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Episode 93 — Interview with Matte Painter and Art Director Nikolai Lockertsen
This is Allan McKay. Welcome to Episode 93! I’m speaking with Nikolai Lockertsen who is an Art Director, Matte Painter, Illustrator. And the best part of it: He does all of his work on frigging iPad! He is based in Norway. We did this Episode at the beginning of the year, leading up to both of us attending the IAMAG event. He does all of this amazing feature work using Procreate on iPad Pro. What was even cooler was going to see his talk at the even in Paris. Goro Fujida, who was another speaker, talked about speed painting. He and Nikko made me feel really motivated to get back to painting. I hope you’re able to get a lot out of this as well.
We’re getting up to a 100th Episode, which is long time coming. This is the first time things kept moving forward, even during the FXTD Mentorship launching. The more you’re in that flow state, the more things will speed up. At the moment, I’ve been working really hard on a few things, including a big tv show that comes from a book. (That’s all I can say there.) I’m looking forward to the next coming weeks, when I get back to my flow state.
FIRST THINGS FIRST:
I. Pretty soon, I will be building a barrel sauna and an ice bath in my house. I’ve talked about ice baths a lot. When you do 20 minute submersions, it makes a huge difference! I share that because I’m really excited about it.
II. I’m upgrading to the RED Weapon Helium. That’s the new AK S35 Sensor from RED. With some of the training I will be putting out later this year, it will be shot on this camera. It’s a big investment, but the production quality will go through the roof!
III. I want to put together a smaller Course on:
– How to get clients.
– How to approach clients.
– How to submit 6-figure bids.
– How to step up your rates.
– How to work from home.
– How to brand yourself.
– How to build your name in the industry.
– How to build your business around that.
– How to become a business as an artist and how to attract business.
That’s something I’ve been doing that for 15 years. Getting to be able to choose work situations I want, having that freedom right now — is great! I’m working from Portland at the moment where there is pretty much zero VFX industry. As long as I have the internet, I can always land and get work.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Leave a comment or shoot me an email!
OTHER STUFF COMING UP:
– I will be putting out free content at the end of the year.
– I’ve been wanting to revamp things and do some shooting at the end of the year.
– I might be popping down to LA and working with Digital Domain for a bit.
– I’m tempted to bring some YouTube people with a large following. We can talk about how to drive traffic to the content you’re putting out.
– A Reel Review!
Let’s dive in!
INTERVIEW WITH MATTE PAINTER AND ART DIRECTOR NIKOLAI LOCKERTSEN
Nikolai Lockertsen, a Norwegian Concept Artist, Matte Painter, Illustrator and Art Director, has worked on more than 30 features films, as well as many commercial and television projects. Some of his films include Trollhunter and Kon-Tiki. He has previously worked at studios like Gimpville, Filmkameratene and Storm Studios.
Nikolai is also a pioneer in iPad art: He does all of his artwork — including concept designs for feature films — on an iPad Pro using a painting app called Procreate. He posts his tutorials on www.artstudyonline.com.
In this Episode, Allan interviews Nikolai about the evolution of his career, paying dues as an artist, and how technology can revolutionize one’s approach to art.
Nikolai Lockertsen’s Website: http://www.lockertsen.net
Nikolai Lockertsen’s IMDb Profile: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm1629589/
Nikolai Lockertsen on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/user/nikolailockertsen
Nikolai Lockertsen at Art Station: https://www.artstation.com/nikolailockertsen
Art Study Online: www.artstudyonline.com
[-1:45:12] Allan: Do you want to give a quick intro, just tell us about yourself?
Nikolai: My name is Nikolai Lockertson. I’m Norwegian. I work as a Concept Artist and Illustrator, for the most part.
[-1:44:45] Allan: Which also mean that you’re an Art Director. You’re managing a studio.
Nikolai: Yeah. You have to be creative and you have to be able to paint and draw. I’ve been doing animation and compositing. Illustration was something that I always loved growing up and I learned. I wasn’t very good at reading books. I was drawing in all my books, [no matter the subject]. That was the start.
[-1:43:53] Allan: I never read comics. People would mention Ghost Rider or Spider-Man. I’ve never actually read them. I collected those books for the art.
Nikolai: That’s totally me, man! I always just went to the bookshelves and picked up what looked cool. I really hoped that if the cover art was cool, the art inside would be as well.
