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Nicole Lobart – Visual Blueprints

Nicole Lobart is one of the most in-demand concept artists working in Hollywood today, contributing to films like DRIVE ANGRY, SUCKER PUNCH and the upcoming RED SONJA. And though her work may be invisible to audiences, she plays an essential role.

What is your involvement in the filmmaking process?
Sometimes I get a call before there’s even a script. The studio or producers will want me to come up with some visuals [so they can] start writing based on those. It can also be that there is a director, a producer and a script, and I create illustrations based so they can sell the film. If the movie is already green-lit, there is usually a production designer on board so I would work closely with him.

With a script, it’s all words; even if you have a place or world that’s being described, you don’t know what the colours look like, what the architecture looks like. My job is based on research or memory—depending on how much time I have—creating illustrations that visualise that. And these become a communication tool; everybody can look at it, the designer can communicate with the director and the set designers that do the technical drawings.

Is your job easier when there is a script in place or before there’s a screenplay?
For me, if there is not a script—and there usually is—it’s nice to have some liberty! When I start painting, I’m trying not to lock myself in too much; I’m trying to give what is asked for but I also have my own ideas. Then, when you have your final concept you present it, and explain how you got there. Sometimes they say, ‘Cool, we didn’t think about it like that.’ On Drive Angry, for example, there was the final car chase, and I thought, ‘what about instead of driving into this final set, what if the car flies into it?’ So I painted that, and that became the final scene of the whole film.

How essential do you think concept art is to the filmmaking process, particularly as it’s something audiences don’t see in the final film?
A lot of smaller projects just don’t have the money to hire a concept artist or an illustrator, and they can do their films without it. But as soon as you come to a film where you create and design an entire world, then it is essential. Otherwise everybody gets lost. If you have illustrations, everybody can be on the same page.

When I worked on Sucker Punch with [production designer] Rick Carter, sometimes Rick and Zack Snyder, the director, would want me to explain my concept art. They would ask me what I was thinking. Because my concept art really incorporates a lot, even camera movement and such, it opens up a discussion.

So you would describe your art as a visual blueprint of the film?
Yes, that’s very well put. Especially now with all the special effects; it’s a whole other world! We had that before in terms of matte paintings and so forth, but now there are so many more people involved, so it’s important that they can all see the style of the film.

Do you use computer software for your concept art?
Yes. When I started out it was mainly by hand. Suddenly there was this transition where everything was done on the computer, in all departments. It was almost like somebody flipped a switch and, no matter what age you were, you were going onto the computer! It’s a tool which speeds up the process; you can instantaneously send your work out to somebody who is scouting in Africa, or wherever.

Now when you come into the [art] department you just have these machines. Before you saw oil paintings and pencil drawings; it was a sensual and visual experience, and it was inspiring. Now you have to really stand behind somebody’s shoulder to get a glimpse [of what they are working on]. That easy collaboration is what I miss.

And does filmmaking technology, like 3D, have an impact on your work at concept stage?
If it’s a 3D film, like with Drive Angry or This Is It, I try to create depth in the illustrations. But I always try to do that anyway, work with flat space and deep space. It looks nice if you have the ‘Swiss cheese’ effect, where you can look deeper and deeper into the image. We explored with Drive Angry some things which we later dismissed, like having extreme foreground elements. We figured it would distort [the image] too much, so we decided to go to the regular way. In that instance we just didn’t have time to really explore it, but in a best case scenario you could go through everything; in the same way you have a colour flow which goes through the film, you could do it with 3D.

So it’s a good way to try out ideas and avoid having expensive mistakes?
Yes. Anything you can think of in advance prepares you for when it comes down to shooting. Some directors see storyboarding and the like as limiting them, or boxing them in, but to me—and I’m not a director—it’s almost like making a shopping list. Sometimes I forget my notes, but I still remember because I’ve thought about it. And it doesn’t mean that you’re forced to stick with it. What I find exciting is that humans in general, we have this imagination. So to have a little picture, and then suddenly it’s a real set and then it ends up in this film, it’s a manifestation of your thoughts onto the screen and it’s a magical moment. I find that process very interesting.

You clearly enjoy being part of that process…
Yes, and the fact that everybody has their own opinions, and then at the end you get one product is amazing! But usually [concept artists] are the first that are being let go, depending on how much money the production has. You think, ‘My baby is being handed over!’ The one nice thing if I compare my role to production design is that at least I have my paintings. Even if you have to change it, or do another idea that you don’t think is so good, you still have the original painting. A designer, by comparison, has to give their sets over to the shooting team, and it gets dismantled. It’s easier for me to be flexible, because I know I can still keep my original illustration. •

For more information on Nicole and her work, visit www.red5designgroup.com

This article appears in movieScope issue 23, July/August 2011

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