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Marc Gabbana

Concept artist and illustrator Marc Gabbana is known for creating highly imaginative and articulate designs for films, games, commercials and advertising with over 20 years’ experience and has contributed work to epic sagas like The Matrix Reloaded & Revolutions and Star Wars: Episodes I & II, Hellboy, and Blade Runner 2049, and can count Audi, Hasbro, Image Comics and Nintendo among his clients. Born in France, he moved to Canada at a young age and later studied architecture for a year before attending the Center for Creative Studies (CCS) in Detroit, Michigan and graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in illustration. Read on as he shares his experience of learning smack in the middle of the Detroit automotive industry and how it landed him some of his first freelance jobs and helped launch his career and develop his signature, colorful and detailed style, before he achieved a lifelong artistic dream of working on blockbuster films. Though he began his career as a traditional artist and always will be one, both 2D and 3D artists can benefit from his advice and experience as he has easily integrated himself into VFX-heavy productions, contributing meticulously designed concepts and not only working with 3D modelers along a pipeline but also using Photoshop and Sketchup Pro to push his own designs further.

GW: You started freelancing in your third year of college which seems to have catapulted your career ever since then. What was that first break and how did it happen?

MG: I graduated from CCS, the Center for Creative Studies in Detroit, Michigan in 1990. Most of the faculty in the illustration department worked in the advertising industry and taught part-time at the school. They often brought examples of their professional work to show us and it was a great way to see the kind of artwork they were producing for Detroit automotive clients. The types of illustrations that I enjoyed seeing were primarily painted in gouache on illustration board, so that is how I learned to paint, as well. A few of my teachers were freelancing and looking for illustrations for ad campaigns - one was for a brightly painted Wheel of Fortune background, another for a novel way to store the spare tire in a Buick, complete with callout descriptions of the parts. Still another one was for an eerily lit, nuclear submarine lurking underwater. They liked my tightly rendered and detail-oriented paintings and asked me to help them out. I happily accepted those assignments! They were paying gigs and I knew that getting my artwork in print would be an important part of my portfolio. By the time I graduated, I had a very professional looking portfolio to show to local Detroit advertising agencies!

Crossfire SG1 Airsoft gun package illustration
Crossfire SG1 Airsoft gun package illustration

GW: You’ve worked on some legendary film sagas like Star Trek, Star Wars and The Matrix. Can you share some experiences and insights on what that was like?

MG: Those were all great projects to work on! For Star Wars: Episode I & II, I did most of the work both from my home in Canada, where I lived at the time, and also at Skywalker Ranch where the other concept artists were working in the art department on the third floor. Those were huge movies at the time and working on Star Wars was the culmination of a lifelong artistic dream. The work I did was different than the traditional, fully painted illustrations I was producing for my other commercial clients at the time.

First, a bit of background on technique. I was creating mostly pen and marker images, and not as many finished color paintings. This allowed me to generate many more ideas since I was working in greyscale with the markers. George liked to evaluate designs in a pure context and not be influenced by color, initially. Even the sculpted creature maquettes and ship models that populated the art department tables were painted monochromatic grey. If a design is solid, then it can later be painted any color. This layered approach to design resonated with me. Doug Chiang and I would speak on the phone and he would give me a list of items to be worked on. For the streets of Coruscant environments, I had a lot of freedom to explore exotic shapes and forms. I lit the scenes with moody lighting to convey a sense of foreboding mystery. I found the solitude of working in my studio in Canada, and later, the creative, collaborative atmosphere in the art department to be different experiences. When working by myself, I was less prone to being influenced by what the other artists were working on and that contributed to a lot of originality in my designs. Working fast and with clear vision with pen and markers allowed me the freedom to conceptualize and iterate on a great number of designs for environments, robots, spaceships and storyboards. I knew that ILM would eventually add the right amount of bling to bring our designs to life on the big screen. For me, the most enjoyable part of the creative process is when I am designing in the moment. I have to trust that the final results on screen will be faithful to my original vision and designs after they are passed on to the other departments. As I still do to this day, I start out with rough pen sketches to lay out scenes and then tighten them up on layout paper and also using a lightbox. The lightly drawn, blue pencil overlay allows me to add greater detail based on the rough shapes I have drawn underneath. I initially explore drawing rough, bold shapes and forms while the overlay allows me to refine details. I ink on top of the blue line with a fine black line using a Pilot Razor Point II pen, erase the blue line, add tone with Prismacolor cool grey markers and finally add highlights with gouache using a fine paintbrush. This was all done in my pre-digital painting days and I felt very much at ease with this technique. My time learning at CCS and the Detroit advertising marker work proved invaluable and prepared me well to visualize ideas with personal style and fearlessness! The images would then be scanned into the computer where I would perform minor levels adjustments to maintain the right contrast.

Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones Coruscant architecture
Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones Coruscant architecture    

In my mind, sketches engage the imagination more fully than photoreal images. That is why I gravitate to them. And, I prefer to separate the initial design stage from the the more finished rendering stage where a specific lens, cropping, color and mood can all be explored further.

For my work on The Matrix sequels, I worked in-house at the Wachowskis’ art and design studio in Venice, California, a block from the famous Venice Beach. There, they assembled an elite team of about a dozen concept artists to design the look for the two subsequent sequels: Reloaded and Revolutions. It was a professional and relaxed atmosphere and the other artists and I would interact directly with the directors, the production designer and art director to read the scripts and to discuss the various environments, scenes and storyboards to be conceptualized and designed. We had unprecedented access to the directors and I certainly enjoyed the open communication with the top creatives. The Wachowskis’ love comic books and are great proponents of art, encouraging us to create beautiful, detailed paintings that stood on their own. Technique-wise, I continued to use pen, ink and also painted with acrylics. I remember that for storyboards, they disliked seeing arrows drawn in - those which typically indicate character or camera movement. The images we created were meant to look like finished illustrations, not mere production art. As a group, we produced a huge amount of artwork, both traditional and digital, but sadly, an art book for the sequels never materialized. After working at the Venice studio for three months, the production moved to Alameda where Warner Brothers set up a new art studio, adjacent to the ESC VFX house. I was invited to follow the production there to continue working on the films and I accepted the offer. The studio was located on the decommissioned naval air base and it was there that production designer Owen Paterson and his crew built a mile and a half of freeway for the live-action shoot. It was a thrill not only to work in this new art department but also to visit the sound stages and sets where the directors and actors were filming. My stay in Alameda allowed me to discover and explore the Bay Area and led me to make a permanent move to San Francisco in 2002.

More recently, for the film Star Trek: Beyond, I had the chance to work with the team at Atomic Fiction in Oakland to design environments, props and spaceships. I worked in-house and that allowed our work to remain secure and confidential. I continued to design using traditional techniques. I would then scan my pen drawings and add tone and color using Photoshop. I worked closely with the 3D modelers, which allowed for greater communication as they built the approved designs. I enjoy working with clients who really value traditional media artwork in order to obtain client approval before devoting any resources on 3D modeling and renders. In the end, I am extremely proud of the work that I contributed to those big franchises!

Star Trek: Beyond USS Enterprise engine room
Star Trek: Beyond USS Enterprise engine room

GW: In addition to films, you’ve contributed a lot of design work to commercials for Verizon, Audi, Comcast and more - often a lot of cool robotics that get translated into 3D and animated for the final product. How detailed do your designs need to be to get approved in a notoriously fast-paced environment like working on commercials?

MG: After I receive an initial treatment from the client, showing both scripts and visual references, I usually speak with the production designer or director to clearly establish what they are looking for. Most often, I start with rough sketches to hone in on a specific style or visual language they are seeking. Even my rough drawings are pretty tight and I prefer to create detailed drawings that clearly communicate my vision. I most often draw side and top orthos as well, so that the modelers can easily build the 3D designs without guessing or altering the proportions I proposed. Unlike film, where design time is generous, I typically spend a few days to a couple of weeks to conceptualize and finish these types of images. I like to work fast, yet meticulously.

GW: What studio job did you have that gave you the largest amount of responsibility and/or freedom?

MG: Jobs that allow me to unleash my creativity using traditional media are my favorite. It's like dreaming with the tip of the pen or pencil, which allows for the most direct route from thought to tangible form. I normally work best when I am not micromanaged, and that is why I enjoyed working so much on the Star Wars and Matrix movies. They proved to be a great fit for my imagination and skill set. The pressure to create original designs didn't feel like pressure at all. In fact, it fueled my creativity.

Wrigley 5 Gum Silo environment
Wrigley 5 Gum Silo environment    

GW: What do you think has contributed to your success and your ability to be an artistic “fit” for such a variety of media – from games to advertising to both happier animated films and dark edgy sci-fi?

MG: I like to problem solve and love the challenge of coming up with unique and original visual solutions. I am always looking for collaborations with new studios, directors and creative teams to help bring their vision to life. I enjoy working on projects where creativity and originality are paramount. Clients call on me when they require imaginative designs and images and they appreciate my mastery, credibility, reliability and communication skills. I work fast, produce well-articulated and thought-out designs and deliver high-quality work on budget and on schedule.

GW: You’ve talked before about the synergy of working on a team of artists. Do you miss that now as a freelancer or has technology allowed you to feel like a part of the team when working with clients remotely?

