Last summer, you may well have been entertained by the massive robot battle action in Transformers. And if you did, while you were enjoying Industrial Light & Magic’s special effects, you were also watching some of the designs of concept artist and illustrator Ben Procter, who has worked on some of the biggest movies to hit our cinemas in the last few years.
Ben admits that he’s always wanted to draw and find a way to channel his artistic talents, but didn’t constantly give in to them: “I didn’t sight-draw the world around me and fill notebooks like truly talented draughtspeople,” he laughs. Creative impulses
“I grew up in Manhattan in a creative family, so I was surrounded from day one by culture and media of all descriptions,” Ben says. “I was inspired by all kinds of stuff as a kid, but particularly by things I deemed futuristic and urban. I was privileged at the age of 15 to travel to Tokyo and see where all my favourite anime came from. I idolised sleek high-end stereo equipment and the sensual urban atmospheres of Blade Runner.” It’s easy to see where the man who would one day help to bring the likes of The Matrix to life found the roots of his aesthetic.
He also cites the work of a master in the illustrative field: “The guy I wanted to be was Syd Mead. His ability to imagine and depict worlds in such a simultaneously photo-real and stylised way still amazes me. And then there’s Craig Mullins, who kind of picked up the baton from Syd and took it in many new and exciting directions. Nowadays it seems you can throw a rock and hit an illustrator whose talent amazes and inspires… I have no idea how I plan to keep up in this crowd!”
Long before he ever ventured into the world of Hollywood, Ben got his start in
the world so many illustrators have been channelled through – computer games. “My first real job was helping to art direct a pre-rendered 3D game (back in the ancient days before real-time everything), and participating in the 3D design and rendering process really fascinated me. As
a result, I set my sights on Hollywood and landed some jobs as a visual effects 3D artist and previsualisation animator.” Previs, as it’s commonly known, often acts as an advanced storyboard, a guide for the director and other creative department heads to see how effects will work with live-action and how scenes might be shot.Moving pictures
Ben’s first dalliance with the film industry wasn’t some small indie movie – he snagged a job on two of the biggest films to emerge from the studios: “It was doing previs on Matrix two and three, while working at a great company called Pixel Liberation Front, that I got my first sustained glimpse of a working Hollywood art department and immediately decided I had to be an illustrator.
“Ultimately, with the right timing and some critical help from friends to whom I’ll always be grateful, I was able to land my first illustration job on The Terminal.”
Ask him to explain his ‘normal’ working method, however, and you quickly realise there’s no such thing in his job these days. “Adaptability ends up being all-important. This includes adaptability of craft (knowing when you can invest in doing a full-blown 3D model of something and when you should just do a quick sketch, mixing up line drawing and raw painting to keep things fresh) and also adaptability of attitude toward your work – you can’t be too precious about it but there are times when you have to be a vigorous champion of your own ideas.”
But when pressed for a clue as to his research process, Ben reveals he has his own style. He’ll refer to references, but “more likely I’ll just start slamming down digital paint in Photoshop and see what emerges from my wrist when I shut my mind off a little bit. I guess this is the intuitive artist side of me.”The unkindest cut
Working in films isn’t always the easiest proposition; especially when you’re an artist who pours his heart and soul into his work. The ever-changing design aesthetic of movies means work is often brushed aside in favour of a new concept, or, in Ben’s case, fully realised but left on the cutting room floor, such as in Superman Returns’ unused opening sequence, which sees our hero return to the remains of his home planet, Krypton. “Everyone always says, ‘Well, you got paid, didn’t you?’ but any artist who pours themselves into their work at all isn’t in it for the money,” says Ben. “Working hard on something that never sees the light of day sucks. There, I said it!”
It isn’t always that way, though, and sometimes things work out for the better. Ben is most proud of his work in Transformers. “I’d say that it exhibited the closest relationship between my illustration work and what you see on screen. After getting so much of my work cut out of previous film projects, it was very gratifying to see it up on screen.”
And he’s staying in the world of the Transformers – though he’s sworn to secrecy about it. “Right now I’m doing more robots for the sequel. Any more detail than that and I’d be shot at dawn!”