Behind the curtain: a conversation with concept artist Chris Rosewarne
Chris Rosewarne is an award-winning Concept Artist in the movie industry, having worked on projects like Star Wars: Episode VIII, Max Payne, Skyfall, Spectre, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Guardians of the Galaxy. In this conversation, we discuss concept art as a practice and profession, Chris’s fascination with modeling fictional mechanics, and some of the modeling principles underlying his workflow. Along the way, Chris was kind enough to share a few gems from his portfolio (the part he’s allowed to share, that is).
So, ‘concept art’: How would you describe it to those not in the know?
In simple terms, concept art involves producing visuals and designs for things that haven't been made or seen; they exist only in the script or in the director’s head until you put pen to paper. It’s the job of the concept artist to extrapolate these ideas and turn them into a design or visual. It's something that’s certainly exploded since I first got into it, back when “Concept Art” wasn’t really a search term. I remember trying to swallow up as many examples as I could get hold of, which before websites like ArtStation and DeviantArt, wasn’t easy. Now though, it's highly accessible with a wealth of resources and even degree courses.
It's very exciting to be a part of, you get inspired by amazing art and of course, the reaction is “I want to do that! How do I do that?” Many concept artists have come up through the art school system and were taught the fundamentals of perspective drawing and proportion, and have found an application for their skills. For those who think: “I like the look of that; I want to learn it,” it can be quite easy to accidentally skip over these basics.
You’ve worked on some of the biggest grossing movies of all time including Skyfall and Avengers: Age of Ultron. Which projects have been a personal highlight?
I would have to say Guardians of the Galaxy, Skyfall, and Star Wars: Episode VIII. My first exposure to any concept art was imagery from Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones. I remember thinking, “That’s what I want to do” so I quit my job as a prop maker and put together a portfolio to show art departments. Fast forward ten years and I was working on concepts for Star Wars: Episode VIII. That was certainly an “Oh my God, here I am actually doing this” moment; it felt like things had come full circle.
Guardians of the Galaxy was great to work on. We were exposed to the script and it was just so wacky: a talking raccoon and a walking tree sounded completely off the wall. I was involved in designing elements that had a backstory where things weren’t pristine; they were aged, modified, and rebuilt. When you move on to the next project, you kind of forget what you did. At release it all comes back, you sit in the cinema smiling like a big kid, getting lost in and feeling a great sense of pride in your work. Hasbro brought out a Nerf gun based on Quill’s (the lead character) pistols and sent some our way. It’s very rewarding to see them side-by-side with our many original drawing iterations.
An atmospheric corridor scene from Skyfall. Credit: Eon Productions
When a production designer approaches you with a brief, what gets you excited?
I’m into what is referred to in the industry as hard surface modeling: it’s what I use SketchUp for and it also fits my background as a hands-on prop maker. So if anything is kind of robotic or weaponized in nature, I really, really get into it and enjoy the mechanics. One of the comments I often receive is that my designs look like they would move and function, even within the realms of a fantasy movie.
CIWS (Close in Weapon System) Drone through the stages of design. Top: Within SketchUp interface, Middle: Exported KeyShot render, and Bottom: fully painted in Photoshop.
I always like to have a visual grounding: that could be anything from the shape to the finish. I pick inspiration up everywhere I go. When you spend time in workshops with welding equipment you see what heat does to metal; adding cherry reds, bright blues, and smoky blacks. This tells you it was hot. It's not just about a cool design, you also have to add visual cues based on reality and inherent imperfections.
People are often surprised to learn you work predominantly in SketchUp. How did you get started?
It seemed to be the industry standard in the art department, allowing art directors to rapidly model their set with architectural forms - which SketchUp has got lit. They would traditionally draw up the plans for the sets on paper to build in SketchUp, whereas now I see them just building straight in software. Art directors would provide their set designs for me to screengrab and paint up in Photoshop. Gradually, as I would be tasked with editing scenes and be more involved, it became apparent I should just learn SketchUp.
Mi-26 helicopter firing upon a Ukrainian hotel in A Good Day to Die Hard. Credit: Scott Free Productions
I first broke the back of SketchUp working on A Good Day to Die Hard. Designing one of the main chase vehicles seemed like a fantastic project to cut my teeth on, so I watched YouTube tutorials on how to model cars, tractors, and boats. Within a couple of days, I was up and running. The main vehicle took about a week to finish, but afterward, I was able to produce a series of visuals at a rate of one each day.
