. As visual development artists our job is to design and realize the world and the character in which the world takes place. Unlike live action where a lot of the locations and props exist in the real world, in Animation we have to design and create everything that you see on the screen especially when it’s a new magical world that does not exist. How do plants look in this world? What do the characters wear? What type of tools they use and how do their houses look like, are all things that are carefully designed.
How do you handle deadlines?
I think it’s important to recognize what are your abilities and to be realistic about them. The worst thing you can do is to underestimate how long something will take you to do, and then not deliver on time. This is something you lean to gage over time. I think one important thing I learned is to “shoe soon, show early”. When you work with a team or with an art director, it’s good to show your process early on to see if you are on the same page. This way you don’t waste time polishing an idea that does not work, and you can move forward confidently.
Do you work with other concept artists in your company, or do you answer solely to the director?
At work we usually work in a team of about 6 artists on a film. On top of that we have our Production Designer and Art Director. We meet with them on a daily basis to show our progress, brainstorm and ask questions and get notes. Once a week we’ll collect the work from everyone and present it to the directors for their feedback.
How do you feel about working in a team?
I think one of the best parts of working in a studio is to be surrounded by extremely talented people. You see their work and get to share knowledge, techniques and ideas.
What is the biggest challenge of being a concept artist? How do you overcome these challenges?
The hardest thing is probably the need to always come up with fresh original ideas. Our job is essentially to imagine, and it’s like you want to imagine something new that no one has seen before, neither did you which is a little bit of a paradox. How would you design a Pegasus if you’ve never seen a horse or a bird? Everything we do is inspired by different references and experiences we are familiar with, and I think the key to being more inventive is to try and to expose yourself to things outside of Animation. Whether it is books, travel, theater or whatever sparks your imagination and inspires you. I like the idea of being a tourist in your own backyard, and trying to see the mundane things around me as if I see them for the first time, and use them as sources of inspiration. It could be characters I see, locations or the way the light creates an atmosphere that fits exactly a painting I want to make.
What opportunities are there for concept artists?
Art and design are used everywhere these days so the opportunities are everywhere. Aside from films there are so many TV productions, video games, mobile and social games. A concept artist is first of all an illustrator so there is the whole world of children book illustration, stationary design and more. But of course each artist should focus on the path that interests them the most.
About the Industry
Is it easier to enter the animation industry, or is it getting more difficult?
This is a hard question. Animation is definitely having another golden age these days and there are so many movies being made every year, which means more jobs. There are however much more schools and programs for animation as well so the market is flooded with graduating students who are looking for jobs and the competition is hard. I see so many young people online who do amazing work, and the amount of resources they have and exposure to other artists and tools is insane. It’s something I wish I had before I started college and I think it’s a huge advantage. At the end of the day getting the job is a combination of an amazing portfolio; timing (is the studio actually looking for artists right now). Connecting with artists from the industry in animation festivals or online, and building a relationship with them is also something that might help.
How do concept artists interact with the rest of the team?
Do you agree that producing an animated project is a collaborative effort? Absolutely! There are so many people working on an animated feature and good communication is super important. Within the art department we usually see what the other artists are working on, and it’s a very open an environment where you kno9w you can ask for someone’s opinion or advice regarding a certain problem you are trying to solve. But it doesn’t end there. We have to provide work to other departments such as modeling, surfacing and lighting, so it’s important we understand the whole process and can communicate with artist from different disciplines. It really is a huge team effort to make a movie happen.
What advice would you give to aspiring artists?
It might sound obvious but when your subject matter is one that really means something to you, the work becomes so much more interesting.
Draw what you love! Find what inspires you and use that as source material for your creation. It could be drawing people, animals, environments or anything really. Find your strengths and focus on it. There is great value in learning to look and study our surrounding. Whether you paint or draw you can learn so much about movement, light and color by studying from life. Learn how to pick up little details that you wouldn’t think of if you tried to imagine the. It could be a pose, a gesture, or even a fashion style. By observing, sketching and studying those things, you’ll enrich the visual library of ideas in you hard. It’s good and important to study the work of artist that you like. When you do this, try to really understand what it is in their art that you like. Is it the line quality, the shape language or maybe their use of color? Try to truly understand why you like their work and that will help you incorporate into your own art and make it your own instead of copying.
For more of Avner’s art, visit his website at http://avnergeller.blogspot.com/