Bobby Chiu is a force of nature. He’s been dominating the digital art scene for a couple decades, starting his career at the age of 17 designing toys for Star Wars and Pixar. Bobby went on to develop characters for Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, Men in Black 3 and next year’s blockbuster, Alice Through the Looking Glass. He is also generous with both his incredible talent and precious time, by providing sensational tips and tutorial on his Youtube channel and the school he founded, Schoolism. CGSociety is proud to present this interview with a true illustration master: Bobby Chiu.
Let’s go way back. Where were your born and raised? What was young Bobby like? Where are you now? What sparked your interest in digital art? What inspired you to become a Character Designer?
I was born in Taipei, Taiwan. My family came to Canada when I was about two years old. As a kid, I didn't talk very much. In fact, my parents were concerned that I would have problems with communication. That's why they're so surprised now that I do so much public speaking. I still live in Toronto, Canada, although I spend a good deal of my year traveling.
I started dabbling with digital art a little over 20 years ago with Adobe Photoshop 2 and Illustrator 1. At the time, I was working for Thinkway Toys, a company that makes toys for big license movie franchises like Toy Story, Star Wars, and Batman. That experience was what really got me interested in working in the movies. I thought, if I could ever design a character as memorable as Yoda, that would be a dream come true.
Ten years ago, I started Imaginism Studios in Toronto with my brother Ben Chiu and my girlfriend (now my wife), Kei Acedera. We do mainly character designs for films and dabble a bit in television, games, and publishing. We both love traditional drawing and painting. However, most of our work is done digitally because digital work is easier and faster to revise and much more readily and quickly shareable with our clients who are usually based in a different country.
What are some of the projects you have worked on / clients or studios you’ve worked with?
My studio has been around for over 10 years now and we've been fortunate enough to have worked with many of the big studios, such as Disney, DreamWorks, Warner Bros., Blue Sky, EA, Blizzard, Riot Games, among others.
My favorite projects that I've worked on are Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, Men in Black 3, League of Legends, and the upcoming Alice Through the Looking Glass (May 2016).
You started out using traditional methods, can you tell us about how and why you moved to digital?
As funny as it sounds, when making art using personal computers started to get popular, I was completely uninterested. Working at Thinkway Toys when I was 17 completely changed the arc of my career. We used computers to do art for that job. Just to give the current generation a bit of context: Photoshop and Illustrator were still quite new back. Tablets hadn't become commonplace yet so we did all the digital artwork with a mouse. Nevertheless, learning to make and love digital media changed my life.
That's easy. My favorite subjects are things that are whimsical or fantastical, especially if they are creatures. I've always gravitated towards interesting animals and have always been fascinated with creating creatures that could feel real. I guess that's how I found myself working in live-action and CG movies.
Is there a character design you are most proud of?
My favorite character that I've designed is actually an illustration for ImagineFX magazine that I called the Big Bad Bunny Eater. That one's probably my favorite because I just really love the idea of a fearsome monster that uses cute camouflage to hunt.
Big Bad Bunny Eater
What movie and/or game from the past do you wish you had worked on and why?
I would have to say the most obvious answer: Star Wars. I would also say E.T. the Extraterrestrial and Super Mario Bros., simply because these were the things that impacted me most growing up. I think that’s ultimately every character designer’s goal: to work on something that is impactful and which will be remembered and become part of our pop culture.
Can you tell us a little about your process? For instance, the above image (Pug).
How I start a project changes all the time but here is one of the common procedures that I'll use: I start off with the drawing, which in this case is a pug drawn on recycled paper with a ball point pen.
Next I sketch in a simple background. After that, I block in the different elements. Of course, in this image, it's just the pug.
After that, I vary the saturation before I get into the values. You can see I'm looking to add in more saturation where there are concentrations of folds on the pug.
Next is to lay down the base tones for the dark ears, eyes, and muzzle.
After that, it’s all about refining so in this image I am adding more light values and detailing some of the dark areas with an even darker tone.
At this stage I zoom in a bit more and use a smaller brush to work in details.
My last stage of detail involves putting the painting down for a bit, taking a break, and coming back with fresh eyes and making last minute adjustments.
Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting, that you can tell us about?
My most exciting project is one that I'm working on right now but unfortunately I can't say anything about it until a little later. But I had the privilege of working on the character designs for Disney's Alice Through the Looking Glass coming out at the end of May 2016.
The most exciting things in my life right now are traveling the world doing workshops and meeting fellow artists. Another thing that I love to do is “ChiuStream”, which are live broadcast drawing sessions during which I give everybody an art exercise to do and we all do art together.
For the beginners, concentrate on fundamentals and gather as much knowledge as you can about anatomy. Learn how we see the world and how different people and animals live. Structure is the foundation upon which the fundamentals of character design are built. Don't worry about finding your style in the beginning, just look to gather knowledge. The style will come on its own.
For professionals, in the end it's all about a great idea that will work best to deliver a great story that connects with the audience. In the end it's all about the emotional impact and showing a visual representation of the director's vision, hopefully enhanced a bit with your own creative touch.
What would be your main advice to someone who wants to start a career in digital art?
Art is something that doesn't depend on big muscles or a pretty face; it depends on how much you work on your craft and how much you're learning. Always keep learning. Art evolves so quickly, if you stop trying to evolve with it, that's the moment you start to fall behind. Buy books, watch videos, take a class or two. Do everything in your power to be better and more knowledgeable today than you were yesterday.
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