[-1:43:08] Allan: So you’ve worked on a lot of movies: Trollhunter, Kon-Tiki. How did you get started in the very beginning? From deciding you wanted to do this for a living — to getting the first job, what was the big leap there?
Nikolai: My father was in the film industry. He is a Production Manager / a Producer. Nothing in the art department at all. I tagged along to set when I was young and I really liked it. “I like this film business stuff, but I’m not sure where I’d fit in.” Since drawing was my home, I thought I must combine this somehow. And then, I did what might be called Junior High, 10th grade. Everybody does this, the three years before the university: You have to choose your path. Do you want to be a mechanic or do you want to be a hairdresser? What kind of a thing you want to go for?
[-1:40:50] Allan: Or do you want to be an astronaut?
Nikolai: I don’t have the brains for that! I could design a cool spaceship though, but it probably wouldn’t fly very well. I started out on an art path, and you have to finish those three years, to get the permission to study. But then in the middle of that, I was offered a job at a cartoon studio in Oslo. So I said, “Well, screw school. Let’s do that!” But the problem was I was there only for a few months; and then the whole thing lost funding. I couldn’t go back to school. I didn’t want to either. I wanted to continue working. So it was a few years of developing on my own and having some sort of jobs. I was building houses and working as a forklift operator.
[-1:39:24] Allan: I had a similar career path. I got into games when I was 14. I worked on Half Life which was huge. I thought my career was set. After that project, it was dead for year. I was questioning myself. Did you ever run into that a little bit? Were there any doubts while you were making ends meet?
Nikolai: I always knew that I would end up drawing somehow. I always had this kind of a lantern in film work from when I was 15-16. I never lost the eye on the ball [mentality]. I did airbrushing for a few years doing it on my own, sketching in the basement. Then I wandered around with my portfolio to different companies. What kept coming up was: “We can see that you can draw, but can you do that digitally?” When I had that answer enough times, I decided it was time to buy a Mac. The G4, with a round mouse, with one button on it. “What the hell am I supposed to do with this?”
[-1:36:56] Allan: How old were you when that came out? In 2000?
Nikolai: Let me see. I was 22, 21.
[-1:36:44] Allan: Back then, computers were more of a guy thing. I thought G4 was a turning point. Girls would want to get one of those because they looked so cool. It was brilliant marketing for Apple to do!
Nikolai: Wasn’t it the point when Steve Jobs was back in the office?
[-1:35:28] Allan: It seems like that was the turning point. I find it fascinating. There is this digital vs. traditional illustration. The evolution of things. Then, there are people who would embrace that. For me to switch to 3D, I was embarrassed to show my stuff because I felt like I was cheating. At the same time, people don’t get what you’re doing. They have that starving artist mentality. Did you have that?
Nikolai: The industry was young and unknown in Norway. I didn’t even know what concept art was. But the thing was: I got this Mac and I started fiddling with it. It was like painting with my elbow, it was so horrible. It took some time, but eventually, I had some digital stuff for my portfolio. I would [go to job interviews and] get: “We know you can do digital and you can do illustration, but can you do 3D?” Okay, I didn’t know. I bought some books and sat down to learn.
[-1:33:00] Allan: Inside 3DS Max or 3DS Max Fundamentals? Those seem to be the two big ones. Fundamentals was the initial that came out.
Nikolai: I think it was the Fundamentals. It had the colored chunk in the middle. But that an eye opener. When I got into that, I thought, “Wait a minute, I can play God. I can create anything!” That was pretty cool! Digital isn’t bad after that!
After that, I did a new round with my portfolio. There was this one feature animation film that was going in Norway. It was called Free Jimmy. They’ve made a tv series Two Wasted Wankers, and they were moving on to their feature. My father had a contact with the studio. But the boss said, “I have this letter from Germany. They’re going to recruit people to do a Computer Animation Master Class, for half a year. I would check that out if I were you!” I walked home with my tail between my legs. It was another no.
But I had nothing to lose, so from 2000 to 2001 I was in Germany (where I also met my wife); and I did this computer animation class. I had some brilliant teachers. But in traditional animation, nothing digital. I was like, “This is called Computer Animation Master Class, isn’t it?” “Yeah, yeah, we’ll get to that.” And at the end, we had this funny teacher who had a bunch of programs: Aftereffects, 3DS Max with character studio. But the plugin was German. I couldn’t understand the German buttons. The more I was pushing them, the more I would learn it; but I only knew it by where to push not what it meant. I went home after year of that; being a little smarter in computer programs. I took the next half a year off to make a short movie.
