Working as a concept artist is one of the coolest careers you could possibly imagine. You get to paint pictures of spaceships and heroic battles, and imagine strange new worlds. How can you get in on this action?
We asked a ton of our favorite Hollywood concept artists for their advice on breaking in, and they offered some helpful tips. But don't get your hopes up: It's harder to break in than ever before. Says Miles Teves (Iron Man, Terminator Salvation):
One thing that young people should know is that the field is now overcrowded with designers. In the past 10 years or so, the ranks of the illustrators have probably tripled due to colleges all over the world that now have 'designing for film' courses, cranking out eager, young people ready to head out west and seek their fortunes. Yet Hollywood is making less and less movies each year (this is why movie actors are increasingly taking jobs in TV). This is something to be considered before setting off on a career in Hollywood.
But other top concept artists say you can still break in, if you're willing to work like crazy and put yourself out there.
"If you're looking into breaking into the film industry as a concept artist, you're gonna need one part luck, one part timing, one part good connections, and a whole lotta talent," says James Clyne (Star Trek, Avatar).
"You have to be great at what you do, smart at how you do it, and know how to grab opportunities when they arise," says Craig Shoji (Avatar).
Have an amazing portfolio
You have to have a "killer portfolio," says Clyne. Sometimes having a good portfolio and posting it on websites and forums, along with the big concept art blogs, will be enough people to make you contact you out of the blue, adds Daphne Yap (Avatar).
According to Dawn Brown (The Last Airbender), "To break in, you've got to have a rock-hard portfolio and a great attitude that shows enthusiasm, energy, and flexibility. Lots and lots of flexibility."
"Having a portfolio of strong and unique work is the first step to getting into the industry," says David Meng (District 9).
I'd say the best way to impress people is to keep it fresh. Don't be a poor man's version of your contemporaries. If you are going to be influenced by another artist's style or look, then do so in a way that does it better. It's like American Idol. Don't sing a known song unless you can improve on it and make it your own. Otherwise, pave your own path.
Use the internet to get your work out there. It's the easiest way to get noticed. Start a blog, post your work, comment on other blog / forum sites and if you're good then eventually someone will find you.
Be in L.A.
Technically, you can work from anywhere as an artist. But if you want to work in Hollywood, you really need to be in L.A., according to almost every designer we talked to. Clyne says you might be able to live in Vancouver or London as well.
Adds Shoji, "You can probably find a gig as an in house concept artist at a post production house, and not live in L.A. (like ILM or Whiskeytree), but it's a slightly different job and there aren't as many openings unless you have some post production value. Or you can be like me, and spend two days a week on an airplane increasing your carbon footprint."
"It helps a lot being in LA, especially starting out," says Tim Flattery (A.I., Serenity, Green Lantern). "You just have to knock on doors with a great portfolio and hope someone gives you a break. Try to meet as many production designers and art directors as possible."
But Yap disagrees:
If you are the awesomest eye party they have ever seen, they will bring you where you need to be. You definitely don't need to be in L.A.
Show that you're a team player.
Networking is great, but you need to do more than just impress art directors and production designers with your beautiful art. You need to show that you're able to play well with others. Hollywood concept art is a team endeavor, and a good concept artist has to be able to work with the whole group of creative professionals working on a project.
Check out this revealing comment from Maxine Schacker from Max the Mutt Animation School, about one of her students who got hired at EA right out of school — it was the fact that this person took pleasure in being part of a team that helped him become successful, and now he co-owns his own company.
Be personable (and dare I say likable?). The introverted angry artist my look appealing as a deviantart profile, but you'll be hard pressed to find many people that will want to work with you. You're part of a creative team so you need to do your best to contribute to that group dynamic such that the best product is being produced.
Most of all, get your work in front of lots of people
"What worked for me was meeting people at conventions, sending samples of my work to various companies, making phone calls for interviews and knocking on doors," Meng says. "Meet as many people as you can and get your stuff out there any way you can. You never know what opportunities might happen."
Illustrations by James Clyne and Daphne Yap.