When you hire an artist to make something that has never been seen before, its generally a good idea to hire someone that can visualize it for you in several ways. Jeremy Cook tackles this challenge of visualization as a professional in concept art, modeling, and a matte painting. His work experience from ILM and Blur have also had the added benefit of putting him in the position of defining the visuals in movies such as Transformers, The Island, Day After Tomorrow, and Star Wars episode 3.
Can you give us a little info on who you are and what got you into this industry?
I was the quiet kid who could draw good. I was more interested in the space battles happening on my notebook covers than the history lesson I was supposed to be paying attention to. I was really into airplanes. Growing up in Alaska, I had no shortage of personal airshows, with Strategic Air Command not 15 miles away. I always loved special effects (then it was all practical effects and models) and always dreamed of doing that. I always figured If I did, it would be by building practical models. So I built models, lots and lots of models.
My family, especially my Dad, was always encouraging and supportive of my artistic ability all through school and college. With the almost divine intervention of CG in my younger professional career, I would be put on a path that would eventually allow me to do what I’d only dreamed about.
You made the jump from advertising/multi-media to entertainment art can you explain to us what some of the major differences were and how it impacted your art?
Moving from a primarily print, then “multimedia” driven industry to the entertainment industry felt like I’d discovered a gate to another universe in my back yard. Admittedly I was pretty young and naïve, but being exposed to that and seeing this whole other industry where artists get paid to do these amazing things was a pretty awesome moment in my life. It was pretty clear to me then what my future had to be.
I would say the biggest influencing factor from a production standpoint would be the tools and software. What we take for granted today with powerhouse computers, and the countless apps that make our lives (supposedly) easier was just not around then (or it existed in a MUCH lesser form). This was back in the day when “cut and paste” meant using an X-acto blade and Hot-Wax rollers.
How much did you hate advertising?
Haha, It wasnt so much the industry, but the circumstances I was in. I was in the midwest at that time and there were very few options for a young graphic artist. Like many people, going into the advertising/multi-media city of Chicago was “what you did” with an art degree. But I always felt like I should be doing more. I was always trying to make things more interesting (for myself mostly) Sometimes to the dismay of the client or boss of the day “…no, we cant do a space ship, this is for an insurance company!”
You mentioned that you were into building models as a kid and being inspired by Star Wars. Do you think that has contributed to your style and passion for complexity?
Most definitely. I think having the parts in front of you, assembling them and seeing how things really worked gave me a lot of reference and knowledge that I apply to my CG work today. Especially with mechanical things. I’m not saying I’m some ace Industrial engineer, but I know how landing gear works. I know how parts interact with each other each to accomplish some task or goal.
As for Star Wars, it’s almost a cliché, but yeah, that film was a pretty big influence on my interest in art and life. I think a lot of people – doing what we do – can say that.
Matte painting, modeling, and concepts..do you just consider yourself a generalist? Is this the future of the modern concept artist?
I think all artists should know at least a little bit of the whole process. We should all have a little Generalist attitude in our palette of skills. Obviously the more things you can do, and do well, the more flexible you are and the more tools you have at your disposal. I didn’t set out to learn all things with the intention of being the ultimate do-all artist. Honestly it’s because I love it all, and the more I could do myself, the more I was able to do on a project. As I got better at more things, I found more independence, and the ability to get my own ideas out better and faster. That ability is what allowed me to move into more blue sky phase stuff, I think.
How did you land your first gig at Blur? What do you feel were some of the most important
lessons you learned while there?
When I’d read about Blur in an NT magazine way back in like ’97/98-ish, they were this hot new studio in Venice. They were the bad boys of the industry and had the attitude to match. Their website even dropped the f-bomb, which I loved. It really was the only place I wanted to work at.
The job at Blur was such an incredible growth period in my career. I was like a sponge, trying to learn every piece of software I could get my hands on and every technique I could pick up. The projects were numerous and usually pretty fast paced, so you had to keep up or get trampled. It was that forge that expanded and focused my skills, teaching me a lot about being a good multi-tasker and most importantly grace under pressure. It was a hard job, but probably the most fun I’d ever had at the same time.
What was the experience of working on the project ( Star Wars) of your childhood dreams like?
Getting the job at ILM was a bitter sweet thing. On one hand I had to leave a studio that was more like a family than a job (Blur), and one I still loved at that. But on the other, I was being given the opportunity to work on the very IP that inspired me as kid. It was a pretty hard call. But I just couldn’t pass up working on something that I treated like a religion as a kid after having such a huge impact on me.
