Crafting Powerful Concept Design

Part illustrator, part costume designer, part industrial designer, part architect, concept artists are chimeras of their craft. As potential students build their portfolios to enroll in the Weta Workshop School at Massey University – a year-long Masters of Design focusing on entertainment design for film, television and gaming – we speak to Weta Workshop Art Director and programme supervisor, Paul Tobin, about the ingredients they’ll need to succeed.

Exploring Ideas through Emotion

Effective concept design – the type that lights up a client’s imagination – inhabits that elusive sweet spot where technical excellence intersects with powerful conceptual thinking. At its heart, it’s about great ideas. Says Paul: “I always look for the design that offers something that the director or the client isn’t expecting.” To help generate those ideas, the Weta Workshop Design Studio starts each brief with visual research.

“If we’re designing a creature, we don’t look at other creature designers. We go back to the source. We look at natural history, for example, and maybe even something totally left field, like a piece of modern art. We take inspiration from both to create a new piece of design, a weird hybrid creature that has never been seen before.”

Open Geisha from Ghost in the Shell by Nick Keller

Robot Geisha from Ghost in the Shell by Nick Keller

Of course, no piece of work will succeed if it doesn’t show good technical design. It may be a static image on a page or screen, but in the world of the project, it’s a real, functioning object; a living, breathing, character; a dynamic, inhabitable environment. There is no place for bad proportions or poor anatomy in concept design. Believability is key.

Eliciting an emotional response through that design is altogether more challenging. To achieve this, a successful designer will develop a bag of psychological tools, exploring aspects of pose, camera angles, and lighting to emotionally engage the client.

The Eagles & Gandalf from The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey by Weta Workshop Senior Concept Designer Gus Hunter

Constant Learning

Whether it’s real-world experience or a programme of focused study, working concept designers never stop learning. The artists of Weta Workshop are constantly refining not only their technical knowledge, but their understanding of the art and role of storytelling. Says Paul: “We spend time trying to understand the role of story better, so that when we design we’re not just designing something that looks good. It’s in service to the story.” Understanding the fundamentals of things like character archetypes – the difference between an ‘antihero’ versus a ‘hero,’ for example – can be the key to elevating a piece of work to a level that not only fulfills the brief but resonates with the client. When students begin their Master of Design, they’ll be encouraged to explore the role of storytelling in their work.

Parademon from Batman vs Superman by Weta Workshop concept design Jeremy Hanna

Ice Woman from Zhongkui : Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal by Weta Workshop Art Director Paul Tobin

Drawing on real-world experience is crucial when it comes to creating concept design that seamlessly marries form and function. It’s not uncommon for Weta Workshop’s designers to enroll in martial arts classes, life drawing workshops, or spend their weekends tinkering away in their garages, making their own vehicles. When approaching a science fiction film like Elysium or District 9, these designers can call upon an arsenal of real-world skills to understand how things might actually work or not work in the world of the film. Says Paul of his time working on The Chronicles of Narnia: “One of the things I did was I joined a western martial arts group and I learned how to fight with medieval weapons and wear armour.”

Building a portfolio

Those who are looking to build an incredible portfolio to submit for this year’s Weta Workshop School should put themselves in the shoes of the world’s directors, production designers, and creative leaders. The very best concept design portfolio will feature a collection of work that demonstrates excellent technical skill combined with emotionally resonant imagery. Above all, it should showcase powerful, unique ideas.

“That’s what an entrepreneurial designer does. They set out to fulfill the brief, but then they look for how they could spin it even further. And that’s something not every designer has; that ability to make those lateral leaps to something different; to bring an x-factor to something that no one would have imagined.”

Want to know more?

On April 17, join the Weta Workshop School supervisors Paul Tobin and Tanya Marriott for a live Q&A on Facebook. Whether you want help with your portfolio, are keen to learn about the Weta Workshop Design Studio’s creative process, or just want to hear more about those “weird hybrid creatures,” you can send in your questions in advance to be answered live.

Facebook Live Q&A: Ask Anything!

Session 1
8 – 9am Tuesday 17th April | New Zealand
12 – 1pm Monday 16th April | San Francisco
3 – 4pm Monday 16th April | New York
7 – 8pm Monday 16th April | London
8 – 9pm Monday 16th April | Berlin
11 – 12pm Monday 16th April | Dubai

Session 2
4 – 5pm Tuesday 17th April New Zealand
2 – 3pm Tuesday 17th April | Sydney
12 – 1pm Monday 16th April | Perth & Tokyo
11am – 12pm Monday 16th April | Beijing & Singapore
8.30 – 9.30am Monday 16th April | Mumbai

Send your questions to:

Learn more about the Weta Workshop School at Massey University on their website or tune in for the Live Q&A.


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