As a concept designer for the one and only Weta Workshop, the veteran punk rocker and accomplished illustrator Greg Broadmore has turned a lifelong obsession with dinosaurs into a career. Although he’s worked on movies as massive as King Kong, this native New Zealander hasn’t lost his sense of perspective: “For me,” he says, “to have been paid to draw dinosaurs still seems like winning the lottery.” And seeing the results running around on screen? “Nuts.”
Robots and dinosaurs
Greg can’t trace exactly what it was about the lumbering monsters of prehistory that first grabbed his attention: it’s like he came with the joy of giant lizards pre-installed. “Dinosaurs were a point-blank thing,” he says. “I’ve loved them as long as I can remember.”
Growing up in a little coastal town there wasn’t that much excitement, so Greg filled his days with saurian dreams: “I was infatuated with dinosaurs and tanks; I drew them all the time.” Once he was older and wiser, the interest became much more about palaeontology and discovery than the perfectly natural desire to see an ‘off-the-scale’ dust-up between the fiercest of the lizards. At base, though, the fact remains: “What’s not awesome about giant terrifying doom-lizards?”
To avoid doom-lizard fatigue, Greg had an auxiliary passion: robots. “I can’t think of many artists who don’t like to draw them,” he shrugs. For Greg, it’s humanoid or animal-like robots that hold the greatest appeal. This type of ‘bot “brings the fun of caricature to the table” and gives the artist an extended range of expressions.
A lifetime of artistic endeavour does not,
for Greg, include any long-term artistic schooling. He began a degree in fine art but quickly realised it wasn’t for him. And with a creative wind still at his back, Greg did the only sensible thing: “I dropped out and played punk rock for the next ten years.”
Eventually, he came back to illustration. Initially this meant working on children’s titles: “I’m really grateful for the work and experience,” he says. But despite some great people, the frustrations outweighed the joys. “I think I did a lot more swearing back in that period,” Greg concludes.
The move to Weta was prompted by a simple analysis of the facts. “It was a total ‘duh’ moment,” Greg says, marvelling that it took quite so long. “I just thought, ‘There’s a company in the city that I live in making kick-arse fantasy films, and I don’t work for them. WTF!?’”
Thus spurred by his own reasoning, Greg had purpose. “I got my shit together and sent in my folio. Luckily for me, Richard Taylor didn’t think I was a total chump and gave me a job.” This turned out to be the education that Greg had so far managed to avoid – and then some. “It’s the best art school I could ever have gone to,” he says.
On the job
“It’s hard not to get better when you’re surrounded by some of the most talented and passionate people in the world,” says Greg. Weta specialises in a kind of learning by creative proximity: “It’s osmosis.”
Some lessons are hard-learned because they’re based on experience rather than reason. They’re about what works. For Greg, “The hardest and weirdest lesson I’ve taken from my work in film is learning not to give a shit.” What? “You can’t get too attached to a design,” Greg insists. “You can’t assume that a client will pick what is – in your opinion – a good design.” A coping mechanism has to be developed. “So you learn to be blasé about it.” Greg is perfectly willing to admit that this is crazily counter-intuitive, not least because “every picture I do has my heart and soul invested in it.” But if you’re going to avoid emotional burn-out you have to learn to let go.
State of mind
Still, before you let go you have to grab on as hard as you can. “Watch a Lord of the Rings DVD and you can see the insane level of history that is built into every object, set or character.” There’s a world behind every pixel. “That’s Tolkien, obviously, but it’s a state of mind at Weta too.”
A love of his subject makes this approach second nature for Greg. “I think about the environment that any creature I design comes from,” he says. In general, film creatures rarely have a realistic grounding, but that’s not how it works in Peter Jackson’s Wellington empire. “Every creature from every designer or sculptor has some natural history behind it that substantiates the concept,” says Greg.
That’s where the World of Kong book came from. “The idea of turning that back-story into an ecology of the world was just natural.” Greg’s involvement can be traced neatly back to his childhood fascination with dead lizards, and his belief in them not as fairy tales, but as living history.
Greg puts the realism of his concepts down to close study of real-world analogues. “I use many large animals as references,” he says, “and take inspiration from palaeontological artists such as Gregory S Paul and Douglas Henderson.”
This attention to detail translates into a solid underpinning. Greg always sketches out bones or the influence of bones, then the volume of muscles. “I try and make sure that the body volumes are similar in proportion to other large animals such as elephants and giraffes.”
Of course, some artists like to draw dinosaurs as monsters with giant feet, bulging muscles and chunky proportions. “That’s fun and I’ve got nothing against it,” says Greg. “But I try to make them feel like big animals.” And, he adds, “I sometimes remember that I like Godzilla too!” After all, he doesn’t work in a museum.
Make it fun
Godzilla is a fitting mascot for Greg’s overall philosophy: “My sole goal in illustration is to make it fun.” If it starts to go pear-shaped he rapidly loses patience. “Luckily for me,” Greg laughs, “being pissed off at an illustration and listening to loud punk rock usually improves things.”
Though his work feels very grounded, Greg’s punk ethic lends an exploratory feel to his process. “I try to get a plan,” he explains, “but it’s mainly intuition and finding my way as I go.” Plans, he says, “always change about five minutes in and I have to make myself let go of them.”
With all the demands of film production, speed of development is crucial. Although Greg still paints and sketches traditionally, everything is finished in Photoshop. The idea that this leads to a ‘shopped’ quality in the work is nonsense, he argues. “So many artists use Photoshop and the results can be so different that the effect is very subtle.” Control over colour and the ability to work quickly make digital Greg’s ideal medium. And what’s more: “I don’t really care that I don’t have an ‘original’.” Paint holds no romantic draw, it’s the creatures that count. “I’m all about the final image.”