The Gnomon Workshop

Interview with Jerad S. Marantz

With a career spanning over 15 years working on blockbuster films, including Marvel’s Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War, Deadpool 2, Justice League and X-Men: Apocalypse, games like Gears of War 4, and TV’s Westworld (for which he received a 2017 ZBrush Award nomination) and Grimm among his many credits, chances are you’ve seen some of concept artist Jerad S. Marantz’s literally out-of-this-world creature designs and many contributions to the costumes of our favorite superheroes and supervillains. Growing up in Los Angeles, he began interning at special FX houses at a young age, focusing his work on character and creature design, and his drawing and painting skills coupled with his superb sense of design and the use of digital tools like ZBrush and Photoshop helped launch him as a sought-after artist today. An educator as well, Jerad has taught creature design at Gnomon (view a talk with him from their Anatomy Lab event! His presentation starts at 1:13:20) and you can also learn his creative process from start to finish in his Gnomon Workshop title, 3D Creature Design: Alien Rock Grubber. Read on as he shares his thoughts with us into how to think more like a creature designer, how important working on your own IPs is, and the exciting and ever-growing demands of designing wickedly cool characters and things that go bump in the night.

GW: Over your career, how have you seen the design process for film and games change? And how has the use of 3D evolved as a part of the design phase in the industry and your own work?

JSM: Over the span of my career I’ve seen in the industry change quite a bit. The way that it’s affected me the most is the expectation of level of finish. After graduating from ArtCenter, I started working immediately in 2005. The first films I worked on, I was just drawing nonstop. I barely utilized Photoshop. My initial job was to come in and brainstorm, creating several solutions and options for characters and creatures. I did most of this work on a drafting table. I loved it; it was a lot of fun and drawing and working two dimensionally is still the fastest way to concept.

Over the next few years, the industry changed for me drastically. The need to see more resolved concept work at a higher level of finish was overwhelming, especially because clients wanted to see tighter work in the first pass. So, I embraced Photoshop and 3D.

The greatest thing I learned from this experience is that the job changes, and if you do not evolve you will get left behind.

GW: How often do you still have opportunities to present designs in 2D?

JSM: I cannot stress enough the importance of drawing and painting to a concept artist. I still draw and paint all the time on the job. It is the fastest way to communicate an idea to an art director, director, production designer, costume designer, etc.

I also take on work whenever I can that just utilizes my drawing and painting skills. It’s one of my main reasons for working in video games as often as I do. The pipeline in games tends to be a bit cleaner. The designs are usually resolved in 2D before they are modeled out and turned into an asset. I think people today don’t realize how much freedom there is in drawing and painting. You can literally do anything at any time; when working in 3D there are limitations to how far you can go and how quickly you can create options.

I often paint over my 3D renders to generate fast options, depending on what the client’s needs are. Right now, I’m working on an armored character for a pretty big film. The client likes to see variety and resolved concepts. I’m able to generate a lot of options just by taking my renders into Photoshop and painting into them. It’s much faster than modeling every option.

I don't think students today really see the importance of these skills. Every successful concept artist I know draws well.

GW: Your title for The Gnomon Workshop walks viewers through your solid process of creating a detailed 3D concept from sketch to sculpt to final render, and you discuss the software you use as a tool that’s driven by your experience and knowledge of anatomy, which is always an important reminder for beginners. Can you talk a bit about how this system of working has really been successful for you?

JSM: I’m still pretty proud of my Rock Grubber Gnomon workshop. It’s been years and I feel like the process still holds up. The reason why it still holds up is because it’s an effective pipeline used on the job all the time. You should be brainstorming your ideas in Photoshop or on paper. You can figure out what works and what doesn’t very quickly while working in 2D.

Being a good designer, like any other job, comes down to mileage and experience. You have to do a lot of terrible work before you can ever do anything worthwhile. If mileage is achieved by generating ideas and concepts, you need a method to produce concepts quickly. That’s why I love doing a couple sketches before ever committing to a design in 3D. That’s what I do in my workshop and on the job.