[-1:27:11] Allan: Cool!
Nikolai: Some animated short called Georgia, the Dragon. With that, I went back to the same studio: Can I have a job now? Then, I got in. Then I felt that school really started. They were using Maya.
[-1:26:38] Allan: Did they at least get you a German Maya, so you at least felt a bit more at home? (Laughs.)
Nikolai: You know some German. I heard you on your Podcast.
[-1:26:16] Allan: I did German for 5 years, but I never pay attention. I lived in Germany for 5 months. I could understand people, and they could understand me but they were probably shaking their heads. But that’s cool! Did you find that it was your big break to start at that studio?
Nikolai: Yeah. Cool, I’m on the inside now. I’m doing what I wanted to do. The group was mostly Norwegian, still also pretty new to it. Cool bunch of guys, smart guys! We had no supervisors, so we were inventing this as we went along. Kind of looking at each other: “Shouldn’t there be someone here, who knows what we should be doing?” But the whole production [for Free Jimmy] was kind of weird and it went on for four years, until 2005 when it was released. And then it was in production for six years.
But that was my school, really. I started with some rough modeling and simplifying models to have them be animatable. And then, I did lighting and vehicle simulations. I did anything that had to do with 3D except for programing. I did 7 minutes of animation on that film and the animation part I really loved. For several years, I thought animation what I would go for. But the VFX industry in Norway hardly started. There were 3-5 people at a few different studios. [Our studio] was called the Animagic Net which turned into Storm Studios, which is now one of the biggest VFX companies in Norway.
[-1:21:59] Allan: That’s cool! So you’ve literally been there since the beginning until now.
Nikolai: Yes. It’s one of the biggest visual effects studios in Norway, but it’s still maximum 30-40 people; going from 25 to 40, depending on how much work is coming in. I freelanced for some years after 2005 until 2008, doing all kinds of different stuff. There was this Swedish Concept Artist at the studio who did the backdrops and matte painting. He was so good! He told me to try painting in Photoshop. Back in the first G4, with one-button mouse, you can’t draw with that!
[-1:20:44] Allan: It’s two buttons now! Times have improved.
Nikolai: So much easier to draw with. 2005 was my first digital painting. It didn’t take long [for me to realize]: This is cool! I can make my own brushes. I could start out big and be playful. I can make an eraser that doesn’t destroy my background. That’s when I fell in love with digital painting.
[-1:20:02] Allan: It’s really cool seeing that transition. It’s not like you’ve dabbled in it for a little bit. You’ve been working in the industry doing 3D for quite a while. To make that transition to 2D, was it overnight or [were you] looking for jobs in 2D but still doing 3D to pay the bills?
Nikolai: Yes, for these freelancing year, I was doing anything. I did a lot of compositing. I worked as a Lead Compositor on a Norwegian film called Long Flat Balls, the direct translation. It just means low balls in soccer. Norwegian is difficult, but you’re doing pretty well. I’d listened to your Podcast with Alf Lovvold (www.allanmckay.com/39).
[-1:17:21] Allan: I’d originally reached out to him because I saw a work in progress of his short. Now, we’re friends. He’s a great guy, I love him! Last time I saw him, he gave me bottles of some disgusting Norwegian alcohol.
Nikolai: Was it Aquavit?
[-1:16:26] Allan: Probably. I like the fact he brought it over, but I can’t stomach it.
Nikolai: All of our alcohol is potato based. Alf is such a great guy and also super talented! I was at a showing of different projects in Oslo, and some people have worked on Guardians of the Galaxy. But then Alf comes on and shows his stuff. That’s one guy! That’s one mother fucker who does all of his stuff while having full-time jobs!
[-1:15:20] Allan: It blows my mind! For me, it’s changed my mindset about GP rendering. The fact that you can have one person doing an entire short film by himself. I’m sitting in V-Ray, crying, throwing rocks at my screen. I know you’ve had experience working onset as well. In between 3D, compositing and onset experience, do you think it’s helped your traditional work? 3D learning more about perspective, [for example]; or compositing learning more about composition?
