Episode 240 — Christian Alzmann
EPISODE 240 — CHRISTIAN ALZMANN
Christian Alzmann is a Concept Design Supervisor at Lucasfilm who created the concept drawing for Baby Yoda, along with several other main characters on The Mandalorian. He studied illustration at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. Upon graduating he was immediately hired into ILM’s Art Department where he eventually became a Senior Art Director.
Since then, Christian has worked on numerous film projects including A.I., Men in Black 2, Van Helsing, Pirates of the Caribbean, Star Wars Episode Two, War of the Worlds, the fourth installment of Indiana Jones, Transformers and Terminator Salvation.
As a visual storyteller Christian has also illustrated book covers for Science Fiction and Fantasy novels. His clients include Harper Collins, Penguin Books, IDG and Future Publishing. Christian’s artwork has been featured in Star Wars Mythmaking: Behind the Scenes of Attack of the Clones, Van Helsing: The Making of the Legend, Inside Men in Black II, Exposé.
In this Podcast, Christian talks about the importance of studying the fundamentals as an artist, how to reach your dream job, how to communicate with clients — and shares his experience working on The Mandalorian’s Baby Yoda, as well as several other projects.
Christian Alzmann’s Website: https://www.christianalzmann.com
Christian Alzmann on IMDb: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm1193635/
Christian Alzmann Contribution to the Baby Yoda Concept Art: https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/features/baby-yoda-represents-past-present-future-hollywood-1263588
Christian Alzmann on ArtStation: https://www.artstation.com/christianalzmann
Christian Alzmann at the Gnomon Workshop: https://www.thegnomonworkshop.com/instructors/christian-alzmann
Christian Alzmann on Instagram: @calzmann
[03:15] Christian Talks About What Inspired Him to Become an Artist
[04:02] Christian Shares His Training
[05:35] Christian Talks About His First Big Break: Working for ILM
[09:32] Christian Gives Advice on How to Get Your Dream Job
[13:59] Christian Talks About Working on War of the Worlds
[17:37] Allan and Christian Discuss Communication Skills on a Job
[21:59] Christian Talks About His Design of The Child (aka Baby Yoda) on The Mandalorian
[27:28] Christian Discusses His Contributions to The Mandalorian
[28:41] Christian Remembers Working on Rogue One
[31:24] Christian Talks About His Experience on Force Awakens
[34:37] Christian Gives Advice to Artists Starting Out
[37:20] Additional Sites for Christian Alzmann
EPISODE 240 — CHRISTIAN ALZMANN
Welcome to Episode 237! This is Allan McKay. I’m chatting with Christian Alzmann, the Senior Art Director at ILM. He is also responsible for creating Baby Yoda. It was an honor to get Christian on this Podcast. We got into a lot of cool stuff!
Please take two seconds to share this Episode.
Let’s dive in!
FIRST THINGS FIRST:
[00:45] Have you ever sent in your reel and wondered why you didn’t get the callback or what the reason was you didn’t get the job? Over the past 20 years of working for studios like ILM, Blur Studio, Ubisoft, I’ve built hundreds of teams and hired hundreds of artists — and reviewed thousands of reels! That’s why I decided to write The Ultimate Demo Reel Guide from the perspective of someone who actually does the hiring. You can get this book for free right now at www.allanmckay.com/myreel!
[36:47] One of the biggest problems we face as artists is figuring out how much we’re worth. I’ve put together a website. Check it out: www.VFXRates.com! This is a chance for you to put in your level of experience, your discipline, your location — and it will give you an accurate idea what you and everyone else in your discipline should be charging. Check it out: www.VFXRates.com!
INTERVIEW WITH CHRISTIAN ALZMANN
[03:01] Allan: Thanks again, Christian, for taking the time to chat. Do you want to quickly introduce yourself?
Christian: My name is Christian Alzmann. I am a Concept Design Supervisor at Lucasfilm. Before that, I was a Senior Art Director at ILM for 19 years.
[03:16] Allan: When you first started your career, did you always want to be an artist? Or was it something you fell into later on?
Christian: It was pretty early. I was one of those Star Wars kids. I started drawing when I was 5. There wasn’t enough stuff for me out there to look at so I felt that I had to draw it in order to see it again. Once I found out that there were people who did that for a living — they got to draw Star Wars and stuff for movies — I dreamt about it for sure!
