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The faces behind the fantasy

Concept designers who give form to others' visions turn to profit-sharing publishing to take ownership of their art.

June 08, 2008|Lynell George | Times Staff Writer

Before Indiana Jones had a whip to crack or Iron Man debuted his on-screen suit-of-many-armaments, someone had to dream up all those intricate particulars; not just the objects themselves, but the look, the very mood and texture we associate with those characters and their worlds.

This task belongs to the realm of the concept designer. Whether it is industrial design (the world of planes, trains and automobiles) or entertainment design (film, television and video games), one of the first stops is the drawing board -- literally.

Bringing that back story to the forefront has been concept designer Scott Robertson's sideline for the last few years. He launched Design Studio Press to showcase this integral albeit not widely known part of the imagining process: Design Studio Press In six years, he's already published nearly two dozen titles. While some volumes highlight the craft itself, others provide a showcase for the designers -- their range of interests and expertise as artists working in various disciplines and mediums. Those mediums include evocative pen-and-ink renderings, private sketch books, intricate character design, cartooning and painting -- in both computer and traditional forms.

Quiet as it's kept, says Robertson, "The front end of any industrial design process is doing a bunch of fun, crazy concept sketches." And when it comes to film, he says, concept designers are called in often before there's even a script. "It might be a meeting just with a director who pitches some ideas -- 'We'll need this, and this and that' -- and you do paintings that show these narrative pitch points. They take those paintings and pitch the bigger concept, often with no real story yet." If a script already exists, says Robertson, the key points are highlighted and then the designers set to their task of visually articulating the desired characters, environments, vehicles and props.

"The big dilemma," says Robertson, is that artists don't always have the goods to show for all the time they've spent. "So many of these guys have been out working for 10 years, and they have no personal artwork to show for it. About 90% of the time, studios will never release the rights to the artwork to be shown by the original artists. Studios own everything."

As an educator and industrial concept designer, Robertson's personal work has run the gamut. Over the years he's designed bicycles, helmets, wheelchairs and has had many major toy, automotive, film and video game companies as clients -- Mattel, Fiat, Universal Studios, Sony Online Entertainment among them. Though he's found the jobs consistently challenging and never wants for work, a few years back he felt that there was something eluding him.

"After about 10 years into it, I got to a point where it was all about the work," he explains. "Not that the work isn't the most amazing thing. You're doing stuff for movies and toys, fun industrial design projects, but the jobs sort of all become the same from a process standpoint. The fun, from the art perspective, was gone."

Teaching the craft at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and running his own design studio, Robertson had found he often had little time to maintain the friendships he had made in art school -- the very thing that had been an essential part of the "fun": the interplay with other artists. That all hit home when his father, Richard, a fine artist, died in 2001. Robertson was struck by the large community of artists -- 150 by his casual tally -- who traveled to pay their last respects. Something clicked: "They were friends who used to get together and talk and paint, but it had nothing to do with commerce. And so I was pretty moved by the outpouring," he says.

Robertson assembled seven of his friends -- "film guys and industrial designers" who, like himself, had so immersed themselves in their work-for-hire that they had little or nothing to show of their personal work. The idea was to have informal critiques / get-togethers.

After a year of these sessions, Robertson, impressed with the quality of the work, hit on an idea to not only publish the work in book form but to form a sort of profit-sharing publishing collective -- with the press funding the project and each artist-author receiving a percentage depending on how much money he or she put up.

A crash course in book publishing and DSP was born. The first volume, "Concept Design: 1," published in 2002, featured the seven artists who were part of Robertson's original weekend collective and illustrated the craft from various perspectives -- a vivid world of digital plein-air painting, altered landscapes, "propulsion units," airships and other "quirky" vehicles.

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