Mech art on lo­ca­tion

James Gur­ney heads out­doors.

ImagineFX - - Contents -

Could it be pos­si­ble to plan and ex­e­cute a sci­ence fic­tion paint­ing en­tirely out­side, re­moved from the com­fort of the stu­dio? I have the chance to find out, be­cause a big con­struc­tion pro­ject has moved into my home­town.

Track ex­ca­va­tors have al­ways looked like ro­bots to me, so I start with the idea of de­sign­ing a 40-foot-tall mech based on the en­gi­neer­ing prin­ci­ples of heavy con­struc­tion equip­ment. My plan is to work out­doors for ev­ery step of the process, from thumb­nail sketches, to comps, to the fin­ished paint­ing. The ques­tion is: will re­al­ity ig­nite my imag­i­na­tion or over­whelm it?

The con­cept for the pic­ture doesn’t come easy at first. They say a cre­ative suc­cess is the end prod­uct of a thou­sand fail­ures. But my ideas don’t seem like fail­ures when I first hatch them. Each one starts with a burst of en­thu­si­asm. It takes a while for dis­en­chant­ment to set in. I keep play­fully ex­per­i­ment­ing un­til I ar­rive at the idea of show­ing the ro­bot tan­gled up in a com­plex ac­ci­dent scene.

I set up my easel along­side a busy fran­chise thor­ough­fare. Along the way I meet po­lice­men, ma­chine oper­a­tors and col­lege stu­dents, each of whom looks at my work-in-progress and gives me help­ful feed­back.

James an­i­mates stop-mo­tion pup­pets, pro­duces video, writes books, paints di­nosaurs and is more mild-man­nered than the preda­tor named af­ter him: Tor­vosaurus gur­neyi. For more, visit www.james­gur­

1 Ex­plore con­cepts and com­po­si­tions

I sketch thumb­nails in water­colour, and get ideas for scale, set­ting, time of day and pose. Some are at night, some are at mid­day, and oth­ers in over­cast light. I want to avoid a lot of the fa­mil­iar bat­tle clichés, and imag­ine sce­nar­ios where ro­bots are com­mon­place.

2 Build a foam ma­que­tte

I sketch a stand­ing ro­bot, then scale the ma­que­tte to match the draw­ing. The ma­que­tte is made out of sheets of con­struc­tion foam. I cut out pieces and sand­wich them with hot glue over a wire skeleton. The wire skeleton makes com­pli­cated me­chan­i­cal joints un­nec­es­sary.

3 Ma­que­tte gen­er­ates pose ideas

My first idea is to show the ro­bot seated, for­got­ten and rust­ing in the back of a re­pair shop. The ma­que­tte helps with poses and light­ing. But I re­ject the idea be­cause it’s too static. The ro­bot needs to be do­ing some­thing ac­tive if he’s go­ing to have any per­son­al­ity.

4 Ro­bot meets hu­mans

In this lit­tle ca­sein com­pre­hen­sive, I get the ro­bot up on his feet and show him en­coun­ter­ing hu­mans. Per­haps he was built on a se­cret man­u­fac­tur­ing base by other au­ton­o­mous, in­tel­li­gent ro­bots and he’s ex­plor­ing the hu­man world for the first time. I like the ba­sic com­po­si­tion and the sense of scale, but it lacks a sense of drama. Time to re­turn to the draw­ing board.

5 Brain­storm in a restau­rant

At my favourite diner I sketch more ideas while I wait for my scram­bled eggs to be de­liv­ered to my ta­ble. I’m in­spired by a photo I saw of the con­se­quences of a chem­i­cal ex­plo­sion in China. Why not show some sort of ac­ci­dent scene that the ro­bot gets in­volved in?

6 Fo­cus on the af­ter­math

Now I’ve got some­thing. The ro­bot feels re­morse­ful. He’s just try­ing to help, but he’s mak­ing it worse. There’s de­bris from an ac­ci­dent he didn’t mean to cause. There are fire­men and po­lice and passersby at the scene.

7 In­ter­act with the en­vi­ron­ment

More thumb­nails help me fig­ure out how the ro­bot should in­ter­act with the cars, power lines and peo­ple in the scene. I also think about time of day and light di­rec­tion. In­ter­ac­tiv­ity weaves the ac­tion with the set­ting, im­plies cause and ef­fect, and gets away from the dull green-screen look of so many spe­cial ef­fects-driven movies.

8 Give the ma­que­tte a hero pose

I put the ma­que­tte in a pose where he’s down on one knee. In­stead of look­ing de­spair­ing or tired, he looks more ac­tive and dy­namic, like he’s bend­ing down to try to help some­one. The ma­que­tte gives me the in­for­ma­tion I need for light­ing.

9 Work out the whole scene

With the light com­ing from the left and be­hind, I do a quick sketch to gen­er­ate ideas for the ar­range­ment of all the el­e­ments in the shot. There should be plenty of cars, util­ity poles and fast food out­lets lin­ing the outer edges of the com­po­si­tion to sug­gest ac­tion go­ing on out­side the frame.

10 Study an ex­ca­va­tor

To un­der­stand the joints and hy­draulics, I do a care­ful gouache study of a track ex­ca­va­tor. I talk to the oper­a­tors, who ex­plain how the hy­draulics and the con­trols work. The arm is made up of two parts, the boom and the stick, end­ing in the link­age, the bucket and the ground en­gage­ment tools.

11 Work out the back­story

I think more about a sci­ence-fic­tion back­story. This is an au­ton­o­mous ro­bot that es­caped from an AI re­search com­pound to warn hu­mans about the up­com­ing Check­mate Sce­nario. A whole novel-length story un­folds in my head. It won’t all be re­flected in this one paint­ing, but I could build the story back­ward or for­ward if I needed to.

12 Plan with a line draw­ing

On a 12x16-inch il­lus­tra­tion board, primed with tinted gesso, I de­velop the de­sign with a red­dish water­colour pen­cil. Note the five-fin­gered hand, which I soon re­alise is too so­phis­ti­cated for this char­ac­ter. Bet­ter to limit his dex­ter­ity and make him more help­less in the sit­u­a­tion.

13 Try again on the hand

I paint over the five-fin­gered hand and make this at­tempt at a more prim­i­tive hand. But it still doesn’t work. It looks too much like a fist. So I paint it again and re­place it with a bucket-like hand. I have to re­draw or repaint many el­e­ments in the scene four or five times.

14 Get ad­vice from a po­lice­man

While I’m at the po­lice sta­tion, paint­ing one of the cars, sev­eral of­fi­cers ap­proach me, look at my paint­ing and give me some help­ful point­ers about how they would deal with the sit­u­a­tion I’m paint­ing. “The first thing you’re look­ing for is in­juries… the safety of the peo­ple and the pub­lic,” one of them tells me. “Once you fig­ure that out, then you slowly start dis­sect­ing it from there.”

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