[03:46] Allan: I love that you were enticed by Star Wars and here you are getting to work on Star Wars films.
Christian: For sure! It’s so cliche to say. Every now and again, I’ll say, “I was born for this!”
[04:02] Allan: You studied in Pasadena, at the Art Institute. What’s your opinion about going to an art college? And what was your experience there?
Christian: What was great about the Art Center is that it’s definitely a more expensive way to go a fully credited art school — but the level for the competition, you didn’t want to be the weakest in your class. You pushed yourself to do better than your peers. It’s a good motivator and the cost associated with the school, you don’t want to waste. I don’t think I took one sick day.
[04:54] Allan: When I freelanced, even when I was sick, I’d be like, “No, that’s 200 dollars!” It was always a motivator.
Christian: Definitely! I chose the Art Center as well. I grew up 40 minutes away. It was between the Disney School, CalArts and Art Center. I was in between two dreams.
[05:35] Allan: I’m curious about when you got your big break.
Christian: Well, getting into school felt like a big break! You had [to have a portfolio] just to get accepted. And then my last term at school, ILM came to do on-campus interviews. At that point, I had more of animation portfolio (Pixar, Disney kind of stuff). I thought they wouldn’t like any of my stuff. But I didn’t care, I just wanted to meet someone from ILM. I just went into the interview without much stress and I ended up doing really well in the interview. Also, they were working on a digital feature at that time and my work fit in perfectly. So they offered me a Production Assistant position in the Art Department right then and there. I was over the moon about that!
[06:42] Allan: What was that, A.I.?
Christian: They were working on a digital feature called Frankenstein. It never came out. I always say that the talent that was on that movie was some of the industry’s finest. I wish they would’ve at least put an art book of it out. The art was absolutely stunning!
[07:16] Allan: How long was the job?
Christian: It had been going for quite a while before I started. I think it went for another 5 months after I started. Then, they kind of dissolved the team. The project people were laid off, the people who were full-time moved to other projects. But I think it had been going a while before I started.
[07:48] Allan: Was it an actual test?
Christian: I think they did a test and you can find it online: Frankenstein walking through the door, with lightening flashing. In that era, it was pushing the envelope to make a semi-realistic human character. It was pretty cool!
[08:27] Allan: Going from being a kid at 5 years old sketching Star Wars then to being the halls of ILM, what was it like to go into the place where your dreams were sort of created?
Christian: It was nuts! The first project that I worked on [was] A.I. We did a lot of design work to help fill in the gaps. We were designing a lot of miniatures. My Art Director would tell me to check in and make sure they matched what I drew. I’d be walking and [thinking,] “I know who that guy is, I know who that guy is! I’ve known who that guy is since I was 8!” So it was like walking over the legends. It was always to walk over to the model shop.
[09:32] Allan: That’s so cool! And I was chatting with Emmanuel Shiu who started at Lucasfilm pretty much after high school. For some of you who managed to go to your dream jobs straight after high school or college, what advice would you give?
Christian: I would say that if you don’t get into the company of your dreams, you can step your way up. [10:20] A lot of the advice I give to students is at the very least, get a job where you get paid to practice your craft. That’s the best thing in the world! They’re paying you to improve. And if you keep working hard and studying while you’re getting paid for it, you’re a hundred times better off than the people who aren’t even getting the jobs that are at smaller game studios. Get paid for what you do, so at least you’re getting to do it full-time. If you aren’t getting paid, you have to have two jobs. You have the day job that pays for the night job. And the goal is to get your night job to be your one. We’ve all had to do that.
[12:22] Allan: For a lot of us, we have this pressure to prove that art is a real career, from ourselves or other people. Once you’re getting a paid career, it takes the pressure off!
Christian: I would say that’s the hardest thing to do in the world: to quit something you’re passionately in love with just because people are being negative around you. But then again there are people who aren’t putting in enough work to really improve.
[12:26] Allan: Well, I think what you’ve mentioned before about going to college and having that as a qualifier. It makes you step up and grow. The standard that comes out of that school is so high! Things like that can help you see where you stand.
Christian: There are definitely times like that! I remember thinking, “Okay, I’m going to be graduating from an art school.” I was looking at the guys in the industry and thinking about their level. Coming in, I would be a lot cheaper than they are but I have to be close to their level. You have to have your head on straight. That’s just the reality!
