Ep 4 | Dominic Lavery - Concept Artist: Star Wars: Rogue One, Wonder Woman, James Bond

Credit: Warner Bros

Mike: Todays guest is concept artist Dominic Lavery, getting into the film industry initially on sci-fi movies such as ‘The Fifth Element’ and ‘Event Horizon’ Dominic has worked his way up tobecome one of the most in demand concept artists in the industry, with one of the most outrageous resumes I think I have ever seen. So deep breath here we go; Stardust, LaraCroft, Hugo, Godzilla, Maleficent 1, Maleficent 2, Star Wars Rogue 1, Wonderwoman, ReadyPlayer 1, Aladdin, Mrs Peregrine home for peculiar children, a small matter of three JamesBond movies...how did I do Dom?

Dom: You’re remembering better than I do, I forget a lot of the films I have worked on now over the years but yeah that was pretty good.

Mike: Before we get going, would you be able to explain in your own words...what do you see as the role of a concept artist for people who might not know?

Dom: I have always felt a concept artist is there to visualise, like in the old days, pencil on paper or on computer or 3D or any media, you’re there to visualise what it is that the production designer and the director of the movie have got in their heads. How they would like their film to look, whether it's a prop or a set or a creature or a spaceship. And I have always felt that the moments that they like what you’ve done, you’ve done a good job. So you’re designing what they want not what you want.

Mike: To take it right back to the beginning, I’d love to hear about where you grew up and if your parents had artistic pursuits that influenced you or maybe not at all.

Dom: No not really I think my mum has got an artistic ability that she’s never used really but you know I grew up down in Kent, my Dad worked in the Shipping industry. My mum was an estate agent and was then a personal assistant to the headmaster of a school, which up until last week she still was, she’s just retired at 80.

Mike: At what point did you realise that you were artistically talented?

Dom: Drawing and creating stuff is all I have ever done, from the moment I hear the stories of staying with my aGrandmother in Lyme Regis and my mum coming in to find that I had drawn all over the bed clothes and the wall because somebody had given me a crayon and I really haven't stopped since then. When I was at school I only got one O Level and that was art. And it turns out really now that I am actually dyslexic which back in those days... nobody really talked about it. So I was labeled as being a bit thick really but it was actually a case that I just couldn’t take exams and so I struggled in those days but the fact that I could draw and it was very obvious that I had an artistic ability and I had fantastic parents who helped me pursue a career in art. So yeah you know I’ve always drawn, I’ve always had that ability, luckily.

Mike: So did you then take that into art school, where did you take that artistic talent you’d recognised?

Dom: After school I went to a college of further education to do further art and history art and things but I needed three O levels and I only had one. So my parents got me a private tutor to take two other O Levels and I passed them both quite easily in the end but that was because it was a one to one and I wasn’t in the School environment and I wasn’t in an examination hall. So I got my three O Levels to go to West County college, I was there for I think 2 or 3 years, I went from there to Blackheath art school in London to do a foundation course. And from that I went on to a private school of illustration I was very very lucky to get into and I was there for three years and learnt all the techniques of painting, illustration and things like that. So yeah I think it was 7 years in the end.

Mike: Did you have a goal in your head, I’m going to guess that you didn’t have concept art in mind during that time.

Dom: Yeah you’re quite right my goal really was to be a science fiction fantasy artist in some way and even when I did finish the art school really my main area of employment was doing portrait painting, drawing people's pets. I did a great big oil painting of a chicken for a Manor House, that was quite an interesting one, but my love of film really fuelled me to want to work in film in some way and I knew of the great concept artists who have been around really for me particularly the 70’s and 80’s particularly people like Syd Mead and I knew that this world existed out there. I had no idea whatsoever how to get into it, so really I decided that I needed to find out myself and I wrote to film studios, I visited pinewood regularly to try and get my foot in the door. But of course I needed to make money and there was so little work doing book covers, video covers and things like that at the time that you know I felt that I really needed to find a way into the film industry and so that’s what I was pursuing to do.

Mike: Where did your first interaction with the business come?

Dom: My very first one was actually when I was quite young and I wrote to Jim Henson, I sent him some drawings. And I wish I could find the letter I got back, I know it’s around somewhere, but he wrote back to me and he was just fantastic and he told me to follow my dreams and just keep on trying. And so when I was at Pinewood one day, I met a few people at creature effects, and I was in Pinewood and I think I was just delivering some sketches for some creature stuff, it was all very early days for me and I didn’t really have my foot in the door at that stage at all I just knew some people. And then my lucky day came, and I was at creature effects and one of the chaps there said a big french science fiction film had just come into Pinewood and nobody knew anything about it but they knew they were in J Blocks. So I got my portfolio and I walked up to J Block, there was no one there, they were all in a meeting and I just left my work behind. And I got in my car and I drove home. I get back home to Oxford and there’s a message on my answer phone saying they would like to see me. So I get in my car and I drive all the way back to Pinewood again and I met the production designer of that film called Dan Vale and to cut a very long story short he offered me a job and that was ‘The Fifth Element.’

