My next instalment of the creatives series features the amazingly talented concept artist Ev Shipard who worked on art concepts for the Engineer city, David’s Lab and the Egg chamber. You can listen to my podcast with him and Wayne Haag here Creatives: Wayne Haag and Ev Shipard – Episode 15 – Yutani Podcast
Clara Fei-Fei: Thanks so much for taking the time to answer my questions, could you start by telling me what was your favourite Alien/sci-fi movie?
Ev Shipard: That’s a tough one- if we are talking about creature films then it’s a very close tie between Alien and The Thing- both get a lot of screen time in the studio. The level of tension in both of these has you on the edge of the seat looking into the shadows. Obviously Alien has stunning production design and cinematography which I find myself constantly coming back to for inspiration- a defining moment for Science Fiction. But let’s not forget the original trilogy of Star Wars. I was a kid of the late 70’s/80’s so it was my foray into the world of sci-fi film… and of course the toys!
CF: Who’s your favourite character in an alien/sci-fi movie?
ES: I think David’s character arc has been great. Getting my head around his approach with his Lab and Room during the design phase was a unique opportunity. Of course, I do have a soft spot for Private Hudson.
CF: Which variation of the xenomorph is your favourite?
ES: I always thought Fincher’s Alien 3 creature was great it felt more animalistic and I remember moved a little better than the suits in Aliens. The browns and ochres were an interesting departure and Giger created a very cool looking variant initially for that film. I love the look of Fincher’s film and absolutely love the production design. Norman Reynolds interestingly enough also worked on Raiders and the original Star Wars Trilogy. Prior to Fincher, Vincent Ward has a very interesting approach to this film- the story is pretty much unchanged but it’s worth perusing his site for some of the visuals. On our ‘Covenant’ the creature department did an amazing job revisiting the Xenomorph- walking around the studio looking at the sculpts in progress was a great inspiration for some of my work on David’s Lab.
CF: If you could enhance any part of your body using robotics, which would it be and what abilities would you choose to give it?
ES: I am a traditionalist at heart so I’d steer clear of any mods.
CF: What got you interested in being a concept artist? Which concept artists do you admire? What sort of advice do you have for others considering this line of work?
ES: I think I’d have to owe that to Star Wars and Bladerunner- seeing McQuarrie and Mead’s work in books as well as a drive to tell my own stories visually from a young age. I was the kid drawing in all my class books- massive battles starting on the back page. These days as an artist I am always looking for a creative outlet for personal expression which is usually drawing or oil painting.
Being an artist in the entertainment industry in a global market is very competitive and requires a real commitment to studying. I think the best advice is to focus on fundamentals and be prepared to be the perpetual student- always willing to learn and grow. Not just with skill and aesthetic but also with the myriad of software packages that allow us to do what we do. An artist perceives the world in a unique way and I believe it isn’t a vocation but a way of life. It’s the curiosity about even the most mundane aspects of what most people take for granted and how to represent this visually often within a story.
CF: What is your favourite piece you ever created?
This is a hard one- most commercial work and even my personal work is only really a favourite till the next one. It’s always a challenge and rarely comes easy but this is all part of the process.
CF: What sort of concept art projects have you worked on in the past? What was the major difference between those projects? e.g: Large-scale vs small scale
ES: I’ve worked on a broad range of projects with the majority being period films from 300 to Unbroken. Every project has a unique vision spearheaded by the Director and Production Designer. I’ve worked with the same crew many times however on both large and smaller budget projects. Sometimes there is more of a focus on design with pure concept art and sometimes it’s more about rendering sets already designed in the context of the story.
CF: What’s it like to work on concept art for a movie vs games?
ES: With games projects, I have only really worked with cinematics or live-action marketing campaigns, like the Halo and Battlefield spots, so that is very similar to preproduction and postproduction on films.
CF: How long does it take to work on a piece? How many hours?
ES: Some artwork is executed in hours, some days, it really depends on the context and requirements of the work. I produced a lot of b/w studies or story beats from the script on Covenant which was used by Ridley Scott and Chris Seagers to work out the expedition from the Lander to the City and what we would see. some of these were done very quickly but for the most part, a rendered frame takes me around 2-3 days. This isn’t including the many iterations based on feedback/comments or script changes that occur throughout the process.
CF: I became familiar with your work through Alien: Covenant, what sort of concept art did you do for the movie?
ES: My work encompassed many sets and potential locations but my main focus was the Engineers World. I spent the most time working on the Hall of Heads which included digitally painted art, sculpted clay maquettes, digitally sculpted pieces to mill for the set and worked with story points and dressing throughout it. I worked on an early rendition of the plaza and digital sculpts of statues that were also milled from foam full scale for the sets. David’s lab, his room and the egg chamber also took up a major part of my time. A lot of my work focuses on mood and lighting within these environments. I also worked on the Lander in the air and on the ground with Steve Burg’s amazing design. There were lots of location-based pieces of art using photos from various places in Australia and New Zealand- these are contextual paintings with script elements and used to help the production settle in a specific location. This is a big part of what we do on a lot of features.
CF: What details could you share about your pieces featured in the artbook?
ES: The art book… a point of contention. I am grateful that I had many pieces featured but the lack of image credits for a lot of the art just really gets my blood boiling. Of course, by the time the book is produced most of the art department is no longer involved in any of the processes, it’s another publisher and marketing team working on it and rights and deals mean there is no requirement for any credit but still some of the best ‘making of’ books out there credit the artists. I’ve been involved in many projects where this is the case and it’s a frustrating aspect of the experience.