What’s it like being the new guy in a team like that? Once you payed your dues, what did you notice that set apart the senior staff at ILM
from the rookies?
My initial time at ILM, say the first month or so, I was on fanboy overload. Everywhere I went, I was meeting people who’s names I’d seen in credits and film magazines all my life. Then you realize your actually supposed to be working and the reality sets in.
I had to do a little deprogramming of how I had worked previously, because now I was in an environment where the time was a lot longer for tasks, and ‘the bar’ was off the chart. You were given tasks with the unspoken mission of: “make something that’s never been seen before, and people will be copying for the next 10 years”. Plus any self inflicted pressure of “holy crap, I am working on Star Wars, this has to be amazing”.
But that then fades too as the work piles up, and you see that it’s just a project with a deadline like any other, with it’s ups and downs. You just adapt, become better, and get it done. I think that was the biggest difference I saw between the more senior staff and rookies. The confidence, knowing what needs to be done and doing it with masterful, zen-like technique. ILM taught me how to be a better artist, with attention to detail and learning that sometimes you need to slow down and take the time to make something well. I like to think I picked up some of that ‘Zen’ while I was there.
Can you share your ‘make transformer’ plug How do you approach a design like Transformers that has a huge following but yet needed to be adapted to the big screen in a realistic way?
You would be amazed, I’ve actually been asked that. Its still in Beta, I’ll let you know when I get it all finished up. Transformers was awesome to work on. Easily some of the most challenging modeling and matte painting I’ve ever done.
Getting to make some of the robots was a great experience, though scary as s#^t at first. When I saw the initial concepts for Megatron, or even the Endoskeleton, seeing their complexity, I had a full ‘deer in the headlights’ moment of, “are you kidding me? How am I going to make that?! “ but, you settle into it, and take it one part at time. The decisions for the bots ‘look’ was out of my hands and we all knew the fan backlash was potentially huge with the radical change from old-school Transformers. But, and I hate to admit it, I wasn’t super into Transformers as a kid, so I wasn’t affected with the fanboy second guessing syndrome. I think that actually helped me to just concentrate on the task of making it instead of being caught up in an internal dialogue of “that’s not right, no, no, that’s not right either.” sometimes a little detachment is good.
What were some of the important key factors for designing for film?
Film, games or whatever, good design is good design. I always try to employ a function dictates form approach. Keeping enough real world elements to make it believable and enough fantasy to keep it fresh and innovative. Even when I’m following someone else’s concept there’s usually a lot of gaps to fill in. Knowing how stuff works so your putting meaningful things in is pretty important; instead of just random filler that makes no sense. When I’m building something, I ask myself questions like; ‘how would a workman get to that area’, or ‘what does this thing really do’ things like that. I almost always have a little back story in my head about whatever it is I’m making at the time. It helps with ideas and lets me get into it more. Once you have a story in your head of ‘what is does’, ‘what it looks like’ become much easier to come up with.
You moved from Blur studios working on game cinematic to Film. What were some of the major differences in production like?
Just due to the nature of the projects and pipelines at both, differences really covered the whole spectrum. Neither better or worse than the other just different. Blur taught me speed, agility, and gave me Matrix style abilities to dodge problems before they hit me. Keeping cool under pressure and being a better leader. ILM was more about refinement and mastering the craft; helping me take my personal bar to heights I’d never experienced. Both taught me valuable lessons in how to a be better artist, in very different situations. I’m so grateful I got to do both.
Tim Miller is a tough guy, but runs a tight ship. What do you feel sets him apart in this industry and what was your personal experience like working with him?
Miller is a friend of mine. I looked up to him as a mentor at Blur for a lot of things both artistic and as a leader. He and I just clicked on ideas and I really liked working on projects with him. Sure he’s tough, but it’s meant to make you better. His heart is in the right spot. I think its rare when you find people in this industry who are willing to take a risk and can see your inner potential even before you do. I also think its rare to find people who are straight shooters and will say to your face that they don’t like something. People react differently to that kind of honesty/candor, maybe that is what earned him his black sheep status. Me personally, I would rather be told something of mine sucks by someone I respect than candy coated just to “not offend”.
Do you have any plans of your own for games or are you starting to feel the itch to get back into film?
Seriously, it’s all cool. Both have their good and bad sides. I think I’d like to stick to what I like to do, which luckily, is common to both worlds. The idea phase, when your doing concepts, previz , writing up stories and laying it all out. I think I’m happiest at the tip of the spear.
