Saturday, October 26, 2013

"This is not a dream..."

Communication through visual design occurs on many levels, some more obvious than others. Moviegoers will watch a horror film and see images expected of the genre— decrepit old buildings, a full moon, and rampaging monsters or ghosts. Storylines are generally ubiquitous as well with protagonists being somehow victimized by a malevolent force and fighting to overcome the evil.

For this reason, the success or failure of a film (and particularly a horror film) depends on how well the director tells the story.

One director whose work I admire is John Carpenter and though he is more commonly recognized for films like Halloween and The Thing, I have always been fascinated by his 1987 release Prince of Darkness. Though it was critically panned following its release and is generally not considered one of Carpenter's more successful films, there are some (including myself) who believe it is greatly underrated and unappreciated.

For readers who are unfamiliar with this movie, I suggest reading a full plot synopsis or better yet just watch the film! I am not going to dissect and fully analyze the story point-by-point. Rather, I want to discuss a few examples of how the visual design of the film enhances the story.

The establishing shot giving viewers the first glimpse of the enemy contains several common compositional elements: 1) foreground-middle ground-background, not only lending a greater sense of depth to the shot, but emphasizing a proximal relationship of the viewer to the actors and a much more distal relationship to the mysterious canister of glowing green fluid. As more is revealed and understood about the canister, shots move much closer to the substance. 2) vectors create perspective lines leading the eye of the viewer to the subject of the shot. In this case, the candles, the columns and archways, even the edges of the red carpet, all draw our eye straight to the canister. 3) frame within a frame is sometimes very subtle, but nonetheless keeps the viewer focused on the emphasis of the shot. The term could refer to a single nested frame within the picture frame itself, or to many framing elements within a single shot. Here, the canister is framed between two candelabras, as well as between the two shafts of uplighting on the back wall, and even between the corners of the wall itself.

Frame within a frame locks focus on the subject
Theoretically, additional frames could be identified leading out all the way to the foreground and picture frame, but the frames shown above really pick up where the vector elements leave off to take the viewer the rest of the way in to the focal point of the shot.

Another element sometimes missed by the conscious mind of the viewer is color. Take the above-mentioned shot for example. Primarily, the palette here is gold, red, and green. Why is it important to notice this? Because we see it again later in this shot:

Compare the gold of the ambient light on the walls of the cathedral to the gold of the tile and wall behind Professor Birack. We have red carpet down the center aisle and the red of the professor's leather chair. Finally, we have the swirling green liquid in the cylindrical glass canister and a green thermos on the desk between Birack and The Priest.

The action has physically relocated from the old abandoned sanctuary to the much cozier and safer setting of an office, but the threat of the basement cathedral is still very present and this is established through the relationship of color.

Further, observe this subsequent shot in the same setting:

In the scene, Birack and The Priest are attempting through intellectual conversation to understand the nature of the enemy force in the basement. On one side, academic reasoning and scientific method. On the other, spirituality and mystical religion. Yet poised in the center of the two is a green cylindrical container. Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in the middle between science and religion?

Even here, later on, back down in the basement a similar shot composition echoes this polarization between truth-seeker Brian and skeptic Walter. Yet always present both in the background and at the center of it all is the green fluid. Color also comes back into play here, not just the established palette of the room but observe the wardrobe of the characters. Brian, who is bright, open-minded and actively pursuing an understanding of the primordial fluid stands out against his surroundings because of his light blue shirt. Whereas Walter who complains about the research project, doesn't appear to take much seriously, and remains adamantly skeptical of the emerging truth about the liquid is drab, just like his shirt.   

Professor Birack theorizes the real force at work in the story is an Anti-God who exists in much the same way physical particles have anti-particle counterparts, matter and anti-matter, mirror images. How does a film director convey such a scientific concept to a general audience not completely made up of physicists? Like this:

We first see the possessed and transmuted character of Kelly drawn to a small compact mirror. As she attempts to reach through to the "mirror" realm, the tiny mirror proves too small a portal. Shortly thereafter, she finds a much larger wall mirror which quickly becomes a passageway into the world behind the mirror, the anti-world.

And yet here we see from inside the mirror world, our outside world becomes the mirror, the opposite. So visually we see and understand Birack's assertion of how two things co-exist at a common point, yet each opposite to the other...its mirror image.

And so what does an evil, self-aware entity composed of people-possessing primordial fluid reach for through the mirror?

That would be the Anti-God. If ever there was a hand of an evil demon...yikes!

And it is the depiction of this Anti-God that brings me to the final segment I wish to discuss. It is stated in the film that everyone in close proximity to the church has the same dream and it is later surmised by Birack and Brian that the dream is actually a looping video transmission from the future made viewable through sub-atomic particles traveling faster than light (or backwards in time).

