…It’s easier to think outside of the box if you have actually lived outside of it.
Efflam Mercier is a multidisciplinary artist based in Brest, France, currently working on concept art for film at MPC, as well as doing freelance work on Magic: The Gathering. He specializes in lighting and visual storytelling, using painting, photography and CGI to create stunning artwork. This artist is renowned for his keenness to help other artists better themselves and it’s likely, that some of you know him quite well. Today, he’s here to talk to us about the importance of having original ideas when creating concept art.
How did you first get into the entertainment industry?
I was emailed by Cube Creative with them asking me to work on matte paintings for the Cartier – Winter Tale commercial. I think that they where in desperate need of matte painter because it was the summer holidays and almost every professional artist was on vacation. After I worked for them for two months, we agreed on a one year part-time contract so that I could work on freelance jobs on the side. Having a portfolio online meant that I got job offers within a couple of weeks after starting my work as a matte painter at Cube Creative. My first freelance gig was with Kollide Entertainment working on concept art for a game called Shattered.
How has your background influenced your work?
I started off with a combination of 3-D and visual effects, getting into digital painting a little later. I also did a whole lot of photo shoots, made videos and experimented with editing. This helped me learn about how a camera works as well as other things that I now use on a regular basis.
I think that knowing all of these things helps me because it means I have a more technical approach when it comes to problem solving. This is the case with artistic problems too – there’s always a solution for it in the technicalities.
Let’s say you’ve been tasked with coming up with an overview shot of a robot for a feature film. Well, you could go ahead and try a bunch of different things with the camera angles to find the best looking one. Alternatively, you could take a more grounded approach and add constraints; what height is the cameraman shooting from? What camera is he using? Is he at the top of the building and would he be looking straight ahead or would the camera unintentionally tilt because of the stress? If it’s a war zone then it’s likely that he won’t want to be seen and would maybe hide behind cover. All in all, it allows for better storytelling in a concept artwork because it communicates the scene better. If he’s looking at the robot from behind cover then you would have things in front of the camera. These things might be debris, trees and so on.
Next we have the things that inspire me. I traveled a whole lot and had my fair share of extraordinary experiences throughout my childhood. Whenever I am designing something, I like to add a unique twist to it. I think that searching for images on Google is great but if you don’t have the right keywords, you’ll probably find the same references as everyone else. As I traveled to so many places I have the visual library I need and I can look over something again when I remember it from my past and then put that into my painting if it’s interesting. This may seem a little abstract, but here’s an example: say you’re designing some sort of science fiction structure in the middle of a jungle. The structure also has hints of natural and organic shapes making it look somewhat tribal. It’s going to be very difficult to find what you’re looking for but I’ve been there so I just type in “Tjibaou” and refresh my memory. Can you see what I am getting at? There’s always something from your life experience that you can bring to the table. To sum it up: it’s easier to think outside of the box if you have actually lived outside of it.
The Fall of Iscandûr (Personal artwork).
In this day and age, most artists are influenced by movies, games and more. How do you think that’s affected art as a whole?
Great question! Most people agree that it’s tough and I think it to be a problem because if you look at the level of thought that went into making some of the most inspirational films then you will find that it’s a lot more than what you might expect. If you’re just inspired by a movie or a game then you won’t be going further than fan-art.
An example of this would be the film Blade Runner. It was so successful when it came to creating an interesting world that resonated with a lot of people with the subconscious narrative themes being thought out just as much as the main story and tying in with it too. The problem occurs when you are working to create something and the client asks you to create something that “looks sort of like Blade Runner.” I understand that coming up with something new is a risk and can bring about many problems but from the perspective of a creative, it’s one of the best things that can happen.
That said, there are some interesting works that have been done. However, if you look at the art direction, it’s always just a few steps ahead of the predecessor. Let’s look at the work by BioWare on the Mass Effect franchise. It reminds me of Blade Runner because they were both influenced by Syd Mead. The arc that has been embedded into the shape language of the game makes it more interesting than another ripoff.
Here’s the thing, if you want to create original designs and you are influenced by the aesthetics of something that’s already out there then that is already ripping off something that’s better. The problem is that you’re missing out on a lot of strengths that could be there had you came up with your own designs. I think that good design has an essence that often gets diluted in the production process so the stronger you are to the source, the better. This is difficult to pull off since it requires a lot of willpower for you to research and go back to things like nature and industrial design so that you can base your design decisions on that.
I like the analogy of making soup; you need ingredients to make a soup. If you take one of the best soup recipes, add seasoning, and pass it off as your own then all you’ve done is destroy what made the soup good in the first place. Similarly to the soup, design has ingredients – the inspirations and references. It’s up to you to pick the ones that will make it great.
Why do some people respond negatively to digital art? Is it that we resent the idea of breaking away from traditions?
I would’ve had a different answer for you a few months back but I changed my mind. I used to get angry with people who trashed digital art like “they’re just butt hurt individuals who don’t accept change”. Nowadays, I still don’t agree fully but I see where they’re coming from when they react negatively to digital art. There are reasons why people hate it.
Firstly, the entry level is lower and that means that if you take two beginner artists, one learning digital art and the other learning traditional art, then the one that’s learning traditional art won’t be able to show the works until he reaches a level of technical ability worthy of being displayed in an art gallery. Only the family and friends of the traditional painter will see the art. This differs from digital art as anyone with an Internet connection and a graphics tablet can show off crappy works (we probably all did that). This means that the likelihood of you seeing traditional art that isn’t up to scratch is low whilst terrible digital art plagues the entirety of the Internet. It can become popular even if the artist is an amateur and that can give the idea that digital art is full of crap because the best artists aren’t even the most popular ones. If something becomes popular it’s got more to do with the subject matter since it’s all about what the audience wants.
