Creatives: Wayne Haag, Concept Art and Visual FX for Alien: Covenant

As part of our creatives series, Wayne Haag answers some questions on Science fiction and fantasy, also giving us some insight into his work. You can listen to my podcast with him and Ev Shipard here Creatives: Wayne Haag and Ev Shipard – Episode 15 – Yutani Podcast

Clara Fei-Fei: My first encounter with your work was for The Fifth Element (which I LOVE). I always wondered what sort of design requirements did you have to meet for the movie? Did you speak to Luc Besson about what he wanted?

Wayne Haag: As a matte painter I didn’t have to meet any design requirements, that was all taken care of by the concept designers.. who were Jean-Claude Mézières and Moebius, among others. I just had to paint their designs. Within the scope of the matte painting itself, there are mini design problems or choices and those I discussed with my supervisors and Luc a few times for the various matte painting shots I worked on.

CF: What’s your favourite Sci-Fi movie? 

WH: Alien with Empire Strikes Back is a very very close second. I know Star Wars isn’t strictly science fiction, more fantasy but for me, it’s about a sense of wonder and they both have it. I still have every Marvel Star Wars comic btw.

CF: Wow awesome! And who is your favourite character from any Sci-Fi movie/comic/game?

Favourite character… I don’t have a favourite actually… If pushed I’d have to say Luke Skywalker, he’s the archetypal hero we all relate to.

CF: If you could enhance your body using robotics, what abilities would you choose?

WH: Eyes… Mine are going! Visibility into a much larger part of the EM spectrum – IR, UV, X-ray etc, zoom capability, heads-up display – data overlay, distance measurement, image capture…

CF: What inspired you to pursue work in concept art? For anyone wanting to pursue the same line of work, where do you suggest they start?

WH: I had always wanted to be an artist, always wanted to make images. It was never an option to not be an artist. This has encompassed professional photography, matte painting, illustration for publishing, concept art, mural painting, oil painting. Start drawing and painting, nothing more to it than that. Learn what you need to be a competent illustrator and the rest will follow.

CF: Could you give me an idea of what it’s like during production? What sort of guidelines you are given and what’s your average turnaround time for the work you have done?

WH: That’s a large question. Every production is different, the vibe is different, some are relaxed some are stressful. It’s why I prefer to work from home mostly. Gigs like Alien you have to be there every day in the house which is fine, can’t be a hermit all the time! Guidelines are simple – make this scene/shot look awesome – There’s the script, here’s the director’s brief now paint something that fulfils that brief. Don’t care how you do it, just get there.

Turn around time can vary from several (6 to 8) quick paintings in an afternoon to an evolving painting over several weeks. Not continuous of course, but bigger paintings I might have 3 or 4 days, it may sit around for a bit when you finally get feedback and you jump back onto that painting and off it goes into the cycle again. Some finish quickly and get approved just as quickly and you never see it again. Some hang around like bad smells!

CF: What is your favourite piece you ever created?

WH: One of my oil paintings, titled Sky Burial #2. It encapsulated everything I love about sci-fi, sense of wonder, mystery, story, history, spaceship wrecks, the desert.


CF: What variant of the Xenomorph is your favourite? 

WH: The original.. because you didn’t see much of it. It was the implied cold-blooded violence that was scary, not so much the beast itself – which was scary as hell in its own right, I just preferred the implicit horror.

CF: I really loved Daniels cabin in the Covenant, what work did you do on that?

WH: The design for Daniel’s cabin evolved quite a lot for many months. A couple of concept artists had started the process, set designers etc, all working towards the final. My contribution was to bring the design language in from the other interior sets Steve Burg had designed and made it feel more modular like you would find on a ship. Then it was a matter of painting a couple of frames that illustrated the lighting and mood, which is my main area of interest.

CF: I read that the white room is inspired by 2001, what aspects of the movie did you consider when creating this set?

WH: Firstly, no one concept artists create ‘the set’, it really is an army of people that have some contribution at some point along the way, from top to bottom. The overall layout was inspired by a physical location in Sydney that they wanted to use but could not, so the decision was made to build the set at Fox. I had plans for the location and built that in 3D to scale. Then as I mentioned above, I paint the scene up for lighting, mood and composition, ie. camera position and lens choice. (which was used by Ridley on the day of the shoot).

