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MOVIES : WORKING HOLLYWOOD : A concept illustrator with mayhem in mind : Warren Flanagan's 2-D designs for '2012' gave its cataclysmic scenes a frame of reference with which to begin.

November 15, 2009|Cristy Lytal

For "2012," concept artist Warren Flanagan created images of a tidal wave engulfing the Himalayas and a chasm in the Earth swallowing up Los Angeles. But early in his career, Flanagan exerted his destructive influence on a much smaller scale as a barman at Ireland's Ardmore Studios.

"I was up there for the wrap parties for 'Braveheart' and 'Far and Away,' and Mel Gibson and Tom Cruise would be walking into the bar, so it was pretty cool," he said.

The barman, who attended the Dun Laoghaire College of Art and Design, soon landed a job in one of Ardmore's animation studios and moved on to several other Irish animation houses before relocating to Canada, where he worked as a storyboard artist on 2004's "I, Robot."

"That was a trial by fire," he says. "The director [Alex Proyas] threw down the gauntlet. It wasn't just about drawing ability. It was more about your ideas, putting forward interesting action sequences. And because of that, it definitely made me a better artist."

Flanagan then transitioned into an even more ideas-driven field. As a concept artist, he focuses on creating a small number of two-dimensional images that encapsulate the look and mood of important scenes in any given film.

Once approved by the director, producers and other key players, these images ensure that everyone -- from the production designer to the props master -- is literally on the same page.

"A lot of the visual-effects sequences that you see stem from one image to sell the idea, the scene or the shot," Flanagan said. "It's really just about visual storytelling."

Different strokes: Flanagan "paints" exclusively on the computer. "I use mostly Photoshop," he said. "It frees me up a lot because I'm always trying to emulate a film frame, and I can make changes very quickly. If I present an illustration and then two weeks later they require changes to it, I can just go back in and remove or add certain layers. It's fantastic for creating worlds and visuals that before would take a long time to do. They can be done very quickly now."

Staying flexible: To infuse his art with a dose of reality, Flanagan stays in constant communication with the production designer and the props master. "It's really important to work with the guys that are building the stuff," he said. "Something might look great on paper, but when it comes to building it, it doesn't look right. They also have certain materials, and they'll say, 'This is pretty cool.' And I'll take that material and emulate it in an image or a concept or a design. Or if they have an existing shape that looks cool, I can take that and run with that and design something around it."

Future perfect: For the film "2012," Flanagan naturally drew everything with the year 2012 in mind. "One thing I did was a special access card that the characters in the film need in order to board these huge ships," he said. "These cards carry everybody's information. They have their thumbprints. They have their DNA. That was quite a challenge, actually, designing that identification card. I made it semi-transparent so that you could see all this information inside, and it's something that the light can react to. It's a multilayered object."

Lost Angeles: The L.A. scene in "2012" presented some serious challenges of scale.

"Two plates of the Earth just broke apart," Flanagan said. "When the Earth breaks apart, how deep does it go? It's just miles and miles and miles into the Earth. That was really important that I show just how small we are really compared to what would happen if something that cataclysmic occurred. I needed to try and make the city as minute as I could compared to this destruction."

Big-bang theory: For a scene set in Yellowstone National Park, which sits largely within the caldera of a super volcano, Flanagan had to devise a way to capture an impending eruption.

"When you see a volcano erupt, it literally just spews," he said. "How do you create that anticipation of something so huge erupting? We had it blistering under the earth before it actually goes boom. You're seeing it from the top of a hill. You see this huge blister just coming to the surface from underneath, so it's almost pushing the earth upward.

"It ultimately ends up as just one massive blister, so essentially I would liken it to an underground atomic explosion that lifts the earth up. It's just like, 'Uh-oh. Game over!' "

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