Mike: What was your experience like as such a fresh faced artist on a big show like that?

Dom: Terrifying and very exciting. To get my proper first big break on a film of that scale and that imagination as well, it was a rollercoaster of a ride for me. The big plusses were I got to meet some people in the art department who have been lifelong friends since. But the stresses involved in working on a film of that size became very evident very quickly. But I had to learn quick and a lot of the techniques I have learnt in art were thrown completely out of the window because at the end of the day it’s; a great big sketch pad, a marker pen and some markers sometimes and off you go and start generating ideas. That’s when I realised this is what I love to do, I love to generate ideas for things that was fantastic.

Mike: If you were starting again now is there anything you would do differently because particularly interesting I find is that you mentioned that you learnt to paint and things like that. Now concept art is so computer generated. How do you think the world is now for younger people coming up?

Dom: The most difficult thing for the young people now wanting to work in the industry is there are so many people wanting to be concept artists. When I started there was literally a handful that I knew of particularly that I got to know at that time. There were literally 5 guys, if that back then actually working full time as concept artists in the UK, that I knew of anyway. But now there are hundreds if not thousands of guys wanting to be concept artists and a lot of this really does come down from the internet and the realisation of so much work being done on computers now, which has its pros and it’s cons in my book which I’m sure we will go into at some point. But there are so many young people wanting to do the job that it’s so difficult for them to find their break because you need to stand out from the crowd.

Mike: Is there a way to do that online? Is it meritocracy?

Dom: I hate to say it but there's probably a big chunk of luck, the right person seeing your work at the right time. There are many outlets out there for you to show your work, many different sites like Artstation and places like that but you know there are so many people on there. I still think really one of the better ways and it’s very difficult but to be in the right place at the right time and actually show your work to somebody, to actually be there to actually say this is what I do. And you need to really have a look, I would say a style, to be different because with the internet, with so much great work being out there what you’re finding is there are so many artists all learning through the internet, and they’re all learning to do it the same way. We see so much artwork that to be honest with you, you don’t know who’s done it anymore because it all looks the same.

Mike: I wonder if the way that everyone can learn on the internet with YouTube and things like that means that people are all learning from the same few people.

Dom: Yeah very much so, learning the same techniques, wanting things to look the same. I am still a firm believer that give somebody a pencil and a piece of paper, no computer, no internet and tell them to come up with an idea and you’ll get some fantastic ideas through there. A visual effects supervisor I was chatting to a couple of years ago said we live in a world where films are designed by google and not even designed by google but designed by the first three pages of google because people can’t be bothered to scroll any faster. It is very true, and one of the things I loved about the job when I started was coming up with great new ideas, whereas now coming up with those new ideas or being given the chance to come up with those new ideas is getting harder and harder.

Mike: You mentioned working with hand on pencil to paper there, obviously after Fifth Element you quite soon moved on to a few bond movies when you arrived I assume you were still quite junior. What was it like back then, was it still pencil and paper or did it move into computers and also what was it like to work on a big franchise like bond?

Dom: I moved over to working on computer, the very first thing I did on computer was very late 1999 and if I’m right I think it was a very early pitch for a Red Dwarf movie when I first started using computers. So I suppose for the first five or six years of my career it was marker pens, pencils and acrylics. My first bond film was I think 1996, Tomorrow Never Dies, and it was a dream come true, working on a Bond film. And again one of the things that was very evident when I was working on that film was a real understanding of team effort. Working so tight with so many people, so many amazingly talented people working to create these sets. Models, miniatures and I’m still blown away by how talented people are in the film industry, these people that nobody really gets to see. You do now with ‘Making Ofs’ and stuff like that but I was always and still am in awe of what people are able to create with their hands. But one of the best things about working on the Bond Films was seeing my dad. Because he was a huge bond fan, and when I told my Dad ‘I’m working on a Bond film’ he was over the moon. And I gave him my crew t-shirt to wear and he wore it to work just so he could let people know that his son was working on a Bond film. So that was a fantastic moment.

Mike: Did you get to design any notable gadgets or sets?