MG: I do enjoy working from the comforts of my own studio as well as working in-house on select projects. Those outside experiences allow me to mingle with my fellow artists and collaborate in person. Skype is a great way to speak with clients during the initial brief. I find that I can focus better when I work in a quiet environment and during times when I am most productive - I am not a morning person and would rather work in the afternoon and late into the night when necessary.

101101 vs. 110101
101101 vs. 110101

GW: In your titles for The Gnomon Workshop, Visual Development Vol. 1: Traditional Techniques & Vol. 2: Digital Rendering, you share timeless foundational skills any artist needs in their arsenal. Can you expand on what viewers can expect to learn?

MG: The pen and marker technique I described earlier is exactly what is showcased in the Gnomon tutorial videos. In these, I demonstrate the importance of drawing using pen and pencil and then shading in greyscale using markers and Photoshop. I explain the importance of sketching and ideation during the initial concept phase, as well as the importance of accurate draftsmanship when finalizing a drawing. If you have a vivid imagination and would like to find a way to illustrate your own visions, then these demos are for you. I break down the creative process into very simple concepts and each successive step builds upon the previous ones. You will learn how to draw accurate perspective drawings, how to construct bold compositions, and how to render designs using dramatic values and shading to showcase them in the best light.

Coors Robotic Factory

GW: How do you keep your traditional skills sharp in a digital age? And on the flipside, do you use any 3D applications in your work?

MG: That's an easy one to answer. I have never stopped working traditionally! I draw almost daily and those ideas form the basis for my own concept images. Sometimes, I draw certain elements, such as weird robots, spaceships, buildings or characters and at other times I draw interesting compositions. The combination of those creative sparks often develop into more finished illustrations. In addition, I also paint with acrylics. Some people meditate…and I paint, which I find to be a necessary part of my creative process.

I use SketchUp Pro to block forms and to establish perspective when clients request scenes requiring a specific lens. I have not yet experimented with ZBrush or Modo and I understand they are becoming an increasingly important part of the design pipeline for films.

GW: Your work is often so intensely colorful and saturated. Could you share a little with us on how you achieve those amazing color relationships without going overboard?

MG: Thank you, I like to hit the viewer with an initial punch of color! That comes from my advertising days where an image has to stand out from the rest especially on magazine covers and toy box illustrations. I like the purity of colors on the spectrum and enjoy establishing transition colors to build richness into a painting. I learned a lot about color theory in my marker class and also in my airbrush classes at CCS using gouache as the medium. To describe colors, I still refer to them as Pantone, Liquitex and Winsor & Newton gouache names, such as emerald green, Naples yellow, cerulean blue, scarlet lake and alizarin crimson.

90% of our human vision sees the world in terms of greyscale values. Color is a small part of our overall seeing. I believe that is why I enjoy watching black-and-white movies so much. All the values are present and color is unnecessary to enjoy those images. I like to concentrate on building accurate values first in my drawings and paintings and only then think about adding color - which is really the icing on the cake.


GW: Can you tell us more about what you’ve been up to lately in your personal work?

My personal work is an important aspect of my creative spirit. I describe it as inhaling while freelance work is exhaling. It's great when I strike the right balance between both endeavors. Lately, I’ve been writing and sketching ideas for a graphic novel book that I plan to fully illustrate. It incorporates my love of storytelling, exotic characters, creatures and robots, as well as strange environments, and exciting adventures. I like capturing all the sparks in my head and collecting them in one cohesive vessel - in this case, the book! I have also been painting large-scale acrylic portraits of monsters…they are not pretty, but they are beautiful to me!

GW: You have the rare luxury as a very well-known artist and freelancer of being able to choose your clients. What advice do you have for freelancers today?

MG: Plan your career well. Decide which projects most interest and draw you in. Research the directors, production designers and art directors you wish to work with. Then, find a way to have them see your portfolio. There is a lot of competition out there so it is best to be an original voice. Stand out from the crowd. Why look for a job when you can have a real adventure? Diversify your client list, and look for jobs in various industries in case the market drops in one of them. Keep making awesome images for your portfolio.

Get in the real estate market early! Beg, borrow and steal to make a down payment on a house, and let your property appreciate. That'll be your nest egg someday.

Blade Runner 2049 Mardi Gras gas masks
Blade Runner 2049 Mardi Gras gas masks

GW: If you started over, would you do anything in your career differently?

MG: I've had a great career so far, met some truly creative artists and worked with world-class directors and production designers on a variety a of fun and creative projects. I've also made the time and effort to work on my own creative ventures. The future is a blank canvas and I look forward to my next big adventure in the art world!

GW: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us, Marc! Your work and insights are so valuable to the art community and we really appreciate it!


Check out Visual Development Vol. 1 with Marc Gabbana
Check out Visual Development Vol. 2 with Marc Gabbana