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Apr 14, 2012

Nathan Fowkes Workshop Notes

April 14th, 2012

Nathan Fowkes Workshop - ENVIRONMENT DESIGN
@Concept Design Academy

korilin89 - Twitter (up to date tweets from today's workshop xD)

Artists mentioned today:

◦ Susan Lyon (wonderful portrait painter)
◦ Steven Martinierre (sp?)
◦ Dominique Louis
◦ Paul Lasaine


The core thing is connecting with your audience.

Tools and techniques are important, but… but they evolve with time and experience. Focus on the core underlying principles.

The core principles:

  • DESIGN (Composition, shape, style)

Creating environments that have a sense of light, atmosphere, design, color, and space… that captivates the audience.

What makes environment concept design strong.

Ex: Kung Fu Panda. Character lineup. You know who the bad guys and the good guys are instantly… as well as who is the main character, and who is the main villain. That is good design. No written words--no voiceover; you just instantly understand who the characters are, and what their relationships are to each other. You even know somewhat what the story is. Connects within seconds. Environment design is the same. You have to treat environments as though they're characters.

"Environment and location is character."

How do you tell the story without voiceover narration--just showing it, and having the audience get it at the gut emotional level?

    [Composition]     [Lighting]
[Written Outline]     [Exploration/Character Design/Color Script, Location/Prop Design, Color and Lighting Keys]
    Matte painting

*Distill down the appropriate look of the show)

Be afraid; let that fear drive you to work as hard as you can; and if you do that, don't worry too much. If you have the skills, and you're willing to get out and just do it, your contribution to a great project will happen someday.

You've read the script, now you need to find a visual style for the movie. You have to develop thick skin eventually… but none of us are born with this.

This is animation--you can do anything. You don't have to work with standard tropes. People have to care about the main character--"Can a ninja carry a family feature film for an hour and a half? Maybe for ten minutes--but not for an hour and a half."

Really push your skill level. Ultimately, our goal is to make ourselves invaluable to the production. Eventually you'll be the one calling the shots. Build yourself up to the point where you're invaluable to the studios.

Doors will open for you if you can create images that connect with audiences; that people love and are engaged by.

Stories are like rollercoaster rides… goes up and down and up and down.

Color scripts help guide your emotions--with color and design--that are appropriate for each beat and mood in the script. Has to be cohesive and tell the story.

Color script--rough and to the point--one way to do it

Locations: you've roughed out what they'll look like; then you do formal breakdowns so that everyone (modelers, surfacers) can work on them. Shape and feel. Natural world inspiration.

90% of what you work on in a movie will be thrown out!

James Cameron's Avatar: Tools and techniques are critically important… but they all have to be driven by principles. Tools change and always will. "When I first started in visual effects, I was doing things like scratching effects into film stock, etc.. we were doing visual effects analogue. Every single tool that I learned, is today 100% obsolete… except for one: the pencil. By pencil, I mean the ability to communicate. I need artists who can sit down, sketch a concept down, and put it right up for everyone to see. We don't have time to do a bunch of 3D stuff up front. We have to make pictures--bam, bam, bam, bam, bam. The tools and technology will continue to change at a faster and faster rate, but they will go obsolete just as fast…."

Every project now has one 3D concept modeler--to quickly turn things from 2D to 3D. Quick concept modelers are valuable.

Someone has to model everything--eve the way branches look on trees in a movie….

Usually a set designer attached to the project as well. Everything has to be formally organized. Works out elevations; buildings, architecture, and so forth. Another piece of the puzzle.

*Be nice to everyone--because you just never know where that person will end up… they might be your boss someday!

Make the extra effort to be part of the team--the good guy. Don't be a gossiper, or talk behind people's backs… it always ends up burning bridges if you do that.

Artists use models and paint over them for their illustrations… collaborative effort.

Layout is basically the cinematography department… they're not the ones who draw and paint.

Color and lighting keys: can be really loose and effects-oriented… or they might be fairly tight… depending on the needs of the production.

Artists guide the CG Lighters: they make lights in the digital world mimic how light works in the real world.

No notes about animation or (particle) effects… lol



What color can do for your audience visually… as opposed to value only.

Hue, Saturation, Value, Temperature

Color isn't easy because there are so many possibilities. How many variations are there? 2.3 million! :O

How to get color manageable? Think of the simple properties of it. All of those 2.3 nuances of color--everything you will ever see in your entire life--is only made up of 3 things: Hue, Saturation, and Value. Temperature--emotional consideration--is the "fourth principle". The first three are scientifically measurable.

Temperature is critically important technically… you can actually ignore hue and saturation, and think only in terms (for the basics at least) of value and temperature. If you get the value right… what you do will look solid. Temperature is an important product of hue and saturation… so if you get it right, hue and saturation will be in the ballpark.

The Domestication of Color: to be able to mold it, it has to do these three things:


Interaction between light and surface.

You have to make your world believable enough for your audience to step into.

What do warm and cool light do on different surfaces and colors?

