Building worlds for the cinema
Learn how to develop an engaging environment for the big screen, with pro advice from film industry concept designer Victor Martinez
Develop engaging lands, with Victor Martinez.
When asked to do a workshop on creating a fantasy environment, I thought it would be fun to pay homage to one of the most well-known fantasy stories of all time, The Wizard of Oz, and set it in outer space. It’s also a bit of a throwback to those amazing sci-fi artworks pieces from the 1970s.
I have our outer space explorers staring off into the horizon, at my version of the Emerald City. Obviously, the story could be anything, but quickly, we’ve set up a few important conditions – outer space, an alien planet and astronauts – and these parameters will create the most important part of the piece: the narrative. Remember to always tell a story and be mindful that a successful concept piece does just that.
Often, whether I’m working on a film, video game or even a commercial, the story is just an outline. We may have an idea of the key story beats, the main characters and overall environments, but as artists and designers, it’s our duty to fill in the gaps. This occurs on a lot of the films I work on, where there may not be a script, and you’re working with the director, producers or production designer to help develop the storytelling through your visual content.
It’s during this phase of design development that you should feel the freedom to explore and present new ideas, to further the dialogue that will lead to a cohesive story. So, approach this phase of R&D with a determination that will enable you to sell your concepts. Don’t just rely on your artwork, but do research, compile reference material and substantiate your work so that, in the end, it’s not just about a pretty picture.
1 Creating your foreground elements
I select a photograph that I took of a landscape in Alabama Hills, California. It strikes me as being otherworldly and serves as the inspiration for this piece. Concept art can be a mix of media, so don’t be afraid to use photos, renders of 3D models, sketches, drawings and so on. Rely on your artistic abilities to make these images your own, and to bring these sources together into a single, coherent piece.
2 Putting together your background
I chose a photo I took in Hawaii for my sky. I’ve already done a bit of touch up to the image, adjusting the Curves (Cmd+M) to boost the contrast. Feel free to get creative and stitch together multiple sky images to make a more complex sky. For now, I’ll keep things simple and stick to one sky photo that I’ll paint into later in this workshop.
3 Masking and removing the unwanted sky
I want to remove the sky in my foreground landscape photo, using Photoshop’s Quick Mask mode (press Q). In this mode you can use your paint brush to paint the area you wish to select. When you exit Quick Mask, you’ll see that it’s converted your painted area into a selection. Press Cmd+ Shift+I will invert the selection. Once you have the proper area selected, remove this area by hitting Delete.
4 Compositing the foreground and background
Now you can combine your source images into one scene. Here, I’ve adjusted the original photos, adjusting the Levels (Cmd+L) and Curves (Cmd+M) to suit the overall painting. I’ve added in additional mountains in the background by duplicating and adjusting my foreground image. This adds more depth to the piece by pushing the horizon back. I’ve also painted in a bit of atmosphere using my Soft Round brush, which adds a bit of haze along the horizon.
5 Applying the rules of proportions
Many people advise using perspective grids when laying out your composition, but what’s equally important is maintaining proper proportions in your piece and placing elements in a harmonious way. So I’m using the Golden Ratio as the foundation for my composition. I’ve already cropped my foreground photo so that the outermost peaks align with my Golden Ratio spiral.
6 Painting into your piece
When working from photo reference, you’ll want to paint into it to add unique elements that will make the piece your own. Here, I’m adding in some alien mountain peaks by painting and erasing away until I develop shapes that I like. I find that using a Hard Round brush or Chisel brush provide good results. You can also add textures and tones to suit the piece until you achieve the result you want.
7 Building up the composition
I add my mountain elements into my composition, and adjust them using Levels and Curves until they blend with the tones of the rest of piece. I also erase away, or mask out some of the bottom bits so that they fade into the horizon atmosphere. I add water using the same techniques as the alien mountain peaks. First, by painting shapes that define the bodies of water, then by adding water textures and paint strokes until I’m happy with the look of the water.
8 Introducing otherworldly elements to the composition
I want to further describe this scene as being that from an alien planet. One simple trick is to introduce planets and moons that immediately differentiate this world from Earth. Here, I’ve added three moons into the sky, and using my Golden Ration template enables me to place them into the scene in a way that’s in keeping with the proportions and layout of the composition.
9 Developing lighting and atmosphere
Atmosphere can be achieved by using a soft Round brush set on a low Opacity. I sample a lighter colour from the scene to set the colour of the brush and build up atmosphere or haze by painting it in on a separate layer on top of the background layers. To add lighting, I create a new Overlay or Color Dodge layer as the top layer and using a soft Round brush, experiment with different colours and opacities and see how it affects the image on the layers below it.
10 Bringing in a focal point
From the beginning, I wanted to have an element off to the horizon that directs your eye through the piece. You should always keep in mind what the narrative of the piece is, and prior to jumping into a painting, you may want to sketch it first. Having an idea of where you want to direct the viewer’s eye is key, and in this case I’m using architecture as a point of interest.
11 Adding figures as a secondary focal point
This is the old trick of dropping in a couple of small characters towards the foreground to create another focal point to complement the focal point in the previous step. It also adds scale to the piece, since we can all relate to the general size of a person. The viewer’s eye will travel between the foreground figures and the object they are looking at: the architecture. I’ve painted in bits of steam behind the figures, so that there’s more contrast between them and the background.
12 Make changes to the colour of the composition
I want this piece to feel more fantasy and less like my original source photographs, so I adjust the colour. This is done by creating a Hue/Saturation layer. Within the Hue/Saturation Properties palette you can tweak the overall saturation as well as the separate colour channels. Experiment with this and have fun – you may find it produces some interesting results.
13 Making further adjustments
I add another Hue/Saturation Layer on top of the previous layer I created. By having multiple Hue/Saturation Layers, you’ll find that you can create even more dramatic effects than with just one single layer. I also create a new Curves Layer to adjust the image further. The Curves Property palette will enable you to edit and refine the tones in your image.
14 Final additions… or last-minute experiments?
At this late stage you may want to add a few more elements of lighting or interest to further enhance the piece. Don’t be afraid to experiment and don’t be too quick to consider your piece done. Step away from it and look at it with fresh eyes. It’s always helpful to have a plan and to design accordingly, but it’s also good to keep things organic and allow for happy accidents. Here, I introduce some lens flares by creating Color Dodge layers that add lighting effects when I paint into them. And that’s my futuristic Wizard of Oz scene finished!