Nikolai: Yes, definitely. When you know the job of the compositor — but you’re doing animation — or, you know what the rigging guys are doing, you know what’s happening in front and what’s happening after what you’ve done. It’s much better to make those guys’ jobs easier by not screwing up by putting up some weird stuff on top of their rig, [for example]. The more you know, the better it is. If I only focused on painting digitally, I might have been better at that.
But I don’t look at any of my other years as wasted at all! Even working as a forklift operator, working in all of these weird places, for me, it’s like gathering [inspiration for my characters]. There are so many people working at these places; and you don’t love your job. But that creates an interesting fauna of people, and it creates stories and characters that I can put away into my mental library. At least, now that I’ve found my path and walked it for some years already, it’s cool to look back at those other years.
[-1:11:32] Allan: I think it’s cool to have some life experience. I haven’t had too much of those outside of the industry. Multiple people have other careers before this one. I think that even inside this industry, you’re able to move sideways so much. I’ve had years when I didn’t touch the computer at all [because] I was producing. I think everything you learn is going to make you better. Even if you’re producing, you’re going to learn:
- What goes into a project longterm;
- How to deal with people, etc.
The more you understand the pipeline, the more you can get your elements to the compositor in a way that they need them.
Nikolai: I’m also pretty geeky when it comes to photography. I’ve always loved to have that as a balance. You can sit there and paint for weeks. It’s so satisfying to take a perfect picture in a split second. As an example of having several different things to do, we had a couple of commercials that I directed at Storm Studios. And it wasn’t that I wanted to direct. It’s just kind of ended up on my lap. I was part of the Art Department. They told me, “These guys have a commercial. Do you want to direct it?” Okay, sure! I ended up doing all the storyboarding, of course. I did the 3D animation and the matte painting part of it. It was so easy to tell the guys what I wanted for a shot: can you get a bit more ambient inclusion? or, less subsurface scattering? When you know the terms, it makes it so much easier to communicate!
I found my path with digital painting, but I was still commuting a lot. I decided I needed to do something with that time: It could [used to] develop as an artist. Having a laptop didn’t work: I couldn’t fit that all in. It would be great to have a smaller device. I was Googling some tablets. I found a tablet that was a collaboration between Digital Ink and Wacom. But then the lag was too great. At that time, I would do watercolor on the bus. I even had to get stronger glasses because I was doing small details and ruining my vision. I hate painting on a white background: You have to know your highlights from the beginning. You have to tone everything down and make them bright again. I was longing for some digital tool.
Suddenly, the iPad came! By then, I already had my iPhone. There was this app called Brushes. I could paint with my finger. It was kind of cool, I just wished it was a bit bigger. When the iPad came, I thought, “There it is!” It started a new path in my life. Something about the mobility of it, it was so simple. You also had Brushes on the iPad. I could do some sketches and continue in Photoshop. After a year, I discovered Procreate. When I discovered it, it was so much like Photoshop. I sent them an email and two hours later, I had a reply. That was a start of a really cool friendship. Procreate was just a little child back then. Their resolution was 900 X 600 pixels. You couldn’t do too much with it, no selection tools yet. Everything I’ve done in the last 4 years — any concept art — it’s all on the iPad!
[-1:03:21] Allan: Even all of your production work, you’re doing all of that on the iPad as well?
Nikolai: Yes, everything!
[-1:03:14] Allan: Are you using iPad Pro? I was having lunch with my buddy Matt Conway, he was a Matte Painter on Game of Thrones and a bunch of really cool projects.
Nikolai: Yes. You did a Podcast with him, no?
[-1:02:59] Allan: Yes: [www.allanmckay.com/59]. He is a really great guy and talented! He does all of his painting on iPad Pro with a pen. I love my iPad for the battery life. I don’t use it for production, but I’ve been curious about it. Do you have different brushes?
Nikolai: It comes with a ton of brushes already, but you can create your own really easily. It’s comparable with Photoshop that way. It’s easier to do it on Procreate. There is a shape and a grain source. These two images create each brush. You can get glaze paint. It’s several thousand pixels — and it’s real time! That’s the thing! They can squeeze so much power out of it. You can work in 8K and be in real time. I haven’t seen it in any machine at all! They really push it to the limit.
