Exclusive: Wil Rees talks Warhammer, inspirations and working for Hollywood
|INTERVIEWS - FILM|
Shadowlocked tips its bow to one of society's most talented Visual Concept Designers...
This is one of those times being a geek, a collector and a fan can really come in handy. When Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine from Relic/THQ came out we covered it’s release. It got me thinking back to 1987 and the launch of the Role Playing game. I bought the copy of White Dwarf which heralded the launch of the new game and the universe that had been carefully crafted. That’s when I first encountered the amazing work of Wil Madoc Rees.
So after playing this latest incarnation I went back to my attic and dug out that issue. I then hunted out Wil. He’s now living in California and working in Hollywood. He’s easy to talk with and it’s been a pleasure to hook-up with such a talented artist; one who’s visual concept work has helped shape some of cinemas recent biggest block busters.
So what got you into art? Was it the always robots and goblins and spaceships for you?
Ever since I can remember I’ve been into art. I don’t think I ever had a pivotal moment where I said "Art...now that’s what I want to do for the rest of my life". It’s all I’ve ever done. In fact some of my earliest memories are of my parents taking me to the Science and Natural History museums in London when I was about three years old trying to draw everything that interested me. That fascination with trying to draw the world or imagine what the world would look like if there were robots and goblins and spaceships in it never left me.
What art college did you go to?
I’m pretty much self-taught. There really wasn’t an art school back in the 80’s that taught sci-fi or fantasy design like there is today. In fact there seems to be an entire industry devoted to it. There was ‘product design’ of course but that didn’t interest me. I did do a foundation course at the Chelsea College of art. It was funny, I remember showing my portfolio and the admissions interviewer said, “Why do you want to come here? You’re ready to get out there and start working.” I was very flattered but replied that I needed to get a good foundation in art education.
Who inspired you to become an artist?
I was interested in Albrecht Durer, Leonardo Da Vinci and Hieronymus Bosch. Then later, I discovered the art of Ron Cobb and of course Syd Mead, who I had the great pleasure of lunching with in Los Angeles.
Marcus: Yeah, Syd is great isn't he? I too had the pleasure of meeting him
How did you get to meet Syd?
I met Syd Mead through a friend of mine. He mentioned one afternoon that he knew Syd Mead and I thought he was bluffing, so I joked, you should invite him to lunch. So a week passed and I came back into the office after a meeting with the production designer on the movie we were working on at Warner Brothers and there was Syd Mead standing in our office looking at my work on the wall. He was incredibly complimentary and we spent a lovely afternoon having lunch.
What influences your distinctive style?
That’s a hard one to definitively answer. I think my style has always dictated itself. I just follow it where it leads me.
What was your ‘lucky break’?
I think every artist has numerous lucky breaks, but a couple of the ones that were pivotal for me were meeting John Blanche, who was the art manager for The Games Workshop, and a sculpting on the movie ‘Mortal Kombat’ in Los Angeles which gave me the opportunity of becoming a concept illustrator in the film business. And of course being given the opportunity to design the treasure room at the end of National Treasure by Jerry Bruckheimer.
Do you tend to work only in digital now?
I do tend to work in digital media now, but only because of the nature of the film business. It’s all about fast concept and revision which, thanks to Adobe, has become a lot easier.
What is your favourite media?
I think all media is interesting to me. I’ve worked in oil, acrylic, ink, gouache, pencil and sculpted with green foam and clay. But these days I’m primarily working in Photoshop CS and modelling in Modo.
Your style has changed a lot over the years – was that commercially minded or have you found that your creativity has broadened with experience?
I think my style has just evolved over time with the advent of technology. I sometimes wonder what my early illustrations would‘ve looked like if I’d had the software artists have at our disposal today.
But then again, I’m also a great believer in leaving the past to speak for itself, learn from it and move forward with new endeavours.
To me there is a eerie quality about your work – the lighting and texture in your painting – would you agree or is that me being stuck with visions of your earlier work?
Firstly, thanks for the compliment, and secondly I agree. I’ve always tried to infuse some kind of ‘eerie’ into all of my work. I’ve seen some incredible art over the years, which is technically perfect but sterile and emotionless. I think art needs to invoke something in the viewer whatever the subject matter, media or deadline.
Would you like to develop concepts for Horror movies?
I’m always taking on projects that interest me in some way, and Horror would be no exception.
Have you worked on any computer game titles?
I worked on a concept for a video game called Planet Ice Fire for the head of Virgin Interactive many years ago when I was first starting out. Unfortunately, the project never got green lit and I’ve been really busy working on one film project after another. But as an avid gamer myself, I’ve watched the gaming industry evolve into something really cinematic. If the opportunity presented itself I would definitely like to get involved.
What do you find really pushes your creativity?
