Tutorial and interview from the digital art innovator
I think Craig’s greatest strength is his honesty, his pursuit of his own vision, no matter what the mainstream trend
Often when we interview an artist, the first thing they tell us is that they were drawing at an early age. You always imagine a toddler prodigy drawing The Last Supper in crayon, one foot off the ground in the living room corner. Craig Mullins may well have been a talented youngster, but his stories refreshingly different.
For instance, it’ll give many struggling young artists out there a little more hope to learn that Craig Mullins – today one of the most lauded concept artists in film and video games – was nowhere near the top of his art class.
“I got a D in high school art – that’s pretty hard to do,” he explains. “My dad was very upset. He said, ‘ You can’t get good grades in maths or science, you can’t even get an A in art!’”
You’ll also be amazed that Craig’s young career wasn’t cut off in 1997 once you’ve heard his James Cameron anecdote. Titanic had just come out and Craig was waiting to meet with Rob Legato, who was an effects supervisor on the film. He sat reading a brutal review of Titanic in Premiere.
“So I’m looking forward to seeing Titanic and I’m sitting there reading this and laughing, ‘cos it’s so funny. Someone comes into the office behind me and asks what’s so funny and I’m like, ‘It’s so funny, this thing’s ripping Titanic a new one.’ It was Cameron. I saw it was him and pretended I didn’t recognise him.”
We might not be talking about him now if the Titanic director had turned nasty, but Craig went on to do matte painting and concept art for films such as The Matrix Revolutions and Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, as well as the BioShock, Halo and Assassin’s Creed games.
After high school, Craig attended Pitzer College in Claremont, California to take classical art training before going to the Art Center in Pasadena – one of America’s most prestigious applied art institutions. There, he discovered that reducing distractions improved his artwork. After the first few semesters, his tutors were telling him he had no talent and that he was wasting their time and his money. He needed to turn things around, so he shut himself away and put in some long shifts of hard work all on his own.
“I digested everything I’d been taught to that point. There were very contradictory ways of drawing a figure I couldn’t make sense of, but by working on it alone without all the pressure of doing the class work meant I could digest those first three semesters, which are by far the most important as they’re the basis of everything. I came back after 12 weeks and I was getting A-plusses in all these different classes I was failing before,” he says.
a tester for photos hop
After graduating, he found work in Hollywood creating concept art for movies in the mid-90s. He discovered digital tools and while working with ILM became an early beta tester for Photoshop. Originally embracing it in order to work with colour balancing, he practised what he calls ‘photo bashing’. Using pieces of photos – figures, backgrounds, whatever – he’d comp together concept pieces.
Occasionally, he’d send feedback on improving Photoshop with concept art in mind, but he feels the company saw the area as rather low brow. Nevertheless, the Scrubby Zoom function introduced in CS5 was his suggestion. Hold your cursor over the point you want to zoom into, hold both mouse buttons and move left to zoom in and right to zoom out. It’s dead quick if you’re using a stylus instead of a mouse.
Working digitally meant Craig could amend a piece faster than a painter, although there were plenty of limitations and lots of crashes in the mid-90s. He realised that thanks to this new thing called the internet, he might not have to work on-site anymore. He started demonstrating email to the people he worked for, but it took a while to convince them to get AOL accounts and look at his work when he sent it in. All the while, Craig grew frustrated with driving from Malibu to Los Angeles to work with art teams.
Eventually, he took the bold steps of going freelance, and moving to Hawaii. Similar to how he eliminated distractions when he was at the Art Center, moving away from the studios enabled him to get away from creative group-think and develop more as an artist.
“Doing it in isolation has been useful because I got to a place that I wouldn’t
Working alone meant I could digest those first three semesters…
have had I continued to work at ILM,” he says. “I went off and developed on my own and the influences on my work are esoteric and a little bit geeky. If I was working in a place the force of the personalities I was working with may have imprinted themselves too much, whereas the influences that I ended up being infected by were more my choice. I had the whole world to choose from – great artists and musicians from the past – as opposed to people I’m working with.”
Being far away in Hawaii didn’t put production designers off working with him. In fact, it added to the kudos. “I think that because I moved to Hawaii, more employers were like, ‘ Wow that guy’s so good he can move to Hawaii, let’s get ourselves some of that.’”
MOVING ON UP
After 15 years in Hawaii, Craig and his family went to Philadelphia for a year before moving to Denver in July. He’s about 8,000 feet above sea level, which is a good metaphor for his career, seeing as so many of today’s concept artists look up to him
One of his favourite projects to work on was Darren Aronofsky’s 2014 film Noah. The concept work he did for it is fantastic in both scale and detail, and he basked in the level of trust he received from the
Through his brushstrokes, Craig leaves a lot up to the viewer to imagine and start creating their own story
production designer. Craig would draw it, and the crew would build it. Being an atheist, though, he had reservations about the film’s message. Other favourite projects, he says, were the game Age of Empires and the all-CGI feature Final Fantasy.
However, it’s the personal work he did between 2000 and 2005 that he believes catches the eye of other artists. It changed his style, he says, and it underlines his belief in cutting out distractions and focusing on being better at what you do. “I was staying up all night doing this stuff and I just had to do it. It was a compulsion, even though I should’ve been working on real work. I just had to go paint a pirate at night and it was gonna be so cool,” he says.
Today, Craig is doing something similar again. The computer’s been put to one side and he’s drawing like a demon, filling up sketchbooks and thinking about how he’ll tackle painting some of them. Printouts of digital work just don’t have the same energy as paintings when hung in a gallery. Teaching is also a new avenue he’s exploring, and he’s been on the circuit giving talks throughout 2015. Watch for an upcoming tutorial on Schoolism.com.
What’s his next goal as an artist? “Relax,” says Craig. “I’ve been beating myself into dust for a long time. I don’t have many more mountains to climb, I hope. To a certain extent, would you ask the same question of a plumber? You’ve reached the vista of fixing pipes. I sort of look at myself as a worker in that way. I don’t think there’s anything inherently special about being an artist. Artists who wait for inspiration need to just get at it.”
TOUGH IN THE COLONIE S Concept art by Craig for Aliens: Colonial Marines by Gearbox Software. BOSS DEMON Another promo painting for the 2012 Capcom game,
Galleon Disaster Sailors end up in the soup, as Craig paints a progress image for Age of Empires 3. A time to kill Craig has helped give the Assassins Creed franchise its unique look and feel.
Iroquo is party Something’s about to happen in this tension-filled artwork from Craig. Cadaver Here’s an example of Craig’s personal work. ou t shopping Concept art Craig did for Incinerator Studios, on an unpublished game.
Fine balance Artwork for a limited edition print for Assassin’s Creed 2. into the grid Background artwork for the Disney TV version of TRON.