It’s a great advantage that it’s only for an iPad, so that can focus on just one hardware. There is a maximum layer set. The more resolution, the fewer layers you can have. The more powerful the iPad — the more layers you can have. So, it does’t push it to the limit that will shut your hardware down. Really smart! For the last 5 years, they come up with huge updates, almost once a year. All the upgrades are for free! It’s twice the price it started out, but it’s still so cheap. These [Procreate] guys are really talented. In Australia, you know?
[-58:34] Allan: Digital Fusion was original Australian. Black Magic is Australian. Flame came from there as well, some powerful tools. But I do love that! So many people always want to get the best hardware. My Paris talk last year was about no excuses: If you want to be in this industry, show them your final shot. Don’t show a tutorial! If you’re a Matte Painter, go take a photo and paint on that. Transform something. Same thing with VFX. You don’t need a $10,000 computer. You can do it all for nothing. I love that this is a $6 app that’s replaced the industry standard.
Nikolai: It’s amazing how good it is! I’ve become such a big fan of it, I just want to spread the word. I actually started an art study online with a buddy of mine Peter Spence (www.artstudyonline.com). We created tutorials for Procreate. There are thousands of tutorial on Photoshop, but nothing on Procreate. I was at an industry workshop in London. Some of the finest matte painters and concept artists attended it. This was the first time I was there with an iPad Pro and people took it more seriously now. I had a Cintiq tablet with me and ended up using it only for reference.
[-54:10] Allan: That’s amazing! I saw your YouTube: One man, one iPad. I totally get it. I love that you have a portable tool. When it first came out, I thought it was a bigger iPhone. It is now getting to a point of having a paper-thin workstation. A simple tool that does so much!
Nikolai: I think a lot of developers aren’t taking it seriously. I’ve seen what Adobe comes out with. These are simplified apps. People could take it more seriously. It is a powerful tool, if you write the programing correctly and push it to its limits. You can stream 3 sources of 4K and edit it on the iPad at once! It has that power. You could do compositing on it.
[-51:44] Allan: What do you use to share files back and forth? Google Docs or DropBox? We both know that the iPad isn’t the best for file sharing, typically.
Nikolai: I use DropBox. A lot of the times, I just email a JPEG, if it’s a concept drawing or character design. I try to keep my horizon as wide as possible, I don’t want to be just the environment or character guy. I try to do everything. I also try to do both naturalistic and cartoony art. I did matte painting for several years. I loved the creativity part of that, but that’s just on day one — after that it’s just moving things around. I can also just send the link. I use PNG or PSD. If I need some text for example (I did a children’s book last year), I did that on Photoshop and Procreate.
[-49:49] Allan: I’m really intrigued now! Every time, I speak to one you, Norwegians, I get inspired.
Nikolai: My wife is a Storyboard Artist. She is the head of storyboard in this house.
[-49:25] Allan: Do you, guys, collaborate?
Nikolai: Yes, we’ve worked on several films together. Sometimes, we work on separate projects. Last year, she worked on a CG film and all the storyboarding was done on a iPad. She was the Head of Storyboarding and she pushed for that. It’s used more and more, I believe.
[-48:48] Allan: Have you spoken at all to Apple, to show them what you’ve been doing?
Nikolai: I’ve known the Procreate guys for many years now. A few months before iPad Pro was supposed to launch, I got an invitation to London, to do early testing of it. They couldn’t pay for my ticket. I grabbed the chance. It was a really cool event! The head of Adobe was there and the VP of iPad, some big names! It was an inspiring evening. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the iPad pencil.
I was back teaching at a school in Norway and I got a call to come back to London. Then they flew me over. I did an interview with Independent or The Guardian, one of the big newspaper. The security there was heavy. There was a separate room with a person guarding the iPad. By the end of the day, they let me take one with me — but I couldn’t show it to anybody. I had a smile on my face I couldn’t wipe off for several days.
[-44:57] Allan: That’s the advantage of embracing new technology. It means that you have a chance to create some opportunities before other people do. You’re doing stuff that other people aren’t. That’s going to get a lot of attention. When Apple sees you’re doing iconic work using their hardware, it’s going to make you stand out more. I mentioned going to Portland. Nike Headquarters is in Portland. Then, Wacom is out there as well. I’m going to check them out. I’ll make sure to bring my iPad though.
Nikolai: But you have a huge network. You’ve been in the industry for so long, and all of your stuff is so impressive. You have so many legs to stand on!