Dom: On the three Bond films I did. I suppose the most notable...there’s lots of different aspects of them from gadgets to sets and stuff but I suppose the main ones were the jet boat that Bond drives up the Thames in ‘The World is Not Enough’, The Paraskies that they fly over the Alps if I remember. When they drive on the ground with their machine guns and their bombs, I designed the looks of those. But again like I say I’m designing the look, it’s then those incredibly talented guys that take those designs and make them real, just incredible. And also I have got to say my first Bond film I worked for Alan Cambden, sadly he is no longer with us, but the other two I worked with Peter Lemon, who is an absolute legend in our film industry. And to work with Peter...because I’d worked with him on some other things as well but to work with him on Bond was just incredible and what an amazing person to learn from as well. So laid back, so knowledgeable, so friendly, so understanding of his crew and how to treat them, wonderful experience and I have to say after all of these years I have to say one of the most wonderful designers that I ever worked for was definitely Peter.

Mike: Was there a key lesson that you learned from him that you’ve taken with you?

Dom: Patience, having patience because like I said before as a concept artist; if you were doing what you wanted you’d do one drawing and go ‘there you go’ but that’s not how it works. You’re trying to create what the designer and the director want, and you can do 10 sketches and Ideas and none of them will be right. Or you can do 10 sketches and they only like bits. ‘I like the way that looks in that one’ and ‘I like the way that the fins are in that one’ and you’ll start taking these elements and you’ll do another few sketches and then another few sketches for them and eventually you’ll end up with this sketch, this idea that is an amalgamation of all the other ideas and references that you’ve been given. And then when Peter comes in and says ‘that’s it’, it’s brilliant you know you’ve done a good job. Then maybe you get a chance to colour it in, it’s not like today where you have these very very finished concept art paintings everywhere, in those days if you were lucky you got to colour your sketch in. But for me that was concept art and I learnt a lot of that from Peter on understanding changing, being patient.

Mike: Concept artists have a really interesting perspective because you’re involved from so early on in the process, what’s it like when you’re really early doors and its maybe just yourself, the director and the production set designer on shows like Rogue 1.

Dom: When you’re very very early on it’s the best time because you’re literally just what we like to call blue sky sketching, you’re just coming up with very initial ideas of how this could look. On Rogue 1 I wasn’t there at the beginning, I joined a little while into it. John McCoy and Matt Allstock had been working with Gareth before I started on it. And it was like doing mood boards, storyboard type, very quick black and white sketches for it, and I have to say when I started on that because I worked with Gareth on Godzilla and Gareth wanted me to come and work on Rogue 1 and I’d said ‘as long as it’s not really doing storyboards’ it’s not really my thing and he said ‘oh no it’s fine, we’ll just come up with some cool stuff and whatever.’ Day 1 arrives and Gareth goes ‘yeah it’s kind of like doing storyboards.’ I was like ‘oh no.’ And then I saw whatMatt and John had been doing, and my jaw dropped and it was like ‘oh my god it’s really amazing work.’ I felt kind of like a kid again starting out because I hadn’t really done this kind of work. But with them seeing what they’d done and understanding what this job entailed, which was very quick black and white artwork to be dropped into the timeline for editing, I very quickly did find my feet on it and it was kind of like a realization of my love for sketching out ideas again, not having to colour in, not having to worry about how detailed it is. It was a mood board, and just coming up with possible key moments in the film, you know Gareth would say ‘this is happening at this time and you know he would reference certain films or a moment in a film ‘I want to have that kind of a feeling.’ So then we would go away and do some quick sketches and ideas to try and make that work in his vision of Rogue 1, so yeah I loved it.

Mike: That’s interesting because I read that the tone of Rogue 1 changed quite a lot for its production, and that it was incredibly dark in the beginning. Is that how it was when you came onto the project early doors.

Dom: Yeah I mean I wasn’t on it for as long as a number of the other guys but in the time that I was on it, it was very evident that what Gareth really wanted to create was a dark war movie based in the Star Wars world and I have to say that it was really exciting. Seeing what Matt John had already done, and sitting and chatting with Gareth about it, and how excited he would get in the same way that when I was working with him for the pitch for Godzilla, ultimately Gareth is a fanboy. And obviously he was a big StarWars fan boy, but he had his vision of how this film should go and it was very dark, I mean I know there was a number of scenes that were being boarded and the moodboards were being done for that never got through but they were very dark scenes. I would say they were pretty epic as well, very memorable stuff.

Mike: You’ve mentioned the Godzilla pitch there, what’s it like that very very early pitching stage because that’s not something we really hear about much? And also how did you get involved on the project?

