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The Art of Christian Alzmann

“I enjoy making images that tell stories and ask more questions than they answer.” Christian Alzmann and the art of creative speculation.

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Client list:
Lucas Film, Harper Collins, Penguin Group USA, Nike, Dreamworks, Activision

Web: www.christianalzmann.com

Christian Alzmann has worked on an enviable list of movies: Pirates of the Caribbean, Star Wars: Episode II, Men in Black II… And that’s just the film work; we haven’t even mentioned the books and personal projects.

What makes Christian shine are his priorities. “To me,” he says, “ideas are the most important thing.” That’s why Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) hired him right out of college and why he’s art directing there now. Aspiring artists everywhere should pay attention.

California dreaming

Growing up beneath the cloudless skies of California, Christian developed a suitably sunny outlook on life: “I had the feeling that it was possible to do anything, within reason, if you worked hard at it.” It didn’t hurt the development of this theory that Christian’s dad was a director on wholesome TV show The Waltons.

When you add to his positive disposition an early exposure to art in the form of movies such as Sinbad, Excalibur, Tron and, of course, Star Wars, you start to wonder if the world isn’t just a simple mechanism after all. But life is never that straightforward. “I really wanted to be an animator at first,” recalls Christian. “But after realising how much it cost for school I sort of gave up on art for a while.” It wasn’t until his twenty-third year that the creative pressure behind this financial dam had built up to sufficient levels where Christian made up his mind to “make a go of it”.

Following in the footsteps of illustrious artists such as Ralph McQuarrie, Syd Mead and Drew Struzan, Christian enrolled at the Art Center in Pasadena. Studying illustration, Christian began to hone his craft. “Drawing the human or organic form was always very challenging,” he admits. “Luckily it’s also the most fun for me to draw.” As a result, character design began to emerge as a strength.

Lucky break

Building a career takes considerable effort, but openings often present themselves in the form of a lucky break. In Christian’s case, this was an interview with ILM. “I thought I had no chance whatsoever because I had a portfolio filled with animation artwork, backgrounds, storyboards and so on; nothing really suitable for live action movies.”

Believing he had no chance of getting a job, Christian had none of the interview nerves and everything went smoothly. “It just so happened that they were trying their hand at digital features, so the portfolio worked well,” he says. ILM signed Christian up there and then, and he was “on cloud nine.”

 All in the mind

“Art school is great at building up your ego,” notes Christian with a wry smile. “That got me through my first week at ILM.” What brought him down to earth was a creative paradigm shift. “I realised that all of the paintings and drawings I was looking at there were done from the artists’ imaginations,” he says. The quality achieved at ILM was not a happy accident, it was the product of hard work, and lots of it.

On reflection it’s obvious that this would be the approach – after all, there are no monsters or aliens to copy from. But at the time it was a shock to Christian who’d been used to drawing models. It forced a change in his working practice. “To know something well enough to draw it from memory is to really know it,” he says.
One of the reasons this skill is so critical has to do with where the world of digital effects has got to. “I think we’re at the edge of being able to create anything digitally,” believes Christian. “Digital characters used to be impossible to do realistically and now the industry is on the edge of making the realistic ones a constant.” If he’s right, and the technology is nearly there, the possibilities will begin to snowball for artists who don’t need a model to work from.

Telling tales

Today, Christian’s technique is his working model. Take a book cover as an example. “I like to read the book and write down all of the items in the book that might look cool as an image,” he explains. “Then I might look to combine some of these items in a way that gives the viewer a sense of the story.” And at that point a solid composition of lights and darks can be laid down with strong shapes and values.

“Painting has always been a bit easier,” notes Christian. “Shapes, values and colour made more sense to me visually than lines.” The temptation would once have been to shy away from drawing – “early on I even looked at drawings as unfinished paintings,” Christian admits. Luckily, he’s since seen the error of his ways. “Now I love to look at drawings as their own finished art,” he says.

That being the case, when there’s a new job on the slate, Christian does drawings first to get his hand moving. Digital comes second because he “hasn’t found a way to get really rhythmic lines for my figures in a digital format yet.” Cracking this problem has involved the purchase of a Cintiq, “so maybe that will change”. Until then, however, it’s the tried and tested route of pencils to Painter.

This sets Christian reflecting on the nature of digital production. “Creatively, I believe that in 3D and digital animation there are places that you couldn’t go traditionally.” And even on paper (or screen), 3D has an impact. “The simplicity of the more recent programs such as SketchUp and ZBrush will have an impact on the accuracy of the images,” he says. “On the flipside of that, artwork that’s so accurate and correct to anatomy and perspective will probably push many illustrators to go in the other direction and stylise their imagery even more.”

Bigger picture

Christian’s job as an art director may be demanding, but he loves his work – just getting to be creative would be enough for him. “As an art director I have to provide any artwork that might be needed for a production,” he says. “But when there’s a good team effort you’re part of something bigger, hopefully contributing to something that’ll be watched generations from now.” Under those circumstances there’s an element of obligation – not to make the kids of tomorrow suffer.

Creative people act as a prism through which the world passes and comes out re-envisioned. The artist’s job is to suggest an alternative universe that’s as complex as our own, though in new and different ways. In that spirit, notes Christian, “my ideas come from everywhere.”

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