Secondly, we have the idea that digital art allows an artist to create appealing artworks without putting much thought into the design and storytelling. Also, it’s much quicker so we rarely take the time to plan the artwork we’re working on. There are a whole lot of artists who have an impressive portfolio but are unable to tell me the stories behind each of their images which is a shame. Do you think that what you create supports what you are telling me or are you just making it all up? The artwork needs to tie in with your stories and it needs to illustrate the world you’re building. We are all guilty of making cool stuff as quickly as we can without anything meaningful to back it up.
Don’t get me wrong, there is a ton of traditional art that is equally shallow, but people are going to compare digital art with the works of the old masters because that’s all these people know about art. If you compare what this community produces with the works of the old masters than it’s more than likely that you’ll think it’s all garbage. The artists are having to follow new codes and conventions but I am a little bit afraid of the ephemeral qualities of what we do. I often ask myself “How is this artwork bringing something new to the table?” The only tradition we’re breaking away from is the meticulous planning that went into making the great traditional paintings that you see. I don’t think I have ever seen anyone hate on masterfully done digital artworks.
Guardian (Personal artwork).
Describe the types of software and processes you use.
I change the process and switch up software on a regular basis depending on what I am after. I have this flowchart that I use when making technical decisions:
I always ask myself “How detailed does it need to be?” and “What’s the best way to communicate the design?” I then choose between two options. If the painting is stylized then I’m going into digital painting from scratch. However, if the aim is to have a realistic image then I start off with photos on low opacity and that gives me a basic grounding structure. I can then start to work on the shape language atop that. If there’s anything that’s architectural and involves a lot of work with perspective and relies on depth perception, then I’ll go into 3-D and model the structure. I also work on the lighting in 3-D.
Here’s all you need to know about my 3-D process:
3-D asset creation: Blender for modelling, a lot of quick and dirty UV mapping or cube mapping. I sculpt in 3DCoat and do all of my texture painting and baking in Substance Painter.
3-D scene assembly: I assemble all the models and shaders in Blender, if need-be then I’ll scatter some assets around with a particle replicator (an example of this would be three to four buildings turned into an entire city). Alternatively, I place the objects I created manually to make the composition directly in the 3-D package.
Lighting and rendering: I do this in Octane Render for Blender because it gives me a fast and photo realistic image that I can tweak by painting over it almost like I would if I had a specific photo shoot and I was manipulating the images. A rendering “layer” or “pass” gives me creative control after the rendering is complete. The passes I export include the camera depth (Z) pass to control the atmosphere and so that I can mask objects that are either near or further way. Also a normal pass to relight the render in 2D if I need to, and an ambient occlusion pass if I need to re-texture anything. Lastly, there may be some other passes depending on my needs.
It’s all about balancing quality and speed. There are some things that take longer to create in 3-D when compared with 2D and vice versa. Having said that, I am always changing things and experimenting. Recently I’ve been getting into 3-D scanning and photogrammetry as well as using game engines like Unreal Engine 4 for concept art.
Cold Blue Nights (Personal artwork).
Any advice you’ve got for people who’re just starting out?
Listen to as many sources of information as you can. That way you’ll understand various views on art and design and know more about different approaches, methods and processes. It’s enriching and it’s also likely that you will find what you are looking for. When you think about it, there’s no way to compete with someone who is dedicated and passionate about something unless you are too. I think that experimenting is a good way to discover your own values as an artist – what goals you want to purse and so on.
It’s easy to get sidetracked by opinions but letting the opinions of others influence you isn’t a good thing. You have to develop a critical mind to know which thoughts and ideas you want to integrate and which you want to reject. I hope this isn’t too abstract, but here’s an example: Imagine that someone influential tells you that 3-D is the only way to do concept art. Alright, what does this person mean? What sort of concept art is he referring to?
Everyone is limited by their own subjectivity so you have to navigate through and discover the things you’re looking for. It’s fine if you wander off into an avenue for a while, there’s always something to learn and it’s not a mistake at all. I remember when I got into using 3-D and photography for art, now someone who’s really good at drawing might look down on it because he or she is doing something different. It’s a different medium with differing aims. Currently, I am getting into drawing and painting and that’s a whole new perspective again! There are many interesting things about it but the same rule applies.
I think that there’s a value in experimenting so that you can get a taste of all the different way to make art and find out about their strengths and weaknesses. Moreover, you’ll find out about the design philosophy associated with it and then pick and choose what you like. This way it’s a matter of choice as opposed to what your parents, friends and or teachers said.
What are you hoping to achieve in future?
There’s a lot of stuff I wanna be doing. Firstly, I want to elevate my thought level and discipline. What I mean by that is that I want to be able to think in a deeper and more precise way. I think this is what people mean when they say “vision.” It’s the ability to create a plan or a solution in your mind and then execute it according to that plan. From what I have learned so far, it seems similar to the process of developing your drawing skills to a high level (I am not just talking about “professional drawings”, I do mean high quality drawings too). What a lot of people do (me included) is that we start something without any plan, we jump into it and then we correct mistakes later until we’re met with an acceptable end result. But this is a messy process and you tend to lose sight of of an idea that was too weak to start off with anyway. Suddenly, your final image doesn’t match the story, the design is dysfunctional and it ends up being bad. This is frustrating! I am trying to evoke that vision-to-execution level to be able to do things the right way consistently. This will take a long time but once I reach a high enough level I’ll try to make a short film and maybe direct a feature film if I ever get the chance. In overview, when the opportunity comes, I want to be ready to go and give it my all!
By VoxGroovy staff writer;
All images used with permission by the artists;
© Efflam Mercier or their respective copyright holder.
Publishing rights for this article have been synchronized with MOMENTA ONLINE.
Article in Slovak language;