The blockbuster concept artist on life after ILM
s a conceptual artist, George Hull’s work has helped shape the stunning imagery of films such as Jupiter Ascending, The Matrix Reloaded, The Cloud Atlas and Elysium. George likes working as a hired gun for different directors. “I help draw and paint ideas for the look of a film’s set, architecture, vehicles and environments,” the concept artist says. “This is the most exciting part for me – I just love the feeling of discussing an idea at the start of a day and, by the end, having a piece of art in my hand.”
Like many, George found art as a boy. “My artistic passion was ignited watching Alien, Blade Runner and Star Wars,” he says. “Likewise, my earliest artistic heroes were Ralph McQuarrie, Syd Mead, Joe Johnston and Moebius.”
The artist, however, cites US landscape painter Edwin Church as a defining influence. As a child he would spend hours in the Cleveland Museum or Art, gazing at Edwin’s Twilight in the Wilderness. “I was amazed by the piece’s mood, detail, technique and his ability to capture scale with pigment and brushes.” The work, George says, still inspires him today.
“In high school, I researched my heroes of film design and discovered almost all of them had an education in industrial design,” he says. With his hope for the film industry parked, George confronted his future, which seemed to be architectural, engineering or commercial illustration. “None of those felt quite right when deciding my college studies,” he recalls. And then an epiphany happened. “One day I saw a car magazine with conceptual design for a futuristic super car.” George was off and running.
The young artist knuckled down and won a place studying industrial design at the University of Cincinnati. “I was very aware of the work coming out of the premier schools such as Art Center and California College of the Arts,” he recalls. “My ID programme didn’t teach car design or the flashy techniques that I saw other students learning.”
Indeed, each year, Art Center would put out a calendar filled with futuristic cars
and high-concept vehicles. “My jaw would hit the floor when I saw it: I would get stomach pains worrying about my competitors. My school assignments were to design a next-generation vacuum cleaner!” He recalls thinking: “I’ll never be that good. I felt overwhelmed with the competition and confused. How could I get my skills even close?”
Steel and determination
George didn’t give up, though. Rather, he did something he says every aspiring artist should do. He decided if his assignments were mundane, instead of feeling depressed and giving up, he would challenge himself and push his skills forward himself.
“I would draw complex perspectives instead of simple side-views,” he says. “I would create interesting scenarios and work on my technical draftsmanship. I would explore new painting techniques.” This way of approaching work – of pushing his skills – he says, keeps him growing as a creator even today. Not every film, he reminds us, needs high-concept ideas. Some require the basics but, even in those moments, he tries to advance his artistry.
George felt that working in automotive design would enable him to test his skills and use his imagination. Yet to secure an internship and job with a car company, he had to compete with students from all over the world. And some of those students attended colleges with dedicated car design studios and courses. “Getting the Chrysler and Ford apprenticeships was critical in my path, because I got to talk to the staff designers and see what my life would be like in the future – the reward for what I was striving for," he recalls.
Then George changes tone. “I found out that very few people get to do conceptual work. Most of the jobs involved real-world manufacturing details of the same type of product.” There just wasn’t much call for high concept imagination. This was a huge let-down. It was made doubly sour as he realised he’d still have to work like a dog to secure a car or product design job, the realities of which now left him feeling cold.
George pressed on though. And then he stopped. “On an internship at Chrysler, I remember sitting in a bathroom stall for an hour, thinking about my path. Where would I be in five years? All roads seemed to lead to disappointment, regardless of how hard I worked.”
End of th e road
Finally the artist admitted to himself that the job he really wanted was in film design. ”That felt like saying you wanted to be Han Solo for a living,” he says, aware of the remark’s significance. He grasped the nettle and committed to the film industry.
George’s school wasn’t impressed. It branded his decision ridiculous and wasteful. Looking back, George says he was, at that point, a man on a mission. The gloves were off. “I heard that Lucasfilm had an internship programme,” he explains, “and I decided that was my goal.”
Yet doubt still lingered in his mind. “If car design was competitive, the ILM art department spot was going to be ultracompetitive,” he thought at the time. Was
I got stomach pains from worrying… I felt overwhelmed, confused
his dream realistic? Were there a million other artists better than him? And if it didn’t land him a film job, would he be shooting himself in the foot for even a decent ID job? It was all or nothing.
“I tried to be smart. My college thesis was a tele-operated robot, designed for hazardous emergencies or disasters such as Chernobyl. I wanted to define myself as a high concept designer who thinks about function as well as styling,” George says. “It won Best in Show and got me into the ILM internship. I still remember listening to the phone message saying I was accepted, and falling to the floor!”
“At ILM I was elated to be working with, and learning from, the artists and model makers from Star Wars, Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park,“George says. “Many of them were my childhood heroes, such as Dennis Muren. He selected me to work on the Special Edition of The Empire Strikes Back, and the Jurassic Park sequel. I was obsessed with learning the craft.”
George moved through the ranks at ILM and was quickly promoted to VFX art director. “It was a fantastic job and great for the ego,“he says. “But my tasks were mainly leadership, meetings, delegation. There was very little time for creating artwork myself. I knew my skills were not growing to the level of my heroes. People who were involved with creating film from the earliest stages,“he says.
“I imagined an elegantly decorated palace
as a spaceship.“ JUPITER ASCENDING
OR NATE SPACESHIP DOCK “I juxtaposed high-tech and low-tech to create an ornate docking bay with statues and chandeliers.”
“My idea was for floating cannons and wing segments that could arrange themselves in different configurations.”
ARMO uRE D PATROL SUIT
Juxtap osing Aesth etics “For this Jupiter Ascending concept, I imagined a royal shuttle emerging from an ornate palatial structure.”
SPACE BATTLE STANDOFF “A battle sketch and forcefield concept from Jupiter Ascending.”
“This ship from the game Star Citizen cuts asteroids and collect precious ore using powerful tractor beams.” MINING SHIP CONCEPT