Zack Petroc has a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the Cleveland Institute of Art with a major in Sculpture and dual minor in Drawing and Digital Media. Additionally, he studied anatomy at Case School of Medicine and figure sculpture in Florence, Italy. Zack uses his strong design background as the foundation for both his traditional and digital work. Zack is currently working as a freelance Art Director and Concept Designer for feature film and games. He is also a member of the Art Director’s Guild Technology Committee and author of several training DVDs from The Gnomon Workshop.
I don’t remember a time when I did not love to create. In the beginning, it was drawing. The pictures I made depicted the standard array of scenery your brain finds awe inspiring at a young age. No pretensions about the subject matter here: Star Wars, superheroes, miscellaneous alien landscapes, and epic battles. The only point to note about my art at that age might be that my desire to create was omnipresent. It’s arguable whether or not some are born with innate skills that will make them accomplished artists; at least in the traditional sense of drawing, painting, and sculpting. I’m of the opinion that your desire to create, not an innate skill, is what truly determines how accomplished your art will become. The stronger your desire to understand the inner workings of any discipline, the more likely you are to stay committed to mastering it. So, what I am truly thankful for is my desire to create art, not my perceived skill at creating it.
During grade school, I transitioned into set building. This was of course on a micro scale. These first attempts at creating worlds and backdrops for my characters (at the time action figures) and narratives would evolve into a life long endeavor. A vast number of Star Wars sagas played out in our rural home and around our yard. Rotted trees with moss placed upon a giant boulder became Endor landscapes, while long winters made it possible to transport an entire armada of Snow Troopers to Hoth. I also had a guinea pig until one abnormally cold February day when my Luke in Hoth gear needed to be kept warm while I built a shelter. You know how that story ends. Actually, the guinea pig was fine, but many men were lost during those epic battles. The little vintage four-inch bastards that I now have to pay hundreds of dollars to replace. In my studio today, it’s nice to look up from my monitor or drawing table to see those same exact symbolic characters, now behind glass, reminding me not to take my own art too seriously. I’m here to entertain, maybe to teach, and hopefully to inspire.
Building on an education
I’ve said this before but its worth repeating, “I went to Art School to get an education, not a job.” For me, a large part of any education is about opportunities and choices. Gaining an understanding of what your school has to offer and creating new opportunities for yourself is an invaluable part of your education. Sure, any good school will offer you opportunities such as inspirational visiting artists or internships for applied arts positions, but you may have to dig deeper to find the ones that best suit you. The influential opportunities I had to discover ranged from cadaver anatomy labs at adjunct schools to developing new internships that gave me access to new digital software.
You’ll need to explore and be creative to find opportunities. The way I like to think of it is all the opportunities that will help you achieve your goals already exist. You just need to find a way to envision them. There have been several times when I’ve defined a goal on paper, as improbable as it seemed at the time, then listed out every possible opportunity that might help me achieve it. If you keep your mind open to the idea, you’ll be amazed at the answers you can find, or rather funnel, into your brain. After all, they already exist just waiting to be utilized. All you need to do is go find the appropriate ones to help you achieve your goals. The more you understand what your goals are, the easier it becomes to make the appropriate choices to help you achieve them. There are other choices to make beyond which opportunities to accept. These choices go back to your level of desire to create. Choosing when your creative day begins and ends is often more difficult than it sounds. As a student, I remember being in my studio from 9:00am to 12:00am (closing time), Monday through Saturday. On Sunday I left at around 8:00pm. The hours were long, but in many ways, being a student provided the quintessential working environment. Somehow, working a much shorter forty- to fifty hour work week for someone else is much more draining than a ninety-hour work week as a student. After graduation, the difficult part is focusing on your own art after a long workday, when your creativity and energy are completely drained. I believe the answer is 80%. The question: “How many graduates with fine arts degrees abandon all forms of personal art after graduation?” It’s your choice. It’s difficult to envision what you would like your life to be. Envisioning the success is fairly easy, but I think I always bypassed the part about understanding the commitment it took to get there. The best approach is not to find a career you think will suit you, but to find a person that has already positioned themselves where you think you would like to be. What will help is to understand what that person’s life now entails on a daily basis. How many hours do they spend doing the things they love to do? How many hours are spent managing a situation? Are they creating content for themselves or for someone else? How would that affect you? How much time do they actually spend with their family? Is that important to you? So, in essence, if you can envision the life of that person, not the career, I think you’ll be in a much better position to decide what you really want your life to become. The simple definition of success for me is having control over the choices I make in my life. From choosing the projects I’d like to work on, to choosing when I’d like to spend more time with my family. The more control I have over these choices, the more successful and fulfilled I feel. So, hopefully for you, capitalizing on good opportunities will lead to more freedom in the choices you will have to make.
