Gregory Hill is an Illustrator for Film, Theatre and Television. His work includes set visualisations, location design and illustrations. Based in New York he has worked with the Coen Brothers on ‘Inside Llewyn Davies’ ‘No Country For Old Men’ ‘Burn After Reading’ and ‘True Grit’. He has also worked on animation based films including ‘The Smurfs’
Here he discusses with Louise Leverett the background and process of his role, how his own journey informs his work and the cultural importance impacting that.
LL: Let’s go right back to the beginning, At what moment in your life did you decide that you wanted to be an artist? Can you pinpoint it?
GH: I think the question should be “At what moment in your life did I decide that I HAD to be an artist?” I have always been an artist in a way…From childhood I’ve drawn, doodled, and painted. I was not a great student…. easily distracted and unfocused, but I loved any art class I was able to take. My father wanted me to be anything but an artist, however it seemed that my path was inevitable. The problem was I didn’t know what branch of art I wanted to pursue. I come from Kansas, and arts in general are not a huge part of everyday life in the midwest. Our family would often go to the Kansas City Art Gallery and spend hours there. As I got older I kept going on my own. So up until high school my knowledge of art as a career was confined to doing fine art painting or drawing or sculpting. And I knew there was commercial art and advertising. Even though I saw films, theatre, etc. I somehow didn’t connect that there were people who designed the sets on screen or on the stage.
In high school I discovered theatre for myself. I painted scenery for the shows my school did, and also did advertisements, posters, etc. I absolutely loved that work. But I didn’t know you could do that as a profession and make money doing it.
LL: Was there a point where you thought you could make illustration and graphics your actual career?
GH: When I got to college, I discovered that there was a University Theatre, and that they offered degrees… and one of those degrees was in Theatre Design.
I declared my major when I enrolled and never looked back. Did I know I could make a career out of this? Actually I didn’t have a clue. Statistically the odds weren’t great, but I didn’t think I had a choice.
One of the great things about studying theatre at the University of Kansas was that it was a liberal arts degree which meant that I took studio art classes (drawing, painting, sculpture) and graphic design, art history, english, some science…. So my education was eclectic, and it led to a more eclectic tool set. I think that has helped me a lot it getting the various jobs I’ve had.
LL: Concept illustration is quite a specific arena to work in. Was this a conscious choice or did it happen organically?
GH: I did actually make a conscious choice to move towards concept illustration because the work really fits my skill set and my mind set beautifully. My range of interests and talents seem to be perfect for concept art.
But concept art work here in New York really didn’t exist the way it does in LA until about 5 or 6 years ago.
Up to then the film and TV industry in New York was primarily about using the city as a character. Productions shot mainly on the streets, or in apartments, offices or stores around the city. You don’t need concept art to do work like that.
The real market for concept art has traditionally been in science fiction, fantasy and period films. And now that so much of the design of a film only appears as a combination of physical sets and VFX, it’s really important to have concept art to help sell the film design to studios and inform the production staff and actors about the world they’re creating.
But those kinds of films weren’t typically made here. At most a fantasy film that was supposed to take place in New York might shoot here for a week or two to get location shots. And all the concept work would still be done in pre- production in LA.
Now however, with the New York tax credits, and the larger pool of really good crews and production facilities (and concept artists) more large, effects- heavy productions are coming here. And they’re prepping here as well, so this is a great place to be doing concept art right now.
LL: In the process you use going from conception to practice of an idea is there a formula to it or does it evolve within each project? Is there an initial formula you follow when you have a vision and when you then turn that vision into a design?
GH: You know, I think about this a lot. If you look at the work of the artists I mention in question 5, you would always know their work… they developed a style of their own. You don’t need to see a signature on their work… their work is their signature.
I’m not sure I have a “Gregory Hill” signature style. It’s part of the whole “jack of all trades” thing. And I don’t seem to have a set working method. I read a script, do the research, discuss what the designer wants… and then try to figure out how best to create each illustration to tell the story it needs to tell.
Some designers like hand drawn illustrations, though that’s becoming a thing of the past in this digital age. Some want photoshopped concept art, and some want as realistic a representation as possible. I think that to a degree that depends on the director, producers and studio. As more and more decisions about films are made by people who don’t know film, they can only understand what looks as real as possible.
I find now, that I’m most often building, texturing and lighting 3D models of sets and environments and rendering them out as a base for illustration. It’s actually really wonderful to be able to “shoot” a set from different angles, with different lenses and pick one or two as the hero shots to proceed with.
Then I generally hand-draw the characters, props and dressing on vellum over the printed render. Then I scan that drawing in, and paint it in photoshop. Of course there are constant notes back and forth and revisions to be done. But this method, to me, is the most fluid and flexible and allows the quickest revisions and tweaks.
LL: Has there been a person or particular influence on you which has made an impact on your creativity?
