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Dermot Power

From greeting cards to concept designs for Star Wars, Dermot Power reveals how he made the jump from jobbing artist to working on top Hollywood films

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Before he became the world-conquering concept artist he’s known as today, Dermot Power made an interesting start to his career in the art world. “I remember finally getting a commission to do some cutesy Christmas cards,” reminisces Dermot. “When I delivered the final paintings the art director thanked me, paid me, pinned them up on his drawing table, switched on his airbrush and repainted them right in front of me…”
That was a long time ago, of course. The man who has since worked on concept designs for a plethora of movies including Star Wars Episode II, Batman Begins, three Harry Potter films, V for Vendetta and Beowulf among others is older and much wiser. Having made the transition from failed illustrator to comic artist to Hollywood concept designer, he’s learnt a lot along the way.

Daddy’s boy
Dermot’s father is an artist himself, so from the earliest age he was brought up in an environment of art appreciation. Having such an enthusiastic teacher, and learning the fundamentals of perspective, anatomy and so on, made Dermot eager to go to art college: “I expected it to be a place where I would be taught lots of traditional techniques, get to grips with oil painting and so on. I was hopelessly naïve… I lasted two years.”

Dermot always knew he wanted to be a professional artist, but had no idea how to go about it. Moving to London in the 1980s, he embarked on that somewhat disastrous career as an artist, creating portraits, murals, greeting cards and children’s books – anything he could get his hands on. In the end he found himself gravitating towards creating artwork for comics. This, Dermot explains, was “for the same reasons a lot of us Bisley/Fabry clones did.” Like many people he had grown up with seminal UK comic 2000 AD, but hadn’t read it for years when he saw an issue featuring a Simon Bisley cover for Slaine. “I could not believe what I was looking at… I thought ‘I want to do this, I can do this.’ And then I tried and I realised I couldn’t. Comics are hard.”
He persevered, however, and eventually got some cover work for 2000 AD, followed by his own strips. “It was the best training ground you could get for being a concept artist. You have to draw everything and anything; costumes, creatures, props, landscapes and as quickly as possible.”

Big screen dreams
As much as he appreciated the experience 2000 AD had given him, Dermot was always more interested in film concept art – and one day, the transition just happened. Director Steve Barron was working on a mini series of Merlin for the Hallmark channel, and asked Dermot to come up with some character concepts. He did, and never went back to comics again – somewhat to his own surprise. The transition also saw him moving to the Mac and digital tools, permanently abandoning traditional media: “So my collection of original art stopped dead in 1997!”
Storyboarding and concept design seemed to come naturally to him, and in 1999 he was asked to join the design team for Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones. Unsurprisingly, he was extremely nervous. “I thought I would get some background characters to start off with but the first thing Doug Chiang, the design director, asked me to do was come up with ideas for the Sith. I started at the deep end.” It was the best result he could have hoped for. “I just got on with it. You know you are designing well when you’re not thinking about anything else but the characters and story you are working on. It almost doesn’t matter what the project is.”

Inspiration and research

Concept art, he believes, is a mixture of inspiration and research. A good designer must be able to draw well – and that means drawing anything well, not just the subjects they’re familiar with. But they also soak up the relevant information provided by researchers, to whom Dermot is quick to express his gratitude. “They will dig out all sorts of stuff for you and more importantly talk about the design,” he explains. “A lot of concept artists are a little lazy about research, particularly now with the internet, where you can access a huge amount of material on any subject. But a good researcher talks about the subject and helps you get a deeper understanding of why a particular object or building or whatever looks the way it does. I like to load my head with this information when I am designing.” At the concept stage, he adds, design is relatively cheap, and he’s usually able to provide ideas that are as wild as he likes. “In the early stages of a movie you do images to generate conversation and most of the time you are showing the producers and directors what they don’t want. Later on in the process you can start being more practical.”

Don’t get precious
The workload varies dramatically. For Episode II, he produced a staggering 500 costume designs over a year, while for his latest project – A Christmas Carol – he has created around 60 designs over eight months, because historical accuracy is paramount for this project.
Concept landscapes can take even longer, largely because they’re endlessly revised. “On Beowulf we were often asked to make things ‘a little more cloudy’ or the snow should be ‘less fluffy, more slushy…’ You really can’t get too precious about what you’re doing as you’ll always have to change it. I don’t like to spend too much time on an image. I was much more willing to pour my soul into a piece of art when I started out, but now my biggest enemy is boredom. I love that mad rush of an urgent deadline.”
Like many concept artists, Dermot accepts that a great deal of his own work will never really be seen, unless it’s featured in an ‘Art of…’ book. He is concerned, however, with having more control over how his designs are shown on screen – which prompted his move to the US, and also prompts a burst of invective from the admittedly outspoken designer.
“The traditional English art department system is a ghetto for concept designers,” he believes. “Because we don’t draft sets there is a ongoing suspicion that we can draw pretty pictures but we don’t know what things are like in the real world. It’s maddening and a warning to anyone who wants to make this a career: you will rarely be allowed to supervise the realisation of your design and very often have to watch as some other creative messes it up.”

Nevertheless, Dermot is happy with his current collaboration with Doug Chiang at Image Movers Digital Studios, and he spends the year partly in San Francisco, partly in London. As well as cutting-edge motion capture projects, he’s designing characters for a super-secret computer game, “more as an excuse to draw some shiny futuristic robot-type characters as a break from tail-coats and bonnets.” There’s also occasional work for World of Warcraft and perhaps, one day, a return to canvas and paint. But, as this accomplished designer admits, “I don’t do well with a blank page. I need something to react to, kick against– or just kick!”
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