[13:59] Allan: Over the course of your career, you’ve worked on a lot of big projects. Are there any that stand out as more challenging or memorable?
Christian: Every projects sort of has its challenges. Some are creative challenges, some are client [related] challenges. I’d say every one of them! I remember War of the Worlds was chronologically challenged. We had 7 months. We started at the end of summer of 2004. I don’t think we ever turned around a project of that size that quickly. That was was huge. What was great was that Steven Spielberg was so great to work with! He asked what our capabilities were and even re-writing scenes. There was a give and take. That one was such an interesting thing, [in terms of] what could be done in such a short amount of time.
[15:39] Allan: I love that! With a project like that, what’s a typical way you’d approach something like that? Do you ease into it? Or, is it off to the races and figuring out the director’s needs?
Christian: Yeah, it can be both. But that one was pretty much a day one. That was Ryan Church and Erik Tiemens who were on the prequels at the time. We were trying to figure out what the tripods looked like and doing concept art for key sequences; [and what] the aliens inside the tripods looked like. I think at that point, we had a rough draft of the script to work with. At least a story layout! Because I went on to be a VFX Art Director, I was on it at least a week or two before we wrapped the effects: painting the elements, helping do digital matte stuff too, doing paint-overs to help the compositors get the right amount of atmospheric perspective, or whatever.
[17:28] Allan: Yeah, that movie turned out amazing. I have heard many stories about it!
Christian: It was a fun one!
[17:37] Allan: I’m curious about when it comes to learning to read what the client or the director wants — and aligning your vision with theirs.
Christian: I was thinking about this today. Just to design or come up with something, the biggest and the most common direction that we get is, “I want it cool and I want something we’ve never seen before.” So you’re balancing that, and you’re also balancing trying to be a creative chameleon. You almost don’t want to have your own style. You’re trying to absorb and understand what the director is and what he wants. That’s at least half the battle. If it were just me, you’d hit a home run every time. But that’s always really tough, especially if you’re dealing with a client that doesn’t have the language to describe what they want visually. That does happen with a writer-director sometimes. In the worst cast scenario, you just end up doing a lot of scenarios and a lot of versions.
[19:36] Allan: Early in my career, you’re following their direction in terms of notes. The more I’ve matured over the course of my career, the more I’ve learned to ask the right questions up front. So I’m curious about what are some of the key questions to ask of directors, to understand what their needs are?
Christian: It’s funny! It’s such a Hollywood trope to say, “What movies do see this as like?” Sometimes, if the mood is super important, I’ll ask, “Do you see thing being a vision of the future that’s a positive one? Is it apocalyptic?” For characters, especially if it’s an alien, I try to ask, “If you could cast anyone from film history for this part, who would that be?” And then, I’d make an alien version of that. If it’s Danny Devito from Taxi, then I already have 5 alien versions in my head. But that helps a ton! I find that’s a book that everyone can speak to. It’s a common language for everyone in the industry.
[21:59] Allan: Speaking of characters and Star Wars, the one thing I have to touch on is The Child or Baby Yoda. Can you talk a bit about that? How did you get involved in this and other contributions [to the show]?
Christian: I remember coming back from a winter break and we found out that Jon Favreau had been writing all these cool stories. And we were going to work on The Mandalorian. It was mostly going through our in-house team, so it was just three of us, at least for the concepts: Ryan Church, Erik Tiemens and I. And of course, Doug Chiang was the Design Director. I’m not even sure whose idea it was to have the baby version of the Yoda species. But Dave Filoni had done some sketches and I did one pass. It was sort of too humanistic and toddler. At the time, you don’t really know what the style of the show would be. Mine would’ve worked fine on a certain type of a Star Wars projects. And Jon’s feedback was, “I want it be more like an ugly little puppet.” He kept saying, “Think: 1983.” So I was thinking of ways to inspire it and of the babies that J.C. Leyendecker painted and how cheeky they were. They always had this reseeding chin and really sad cheeks, and a protruding upper lip. There was already a brief out there they wanted it to have giant ears. So my second pass was the one! It’s so funny how it took two of them to get into the ballpark.
[24:54] Allan: Did you have any expectation of how big this whole thing would be online?