The constant desire to improve. The day an artist says to him or herself, ‘that’s good enough’ is the day it’s all over.
"They were some of the scariest things I’ve ever seen. Again there’s a sense of the nightmare of warp space distorting their minds and bodies."
White Dwarf Magazine – I used to get this every month when I was at school (I still buy it occasionally – I’m 41!). I remember sending artwork into the magazine when I was a boy. How did you get involved?
After leaving Chelsea College of Art I was looking for a way to earn a living doing something that I might enjoy, so I sent a few samples of my work off to White Dwarf Magazine. I’ll always remember the phone call from John Blanche inviting me up to the Games Workshop to look around the art department , so I took my chances and got on a train to meet the guys up in Nottingham. It was an exciting time. I really felt like they were forging something important in the background that they weren’t talking about; just a feeling I had whilst walking around.
Moreover, there was a suppressed buzz of excitement in the air. I immediately knew that I wanted to get involved with the company and so John and I shook hands. John spent the next few months testing me with various illustrations until he finally let me in on the big secret project, Warhammer. Little did I know at that time that I would soon be designing the Space Marines, Emperor and Adeptus Mechanicus. As far as I know I was the first artist he tasked with fleshing out the 40K universe.
Did you play RPGs? Do you think they should come back?
I did dabble with RPG’s for a while but I was so busy meeting deadlines for the Games Workshop that I couldn’t find enough time to get as involved as I wanted to. In my opinion RPG’s were the forefather’s of video games. They gave anyone who chose to get involved the opportunity to escape into a realm of pure fantasy. I believe if there’s enough of a demand perhaps they’ll come back in their own right.
As for me, I'd certainly encourage people to try non-computer based games out. I find there’s a social and engagement level you just can’t get in computer games.
"...and concept-wise The Lone Ranger. It’s a really fantastic piece of material directed by Gore Verbinski, starring Johnny Depp with Jerry Bruckheimer producing."
White Dwarf has come a long way since it’s conception in some respects – it’s very slick but it does lack the the depth of articles and gone are the mini quests for RPGs. Would you ever consider developing another Games workshop franchise or start your own?
If the Games Workshop contacted me I’d definitely consider developing another games franchise with them or even delve back into Warhammer. I have a number of ideas they might be interested in, in order to expand their universe in new directions. And yes, I would consider developing my own game franchise at some point if time permits.
Marcus: Brilliant! Well if you’re looking for a writer – count me in!
So would you like to get involved in magazine and book illustration again?
I’m always open to the possibility of doing book and magazine illustration again. But doing concept work keeps me incredibly busy.
What inspired you to develop your concepts when working on Rouge Trader?
The games workshop had a very talented sculptor create a tiny figurine of a Space Marine. I thought it was amazing but I decided to design them the way I thought they should look, bulky and covered with power armour. I wanted the Marines to be as terrifying and imposing as possible at the time. These Marines had to face incredible foes and I came up with the idea of them being really bulked up on chemicals and larger than the average human. I’m not sure if I ever explained that concept to anyone at the Games Workshop, but they loved the direction of the illustrations and I just kept going. In the case of Adeptus Mechanicus and the Emperor, I just wanted to fuse medieval armour and technology together.
They were some of the scariest things I’ve ever seen. Again there’s a sense of the nightmare of warp space distorting their minds and bodies.
Even the chainsaws mounted to the Adeptus’ faceplates had a purpose. I always imagined them working in and around the emperor’s life support system. Every time one of his bio veins would rupture their order would be sent in to cut it away and replace it with a freshly engineered one. If you look in the background of the illustration I did of them, you can see a huge Adeptus with hydraulic arms lifting up the emperor’s bloated tech. At the time I really wanted to return to the Adeptus to explore them in more detail.
I think it’s high time for a return visit too.
Have you been involved with the Relic/THQ production of Space Marine?
Sadly no. But I checked in on the Relic website the other day and was flattered to see that some of my original designs remain relatively unchanged. I think it’s a logical move for the Games Workshop to expand the 40K universe into the video game marketplace.
What do you think to the creative vision for Warhammer 40,000 today?
I think it’s taken on a life of its own in and is in very capable hands - a comment I'm sure they will be very pleased to hear.
How did you get into movie concept design?
I was always interested in film design ever since I first read a copy of the making of Alien. But in all honesty, I fell into it by accident. I was assisting a sculpt on some massive statues for Mortal Kombat in LA for a couple of months and the production supervisor Jonathan Josel took an interest in my work because he saw that I was mixing in some of my own designs. He came over one morning and asked me if I did anything else. So I showed him my illustration portfolio and he immediately introduced me to an agent who handled film illustrators. Then I joined the union and began representing myself, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Having worked with a number of art directors, who would you say you learned the most from?