GW: Have you changed up or added any new tools recently to your workflow that you feel have improved your results or productivity? Have any of the newer ZBrush features, like Sculptris Pro or Live Booleans, made their way into your use?

JSM: My schedule’s pretty hectic all the time and I’m actually really grateful for that. It can take me a long time to take on new features from ZBrush and incorporate that into my pipeline. I really look forward to learning new stuff in the program and the program does seem to have a lot more to offer than I am aware of, but because my workload is so big I tend to rely on the techniques that are familiar so that I can get stuff done as efficiently as possible.

The funny thing is, I will find new ways of working with old features that will have a drastic impact on my efficiency. I guess I just need things to slow down for a bit before I can take on some new tools.

GW: As a concept artist, your job is to translate someone else’s vision to the screen on a particular creature or costume design, but has there been a film, game or show that you really felt you left your mark on as a designer?

JSM: As a concept artist, the job is to help resolve these characters and creatures. Oftentimes what gets a concept artist the job is if that artist’s sensibilities already work in the properties “world.” That’s why a diverse and very public portfolio is so important. I'm often surprised by which one of my pieces caught the attention of a client. Sometimes it’s work I did several years ago. When I graduated from ArtCenter, I had an interview at Stan Winston's. I included a few pieces I had done in high school and those were the ones that helped me land that job.

I have a few things coming out that I’m pretty proud of. I felt I was really able to make a mark on the characters in Avengers: Infinity War. I designed Thanos's armor, the Outriders and established the designs for Proxima Midnight and Corvus Glaive. That was a very fulfilling project, but I cannot stress enough that it was a group effort. The team was led by Ryan Meinerding and I had the honor of working on those characters with many talented artists.

There have been a few projects where my first pass on a creature or character made it on screen. One of my favorites is Koba from the most recent Planet of the Apes trilogy.

GW: Do you have any tips on how you create nuance in your creature designs, like dimorphism or how to make that character really feel like he belongs in his environment, as examples?

JSM: Nuance in creature design is hard to come by these days…there’s so much out there. I think it’s more important to create believable creature designs and that comes from having a real understanding of creatures that do exist and utilizing reference. I think one of the biggest issues that new creature designers have is that they invent too much and the design doesn’t feel relatable or believable.

There are limitations to design. You’re walking a very narrow path before you create something that just looks wacky. Personally, I believe that creature design is strongest when it looks the most believable. I believe that you can explore and find new shapes and new ideas, but those ideas need to be supported by anatomy and reference.

GW: One of the most exciting developments in VR today is its emerging toolsets for asset creation geared toward artists, and how directors and creators are implementing it into their pipelines. Do you have any thoughts on this as the industry moves forward and have you personally gotten to try out sculpting or painting in VR?

JSM: I think VR is very exciting. I have yet to try it or to see the benefit of incorporating it into my pipeline. The most useful application of VR that I’ve seen is as a presentation tool.

I think my issue with it is just the efficiency of movement. Right now with my current setup, I work on an iMac with a Wacom tablet. I can get from one side of the model to the other very quickly just by moving my wrist. Having to work with the object in front of me in VR seems like it would slow me down. Then again, I’ve really got to give it a shot.

GW: Let’s talk big films. You’ve been involved with the incredible visual development team at Marvel though many, many of their films like Avengers: Infinity War, Black Panther and Doctor Strange, and on top of that you’ve also contributed to other beloved properties with established fans, like the DC universe in Justice League, as well as The Jungle Book, and the X-Men franchise. Can you tell us a little about what those experiences have been like?

JSM: Every experience has been different. Even with the many films I’ve gotten the honor of working on over at Marvel, each film has a different director and there are different sensibilities to take into consideration.