Control color to create harmony… especially for story moments, and particular environments.

Color keys--what everyone in the show looks like… so that the final frame of the movie matches up what you did in the color keys. Choosing 10 or 12 boards (from storyboards) as key scenes for color keys.

*Don't give people a reason to doubt you. Don't apologize for yourself all the time--quit saying "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry"--project at least a modest level of confidence!


James Reynolds' Traildust book. "One of the best color and atmosphere book in a naturalistic setting." Nathan Fowkes made thumbnails of every one of the paintings in this book--to study it and understand it better. Color, light, and design. This was tremendously helpful. Then he copied movies as well… anything he could get his hands on. Then he worked from his imagination… working with color and light in different ways. He felt like he had jumped up a notch in understanding color.

Consistent in personal determination to practice. No matter how tired you are--or what is going on--do at least ONE STUDY every single day for the rest of your life. Keep the ideas fresh… keep the wheels turning. He's been doing a sketch every single day for 17 years (except for his honeymoon lol).

If you take color in only one direction… it's okay. If you up contrast and saturation too much, we recoil in horror. You have to balance what the eye wants. Color harmony. (Unity with Variety.)

variety of colors can be pretty… but they might not necessarily have any relationship to each other. Our brains are always looking to find connections between things. Or you can unify colors… but that becomes boring.

So combine the two and have the balance. The human eye accepts it! Unifying element.

Pick out colors from a screenshot and place them on a color wheel… you'll see that good paintings will have its colors organized on the color wheel… not just random colors all over the wheel.

Find accents and variety… to pop out a color scheme that is too "boring".

*Become better by virtue of EXPERIENCE!

MOOD… warm colors are happy; cool colors are sad.

Green can go positively or negatively…. Colors that don't exist in nature… will immediately alert you to the artificiality of it.

Subtle color nuances and combinations…. Elicit specific moods from specific colors.

Yellow… rich, sunlit… or grimy and dirty… sandy, dusty, bleak… or moldy, even. Decrepit moisture. Macabre moods.

Lack of color… sucking the light out of life. Stark; pack a punch.

High key whites give you a feeling of sterility… of no life. Bringing a bit of color back into that also brings back the feeling of hope.


How to keep yourself motivated--work on one thing, and then when you're sick of that work on something else! Then come back fresh to the next thing. Or just quit and stare out the window….

Atmospheric conditions and different times of the day can create a dramatically different sense of mood

Spend a lot of time practicing! Study NATURAL atmospheric light and color… if you can understand that, what you do in dark rooms in front of computer screens will be so much the better.

The mood and environment of the world the characters live in… tell the story by color, light, atmosphere, and design.

[MOBY DICK: Art Direction Theory

Above water: Stark, chaotic, violent, noisy, dangerous; painterly, monochrome, desaturated, contrasty, textural
Below water: Lush, safe, magical, spiritual, fantastic, poetic; soft, smooth, colorful, dynamic]

In Monsters vs. Aliens, the sky is a character in itself. "The sky is a threat."

With space… make the audience feel the tension… the visual drama

Design of space--important consideration!!

Flat space can feel intimate. With more action or drama, open up the space to show a great expanse… to show that a good deal could  happen.

Understand what people respond to at a gut level

A sense of gravity is powerful to the unconscious mind… you need to get up, stand tall, and do what your body needs to do. Have an inherent sense of gravity--which means that… (look at lines in sketchbook)

A simple statement will more often get you the distance you want to go. Don't over-design; it blunts the point you're trying to make.

Tipping the horizon line will create unease and tension; "things are going downhill" "this conversation might break out into a fight"

Lighting as a Design element

Putting your eye exactly where it needs to be. Don't create contrast for no particular reason; the eye gets drawn to it and you don't understand why.

Visual information sacrificed--cheat the light--so that you get the read and the storytelling.

Grouping values--the darks get darker, the lights get lighter… get rid of distractions; make your environment soft, atmospheric, and cohesive.

The scene should be about telling the story--not about showing every detail in the environment.

Faces--facial expressions--are incredibly important… even more important than environment in eliciting emotion. Don't forget this. It's always more about the characters than about the environment. (Key clue!) The characters can show what they're feeling about the environment.


Simple light, shadow, and reflections… build up from that simple statement. Get that feeling of light and atmosphere, quickly and subtly. Work out the masses of color and value; what is the simple statement? Build it up… make sure it's working… and then work in the detail.

Quick sketches in Photoshop… quick suggestion of an environment. Having the ability to quickly rough out an idea so that you can put it out there and get reactions.

Start with super soft brushes to lay things in and figure out where things should be?

Take notes and do as you're asked at work!

Mass in the values… then the architecture with the values… you can make the most complicated scene manageable just by having things work together. Light sources… warm and cool. Strengthen it. Paint in the foliage and the lights. Play with spotlighting to bring the focus back where you want it; split the difference if it's too much.

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Kevin Lam said...

Wow awesome write up!

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