Alex Phillimore: (alex.phillimore-deleteme[at]-deleteme-direman [dot] com) 2013-06-23 05:32:31
An Interview with Josh Nizzi (Iron Man 3; Django Unchained; Transformers)
Josh Nizzi is a concept artist who has worked on popular video games, films and toy designs with companies such as Volition Inc., Marvel and Hasbro. Josh has worked with directors such as Michael Bay on leading films such as Iron Man 3, The Avengers and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. I spoke with Josh about his time working as a concept artist, his early years in the industry, and the joys of being involved in the development of such incredible films:
Alex Phillimore: Hi Josh! At what age did you discover you have a penchant for art?
Josh Nizzi: I've loved drawing since I can remember. When I was really little I used to bring pictures from books to my mom and ask her to draw them for me so I could watch her technique. It's totally something I was born with and I feel blessed that I'm able to make a living with it.
AP: How did you get started as a professional concept artist?
JN: I went to the University of Illinois in Champaign, IL. I used to see a group of guys at the gym from time to time and one day started a conversation with them. They asked what I was studying and what I wanted to do after school. I told them I was hoping to get into video games or film. I remember one of the guys there who later ended up being my Art Director, Frank Capezzuto, replied with something like, "oh yeah, we do that". So they let me come and visit the studio, Volition Inc., a few times and after I graduated I applied and got hired. Over the next few years I was able to get experience in all areas of game art, but always loved doing concept work.
AP: Could you name a few projects you have worked on in the past that you have fond memories of?
JN: The firsts are often the projects you have the best memories of. Red Faction was the first game I worked on out of college. It was a great experience and I learned a ton - and also made a lot of mistakes. But the project was really successful and I was able to pay off my student loans with my bonus money (which was awesome and also sucked). The first film I worked on was Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. That was such a great experience getting to be a part of a franchise I loved and working alongside amazing artists. Plus, it's so cool seeing your designs on the big screen and in the aisles at Target.
AP: You worked extensively on Michael Bay's Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Could you tell us about the creative process behind some of the characters you designed?
JN: I've worked on the past three Transformers films. It's a great franchise and Michael is a perfect fit. He generally has a vision for the characters and how they are going to be used in the film so it's really about trying to design what I think is in his head in a way that I think is cool and fits with what else is being done. After working with him on a few films I've learned a few tricks to help sell ideas I like. As a film concept illustrator, it's important to have the ability to deliver what your director wants in a way that you can be proud of it - and do it all very quickly.
AP: The Gnomon Workshop has a DVD available (Robot Design: Concept, Model and Paint with Josh Nizzi) where you discuss and illustrate your personal techniques for designing robots. Could you tell us a bit about what it was like making this DVD and what interests you about designing robots in particular?
JN: It was an interesting experience making that dvd. It's hard to pack in everything you've learned and all of your techniques into just a few hours. Plus, in person I'm generally pretty animated and just talking into a mic you can't see my hands flailing all over the place. I'm also way cooler in person. If I do another one it will be much better.
Robots are basically a combination of things I like: machinery/vehicles/weapons and heroic characters. People ask me if I ever get tired designing robots. So far I haven't. One of the things I really like about working in film is that projects generally don't last longer than 9 months at most and then you can go work on something totally different if you want.
AP: What is it like working with Marvel on incredible films such as Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World?
JN: Working with Marvel is great. Ryan Meinerding and Charlie Wen run the visual development group at Marvel and are super talented artists. They generally give a lot of freedom to come up with ideas but are also able to give really specific feedback on how to make a design better. Plus, the other artists in the vis-dev department are amazing as well. Walking through the office seeing what everybody else is doing makes me feel inspired and insecure. Marvel as a studio is pretty great as well. They do things differently from other studios, which is one of the reasons I think they are kicking so much butt.
AP: On your website you have some incredible art for Django Unchained as well. What was it like making art for a film set in the past, as opposed to more futuristic films such as Transformers and The Avengers?