Dom: Gavin Bucket that I have worked with a lot over the years, he had been brought on board to work with Gareth on the pitch of how he’s vision of Godzilla could look. And it was basically, we were in what I can only describe as a cupboard. MPC up in London, and so there’d be me and Gavin and a few other guys came and joined in for a bit here and there, a good friend of mine Rob Bliss was on there for a little while, and every now and then Gareth would pop into the cupboard and we would sit there and discuss this film, his vision and what we were coming up with was just moments, moments that could be in the film that sell what Gareth’s vision of how he wanted Godzilla to be. And again it’s really exciting that part of it because you are really right at the beginning and it was also hugely important because we know what we are coming up with and there were guys also working on it in The States as well. When there’s a big show and tell, which there was once all of the work was done and it was all printed big and Gavin put on...basically he put on a show in America for Legendary Pictures and it was a gallery full of our artwork with some of the images that me and some of the other guys had done printed enormous, some of them on huge translights to make the impact of what this film could really look like. And when all of the important people, all of the grown ups come and they walk into this room and they see all of this amazing stuff the idea is that they’re going to see it and go ‘we need to make this movie!’ And that’s kind of what happened. They saw the work, they saw the pitch and they saw all of the imagery and the ideas and Gareth’s enthusiasm for the project and they said ‘yep we have got to make this film.’

Mike: Obviously being there right in the beginning, you have this wide open creative canvas. Given that you’re always involved so early I bet that a lot of the movies that you do seem like they’re going to be a lot better than they actually turn out after going through the machine which obviously i’m not going to ask you to publicly talk about. My question is, has there been one that went the other way. Where you underestimated it in the beginning and ultimately it really worked out.

Dom: I do work on a lot of films the other way around. I mean one film that I was surprised at just how good it was, it wasn’t because I thought it was going to be bad, I really wasn’t too sure how it was going at all...I really wasn’t sure about it and that was Star Dust. And then

when we did come out, we saw it and it was really good. It really was a fantastic surprise. It was a really good film. I think it was more a case of Case of sometimes when you are embedded on a fil and you’re working...and I’ve got to say it can be really hard work, working long hours, and you’re constantly trying to come up with ideas, you kind of lose focus sometimes on what it is you’re really working on. Because you’re focusing on this one design, one idea and very quickly you do lose track of the film as a whole, so when you do see the cast and crew showing of the film when we all get together at the end to see it quite often it is a surprise anyway because you’d forgotten really what it was you were working on and then to see it on the big screen particularly when a lot of you stuff is made it through and is there on the big screen you just think ‘oh wow yeah that’s fantastic.’ And very quickly going back to Godzilla I remember I got invited to the Cast and Crew up in London and I didn’t work on the film in the end, after the pitch I think it was made in Canada in the end, I’m not 100% sure, but I can work on the film itself. But after the cast and crew, Gareth came up to me after he saw me and he came up and said ‘I think you can see a lot of what we did in the pitch made it through to the actual film. And he was right and that was fantastic to see all that hard work we had put into the pitch, to make it through actually to the film itself, yeah it was fantastic.

Mike: Is there one, because people may not know about concept artistry, is that it’s not just big worlds and panoramas, you also design little products for the actors costumes etc, things like that. Is there one crystalline moment where you were in the cinema and you saw something on the screen and you thought ‘I did that’?

Dom: So many, I can’t think of anything off the top of my head. I suppose bonds, gadgets and stuff, you know like these jet boats, various guns and things. But I could tell you the very first time when the hairs literally went up on the back of my neck and the realisation of the job that I am now going to do probably for the rest of my life was back on Fifth Element. When I walked into a set that kind of started out as just sketches on a bit of paper. And it was Zorgs office, and other guys had also worked on it as well and if I’m right Patrice Garcia had worked on it, some beautiful drawings he’d done, but it was...I’d worked on all the guns in the cabinets and I’d worked on you know the view out of the window, those kind of things so I’d been involved in this particular set. So when I actually went on to the stage for the very first time and walked into a set that I had been involved in designing, that was a moment that i’ll never forget. And like I said the hairs went up on the back of my neck and it was like ‘oh my god this is what it’s all about.’ It was fantastic.

Mike: We’ve discussed that concept artistry is very heavily computer generated now, as VR and 3D software gets better and more ingrained in culture, do you think concepting will move more into the 3D realm and arguably overwhelm other areas of the art department, drafting sets and things.