After working on all three: films, games, and cinematics, what do you feel are unique elements for each that make successful pieces? How will the pipelines remain different. Where will we continue to see cross over?
You know, it seems like the three get closer and closer everyday. I would be pretty confident in saying game cinematics are becoming ever closer to Film pipelines in complexity and quality.
Films still edge the others out with the highest visual bar being the driving force behind the pipeline. So heavier meshes, higher resolutions of everything, Photo-real, matching live action plates, matching cameras. Etc etc.
Games are becoming more and more like movies in their look and story telling mechanics but it also has a whole different set of issues. You have things like programming, AI, Game balance, will it keep your attention for days? Weeks? Months? Is it Fun? And that’s just the non visual side. Plus the technical limiting factor, EVERY poly, pixel and bit is planned for, monitored, and budgeted. It’s like packing the ultimate car trunk for a road trip.
Cinematics are a nice bridge between the two. You have a short time to tell a story. It has to look amazing, ultimately promoting or generating interest in the game. You don’t have to worry as much about technical specs. You also dont have to take the bar as high as film work, mostly due to the lack of live action plates and matching them.
None of them are easy, and we’ll most definitely see them become more entwined.
You are now working as a freelance artist in Texas. Are you coming back to Los Angeles anytime soon? Have you gotten used to working from home as opposed to the environment of an artist in the studio?
I really miss California when I hear the snow reports for Tahoe. Being in an good, productive artist environment is great…but so is sitting in the peace and quiet of your own home office. It’s been great for the last few years to have that freedom and be able to spend a lot of time with my daughter as she grows up. Texas does have it’s upsides, cost of living being among the more obvious ones. But, I think I’ll head back into the studio environment soon enough. Interacting with other artists is how you grow. Stay tuned on that one.
How do you maintain your eye without other artists in the studio to bounce concepts or critiques back and forth too?
It’s definitely harder, but it can still be done. You need to be able to detatch yourself from a piece. And always be willing to throw it out. Sometimes, it’s just bad and it needs to be euthanized. I see mostly younger artists work on a failing effort simply because they feel so vested in it and don’t want to waste it. Better to kill it than nurse along something thats doomed.
Over the past few years, I’ve been interacting with a lot of my peers online as well, because outside opinion is pretty important. Many whom I’ve worked with in the past, and a few I’ve become friendly with from emails. Having someone to bounce ideas off or just as a set of fresh eyes is a pretty precious resource.
How do you see the value of experience within education?
A classroom can only teach you so much. You can certainly learn the tools, but the real world is where you learn the good stuff. This industry is as much about problem solving and managing chaos as it is learning the latest software. I would say the classes that I’ve seen formated more like a real production environment would get my vote over say just a spoon fed ‘follow the syllabus’ format. Anyone can read a manual.
I think things like these Master Classes and the classes here in general are great because your getting as much of the instructor’s life experiences, pointing out the pitfalls and shortcuts, as you are the software instruction. And thats due to just straight up experience, there is no other way to get that value in education.
Are there any stories that you would like to see make it to the big screen?
I would love to see Peter Hamilton’s Night’s Dawn Trilogy (aka Reality Dysfunction) made into a feature film series. That is my all time favorite sci-fi space opera. It would be an insane budget because theres like 130 characters and takes place in 8 different planets, but would put most sci-fi series to shame if it was done right. It’s a very long read, but well worth it.
Mr. Hamilton, …we need to talk.
What are some of the key elements you will be addressing in your master class demo?
I try to spend as much time talking about my thought process as I do software and technique. I truly believe people make more work for themsleves than they need to. It might sound like I am promoting laziness, but I’m not. More like; make every action count and learn to police yourself away from wasted effort.
I do show a lot of specific techniques I currently use in Modeling and Photoshop, but I’m hoping people pick up a little attitude/approach adjustment as well. If I can help someone to become a more efficient and productive artist, then the industry only benefits. I’m really looking forward to interacting with people on the forums, and learning a few things myself.
Jeremy Cook will be teaching an online master class for Gnomon from November 9th to the 23rd. His lecture is geared towards intermediate to beginner audiences. Covering how to make artists work more efficiently and make smarter decision. For more details on Jeremy Cook’s upcoming Master Class, check out Gnomon School’s website here.
Check out Jeremy Cook’s personal website at www.2d2cg.com