Because of this earlier shot (above) of the front entry of the abandoned church seen through the fence with the statue in the foreground, we can immediately recognize the location of the transmission or "dream" before we even understand what it is.

The director has visually tied together two shots occurring far apart in the film (both linearly and temporally) through very similar composition.

There is an as-yet inexplicable quality to the dream footage that I have not been able to fully deconstruct, but for some reason ever since first seeing the film nearly thirty years ago, this segment has always been particularly chilling to me. There is an almost hyper-real and sublime quality to it. The voice-over in the transmission (provided by John Carpenter himself according to fan site tells us it is not a dream, but the transmission is being received as a dream due to the broadcaster's inability to "...transmit through conscious neural interference."

Though I suspect other more subtle psychological factors are at play in this sequence, there are a couple of visual storytelling devices to point out, namely color and light. 

We've established viewers recognize this as the front of the abandoned church, specifically outside the church. In other words, this is the world we know. Now we see emerging from within a tall, silhouetted figure. At this point in the film, viewers have not seen what is trying to come into our world from the mirror-world. But as seen in this "message from the future," something physical and even humanoid is clearly going to walk out of that church.

In terms of lighting, the visibility of the church exterior suggests sunlight and daytime. The interior of the church is not visible through the doorway because of the interior light source and the physical features of the figure are not visible because it is both still in the dark and back-lit.

The lighting conditions then bring with them an interesting juxtaposition of color temperature. Outside we see the warm reddish oranges and yellows of the brick facade. In contrast, we see inside the coldness of the deep blue light and the dark void of the figure moving forward.

Generally speaking, within horror film and literature especially, evil things dwell in the darkness and daylight means safety. But here we encounter what is presumably this Anti-God, this Prince of Darkness, about to walk right out of the cold dark into the warm light, a demon emerging from a church.

Opposites converge. The mirror shatters. And we are no longer safe in the light or anywhere else. All comfort and reassurance is stripped away in the matter of a few seconds of scratchy video footage.

This is the beauty of the medium. Through composition, lighting, color, and many other visual storytelling elements, a director can to a large extent manipulate and guide the audience through the experience of the film.

Through the design of the film, the story is told on many levels, whether the viewing audience is consciously aware or not.

I once heard Steven Spielberg advise a group of film students to watch movies with the sound turned off. He said if the story is clear through the imagery alone, it is a well-directed film.

Probably not everyone can enjoy an entire film without audio, but hopefully some readers will now watch movies with a little more awareness of what good directors are saying about the story through the moving images...

...and how they're saying it.

Happy Halloween, everyone!


Tuesday, October 22, 2013

More than just a mouse...

Walt Disney is often quoted as saying:

"I only hope that we never lose sight of one thing— that it was all started by a mouse."

And indeed, it was. A single idea for a whimsical character launched an empire of creativity and imagination.

One thing I enjoy about visiting Walt Disney World is the fact there is interesting and engaging design to be found everywhere. The experience is immersive. While there for the annual Epcot International Food & Wine Festival this past weekend, I tried to capture a few examples of how great design is found even in the periphery of the main park attractions.


Check out the BGS Instagram and BGS Flickr pages to view some of the lengths to which Imagineering and other creative staff go to build an environment of inspiration surrounding each guest, whether he or she cares to notice or not.

At the risk of unfair speculation, it is probably reasonable to assume the "average" Disney park guest appreciates the other-worldly quality of the resort but fails to appreciate the many levels of detail present in the overall design.

WDI has always prided itself on the attention paid to detail in its work. In a given attraction, restaurant, retail venue, or trash can, the local design concept can be found all the way down to the most insignificant element — a bollard light, a stanchion, a picture frame, or sometimes even a piece of fastening hardware.

It is a standard every good designer and artist should strive to achieve in their work.


Friday, October 11, 2013

Free Tutorial Fridays

I was first introduced to the techniques of concept artist Scott Robertson through some of the earlier Gnomon Workshop DVDs while I was still in school. If any of you readers have access to a Gnomon library at school or have the room in your budget to purchase titles from The Gnomon Workshop directly, I recommend doing so. They are highly instructive.

But if you're flat broke (or even if you're not) and starving for--among other things--more knowledge and instruction in the world of drawing and concept art, there are additional video demos and tutorials available to watch at no cost on Scott's YouTube channel in his series he calls "Free Tutorial Fridays."

Every Friday, Scott posts a new video covering a topic such as line weight, perspective, or creating a certain visual effect.


So add it as a regular event on your calendar, subscribe to the SRD YouTube channel, or follow Scott on Twitter to know when new videos are uploaded.