Dom: Unfortunately and inevitably yes. It already is really, the software is getting more powerful, the understanding of the use of the software is an industry norm now I mean you need to know it. I think it’s sad when...I was so lucky to have started my career surrounded by amazing people in the art department, their drafting ability with a pencil, particularly art with technical drawings that I’d even say now is almost lost because it’s all done on

computer. But there is artistry and a beauty to those drawings. There are so many people but there was one chap, sadly not with us now, called Fred Hull who I remember standing next to his desk and seeing how he was drawing this beautiful technical drawing. And the way he shaded it and his passion for doing it, and he just blew me away. And then you realised then that there were so many of them. These people are doing these amazing drawings. Now it’s almost gone and I know the world has to change and we have to move on and computers have made people’s ability to create environments and art...its so powerful what you can do on computers but fundamentally I worry that it is taking away people’s actual ability to draw something with a pencil. And to not copy, to not download other people’s premade models off the internet and stick them together in another way and come up with another design, you know it’s very powerful and it looks amazing a lot of this work but is that really designing out of your head, I’m not so sure.

Mike: So would you say to young people coming up who would like to be in the art department or concept artists that they should flex that tactile hand muscle and draw?

Dom: Absolutely and I would say...going back to something we said earlier about standing out from the crowd, is when you’re going to show your portfolio, by all means have the amazing rendered 3D images of all the stuff, all that really high end finished stuff, but show the design process, show what was going through your mind to create the image. Say you’ve done a spaceship, say you’ve done this 3D rendered spaceship, have that in there but show the design process, show the sketches on paper you’ve done with a pencil, or even it is on Photoshop or Painter or ProCreate but hand drawn sketches and ideas and show that you can develop an idea to the point of it being photo real and rendered at the end. Don’t just show the photo real render at the end because that’s not really showing your ability to design something. I think it’s really important to stand out from the crowd and one way of doing that is to show a drawing from a piece of paper that you’ve done with a pencil, it will be brilliant.

Mike: Do you think that Covid might accelerate this movement of VR and 3D software only?

Dom: I would say probably to a certain degree, particularly in the visual effects departments and stuff like that. I’ve been working on computers like I said since 1999/2000. And when I first started out it was mainly in Painter and Photoshop. But I have to say, all these years later nearly everything I do is Painter or Photoshop. And I do use some 3D packages but I am dyslexic and I do have some other learning issues so learning 3D programmes is incredibly difficult for me. I can get to the basics and I can generate something that I can then paint over and work over and I get so frustrated when just when I’m getting to grips with something it changes, there’s a new update or there’s a new piece of software. Keeping up to date with software on the computer is not for me. It’s a young person's game I think. If I could I’d love to go back to just painting and drawing again. There are so many software packages now, it is really important for the next generation starting now that they do use what is needed, the tools of the trade. That’s what all this is, the software. They’re just different paint brushes, they are just different pencils, it’s just they are digital ones. You do need to learn how to use them, if you’re gonna get on in the industry.

Mike: Ignoring what we have discussed so far, is there anything else that you’d want to maybe change about the industry.

Dom: Definitely the diversity of it. I know it has come up in previous podcasts so I’m not gonna go back over what’s already been discussed apart from the fact that I totally agree. And I think diversity is hugely important in the film industry. It is a more diverse workplace now than it was even when I started. And I think people from different cultures and different backgrounds can bring their own ideas and their own visions that are so different to ours and they shouldn’t feel like they have to try and be like us, their design ethic needs to be like everything else they see on a big Hollywood screen or on a Marvel Film or a Star Wars Film. Your background is where you come from, it’s just a beautiful way of inventing a look that is based on your cultures and I think we could learn a hell of a lot from that and have unique looks to our products, whether it’s a film or a comic or a book or anything like that. And I think the internet has opened up that, it’s a very positive thing about the internet that it’s opened up that people all around the world have a way of showing their work. I just think the film industry needs to tap into that a bit more.

Quick fire questions:
1) What is the best piece of advice you have ever been given?

Dom: Just keep going.
2) Do you have a favourite film?

Dom: Blade Runner.
3) What gives you a reason to get up and do a long day of film hours concepting?

Dom: A new adventure.
4) What other job in the industry would you do if you weren’t doing yours?

Dom: I have done a bit of animation direction which I absolutely loved so I would love to do more of that.

5) If you could work with one person, living or dead. Who would it be? Dom: Tony Gillingham.

6) What is a book that everyone should read? Dom: I am Legend.

7) Finally, if you won an Oscar, who would you thank?

Dom: It would have to be my mum and dad. They were the rudder to my ship for so many years. My dads not with me anymore and I miss him everyday but my mum and dad were there for me all the time to steer me and they were my rock.