CF: As for the Engineer city and scenes, did you get much of a say in aesthetics? What sort of design brief were you given to adhere to?
ES: Ridley and Chris have accumulated tons of references- beautiful photographs from classical art, architecture, and design to really get the feeling across. These were collated on large black foam core boards and posted in the ‘War Room’ which became our go-to place for inspiration. All this was replicated across the servers but it was nice to peruse all this together in the room. Stephane Levallois who is an amazing storyboard artist explored the city early on with some architectural designs in pencil. We also referenced Steve Messing’s earlier work. I was tasked with following this aesthetic and the look and feel of what we designed with the Plaza and interiors bringing it all together. I spent a lot of time designing profiles of buildings and structures to make sure the aesthetic flowed through into post-production. Our pre-production nestled nicely into posts with a lot of communication with the VFX supervisor. Chris Seagers (Production Designer) was very savvy and aware of this- he wanted it to flow smoothly.
CF: For the hall of heads did you use the elder Engineers from the initial Sacrificial Engineer scene cut from Prometheus as a reference?
ES: They were part of the reference library but more specifically we tried to create an original look and feel for this culture that tied back to what we had seen in the previous film. Ridley had these great photos of elder indigenous people from all over the world and aspects of these were sculpted into all 7 heads. The heads started life as ZBrush sculpts, clay maquettes and later milled foam sections from the digital file. These were reproduced in detail for the epic heads we see on the set. Each one is individual, however with the final lighting and framing that is a little hard to register. We built a bit of a hypothetical back story here with the heads being effigies of the elders of the society- this place was a meeting room where decisions were made. Initially, there were specific seats, a fire pit in the middle and of course the large table which was a variation of the table in David’s Lab. 7 heads with 7 a prime number and perhaps they used a base 7 system- so a kind of history and culture was sketched out to give it all a foundation. I guess with many early Earth cultures tied into this we can hypothesise about the Engineers and our planet, seeding life etc- I’m making presumptions here as Ridley and Chris didn’t specifically explain this. The concept art room was a fun melting pot of ancient alien ramblings and conspiracy theories, too much of the Art Department’s entertainment. I’m not sure how serious we were considering this though, with this project I guess it comes with the territory.
CF: What sort of things did you have to consider when creating concept art for David’s lab?
ES: Initially the space for the lab was supposed to resemble the egg chamber- we had this favourite reference of a bunker and the ceiling would have a stone spine with arches that we could utilise across the two sets. This changed as many things invariably do within the context of the story and the idea. Often Ridley would sketch out in pen a rough idea, we called these Ridleygrams, and this would become the basic idea of our direction. Sometimes they would be very simple but all the information was there for a visual starting place. Ridley had an affinity for a photo reference of a catacomb in Malta and It was my job to take this aesthetic and shape language and bring it into David’s Lab and also his room. David was repurposing the space for his own work so the Lab would have aspects of its previous history plus all his experimentation and failed attempts at biology. We see again the ampules and canisters which were recreated for this film. One of the striking features were the drawings that Dane Hallett and Matt Hatton produced hanging from the walls and ceiling. These were originally supposed to be drawn on stretched flesh and mounted on frames above. I scattered these around as compositional elements in my paintings and used them to refract light and create interest- when the camera moves you would have nice overlapping elements and parallax. I built this set in 3d after the initial sketches and handed this over to the set designers to refine, create plans and accurate dimensions to build. The table was also a 3d model which started out life in ZBrush. My take on it was a large obsidian slab but with a fine blood channel through the centre and on the ground small drains. The idea was that it could have been a sacrificial chamber below the cathedral- David had repurposed this as his workbench. All this is my hypothesis rather than direction from above but these little things all become part of the bigger picture and it’s great to put your stamp on aspects that you consider have merit within the overarching narrative.
CF: What was it like creating your version of Giger’s Li?
ES: For me, this was a fun diversion. It plugged into David’s lab but the script was constantly moving with this and I wanted to create something early on- a tribute to Giger. It became a bit of a talking point then we moved on still not knowing what was happening with Shaw even up to the shoot (from the perspective of the Art Department). Then I started to see some of the work Creatures were doing and I ended up producing a painting later with Shaw on the Slab and David and Oram looking over her. The interesting thing I found with the Li painting was how much Noomi started to resemble Sigourney as I worked the face in. There were a number of variations done of this with more or less biomechanoid features and elements.
CF: What did you think about Alien: Covenant? if there was something you could change, what would it be?
I think our work in the Art Department was showcased well. I’m proud of how the Engineer’s world was resolved ultimately. Personally, I would like to have seen more of our city and spent the time to delve into the culture and most people I have spoken to loved this aspect of the film and wanted to know more. Perhaps this will be dealt with in other avenues- audiobooks, comics, novels etc but I guess the test screenings wanted more aliens in space and we ended up with what we got. There was a lot more of the culture designed(loosely)- gardens, the graves, a tree of life etc that was ultimately cut. Ridley always produces a stunning looking well-designed piece of entertainment and it was a pleasure to work as part of his team.
Thank you for reaching out and the opportunity to talk about this project that I consider a career highlight. I can be found at http://evshipardentertainmentart.com/ and for those that are interested in behind-the-scenes and my sketches… https://www.instagram.com/evshipard/