Transition to a digital media
What can one say about the joys of how your eyes feel after staring at a computer screen for hours on end. Transitioning to a digital medium was not easy for me. It reminds me of those old cliché stories your dad would tell you about walking to school when he was a kid. As the story goes, “It was up hill both ways, through a rocky mountain pass with a rattle snake latched onto his coin-purse.” When I was making the transition, there were no online forums, training DVDs, focused education programs, or even teachers for that matter. Just hard work and rattle snakes. Damn it was tough. One of the main reasons why I agreed to spend time creating content for Ballistic was so others could avoid those frustrations. Seeking out technical information necessary to operate software makes you a better technician, not a better artist. The appeal for me to use digital media was obvious. My work had always been about creating characters and worlds that revolved around a narrative. I was not focused on materials (wood, clay, metal) or the spaces my sculptures would occupy. A digital solution was my most liberating choice. To clarify the point about sculpture that truly utilizes material and space I would suggest looking into the artists Noble and Webster. Look at the materials they use and how that effects the interpretation of their work. Look for the way they use light and shadow to make the entire space surrounding the sculpture become part of the work. Also, look for the rats. Today with software like ZBrush and Mudbox, the pathway into a digital workflow is extremely accessible. My only caution would be to first make sure it’s the right choice for your work. There is an expected pull towards digital media today that stems from their sheer novelty. If you can first make sure a digital medium is the right choice for your art, then you’ll know that investing the necessary time into understanding the software will be well worth the payoff.
The smaller is to the greater as the greater is to the whole
I can’t discuss this topic without first mentioning Richard Fiorelli, my second year design teacher at CIA for introducing me to this invaluable concept. This simple principle is often the corner stone of a great design. It refers to how parts of an object relate to the entire object, and how that entire object relates back to its surroundings. A simplified example in terms of art direction would be to think of a character in costume, riding on a creature through a city. Look at the character’s costume to see how it relates to the harness on the creature, then examine how the costume and harness as a whole relate to the city backdrop. If you separate the character from the creature would you be able to visually connect them again? Should you be able to? We can also use this costume example to explore how the language of visual design can help tell our story. If the costume of the character looks disjointed from his surroundings it can immediately inform the audience that he is a visitor, not an inhabitant, even before he speaks. “Hello, me Grignak, you tell how get go Hollywood and Vine?” Yes, this must be a visitor. As the visual disconnect between the character’s appearance and their surroundings grows, the greater the amount of perceived tension and foreboding. There are many nuances and exceptions to this rule, but its always a great starting point to help you tune-in your own designs.
Rhythm and proportion
Let’s subtitle this section “Avoiding a meat-tube creation”. When I’m asked to critique an individual’s work, one of the first things that strikes me is their understanding of rhythm and proportion. First, there are many rules about proportion. How many heads high by the 4th of July and so on. I like to think of proportions in terms of how they relate to a character’s design. For instance, what do the following proportions of a character say about his personality? The size of the head, the width of the shoulders, and length of the arms are all proportions that evoke specific sensibilities. A smaller head with broad shoulders can make a character seem taller, while larger hands and feet can have the opposite effect. If the choices for specific proportions don’t match the character’s personality it can detract from the overall design. The rhythm can be described as the sweeping gesture that flows through a character. There are natural curves and flowing lines that transition across a character creating a sense of rhythmic weight and balance. This is directly tied to the gesture and can help establish a sense of animation or movement even in a static pose. Without the elements of rhythm and proportion your character or creature can look like a grouping of generic meat-tubes devoid of life and personality. If that happens someone might put ketchup on that bitch and serve it up with baked beans. In a nutshell, the more you understand about these two concepts the less likely you are to create a lifeless design.