One thing I like about Norway is having time for life. It’s not just this hell ride of giving your body to your job. I really wanted to focus on that when my wife got pregnant. I feel like I’m not going to be that dad who is always working. I worked on a film The Mortal Instruments in Toronto. It was a really cool project to work on! I worked a lot with Harald Zwart, the Norwegian director. We also had a Norwegian DOP Geir Hartly. We spoke in Norwegian a lot. In production, you had 12 hours before overtime. But the actors had to have a 12-hour [turnaround]. By Friday, we would start at 4:00 p.m. and finish at 4:00 a.m. So your days are 16-18 hours and that’s standard. How can you have a life like that?
[-39:11] Allan: Being on set is exhausting anyway. Do you ever do any overtime to reset? That’s crazy.
Nikolai: But the cool thing was to be on set and sit behind the director and work on the art. I could show it to [him] in between takes. We did concept art on that show until the last week of shooting. It was [for] a scene with a werewolf pack leaving. They needed a cool concept art for their arrival. I could just go into dailies, watch the lighting and deliver my concept art based on that. I haven’t worked on concept art that way before or since then, to be that close to the shooting days. It was really cool!
[-37:19] Allan: For me, this is inspiring to hear how to work for studio without having to go to a studio. You’re right about it: Norway has a pretty balanced lifestyle. I wish other countries had that mindset.
Nikolai: I feel that a lot of companies in London are strict with having 8 hour days. Pushing overtime doesn’t give better work because you’re running on 60%. If you rest, you work faster.
[-35:49] Allan: I agree. I wrote a couple of articles on productivity. To me, that was one of those realizations: You’re sacrificing quality for quantity. It doesn’t work! It’s okay to put in some crazy hours at the end. But doing those all the way doesn’t make any sense!
Nikolai: The last couple years, I’ve been freelancing. Doing it for the second time, it’s been great.
– I don’t have to commute anymore.
– I can [work from home].
– Because of internet, I have customers all over the world.
– I do a lot of promo work for the Procreate guys. They’re in Australia, but it doesn’t anymore. The world is really small.
[-34:16] Allan: I have companies like Ntropic, Activision, a few others across the street from me [in Santa Monica] but I still work from home. But then I also have companies anywhere else in the world — but it’s still the same process. You can do that these days! I love that the internet isn’t bias in any way. It’s becoming more of a normal path now. So are you back to freelancing now?
Nikolai: Yes, the last couple of years, I’ve done freelance. I love the movie industry, but it’s also fun to try out some illustration jobs, just to get a taste of longer deadlines. That’s something about our industry: “Can you deliver this yesterday?” It’s nice! I have two young boys, 7 and 8 years old. Time pressure is there. I’ve never had more urge to draw. I produce a lot of my own artwork. I think that’s also important to fiddle around with your own stuff, to be creative and have fun.
[-31:37] Allan: I think that’s a big misconception about the film industry. We are artists, but we’re being hired as a service. Have you seen Exit Through the Gift Shop, the Banksy documentary (http://www.banksyfilm.com)? It ended up being about Mr. Brainwash. This guy is a commercial artist. It’s such an exploit of what Banksy is doing. In a way, that’s a controversial thing: Is it art if you’re doing it in mass quantities? But also, isn’t it the film industry? Everyone comes on to do their bit to make an art piece, which is often a commercially driven project. Even the director is influenced by what the producer thinks is a more sellable idea.
Nikolai: Yes. And I guess a lot of films have been highjacked by the producers and their final say.
[-29:08] Allan: And there are a lot of reboots. I’ve read of a lot of books on film producing. If you have an original idea, all the producers hear: It’s a risk!
Nikolai: It’s important for us to stay sane and do our own stuff. It’s about the art and storytelling at the end.
[-27:44] Allan: Do you ever get creative blocks and how do you deal with that? As well as, where do you typically get your inspiration?
Nikolai: When I’m painting for fun, I have no idea.
– It’s easy to go to that go-to thing, a standard process. Then I can erase it. If I put something on the screen, I’m inspired by it. If I’m just staring at a blank screen, I can’t be inspired by that! I need something there. Sometimes, it helps to scribble a few lines. Then, it looks like something.
– I love Asian / urban areas. I love scifi! As a concept artist, you have to!
