Tim Browning is a Freelance Draughtsman, Illustrator and Art Director working in London. He has worked on projects including the latest Bond Feature Skyfall, Alice in Wonderland and In Bruges. He was also Art Director for Tim Burton’s 3D animated stop motion comedy Frankenweenie and also worked on Disney’s animated feature film John Carter.
Here, Louise Leverett heads to the Warner Brothers Studios to meet him and discuss the influences behind his work, the journey from artist to concept illustrator and his consequential transition into the film industry.
LL: So at what point in your life did you decide that you wanted to be an artist? Can you pinpoint it?
TB: I was always hiding in the art room at school because it was always where I felt most comfortable. I always did a lot of drawing and painting and its but I never really saw a way to make a living out of it. I did at one point in my twenties try to make a living as an actual artist doing paintings but I found it very lonely and never made any money and didn’t particularly enjoy it. I didn’t really have anything to say, I couldn’t really take myself seriously as an artist. I found it a little bit embarrassing and a little bit weird and never really had any particular direction that I wanted to pursue. And then a friend of mine got me a job in Sydney as a carpenter making film and theatre sets and I ended up working on a couple of big jobs over there. Firstly as a carpenter and then as a scenic painter doing marbling effects and wood graining and ageing and scenic backdrops. I really enjoyed it, really loved it. So I did that for a few years, came back to England, went to the film school in Beaconsfield to do a Master’s degree in Production Design. I got into drafting for art departments and did a bit of art directing. More recently I’ve sort of snuck into concept art which is more of the fun bit. It’s the really fun part of the job because you don’t have to deal with all of the bullshit that goes with it. All the budgeting, administrating and getting stuff done, which I do enjoy but Id rather just sit down and colour in most of the time and its a really lovely way to spend your time. I wake up happy, I sit at my desk on a Monday morning and I love it.
LL: Was there a point where you thought you could make this your career?
TB: Getting into the film industry in Sydney and meeting that crowd and being on set and beginning to understand how films work and films operate I thought that yeah this is somewhere I can pursue my painting and drawing without having to do it on my own. Doing it in a team with a larger goal ahead of us. A bigger project than just some painting I would be working on by myself. That was very exciting.
LL: Concept illustration and art direction are quite specific arenas to work in. Was this a conscious choice or did it happen organically?
TB: Illustrating was something I got into quite recently, in the last couple of years, partly because I was always very much in awe of the established concept artists in the industry a lot of whom come from a fine art background or a comic book background. The guys who do comic books can knock stuff out really quickly and its always really impressive. I never expected for a minute that I would ever be able to compete with them but there have been developments in software particularly in 3D modelling and rendering which have allowed me to design a set and then render it fairly photo realistically and put some people in it and put some action in it and I get reasonably good results. I don’t paint in the same way that the old school concept guys do. I do occasionally but not very much and certainly not as well as them. I’ve found a niche where I can just model and render and tweak in order to get a pretty fast and useful result that helps the production move along.
LL: In the process you use 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?
TB: It depends what it is. If you’re looking at a big epic landscape it’s a very different process to if you’re designing a new type of screwdriver and you always get hit with both. Job to job you’ll be working on big pirate ships one week and then 1930s pubs the next and there’s always something new to do. Within each job, a huge range of stuff to do, from small props to vehicles to landscapes. That said I generally sketch in 3D in a program called SketchUp. I love to draw and I do occasionally still pick up a pencil but on the whole I find it more efficient to use the 3D program. It’s a bit like sculpting on your computer screen and the result you get is a more realistic representation of what you end up building with the guys in the workshops. You can sketch and paint all you like but on a lot of jobs the producers and designers want to see exactly what they’re going to get. And 3D modelling, for me, is the most effective way to do that.
LL: For those who don’t know what sort of material are you given when starting a project?
TB: Generally speaking there will be a big old file full of research. So I’m working on a 1960’s movie at the moment and somebody’s spent a good six weeks rooting through research. We’re based all over, in Berlin and London and Rome and so there have been a couple of researchers scouring books for all sorts of images. We’ve got a race track to do and a boat chase and a car chase and a weapons factory and all that kind of stuff. So somebody spends ages researching all of that. Often I have to do that myself which is part of the fun of the job but generally speaking the designer will come up with all sorts of references, with which, as a team, we somehow find the overall design aesthetic. It grows organically from various key images, colours, textures and fabrics which jump out of the research. On top of all of that you just generally build up a palette and an architectural language and a style that ideally will homogenise the film and make it look all of one piece.
LL: Has there been a person or particular influence on you, which has made an impact on your creativity?
TB: Mostly production designers and concept artists whose work I admire. I’m always interested in developments in other fields, and in all artistic endeavour, but it’s the people within the industry that inspire me the most. People like Rick Heinrichs, Dennis Gassner and Alex McDowell. Because I know them and because they’ve done such beautiful work which will entertain people for a very long time.
LL: In terms of creativity what surprises you in the world today?
TB: Maybe that cinema isn’t generally accepted for what it is. The most important, diverse and influential art form we have. It can consume, display, and reinvent every other form of artistic expression available and reach billions of people across the world. And yet there is still a feeling that the real ‘culture’, the real ‘art’ is only to be found in galleries and opera houses. There’s still an irritating snobbishness that relegates cinema to the popular culture box. Then again, there’s an astonishing amount of crap cinema out there to back up that sentiment.
LL: Do you think your own culture and background, your roots, have defined your creativity in any way?
TB: I suppose obviously yes it does. But I can’t think of any specific way in which that’s true. I had a fairly ordinary and untroubled middle class upbringing, on a farm. I have a degree in art history, which is obviously pretty useful for what I do. I often think one needs to be a bit angrier and more determined than I am if you really want to pursue any given artistic direction, so I’m very content with the constantly changing diverse line-up of projects that come my way.
LL: Do you use music as a point of reference for your work and if so, what pieces inspire you most?
TB: Every now and then I’ll have a project on where I’ll need to thrash through it and for that I’ll put some nasty banging tunes in my headphones. I’ve got quite an eclectic taste and get bored quite easily, but listen to everything and anything.
LL: Is there anything that scares you as an artist in the world today?
TB: I’m always self-conscious about the standard of my work. We’re handsomely paid and you constantly feel like you need to perform to the best of your abilities, which is good pressure I suppose. Being self-employed like everyone else that I work with, you tend to look after your own reputation as much as you can, and it’s a good system because everyone you work with is there on his or her merit. Not just on their technical prowess, but also their ability to get on with the rest of the team. I’m always impressed with the quality of the professional skills involved. It’s beautiful to watch new people coming through all the time.
LL: Is there another culture in particular which your curiosity is drawn to?
TB: Well its very much part of the job, but I wouldn’t say any one in particular. You’ve suddenly got three months of Mayan temples to worry about, or industrial shipyards, or circus tents, and its all very well using books, magazine and the Internet but first-hand experience is gold dust really. And so I have been all over the world with a real fascination for architecture and alternative cultures and how architecture and craft influence community and people. The job regularly offers extraordinary travel opportunities, but we’re very lucky here in England to have so much going on at home right now. As far as I know at the moment there are over ten £100 million movies being made in and around London. Everyone’s busy, it’s great.
LL: And finally, If you are the centre of your world, what makes your world turn?
TB: I would love to give you some crazy, artistic, creative, cultural answer about the world in general but it’s my family. My children. My ambitions have now changed. I used to want to be the best, be at the top of my game and be famous for something or respected within my own industry. I do still feel that a bit but not remotely as much. I just want to look after my family and generally have a nice life. Which I do.