JN: I worked on that film as a sorta favour to production designer Michael Riva after working on The Amazing Spiderman with him. Unfortunately, he passed away during the filming. I'm glad I got to work on his last film with him. It was a nice change of pace to work on Django. It was a smaller budget film so we had to consider that when designing some of the sets. I also don't want to get pigeon-holed into just being the 'robot guy' so having variety in my portfolio is a good idea.
AP: What level of creative freedom do you generally receive when it comes to designing characters in the projects you work on?
JN: There is a range for sure. Sometimes a character assignment can be just combining or altering work that has already been done; sometimes it's totally blue sky and they are looking to you for ideas not only for what the character looks like, but what they do and how they act, etc.. Generally speaking I'd say that I have quite a bit of creative freedom. One of the cool things about working in film is that there is a level of respect for concept illustrators that I didn't see as much when working in games.
AP: Could you tell us a bit about your time working with Volition Inc. on games such as Red Faction and with Day 1 Studios on titles such as Fracture?
JN: I have many fond memories about both companies - and some less than fond memories. Haha. I learned a ton at both companies. One of the biggest lessons was how important it is to have the right team. One or two people in key positions can change the course of a project for the better or worse.
AP: Was your move from designing art for video games to designing art for films deliberate, or were you surprised by the change in medium?
JN: There are a lot of similarities between designing for films and video games. I think my game experience has helped me to be a better film illustrator for sure. There are many artists that have made the move from games to film in the past few years. One of the things that surprised me is how small the group of artists are that design films. It's basically a small group that moves around from film to film. I guess when you think of it, it's kind of like actors or directors. But that means that it's hard to break into unless you are "discovered".
AP: How does the creative process behind designing art for films differ from designing art for games?
JN: There are definitely different considerations but it's extremely similar. In games you need to be thinking about performance of the engine and using too many resources. In film it's mostly about feeling right and conveying personality and character. More and more I'm finding that concepts are becoming less about the specific design elements and more about mood and feeling.
AP: Aside from video games and films, Robot Design: Concept, Model and Paint with Josh Nizzi suggests that you have also worked on comics and toy designs. Could you tell us a bit about some of these other creative avenues you have worked on?
JN: I've continued to do work in video games from time to time. I did a bunch of covers for the Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen comics and spin-offs. I've also done quite a bit of development work for Hasbro over the years on a number of their 'boy' brands. I've also done some work for TV and amusement parks. I like learning how different areas of entertainment work. Hopefully that knowledge will serve me well as I develop my own ideas.
AP: Are there any projects that you're currently working on that you can discuss at this time?
JN: I have a few video game projects I'm working that I'm really excited about. They should be announced in the coming months. It's a pretty great thing to be able to work on big budget films interspersed with smaller games. Though it can get difficult to balance my time - I work a ton. I'm super blessed to have an awesome wife and kids to keep me from working myself to death.
AP: What advice do you have for artists looking to get started in the industry?
JN: Being a great artist is just one of many skills you need to succeed in film. You have to be good at communication, taking initiative, dependability, taking criticism, negotiation and speed. It's very competitive and you have to protect your reputation on every project by kicking butt and being cool to work with. Lots of people want to break in and lots of people who are already "in" are trying to keep working. Every job is contract-based so if you are not producing they can let you go at any time. It can be scary, but it's also exciting and really pushes you to get better.
In order to work in film you have to be in the Illustrators Union. It can be very difficult to get into the union, but it happens all the time. Producers are willing to do the work to get you in if they think you're worth the effort. You have to have a great portfolio online and a presence on digital art websites. My general advice would be not to count on anybody else to make you better or to get you a job. Classes and mentors and such can be a great help but ultimately you just have to put in the hours building up your skills and speed. If you have a great portfolio and you are not a jerk, opportunities will open up.
AP: Thanks for your time, Josh! Good luck with the future.
All images (c) Josh Nizzi and their respective owners.