18 Feel the Force
Industrial Light & Magic and ArtStation teamed up to let artists experience what it’s like working on concept art for Star Wars – and one artist got an amazing prize, as Beren Neale finds out
We find out what happened when ArtStation and Industrial Light & Magic teamed up for a Star Wars art challenge.
This year ArtStation made the online art competition exciting again, working with one of the most influential and popular film-art studios in the world, Industrial Light & Magic (ILM). Their joint competition gave entrants an inside view of how pro concept artists work.
It all started with a meeting at the FMX conference in 2015, when chat turned to a question: how could an art competition help recruit a new generation of concept artists to work on the upcoming Star Wars films? David Nakabayashi, creative director of the ILM art department, came up with the idea of a challenge that would simulate a real production experience. For the ArtStation’s soon-to-be challenge manager, Daniel Wade, the chance was too good to miss and the 2016 ILM Art Department Challenge was born.
“When we realised we would be running a Star Wars
concept art challenge,” says Daniel, “it had to be fit for purpose. Planning began on a platform that would bring art challenges into the 21st century – and withstand a record number of entrants.”
ArtStation co-founder Leo Teo had already pioneered art challenges in the mid2000s with CG Challenges. “However, the aim with the new platform was to leave behind forum-based systems in favour of a purpose-built platform with a greater community emphasis,” says Daniel. “The most exciting aspect was that it was also a recruitment challenge. Those artists who gave this opportunity everything would likely help shape the look of future Star Wars films.”
Italian-based artist Mario Alberti predominantly works in comics. But the appeal of joining this competition was what got him into art in the first place: a sense of awe, and a desire to soak up anything that might make him a better artist. “I’m always hungry for new stuff to see and learn from,” he says. “I saw this as a chance to learn something new, maybe get to know a bit about working in films. Plus it’s Star Wars!”
That sense of awe had kicked in. “It felt a bit like a fish diving in a new sea, with all different kinds of colourful and beautiful creatures swimming around it,” says Mario. “I was confident I wouldn’t drown, and that I’d get as much fun as I could out of it.” The artist did more than that – he won first place.
The competition consisted of three major challenges: a keyframe challenge, a vehicle design challenge, and a boot-camp style challenge, with many deadlines and changing design briefs and requirements.
I was confident I wouldn’t drown, and I’d get as much fun as I could out of it
“For each challenge stage, the ILM art department created a design brief which all artists had to follow, along with deadlines and limited guidance,” says Daniel. Gone were the days of regular positive crits on friendly forums. “Sometimes the art directors gave us general advice after they viewed an overall panel of submissions,” says runner-up Morgan Yon. “That motivates you a lot. We also had something special: a ‘Like’ button on the bottom of our images. Those small things gave me a lot of confidence. I remember when I had the first ‘Like’ from David Nakabayashi – that was intense.”
Accompanying David on the judging panel for the challenges was a who’s who of industry legends, including Aaron McBride, Alex Jaeger, Doug Chiang, Jason Horley, Christian Alzmann, James Clyne, Amy Beth Christenson, Bianca Draghici, Erik Tiemens, Kev Jenkins, Kilian Plunkett, Ryan Church, Stephen Tappin, Thang Le and Yanick Dusseault. When each challenge was completed, these art behemoths judged the entries and decided who would go through to the next round.
“To be honest, I had just two Likes on my work in progress post,” says the comp’s thirdplace artist Fred Palacio.” No comment. Just two thumbs up. So I felt I was on my own and kept going.” Though Fred did have some help from a little friend. “I remember one night my nine-year-old son Matis came over and told me a vehicle looked Avatar-ish. I took one element away and, done, it worked! Everyone’s opinion counts, but self-criticism is very important,” he says.
Kicking things off, The Moment keyframe challenge invited artists to create two emotive images that told a cinematic story within the world of Episodes IV to VI. Keyframes could use only existing Star Wars worlds, vehicles, creatures and characters to create a story moment. A total of 3,888 artists began the challenge, with 1,010 completing this first phase. The first round of judging reduced the number of artists going through to the next round to 330.
Next, The Ride challenge asked entrants to design two new Star Wars vehicles within the aesthetic of Episodes IV to VI. Vehicles could be Rebel, Imperial or utilitarian: anything from a giant starship to a land speeder. Just under 300 artists completed
I never promoted myself, but as soon as the result came out I got so many offers
The Ride challenge, and the judging phase reduced the number who went through to the final stage to 224.
The Job challenge consisted of six mini-challenges designed to push artists to their limits. Deadlines were the same as they would be in a film production. Creative briefs were changed to show how directors can change their minds. And the story could evolve based on key frames from artists. Everyone was kept on their toes.
“The ILM art directors asked for the best that artists could produce within tough time restrictions, and 210 artists met that challenge,” says Daniel. “Although the deadlines were almost impossible and the workloads extreme, 90 per cent of the artists who undertook The Job challenge completed the six mini challenges, and were awarded the title Survivor.”
Once the dust sett les...
So what’s the legacy of this exciting online challenge? For the five artists who gained honourable mentions (and eight more labelled “ILM Favourites"), it’s getting kudos from peers and hopefully commissions from companies. For the three winners, there’s more kudos and some very desirable prizes from Wacom and ArtStation.
For Fred Palacio it was a surprise enough to be named in the top three. “When the result came out, I overlooked my name,” he says. “I looked at the winners announcement video and that’s when I realised I was one of the three winners. I never promoted myself, but as soon as the result came out I got so many work offers.” And an interview at ILM.
“The interview with Nak (David Nakabayashi) and Jennifer Coronado was filled with positive energy.” He obviously impressed, because Fred was subsequently appointed art director at ILM Vancouver.
“The art director role is the most difficult position to fill," said David. “We’d been keeping our eye out for over a year.”
Fred is understandably thrilled with the development. “Right now, I’m exploring a new world. I’m stepping into an arena filled with the biggest gladiators – and it seems they’re quite nice ! This huge community is making a director’s vision happen and I’m happy and grateful to be in the middle of it.”
How did the competition work out for ILM overall? David gives his final thoughts: “We were thrilled about this competition because it helped us find new talent. Most importantly, it gave us the opportunity to remotely mentor people (whether they knew it or not) and help them evolve their craft. There’s nothing more exciting than being able to participate in this important, creative community.”
To see the full brief for each challenge and explore all the great art it prompted, visit http://ilmchallenge.artstation.com.
Italian artist Mario triumphed out of 3,888 artists who initially entered the art challenge. Mario is a comics author and illustrator, working for both DC and Marvel.
The winner: Mario Alberti
The Battle of Hoth as depicted by Mario Alberti, the overall winner of the challenge.
Morgan was awarded second place in the realistically structured ILM/ArtStation challenge. Morgan Yon dramatically reimagines the boarding of the Rebel blockade runner from the opening of Episode IV.
Morgan describes getting a ‘Like’ from David Nakabayashi during the art challenge as “intense.”
A scene rich in Star Wars lore, this time from third-placed Fred Palacio, who got the biggest prize of all.
Fred developed his own Star Wars story based on Luke’s severed hand. The artist received a key critique from his nine-year-old son for his vehicle art.
Fred was so surprised to be named in the top three, he didn’t even look for his name initially.