The one thing that stays the same is my excitement for working on these properties that I’ve loved so much as a child. Being able to work on Batman was a bucket list moment. I've always wanted to do a Batsuit ever since I saw Tim Burton’s Batman. It was a surreal experience and hard to shake after the project wrapped. Other jobs didn't seem as exciting, but fortunately I was also able to work on Justice League. I would probably never get tired of working on a Batsuit or any of these comic book characters.

GW: What’s it like designing for a franchise and working on a character’s look across multiple films? How much of your design decisions are informed by story?

JSM: Working on these characters can be exciting and intimidating at the same time. I’m hired for what I do and what I bring to the project as a concept artist and designer. The hard part is trying to figure out how to design for the story. These characters have been around for so long and there have been so many different iterations of them in the comics. It’s always a challenge to find the character while serving the needs of the fans, the director and the studio. It’s a hard balance to accomplish. Everyone has an idea of what they think the character should be and which version of the character should show up in that story. It’s tricky trying to make everybody happy. Always a challenge.

GW: As artists typically view the honing of their craft as a lifetime of pursuit, what do you find yourself focusing on today in your own artwork?

JSM: You never really stop growing as an artist. There’s always something to learn and attempt to master. It’s really endless and I think that the only time you stop pushing yourself is if you get to a point where you stop challenging yourself. I feel that I have to constantly get better at everything I do. I'm rarely proud by my work and when I am it’s fleeting.

GW: The work you create is literally amazing – it’s not only a feast for the eyes, but you can really see how the clarity and detail in your designs would aid a director in quickly realizing what they want. For those trying to break into the industry, aside from your talent, what else do you think has really helped you stand out in your career as someone people want to work with? What other kinds of soft skills or knowledge do you need to have?

JSM: I think I’ve always been willing to give a little more and work a little harder than most. Anytime I was struggling with a piece I was (and currently am) willing to take it home and get it right. Not everyone does that. That’s a point that really thins out the herd. The best artists I know are willing to go above and beyond and continue to challenge themselves. I think that’s one of the reasons why I’ve been able to work so consistently.

I think of every piece I do as a potential portfolio piece. That way there’s more at stake than just the job. It’s actually pretty self-serving if you think about it; I work really hard on a piece of art for a big property, that film comes out and my work gets published and a lot of people get to see it. That helps me get more work in the future and so I try to make everything I do work for me in the long run.

Aside from the obvious skills needed to become a concept artist, I would also recommend understanding storytelling. I write, and direct whenever I can. As a writer, I feel like I have an advantage in concept art. By understanding the story, I believe I have a more direct path in getting a design approved. The design process is about generating options and finding out what works best for the story. If you understand the story, then you can create options that are more likely to be in the right direction.

GW: So, what’s next for you? How do you see yourself continuing to not only create, but also influence the design of the films and games we consume today and going forward?

JSM: Right now, I just hope to keep working on shows that excite me, while I use my free time to continue writing and creating my own personal projects. Being a concept artist is great and I’ve had a wonderful career, but now the goal is to try to make something of my own.

GW: We’ve heard you mention how much you’d like to work on your own IPs as time allows. Any exciting developments in that sector you can share with us? You must have lots of your own stories to tell!

JSM: I’m currently wrapping up editing a short horror film called Shelter that I wrote with my wife. It was my first time directing and I really fell in love with the process. I’m hoping I can wrap that up soon. I also have several other IPs that I’ve developed as treatments, pitch packages and scripts.

I think it’s important for artists to have their own projects. It puts the job in the right perspective. I can go into work and be appropriately invested in the job. Having a clear separation between the job and personal projects helps me to take direction and not fight the changes on a job I may not agree with. I see a lot of artists struggle with that and I have struggled with it in the past. After a day of being art directed there is nothing more liberating than working on your own thing.

GW: Thank you so much for sharing your insights, thoughts and experiences with us, Jerad! It’s truly been an honor.

 

Check out 3D Creature Design: Alien Rock Grubber Concept, Model, Texture, Render with Jerad S. Marantz