By Junsui Films | December 2011
The concept artist behind HUGO talks exclusively to Junsui Films about his work on the film and gives us a fascinating insight into his craft and career…
Junsui Films: Let’s start with your background in the arts. How did you become a concept artist for film?
Peter Popken: Even whilst studying at art school I was already working on the side for ad agencies, TV studios and industrial design companies. At this time I didn’t even think about a career in the film industry. It almost happened accidentally when I got offered a job as a storyboard artist for an animation studio. It was there that I learned filmmaking from scratch and I was exceptionally fortunate to be surrounded by great artists from all over the world.
JF: Which artists (concept or otherwise) have influenced and inspired your work?
There are many artists that have influenced me and the way I work today. To mention just a few I would say Syd Mead, Ralph McQuarrie, H.R.Giger and John Berkey were my favourites. Their images contain a great deal of design and I learned that a good composition makes 80% of a successful painting. Back in art school I studied the old masters like DaVinci, Michelangelo, Rubens, Velasquez, Gericault. But these days I hardly ever look at their paintings and instead try to find my own way to paint things with the knowledge I gather by observing my surroundings.
JF: Tell us a little bit about your creative process. What is a typical journey from idea to final image?
Ideally, the images are already taking form in my head while reading the script and I start sketching away without thinking too much about it. Nothing beats the spontaneous energy when starting a new project. I try not to let technical thoughts get in my way and just play around with basic shapes, composition and colour mood. Once I know what direction I want to follow I will gather as much reference as possible and add that information to my image. I also have to say listening to the right ‘soundtrack’ as I work is a great inspiration.
JF: What are your preferred tools and media to use and why?
These days I hardly ever draw on paper. Instead, I start sketching with my WACOM-tablet and Photoshop. It enables me to change my image constantly and apply colours instantly. When sketching I often use a perspective grid to keep the right angle and create depth. When it comes to 3-D applications I use SketchUp but only to block out the basic masses of my composition. I like to keep my sketches loose and rather suggestive when operating in the early stages of production.
JF: You’ve worked on a variety of productions from The Bourne Supremacy to Prince Of Persia to The Three Musketeers. What are the biggest creative challenges when tackling such contrasting films?
Every project is a challenge in itself for several reasons. First you have to get familiar with the period the film is set. Usually there is a researcher in the art department but that doesn’t free you from looking up your own references. The more you know about your subject the easier it is to generate solutions for visual realisation. Another challenge is working together with so many people and departments. I have learned not to please everyone but to follow my intuition and do what I believe is best for the project. After all that’s what I am hired for.
JF: Are there any genres you have yet to explore that you would like to be involved in?
I guess I would like to do a sci-fi film set in the far future. Of course, I worked on Children of Men and Aeon Flux that though described as having a science fiction tone, both were still very much based in reality. The dark-ages is another genre that appeals to me too. I have rarely seen it done right. Most films seem to show the later periods in architecture and costume.
JF: You’re a frequent collaborator with the Wachowski brothers. How did that partnership come about and why do you think you work so well together?
It all stemmed from when the Wachowski’s Brothers saw my work for V for Vendetta which they produced. From there they called me again to do concepts for their Speed Racer adaptation. I guess our working relationship is built on the fact that we have lots in common and share a background in comics and strong visual storytelling.
JF: Let’s talk Hugo. What was it like working with Martin Scorsese on his first foray into 3D?
Hugo was a great experience. The film was shot stereoscopic and Martin wanted to take advantage of the 3D-feel as much as possible. Therefore, I was asked to do storyboards for the opening sequence and design Hugo’s world inside the tunnels of the train station. We needed to provide a film set that would allow the camera to move freely through the scenery.
JF: What would you consider your greatest artistic achievement to date?
I still consider myself a learner and hardly ever feel satisfied with the work I have done. In my opinion the best thing about filmmaking is the collaborative process, in that every department works in a team in an effort to create something that could simply never be achieved individually.
JF: What are you currently working on?
I am currently in the midst of designing characters for a new 3-D animated feature to be released in 2013. I can’t say too much now, but it’s well known material and the most interesting challenge at the moment is trying to find a new take on it.