Defining a few roles
The roles of an Art Director and Production Designer vary from live action, to animation, to game projects. Typically, on a live action project the Production Designer is at the top of the visual food chain. He or she represents one point of the creative triangle, with the Director and Director of Photography (DP) representing the remaining two. A live action production can have several Art Directors under the Production Designer who are responsible for a variety of tasks. The focus of an Art Director can vary from concept creation to the production of sets and costumes. In animation, the top visual seat can be titled either Art Director or Production Designer. It’s only a matter of semantics. In both cases, some of the main responsibilities focus on overall mood and tone of the film through color, light and design (akin to the responsibilities of a live action Production Designer). One of the main contributions of the person holding this title is the color script. A visual color diary of the film that echoes and adds to the narrative. In gaming, these creative titles and roles are still fleshing themselves out. More and more game studios are adding Art Directors to their staff in an effort to get one step closer to usurping film design. Due to the fluidity of these various hierarchies it can take a while to wrap your head around all of the intricacies of who does what; particularly since each project will tend to divide responsibilities differently. I hope this helps you define what role you might be interested in achieving, and perhaps lets you attach a potential title to a career goal.
Digital art direction
As an Art Director in the entertainment industry today, it’s hard, if not impossible, to work on a project that does not contain a digital representation of one of your designs, at least in the Action Adventure or Sci-Fi genres. Established Production Designers are becoming more aware of new digital tools, while up and coming Art Directors will most likely look at digital tools and software as their native media. The fundamental asset of an Art Director or Production Designer is their sense of design. Whether it be for characters, sets, or colors. As you’ve heard before, these new digital tools are still nothing more than new digital tools. They don’t teach or improve design. For me, the only poignant aspect of this entire “digital revolution” is this: I don’t have to be an accomplished user of any of these new tools, but I do need to understand their potential. When this happens, my designs will be uninhibited. 2D to 3D disconnect If there is a hurdle in the design processes of creating content for the entertainment industry it would be the disconnect between a 2D concept and its 3D counterpart. The translation from 2D to 3D is rarely direct. The more stylized the design intentions become the more difficult the translation can be. Part of the difficulty lies in the fact that the stylization often happens in a 2D medium, which has many different properties and often less limitations than 3D. This has fuelled the rise of 2D-3D collaborative design. Although paper is still the most viable starting point for content creation, Production Designers and Art Directors are turning to 3D at a much earlier stage. A 2D hard-edge or architectural design can now be quickly blocked out in 3D using a variety of software. With the advent of programs like ZBrush and Mudbox this process is even applicable to complex organic shapes. At this stage, a tangential process occurs where the 2D and 3D designs can begin to inform each other. This allows the design to live and evolve in its native world of 3D. When this occurs the creative decisions that are made in 2D are done so with a greater understanding of how they will shape the final 3D product.
Joie de vivre
Working as an Art Director in the fluid industries of feature films and games has afforded me the opportunity to meet many talented artists with different areas of expertise. Just when you’re feeling like you have a good grasp on what is achievable in a specific area of design you meet someone that forces you to re-calibrate your standards. For this reason, I love the project-based nature of these industries. It forces me to evolve as an artist to keep my skill sets viable. I enjoy projects that need to define a global sense of design, from an entirely new world, to a completely different take on an existing genre. It’s great to meet other artists with the same level of desire to create something worthwhile. Working with these types of teams on great projects is where my current interests lie.
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