Christian: No, not really! I know when we showed the artwork to Jon through an internal Skype review, Dave Filoni was in the conference room with us; and he said, “Man, if you could sell the merchandise right now, it would pay for the show!” Everybody in LA who saw it went, “Aw!” But I had no idea it’d make such a splash. I keep joking with friends, “It’s like the new Macarena.”
[25:53] Allan: That’s so cool! There are certain IP’s that are sensitive. When I worked on Call of Duty, we had to turn off the lights late at night [in the office] because people would try to peak through the windows. People get sensitive around certain things. Did you feel that pressure working on Star Wars material?
Christian: The nice thing about working on Star Wars is that I’m such a huge fan; and if I can make myself happy with it, I can trust it. I can’t let it lock me up. I have to get the work done! That’s the thing that made me so happy with The Child: The old and the new fans united in a fandom.
[27:28] Allan: In terms of The Mandalorian, what other contributions did you have?
Christian: Let’s see. It was a lot because it was a small team. It’s such a fun project! I did Kuiil’s design which I was absolutely thrilled with whom they cast to do his voice! So amazing! I did a bit of redesign to get IG-11. And then, the Blurrgs had to be pulled out of mothballs. After that, there was a lot of sets and key frame moments. I did a lot of the creature work on the show. I’m the one guy on the team who seems to have that specialty.
[28:41] Allan: I want to keep giving the show my full attention, but I love there is so much more of the Universe that’s being introduced. In terms of Star Wars, what was your involvement on Rogue One?
Christian: [On] Rogue One, I spent a lot of time designing Vader’s castle and chamber. It was originally going to be a lot bigger. We designed these spaces as if 45 minutes of the movie is going to take place there. Of course, once production started, it got cut back a lot. I worked a bit on Jedha and the plateau city. I think that’s it!
[30:15] Allan: Cool! For whatever reason, that film stuck out to me. It’s its own sage that ties into everything else. As a fan, you appreciate your own arc.
Christian: I agree. That’s why Rogue One was successful. It didn’t have the pressure to be a Skywalker film. It’s such a hard path to navigate to keep everyone happy. When you get to introduce new characters, you have a clean slate.
[31:24] Allan: You were also involved in Force Awakens. What was that experience like?
Christian: That was probably the favorite few months of my career. We thought it was dead and gone. To be called in into the first meeting on the very first day and to be given that kind of trust! To be asked, “Okay, what would Luke Skywalker look like now that he’s gone through all this trauma?” That was my first concept art I had to do! I probably had a built-in smile for the first 6 months!
[32:59] Allan: What were some of the biggest challenges on that film?
Christian: I felt like everyone coming onto the project, they think they know what Star Wars is visually. But until start designing it, it takes a few months to get there. There is a learning curve. It’s like learning a new language. You have to learn Ralph McQuarrie’s design language and Joe Johnston’s design language, to get it to feel right. As far as designing goes, that was the tough part. When J.J. [Abrams] came on, it was about finding what worked. Now that we had another language, it was about finding the right thing to say to J.J. We had to find that.
[34:37] Allan: In terms of the advice you’d give to younger artists trying to break into the industry, what are some of the things you’d tell them to do, in order to stand out and gain momentum early in their career?
Christian: [34:58] I would say: Don’t skip the foundation stuff: drawing and painting, and learning color, and being able to sketch. You’ll always want to fall back on learning to sketch really quick ideations and thumbnails. Even if you go into 3D, it will inform your work. As far as getting out there, I recommend sites like ArtStation a lot because it’s a place to post your work. Other people are going to see it and they will give you critiques. You’re going to feel a sense of competition and that can help raise your level. It’s a nice online community especially for people who cannot live in the hub of the film world yet. It gives you a sense of community.
[36:20] Allan: I really want to thank you for taking the time to chat! Where can people go to find out more about you?
Christian: I have a website (www.christianalzmann.com) but lately I’ve been mostly on Instagram (@calzmann).
[36:47] Allan: Again, thank you for doing this!
I hope you enjoyed this Episode. I want to thank Christian for taking the time to chat. He shared so many great insights.
Next week, I will be back talking about training, talking about how much I personally spend on my learning. I think it will give you some insight on why it’s important to continue investing in yourself.
I will be back next week. Until then —
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