GH: Indeed. There are absolutely wonderful artists that I have admired and studied for years. First and foremost is Maxfield Parrish. My father had an original copy of “The Knave of Hearts” and I know that book, and his illustrations by heart. Everything about his work inspired, and continues to inspire me. Another illustrator that I absolutely loved was Chesley Bonestell. He was I think the first serious “science fiction” artist. He’s not well known now but his work was amazing.
As for fine artists… Vermeer, Canaletto, Caravaggio, Claesz, Fragonard, Bierstadt, Dore, Alma Tadema… and a few others. As you can tell I tend to gravitate towards artists who depict landscapes or cityscapes, and who are masters of lighting, architecture and atmosphere. To me great artwork is about depicting a world… real or imagined…in a way that seems to make it real. For better or worse that’s what I try to do with my concept artwork.
I also collect every book I can find on the art of films and film design. It’s great to see the concept art for films being promoted and preserved. The great film illustrators whose work I love include Ralph McQuarrie, Syd Mead, Tani Kunitake, Dean Tschetter, Alan Lee, John Howe, Dylan Cole and Ryan Church… there are some really wonderful concept artists working in film.
These are the people who are really creating new visual worlds.
LL: In terms of creativity what surprises you in the world today?
GH: It seems like there is a constant creative explosion going on everywhere. Computers and the internet have made a huge impact on art and artists. I don’t know that anything particularly surprises me any more.
However as someone who makes a living as a “concept artist” there is one thing I should mention. If you Google “concept art” you will be inundated with tons of really beautiful illustrations by artists from all over. They’re dramatic, skillfully drawn, painted and lit well, fabulous camera angles… it’s intimidating in a way.
But with so much talent, most of the work is so boring because it all looks the same. Everyone seems to think concept art is just copying BLADE RUNNER, or ALIEN.
LL: Do you see your own culture and background, your roots, reflecting within your creativity in any way?
GH: That’s an interesting question. As an American from the midwest, and who is a descendent of European immigrants less than 150 years ago, you might say that my roots are tangled and not very deep. But you know… there are some advantages to that. I think that I have the ability to assimilate whatever artistic or cultural guidelines that inform the design of the films I work on. On a really good day I can synthesize that reference and come up with wonderful and informed concept art. This makes me a more flexible artist and illustrator than I might otherwise be. I’m not perfect…and it doesn’t work every time. But that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
LL: Do you use music as a point of reference for your work and if so, what pieces inspire you most?
GH: In a way I do. I don’t work well in silence, so I constantly have the stereo or iTunes going. Sometimes I need conversation so I listen either to NPR (here in the States), or to BBC (usually BBC4… I absolutely love “The News Quiz”). As for music I’m really eclectic.
Sometimes I listen to music that’s associated with the time period of the show I’m working on, but that doesn’t always help. If it’s a style or type that I don’t care for (such as country music) there’s no sense subjecting my ears or brain to it.
If I’m just listening to music for overall mood…my favorites are Hovhaness, Satie, Wagner, Mozart, Philip Glass,Hilary Stagg, Jacques Offenbach, Constance Demby, Moby, Arcade Fire, Enya, Jazz from the 30’s and 40’s, 1940’s and 50’s pop standards……
My musical taste gets as distracted as my brain does. In general I’d say that talk radio or classical music helps me relax and focus in a way… and modern pop or rock music is great if I just need stimulation.
LL: Is there anything that scares you as an artist in the world today?
GH: This will sound odd, but there are aspects of technology that do “scare” me a little. It worries me to drive or walk down a street and see everyone else glued to their phones, or iPods or iPads…texting, talking, or watching videos. Nobody looks up at the world anymore, nobody listens to the world anymore. We experience everything through small electronic devices. This bothers me because we have locked ourselves up in these devices, thinking that they have liberated us when indeed they seem to me to be doing just the opposite. I’m hoping that at some point we’ll snap out of it.
LL: Is there another culture in particular which your curiosity is drawn to?
GH: As an American, living in a country that is relatively young and which was created by immigrants for the most part, I’m amazed by places that can count their histories in centuries rather than just years. I’ve visited much of Europe and China. But there is still so much I’d love to see.
I’m particularly drawn to two countries. England of course intrigues me. So much history… and such amazing stories. I grew up on Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and the great BBC dramas which were and are broadcast here on PBS.
After England I’m probably most drawn to Egypt. When I was young I read books on archaeology, fascinated by the way that Egypt’s past has been uncovered and translated. It’s staggering to me just how old Egypt is.
Think of it…. they had one of the greatest civilizations in the world that lasted for centuries. Their artistic vocabulary… paintings, statues, monuments lasted for millenia! It’s just mind blowing.
LL: If you are the centre of your world, what makes your world turn?
GH: I’m an escapist at heart. Books were the first obsession for me… and I would pretend I was in the world of those books. I think my answer to question 9 is in part because I was a slave to books (and TV) when I was a kid. Rather than experiencing the real world, I preferred the fictional world. I’m not sure it made me better at anything, but I regret not embracing the real world in many ways. I love my work now. I love creating fantasy alphabets, or making the worlds of the films I work on appear real. I love fantasy, and creating alternate realities visually. I guess that is what makes my world turn.