I could stage crash scenes quickly using other vehicles from 3D Warehouse and placing the camera in the right position to render in Podium and finish in Photoshop. The visual effects company was keen to know how I was doing it so quickly. When I told them it was SketchUp, they were really surprised.
You get really far, really fast, without getting bogged down with all the modeling settings. Once you have a couple of assets, it's super quick. That means you can leap into the painting and the final visual.
Concept images for the reported $11 million vehicle chase scene from A Good Day to Die Hard. Credit: 20th Century Fox
Some of your work is incredibly complex and detailed. What tricks do you have up your sleeve to work quicker?
Components, components, components… I try to make the software do the work for me, so if I see anywhere that I’m going to have to repeat the modeling, I will split it in half and it will become a component. I have components of components, so there I only need to model in one small quarter or an eighth of the design.
Chris’ Sub mech project is comprised of a series of components to accelerate modeling.
There are some fantastic plugins, which I’d say are essential, especially if you are going for photo-real renders later on. Others include RoundCorner, which is indispensable for adding radii to edges and CenterPoint, which enables you to find the center of an object to apply new geometry.
How do you achieve that extra bit of polish in your designs?
It really is bevel everything. I did a model-making degree course and it was the same principle. We had to replicate a mobile phone out of wood and plastic using templates that were as precise to 0.2mm. Almost everything that is manufactured has a tiny bevel on it, and that either creates a shadow line or a highlight.
"The same should apply to 3D geometry. If you have a box with just corners, you’re going to get two flat sides that look unnatural. If something has a tiny bevel, the edge is going to catch the light differently – that’s the key to it looking more believable."
These close-ups highlight the detailed beveling in Chris’ CIWS Drone and the desired result; Above: in SketchUp interface, and Below: Post-render.
It is often the reaction of people I work with, that they question what has been made in SketchUp. They don’t expect it. I find it extremely easy to create in it, as I’m repeating a few basic methods of modeling; radial arrays, linear arrays, components, and bevelling. There is, however, no shortcutting the addition of detail. Thankfully, I enjoy adding it! That undoubtedly comes from my years with Airfix and Lego.
What recent design trends have you seen?
On the day of the one-click photo-real render, I’m noticing a pushback. People are asking me how to get that ‘graphic look’. I’m not seducing anybody with gloss, surface, or finish; just the pure form, proportion, and detail. All the classic elements taught in art college or design school are applied in SketchUp. Form and design are the two most important principles whether you’re concepting in film or architecture.
Directors and colleagues like the look of clay render overlaid with line work. You get the soft shimmer of the clay and the crisp graphic edges of the original SketchUp UI. I’ve even had expert poly modelers ask how I achieve the look.
Heavy artillery and tank concepts from Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron. For more, see the book ‘Art of the Movie’. Credit: Marvel Studios.
The explosion of CGI movies inevitably means more people want to get into concept art; what techniques keep you ahead of the game?
Well, that’s something that I’m very aware of, with all the recent grads who are very literate in various applications and poly modeling.
"However, I wouldn’t say I was hired because I’m really good with a piece of software, you are hired to problem solve: that problem being the brief and your solution being a design. No one cares how you get from A to B as long as you get there fast and the design looks good."
My workflow currently includes a modeling program, rendering software (KeyShot) and Photoshop. But I could always do pretty good paintings with just Photoshop. So 3D modeling is enhancing an existing ability.
What piece of SketchUp game would you teach to a younger you?
I might have to be controversial here and say I learned pretty much all I needed to know within the first week, which speaks to SketchUp's ease of use. I don’t consider myself a master at all: if people ask me how to do ‘x’, I have no idea, but I can do what I do very quickly and efficiently. Everything else that has improved my game has come in rendering or post.
Thanks for the crash course in concept art, Chris! Where can we keep up to date with your latest work?
Not all of my professional work I can share, but I do publish some of it alongside my personal projects, which does reflect the film work I’m involved in. For that, head over to my ArtStation page or my Facebook page and be sure to check out my tutorials on Gumroad.
Industrial Mech; Chris’ first full attempt at modeling industrial robotics in SketchUp and rendering in KeyShot.