Concept artist Stephan Martinière
Alone figure, a staff in his hand and carrying a knapsack loaded with provisions, walks the streets of a dystopian landscape — possibly an American city of the future or an urban center on a planet not unlike our own. He passes a massive stone gargoyle, perhaps once a sentinel that stood at the city gates but now just a broken relic from a nightmare world. Scavenger birds reel in the sky as menacing, cathedral-like towers loom in the background. This melancholic depiction of a city in winter is one of many worlds envisioned by concept artist Stephan Martinière. Chances are, if you’re a gamer, a reader of science fiction and fantasy, or a watcher of sci-fi movies and television, you’ve seen his work. Known for his elaborate, visionary landscapes and cityscapes of alien and future worlds, Martinière made his mark on the genre in gaming, literature, movies, and even theme parks, influencing an entire generation’s concepts of what tomorrow might hold.
His far-out concepts can be seen in Beyond the Horizon: Futurescapes by Stephan Martinière, opening Friday, Sept. 23, at Pop Gallery. The show’s scenes depict alien terrain, technology, and architecture that’s simultaneously recognizable and unlike any landscape, cityscape, or technology known to us today. For instance, his book cover design for L. Neil Smith’s novel The American Zone (Tor Books, 2001) depicts a city of streamlined Art Deco-style architecture, along with airships that look like a hybrid between rockets and dirigibles. “One of the fun parts of designing environments and architecture the way I’m doing it is, I’m not pushing it so far that it’s incomprehensible,” Martinière told Pasatiempo. “I’m using data and information that people are already familiar with. To me, that’s the attraction to it. It has to be able to show the viewer something familiar, because otherwise, all I’m doing is creating an abstraction, and I’m not offering the viewer the possibility of seeing himself living in that environment, because it would be too alien.”
Martinière grew up in France in the 1960s, and his early ambition was to be a comic book artist. “When you look at the ’60s in France, the comic book was booming,” he said. “There was a richness of styles and an enormous amount of comics that were available.
Of his work, Stephan Martinière says, “It has to be able to show the viewer something familiar, because otherwise, all I’m doing is creating an abstraction, and I’m not offering the viewer the possibility of seeing himself living in that environment.”
There still is, but there was even more so in the ’60s and ’70s. I call that the golden age of comic books. That’s what I started doing early on.” Martinière’s career plans held until he entered art school in 1979 and then animation school in the early 1980s. “I realized there’s a whole new world out there for me to explore,” he said. “My first job in animation flew me to Japan, where I discovered Manga and a whole new way of approaching art.” While living in Los Angeles in the ’90s, he started rethinking the possibilities for his talents as an illustrator and graphic artist. “I was in the right place to make that happen.”
His first venture into film was as a concept artist for director Luc Besson’s 1997 sci-fi action adventure The Fifth Element. “That was a very interesting project,” he said. “I was working with a friend of mine for an animation company. He had some contacts with people in the film industry in France, actually, because there was a bunch of French guys working in the states. Luc Besson at the time was interested in bringing the project to Los Angeles to try to make it there, and that’s how I became connected to the film and got to work on it.”
Since The Fifth Element, Martinière has worked on designs for I, Robot; Tron: Legacy; Star Wars episodes II and III; The Hunger Games; and Avengers: Age of
Ultron, to name a few. He’s also done 2D and 3D animations for Disney and Universal; created designs for theme parks in Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Dubai; and created storyboards for Warner Brothers, Columbia TriStar, and Dreamworks projects. But the commissions that afford him the most creative freedom are for book covers. “Sometimes when I do book covers, the subject matter is not so specific because it’s not so dictated by the writing. I still have to get a sense of the story. Are we talking about a dystopian future or a utopian future? That will shape the kind of architecture that I would think about and explore. If it’s a utopian future, I tend to be in touch with what’s going on in the architecture world and the current thinking of where architecture could be heading. I extrapolate and expand on that. When it’s a dystopian future, it’s pretty much the same approach, except now the architecture is not going to be so friendly. Shapes would be very different, most likely less organic and more brutal because of the nature of a dystopian environment. When I was working on The Hunger Games, that was the idea: creating a very unfriendly type of environment with buildings that were very reminiscent of Nazi and Communist-type architecture. When I read and there’s just a very vague description of what the city is or what the environment is, that makes my job super fun. As long as I understand the sense of the story, the time period, the technology, and the social, economical, and political context of the story, I can shape the city I want based on that.”
The gaming and film industries are more restrictive than designing book covers because Martinière is typically working with a story that is intended to be told using a visual medium and, in the case of film, is bound by the director’s and production designer’s visions. He can work on concept art for a film only to see it end up on the proverbial cutting room floor. Until he has seen the finished film in the theater, he doesn’t necessarily know how much, if any, of his work has been used. “You could have worked for weeks on a concept and suddenly they discard it because it’s no longer relevant, not necessarily because the concept is not good, but because either the director changed his mind or for other reasons. A good case in point is Suicide Squad .I worked for months and months on that project. I would say maybe 10 percent of what I did made it on the screen. Same thing in Star Wars .I did a lot of concepts for different planets with different architectures. At some point in the story, the Empire decides to go assassinate all of the Jedis on different worlds. We had to come up with all these visuals of different
planets, but they cut a huge amount of it because the sequence was too long and, story-wise, it was just dragging. In some films, the end result was incredibly faithful — I could see everything I did. That’s extremely rewarding as an artist. The best cases I can remember were Total Recall and I, Robot, two films where, pretty much, I can look at every single element of a city, and I can see what I did. When I work on films, I have to be very grounded. Directors in general don’t like to approach any kind of environment — as cool as they need to be — in a way that’s so abstract that nobody can understand it, because then they lose their audience. You can play with familiar elements, and you twist them to give them a different dimension.”
Among his most rewarding film experiences was working on director Alex Proyas’ 2009 film Knowing. It was a quick project, in which Proyas approached Martinière with a challenge to create a concept for an alien or supernatural presence of an ambiguous nature. “There are these two unique alien elements at the very end that try to explain the whole film,” Martinière said. “Alex Proyas said, ‘I’m doing a very dark film. There is an element in the film that carries the whole thing, and if we do it wrong, it’s a flop. It has to be done right. I don’t want to say if it’s religious in nature, but I also don’t want to say that it’s scientific in nature. I want the viewer to decide for themselves.’ So I had to convey a design that makes that happen. That was super challenging. Sure enough, they kept everything. When you work on projects like this, where you can see your work being used, that compensates for the other projects, where you see only a small percentage. But that’s the nature of the industry.”
Stephan Martinière: cover design for L. Neil Smith’s The American Zone, 2001, mixed media; opposite page, top, Through the Wreckage, inspired by Star Wars, mixed media; bottom, Euromerica, concept art for Total Recall, 2012, mixed media