– I love lighting. Often I go overboard with my colors and tone it down at the end. I paint in raw format.
– I stay away from white and black — those are two most powerful colors. I use them only at the end.
– I paint safe a bit, but all the information is there; and I can crank up the values at the end.
[-25:05] Allan: You’re the first Concept Artist I’ve heard say, “I grade stuff at the end”. That’s cool! Do you start out in black and white and worry about color later?
Nikolai: You know, value always trumps color. So, it’s so important to have good value. Before I used to start in color. In the later years, I ended up doing grayscale first. A quick sketch. I want to keep it small in the beginning, about a credit card size. I spend about 15 minutes to get that going. And then I push that into color right away; but I already have the value laying down. If it’s a winter scene, I know it will be blue. So I might start in blue, in the mood of the environment.
[-23:20] Allan: That’s awesome, man! I wanted to touch base on the last few things. You’ve done Trollhunter and Kon-Tiki. Do you want to talk about those two projects and what some of the challenges were?
Nikolai: With Trollhunter, my main job was animating trolls. There was another person designing the main character, and I took that and ran with it, added some matte painting. When trolls get sunlight on, they turn to stone but you can’t have them standing around the forest. The [Trollhunter] has to use a sledgehammer and knock them down to the earth, so they turn to gravel. Those are the matte paintings I did. The interesting thing with Trollhunter: We had a visionary director Andre Ovredal. He is the type of a guy who wants to decide what to shoot when he is onset and be inspired there and then. With animation, that’s kind of difficult.
We also tried the American way of having Supervisors. We had Animation Sup who would talk to the Director. We’d have a brief with the Sup, which would be his interpretation of what the Director wanted; so there were so many rounds, it wore me out. We’d do over a 100 reiterations of one scene. You want to talk to the director yourself! In Norway, we don’t have the hierarchy in the same way. You’re more at level with people. It feels a bit hard. It was a fun show to work on, just frustrating.
Kon-Tiki was a really cool show. I did matte painting, all the New York backgrounds. The Art Department at Storm Studios, we had this other person Stig Saxegaard, a really talented guy. We also had a similar background. He is a traditional animator and digital painter. We overlapped a lot. We were sent to New York to take stills. We were driving around and going up on rooftops to catch the light at 5:00 in the morning. You can’t use footage because Manhattan has changed so much! The trip was really inspirational. Stig made the mistake of letting me find the hotel. I had this Google screen grab of where the hotel we supposed to be; late at night, with these huge bags.
[-14:14] Allan: Why did you choose a hotel so far out?
Nikolai: I just ordered the hotel together with the airplane tickets. And the [rep] was speaking so fast.
[-11:38] Allan: We’re all going to the IAMAG Master Class. What will your talk be on?
Nikolai: I want to show the ropes Procreate:
– how to create your own brushes;
– how to use this perspective tool: any line you do will be in perspective;
– how to access the menu quickly.
I want to do something from scratch. I have 45 minutes.
[-09:14] Allan: Have you met Patrice? He’s one of the nicest people on the planet. It’s the coolest event!
Nikolai: I’m looking forward to it.
[-07:35] Allan: There are so many great speakers! I’ve been going since the beginning. Craig Mullin was there last time.
Nikolai: Oh, he is like the Godfather!
[-06:03] Allan: I think his website is still the same: www.goodbrush.com. He paints everything at such a high res, that when he scales it down, it looks amazing. I’ve been using that with my compositing. It got engrained in me.
Nikolai: That to me shows the real skill. He is brilliant in environments, people, anatomy. When you see the really rough sketches he does, they’re so amazing! Another artist I really love is Sergey Kolesov. He has skill but also crazy ideas, so playful! He put out time lapse videos of his work.
[-03:48] Allan: Looking at his stuff, he is so good at capturing a moment. Thanks for taking the time!
Nikolai: It was fun!
I hope you enjoyed that. Thank you, Nikko! I had a blast! By the time, I did these Podcasts for IAMAG, we all felt we were friends. Leave a comment and let me know what you think of this Episode. Don’t forget to subscribe to the show on iTunes to get automatic updates.
Next Episode is with a Bestselling Author David Allen. His book Getting Things Done is one of the most popular books when it comes to productivity and efficiency. He is the leader on productivity.
Also, we have Episode 100 coming up. I haven’t decided what to do for that one.