Over his 20-year career, Philippe Gaulier has earned a reputation as a talented concept artist, and his artwork has helped define key visuals for movies including Mad Max: Fury Road, Doctor Strange, and The Matrix: Resurrections. But he hasn’t let his blockbuster credits go to his head.
“It’s something concept artists battle with: we are commercial artists, not fine artists,” says Philippe. “People don't come to us because they want to experience our vision, like H.R. Giger for the first Alien. They mostly come to us because we’re professional, answer the brief, and hit the deadline. And we’re nice people to work with.”
As the first step from script to screen, concept art helps define the look of the film, as well as giving directors and writers a chance to visualize and explore their ideas and give producers an idea of the budget.
“It’s good to remember that nothing happens magically or right away, and sometimes good things happen when you least expect them,” — Philippe Gaulier
“Your task is to answer the brief and to basically do whatever gets thrown out to you,” explains Philippe. “It could be a battle scene in 15th-Century Italy, a spaceship just about to enter a portal, or an intimate scene of two characters talking. A concept artist must adapt, shapeshift, and become what the client wants them to be – although some artists specialize in creatures or vehicles.”
Philippe was inspired to become an artist by comic books, his first love. He moved from Paris to London to pursue his career but struggled to find work beyond a few illustration jobs – despite sending his showreel to every videogame and VFX company in the area. Just as he was about to give up, The Jim Henson Company’s Creature Shop got in touch and offered him an interview with Art Director Sharon Smith and Project Supervisor Jamie Courtier.
“Sharon looked through all my sketchbooks and even showed me around the building where all those fantastic creatures were being built, sculpted, and painted – a real-life dream factory,” recalls Phiilppe. “When I was leaving, Jamie handed me a copy of the beautiful hardcover artbook No Strings Attached: The Inside Story of Jim Henson's Creature Shop and added that he really liked my work. It was very humbling.”
While The Jim Henson Company didn’t have any work for Philippe at the time, they did put his name forward to the production designer on The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, giving him a chance to work on the film’s pre-production. Philippe then received the opportunity to briefly work at the Creature Shop to finalize the design of the film’s limacine Vogons.
“It’s good to remember that nothing happens magically or right away, and sometimes good things happen when you least expect them,” says Philippe.
An Ascending Star
As Philippe established himself as a skilled and trustworthy concept artist, he racked up credits in movies including G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, Captain America: The First Avenger, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. But his career leveled up with a chance to be the on-set concept artist for The Wachowski Brother’s ambitious sci-fi epic, Jupiter Ascending.
“Even though I'd been doing concepts directly for in-house art departments, this one was on-set, and it's a very different experience because you're where things get done,” says Philippe. “You have sets being built as you design them, and you walk around in the canteen and see actors and directors. You're in the heart of this world.”
Adding to the on-set frisson is the pressure everyone is under, as most of the crew are hired freelance. “There's no buffer, which is very exciting — but it's more pressure,” Philippe says. “But it's good pressure. And work long hours, and it’s intense. You do your stuff, go for your lunch break if you want to relax, and it's an hour, sometimes less. Never more than that. This is why Jupiter Ascending was a good experience for me. I also met a bunch of very talented, like-minded people on that show, and some of them are still friends to this day.”
As well as getting instant feedback from art directors and directors, being on-set is also a chance to see the world’s biggest movie stars do their thing. During a break, Philippe saw Tom Cruise rehearsing stunts for Edge of Tomorrow.
”I played it cool, you know, like everybody else I was with,” Philippe says. “But inside, I was like, ‘Oh my god, it’s Tom Cruise!’”
From Ant-Man to The Gnomon Workshop
Philippe’s next favorite project is his most recent: Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, which sends the minuscule superhero on a weird and wonderful interdimensional quest. Linking it with Jupiter Ascending is Will Htay, who had graduated from concept artist to production designer.
“Will was the exact same lovely and creative person as a production designer as he was as a fellow concept artist on Jupiter Ascending,” Philippe says. “He gave us a lot of freedom to express ourselves. There was pressure, but there was a lot of flexibility; he really knew how to nurture the artists. The world that we had to develop was creatively very, very exciting.”
"The workshop goes beyond just using the tools, though: when you’ve finished, you will understand the complete process of creating concept art, from taking on the initial brief through to five finalized illustrations that will get your client on board with your vision. But it’s not just a learning process for students." — Philippe Gaulier
Philippe’s work on Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania also paved the way for his Gnomon Workshop title, entitled Key Illustration Workflow for Film & TV. In this comprehensive workshop, Philippe breaks down the process of creating a piece of concept art, covering everything from references and inspiration to final compositing, making use of software packages Blender, Maya, 3D-Coat, KeyShot, Photoshop, and Quixel Mixer along the way.
“A tutorial is something that I’ve always wanted to do, but it always seemed like a lot of work,” says Philippe. “But I was in the right frame of mind, a perfect storm. I sent them a few examples of the things I was planning on doing; after Ant-Man, I was into all these strange alien worlds and jungles.”
The workshop goes beyond just using the tools, though: when you’ve finished, you will understand the complete process of creating concept art, from taking on the initial brief through to five finalized illustrations that will get your client on board with your vision. But it’s not just a learning process for students.
“Like pretty much all concept artists, I use two or three different software; one specifically to do this, and you mix it up,” says Philippe. “There's a lot of back and forth, but by doing the tutorial, it forces you to rationalize it in such a way that you have specific steps from one to 10. It's funny how much you learn from retro engineering your process and retracing your steps.”
"...it's scary to learn a new way of doing things or to implement a new technique in your workflow, especially if you are under a tight deadline. But I learned to spend an hour or a half an hour every day learning new things. Even though it doesn't feel like it, I know that I will have mastered it after a few months.” — Philippe Gaulier
Taking Your Time & Knowing the Basics
"As a concept artist, it’s important to stay on top of new developments in software and be ready to adapt to new workflows and tools, and it is also something that, as an art director, I can communicate to my team. It’s a long journey that takes in many facets: art in general, perspective, light theory, color theory, anatomy, composition, film culture, fashion, video games, and comics."
Philippe highlights the way concept artists went from 2D to 3D workflows as a time when he had to take the time to learn new software. His advice? Break it down into manageable chunks.
“3D came in, and I was reluctant at first; it was two steps forward, one step back,” Philippe says. “I should have embraced it right away, but it's scary to learn a new way of doing things or to implement a new technique in your workflow, especially if you are under a tight deadline. But I learned to spend an hour or a half an hour every day learning new things. Even though it doesn't feel like it, I know that I will have mastered it after a few months.”
Philippe also highlights the importance of having a good understanding of the basics of art theory — something Gnomon School and The Gnomon Workshop teach very well.
“I can tell instantly if an artist is full of hot air,” Philippe says. “They add lots of effects and details, but the composition is a bit wonky, or all the lighting doesn't quite work. It's all down to your foundational skills, and The Gnomon Workshop is teaching them the right way; lots of basics as well as more advanced techniques.”
Are you excited to take on your first concept art brief for a Hollywood blockbuster? Watch Philippe’s comprehensive 4-hour workshop to learn how to create excellent concept art, various workflow approaches, and the secrets of the film industry. Watch the trailer to find out more!