No references to 2001 were used, not by me anyway. I approach each painting/set as a real place and try to work out how I would shoot it if I were really there, what kind of lighting situation, time of day, weather, season etc. Unless the director specifically references another movie, I go with my own references and ideas that I think to fulfil the script/story.

CF: What work did you do on the mothership in The Crossing and Alien: Covenant? What other aspects of the engineer city did you work on?

WH: I didn’t do any design work on the Mother Juggernaut, that was all Steve Messing. As we all have access to the 3D resources, I used the model he built simply as a prop within the greater scene. Again, setting up composition, lighting, mood. Although I did build the city and surrounds in 3D as one big model to scale so that everyone could see how shots would look if you were standing in the plaza. The 3D allows me to place human figures in the correct relative scale to a known real-world camera and the renders provide a basis with which to paint on.

My model of the plaza was based on Steve Messing’s original plaza layout. As the set designers finalised buildings and sets, I would incorporate them into my huge Maya file, kind of like a master file. Then I’d place 3D cameras around matching pov’s Ridley wanted.

Like all film designs, they grow, evolve and change. The final city you see in the film is quite a bit different from the city I built, so the VFX guys had further developed the city layout as per Ridley’s ongoing massaging.

CF: What was the inspiration for the shower scene?

WH: T&A as far as I can tell…

CF: (lol)

CF: Do you have a list of the art pieces you infused into the movie?

WH: Not really, when you’re working on a film you don’t have time to immerse yourself in the art references and meaning, least I don’t anyway. All art choices are Ridley’s, I just create the scene as if it were really there and I shot it with a camera. The decision to not use the Francis Bacon triptych in the white room was solely due to licensing costs, nothing more than that. The Bacon estate wanted too much money. The Bugatti chair was also a licensed design and the prop was to be destroyed in front of lawyers once the shooting wrapped.

CF: What pieces of yours made it the final film? Was there anything that didn’t?

WH: What pieces had an influence you should ask, concept art never makes it into the film per se, it is a tool for solving creative visual, technical, financial problems. How will this set look? How big will it be? How much VFX will be needed for that shot, how will the DP light the set etc?

It’s an internal document that hopefully answers the director’s, art director’s and production designer’s questions. If not, try something else, or remove things from the artwork. For example, I had two statues out front of the Cathedral and was asked to remove them from the piece. If that artwork had been disseminated throughout the production, someone may have assumed those statues were to be made and start spending money making them!

There are several paintings I did that you can see as shots in the film, they aren’t exact, but the overall compositions had been faithfully translated.

CF: What would you say has been your favourite project to work on?

WH: Fifth Element, The Wolverine, Alien Covenant, three best projects of my career.

CF: What is it like working on a large scale production such as Alien compared to smaller-scale ones?

WH: Depends on who you’re working with and answering to directly, i.e. production designer. Some large-scale projects are overly corporate and anal, smaller ones are creatively easygoing. It can also be the reverse too! Alien was super creative, very easy going (hard work, long hours but no BS!). Great people all around. Some tv commercial gigs can be a giant PITA, some smaller directors can sometimes want to prove themselves by having too much attitude and want to override your ideas, big directors like Ridley don’t have those insecurities and are therefore great to work with.

CF: Congratulations on winning the award for your work on Alien: Covenant.

WH: Thank you!

CF: Is there anything you are working on currently?

WH: I just finished working on a pitch project for Pixar and as I write this, doing concepts for a Chinese comedy film shot here in Australia.

CF: In future what sort of opportunities would you like to be involved in?

WH: Well I currently work freelance, for the most part, I teach part-time (at Production Art Department PAD ), I’m starting to put out video tutorials of how to paint etc and I need to get my arse into gear and get back to oil painting my own project. As far as the future is concerned, I’d like more time to paint my own work.

Thanks so much for taking the time to answer my questions, I look forward to having you on Yutani Podcast soon.