Monday, September 16, 2013

Concept Art + Theme Park Design

Veteran concept artist and Founding Director of the FZD School of Design, Feng Zhu, recently posted some student work focusing on theme park design.

I would encourage everyone to view the collection over at Feng's FZD Blog as well as the student work posted from other class projects.

One of the many benefits of an art and design learning environment is the access to the work other students are doing. While attending RCAD, I never missed a chance to visit the glass cases just outside the Illustration Department classrooms where student project work was displayed throughout each semester. Not only does the exercise of viewing student work help you refine your critical eye and glean ideas about process and media, but you also typically get to see many varied interpretations of the same basic idea behind all of the designs.

Spend some time looking at student work today. From anywhere. It will be worth it!


Saturday, September 14, 2013

The meaning of 'attraction'

Dark ride attractions have a long history and a wide existence. From the county fair haunted house to Pirates of the Caribbean, they somehow fascinate us at almost any age.

One dark ride in particular had a truly profound impact on its audience. Even now, almost 15 years after its retirement, there is no shortage of tribute websites and other online media dedicated to preserving the experience that was Horizons.

Readers can easily find plenty of material on the history and operation of Horizons. I wouldn't even attempt to do it justice in a few paragraphs of a blog article. Aside from that, sadly, I was never able to experience the attraction for myself. My first visit to Epcot was in 2005 and Mission: SPACE had already occupied that footprint for about five years by then.

However, I do want to point out one example of just how meaningful this attraction was and is to some of those who did experience it first-hand.

At Horizons Resurrected, designer Chris Wallace has shouldered the massive undertaking of recreating the attraction in interactive 3D. Though still in-progress, the latest simulation is worth the time and effort of downloading the free Unity browser plug-in and exploring what Chris has modeled so far (complete with in-ride audio!).

Knowing from personal experience just how much time must be invested in a 3D modeling and rendering project such as this, there is no way it would even be attempted unless there was a tremendous love for the subject matter.

This is the kind of creativity and drive a well-themed attraction can inspire in anyone who truly appreciates how it tells its story. To some it is "just a ride." But to others, it's the better part of a childhood, an anchor to which countless memories are tied, or better yet an experience that reaches into your soul and moves you to create something else on your own.

Think about that the next time you're at a theme park, or museum, or art gallery. Take a moment and really look at everything around you and try to understand your own unique experience of it.

You may be surprised at the level of meaning it has for you.


Thursday, September 12, 2013

Get some perspective...

Any good sketch or drawing, particularly visualization of space, relies on the artist having a solid understanding of perspective.

Working with 3D applications like Sketchup or 3DS Max eliminates the need to manually walk through the steps of setting up accurate perspective every time, but this should never be an excuse for any 3D artist to lack the fundamental skills of basic and even some advanced perspective.

I highly recommend the three-volume series Fundamentals of Perspective by Gary Meyer, available from The Gnomon Workshop.


In this series, Gary Meyer walks you through the step-by-step process of creating accurate one, two, and three-point perspective. All of these approaches are crucial to creating concept art, as well as other types of illustration.

Professionally mastered tutorial videos tend to be a little pricey, especially for young artists, but if you're serious about learning to draw or (like me) improving the skills you already have, these are worth the investment.

Another good resource is the book Vanishing Point: Perspective for Comics From the Ground Up by Jason Cheeseman-Meyer. Although geared toward comic art, this book covers more advanced four and five-point curvilinear perspective. It is available from Amazon in both print and digital editions.

And no, I don't get kickbacks from either Amazon or The Gnomon Workshop for promoting these two resources. They're both just great places to start if you need a tighter grasp of perspective.


Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Welcome to the Blue Grid Studio Blog!

The Blue Grid Studio Blog is an extension of Though historically my blogging efforts have been spotty at best, here I hope to develop a readership by not only posting the occasional interesting project or exercise, but also through becoming a resource for items relevant to the areas of design on which I am using BGS to focus: concept design and development, visualization, and themed design.

Blue Grid Studio is the next incarnation of my old freelance practice which started before I was even out of art school many years ago. Back then, I took on a wide variety of projects just to get the work and build a professional portfolio. That approach resulted in my work falling into more than half a dozen different categories, in some of which I had no real formal training or practical experience, making me a proverbial Jack of All Trades and Master of None.

I am still by no means a master of anything, but I have worked professionally in concept design and visualization for several years and maintain the passion that guided me back to college to re-tool for a more creative and enjoyable career.

I have been around the block a few times now, but I still love to design and discover new things in existing design. That is what I am looking to share here.

So, on behalf of Blue Grid Studio, I invite you to check in periodically and see what's going on in this particular world of design.