I don’t think it would be fair to single anyone out. I think I’ve learned something from everyone I’ve worked with and hopefully they feel the same way about working with me.
Have you been involved with Prometheus? You should have been if not!
That’s very kind of you to say. I nearly got the chance to work with Ridley Scott when he was developing an earlier version of I am Legend or Omega Man but sadly the project went down just as I was about to join the art dept. So I never got to show him what I could do. I haven’t had the opportunity to work for Ridley Scott since then but you never know what might be around the corner.
Your ideas for Disney’s G-Force are incredibly detailed, and they appear to be all CGI. What tools do you use and why was it necessary to develop concepts using CG software?
Thanks again for the kind words. They were for the most part, modelled in Modo and rendered in Lightwave. I put a lot of finishing touches on the mechs with Photoshop using a basic brush set. I didn’t do any sketches of the mechs due to time constraints. I just started modelling them in the 3D workspace to save time. I think Hoyt the director, whom I might add was a real pleasure to work for, had a very strong vision and really wanted to see the designs from every angle. So I’d model a mech in a day and pending Hoyt’s approval would finish them off the following day. Then I’d send the models up the pipeline to the modellers at Sony Imageworks who’d polish them or in some cases re-model them entirely for rigging and animation. But I think it was a good starting point for them to see the designs in 3D and it was a great experience all around.
Are you working on your own story/movie ideas?
For anyone who remembers my original interview in White Dwarf magazine back in the day I’m nearly finished revising my dark gothic children’s novel William and the Thirteenth Key which was originally called William and the Sand Pirates. I put it away for nearly seventeen years because finding the time to write whilst paying the bills was a challenge. But I blew the dust off it a few years ago and I’m going to publish it in the near future on ibooks and Amazon.com so keep your eyes peeled. I think the material has the potential to be optioned as a film or even developed into a video game. We’ll just have to wait and see.
Marcus: It sounds like you’re moving to become more of a story teller of your own ideas rather than just other peoples. That sounds very exciting.
What get’s you excited about a project? Do you find you have a clear set of ideas when briefed or do you have to work hard at driving ideas.
A script that has a slightly dark twist to it. That’s what usually gets me exited about taking a project. And to answer your second question I think it depends on the Director and the Production Designer. Sometimes they have a strong vision while others let you have free range (as long as it feels appropriate for the material in question) and welcome your design input. Either way, they are equally rewarding.
How do you feel when you see your ideas come to life on the big screen?
It’s always a thrill to see something you’ve contributed to appear on the screen. It never gets boring.
Was moving to LA a hard choice to make?
It was a hard choice to make. But it made sense as at the time as there really weren’t many opportunities to create fantasy/ sci-fi art or literature outside of a few publishing houses when I left England in ’89.
On a personal level, leaving my family and friends behind was incredibly difficult; and continues to be, to this day, I might add. Even though I love living and working in Los Angeles you never quite get England out of your system and I hope to return to her shores someday.
With Hollywood it’s hard not to be there to be in it. However, do you think with the Internet and the economy the way it is that things will change in regards to movie development?
I think it’s hard to predict the future of any creative industry these days. Over the last ten or so years the world has become a very economically unstable place, be it by design or not. The film industry will adapt as it has in the past or perish like any other industry that fails to do so. I just hope the film industry doesn’t abandon the Los Angeles area entirely to save money. My worst fear is that all creative professionals will have to become nomads if this trend continues and everyone’s standard of living will erode. But I hope this worst-case scenario won’t be the future for the film and gaming industry. One has to hold out hope that those in charge will do the right thing for all involved parties.
What would persuade you to come back to the UK?
A cup of tea and an interesting project.
What single piece of advise would you give to someone trying to get into concept art for movies or games?
It’s a tough industry to break into right now but, be determined, hone your skills and never give up, unless you still haven’t had any job offers after turning ninety. Then, and only then, you might want to consider doing something else for a living.
What do you find the most rewarding aspect of your job is?
Other than seeing some of my work up on the screen or published in a ‘making of’ book, I’d have to say finishing a piece. To this day I’ll still sit back for a moment in the middle of a bustling art department and quietly enjoy the finished piece before handing it off.
Check out Will in : The Art of Pirates of the Caribbean and G-Force: The Dossier
What exciting things should we be looking out for that you’ve been involved with?
Well as I mentioned earlier in the interview my novel William and the Thirteenth Key, which I’m getting close to finally completing, and concept-wise The Lone Ranger. It’s a really fantastic piece of material directed by Gore Verbinski, starring Johnny Depp with Jerry Bruckheimer producing. The Lone Ranger got shut down a little while ago, but is now back up and running. I just got a call and may be returning to the art department sometime next week and there’s a few other projects brewing in the background that I can’t talk about yet.
Marcus: Wow that’s cool. We’ll have to follow this then!
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