Conceptualization For Film: Part One

I'm highly visual. I've spent 21 years learning to illustrate- from commercial illustration to comic books to TV storyboards to concept design for film. So of all the things filmmaking-wise that I feel somewhat qualified to talk about is conceptualizing your film.

What's involved? Well, there's plenty: Key Scenes, conceptual art, storyboards, animatics, and production art- just to name a few.  In this post, we'll discuss KEY SCENES.

First off- the #1 thing that a conceptual artist should have gotten from the director or producer, above ALL ELSE, is a FINISHED LOCKED SCRIPT. I consider it a red flag when the script isn't finished.  I feel it means the director is indecisive and is looking for inspiration within someone else's work. Some have made reference to George Lucas using concept designers to inspire his script for the prequel trilogy... but we saw what happened there.  Of course, the designers don't mind, they're getting overtime.

Also, to work with unfinished scripts means a scene might change the tone of the entire movie... plus without an unfinished script, often the director themselves don't know what they want- and you fly into an endless waste of time designing by trial and error until you've accidentally hit on something they want.

The same goes for you as the director- if you don't know what you want, you're going to spend time and money exploring that. Now, if you have money, then I have the time... but that's for another post.  First off, let's talk about coming up with a way create the spirit of the film by using Key Scene Illustrations.

After they have a finished script, I read it trying to find the key scenes that define the movie visually. I'll talk these over with the director to see if it's where they felt the emotional and visual high points of the film are. 

These Key Scene Illustrations often will be used for investment pitches, or if money is in place, an anchor to keep the spirit of your visuals consistent. Concept designers will often find inspiration within these key scene illustrations and draw out more ideas. It may also inspire the director of photography, or even give the director insights into their script where they hadn't seen before.

For Archangel Alpha, I created six Key Scenes- using color, tone, texture and elements to give you the sense of otherworldliness. Four of these are scattered around the internet in articles relating to Archangel Alpha, but the last two are making an online appearance for the first time.

This scene was simply to show one of the main characters, Alex, looking out over a Soviet inspired homeland of Rodinia. I used lots of greys and blues to show how cold the world was as it entered into a new ice age.

Admittedly, this image is an homage to many an action film, heroic silhouettes of the ace fighters flying in an epic sky.

To give contrast to a world covered in ice and snow, I wanted to show the dirt that has been kicked up from a massive battlefield known as the Sea of Glass.  Here, the main character, Elena, emerges from her crashed Alpha to witness the wounds the world war has inflicted on her homeland.

As a direct contrasted moment to Elena and the Sea of Glass, this scene shows Alex and Grigori, overlooking what was once a proud city. Silhouetted over a stormy sky, and the ice cold rain shows that devastation has hit everywhere. In a way, this scene is far more bleak than the the previous one.

This scene would have been in the beginning as the province of Praetoria riots against the Rodinian capitol as it strips it of resources. Dust, smoke and tear gas mix as people run from Rodinian Alphas that take harsh police action on the rioters.  Although the script was written in 2007, it seems allegorical to our world of today.

I had experimented with this scene, animating it in a gif image- click on it to see some .gif animated action.  It is a destroyed and abandoned bunker that the characters encounter in the dead world. The green artificial lighting almost makes it feel eerie and haunted... showing that even the ghosts are fading from this nearly dead world.

In Two Sides of the Moon, I created five Key Scenes, again using color, but also suggesting interesting camera angles.
In the beginning of the film, a strange skeleton is found by archeologists. The reveal on this would have been an overhead so we could clearly see the skeleton in it's grave, and the archaeologists almost as strange ants.
The Skinwalker- the monster of the story- lurks in a young girls room, waking her. It is a very low-key light scene, barely able to see. While my first inclination was to have the eyes glow, the director wanted the attention to be on the girl- who herself illuminated by the moonlight, and she can barely make out the weird shadow. These decisions belong to the director.

The family that the story revolves around is camping in the woods.  The father attempts to scare the children with the legend of the skinwalker, which lurks in the woods, just watching, melding with the cold, post autumn trees. The scene is cold, but the only warmth is the tiny light that is around the family- which the monster tries to stay away from.

As a direct contrasting shot to the beginning where the skinwalker bones are discovered, a strange ritual takes place as the family is put into coffins as sacrificial fodder to appease the skinwalker. As the dancers dance around the bonfire, a strange pinwheel pattern emits from them.  I came up with the idea to give a different spin on an otherwise dreadful scene... I wanted to show a certain beauty in their beliefs.
The secret society that revolves around the skinwalker attacks and silences one of the perceived threats to their way of life.  The Sheriff goes down in a grisly scene of vain blood as cloaked figures enter his house and take his family. I felt that the scene should be devoid of color, and framed by shafts of light and shadow.  He dies in the most undignified way... I really wanted them to seem like demons.
In summary, the director should be involved while making Key Scenes.  While it is the work of the artist to interpret the script and bring something forth in an emotional way, and even can suggest camera angles and composition, the director should begin DIRECTING at this point... because ultimately the film is theirs to mold into a work of art.

Next week: Concept and Production Art
Questions? Feel free to post in the comments below.