Ben Mauro is an exceptional concept designer and digital sculptor with some of the biggest film and game credits to his name. His first taste of the industry was when he studied industrial design and entertainment design at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. After graduation he worked as a freelancer for various clients including LucasFilm, Rhythm & Hues, Activision, Universal Pictures, Sony Pictures Animation, and Insomniac Games. In 2009, he moved to Wellington, New Zealand where he worked at Weta Workshop. Over the four years there he contributed to an astonishing amount of Film, Television and Videogame projects such as The Hobbit Trilogy and Elysium. His latest project is working alongside The Fifth Element’s Luc Besson, on the highly anticipated Valerian.

CGSociety chatted with him about his creative journey.

Designs for ELYSIUM


Firstly, let’s go way back. Where were you born and raised? Where are you now? What sparked your interest in art?

I was born and raised in Rochester Hills, Michigan USA. Right now I am traveling the world, I sort of move around every couple weeks, currently I am in Greece near the Acropolis, next week I will be in Italy again then the next week somewhere else. :)  I guess I am trying to make up for lost time sitting at a desk for so many years and just want to see the world for a while and soak it all in. 

Playing a lot of video games is what I think got me most interested in art, I really wanted to be a level designer for games like Halo or Unreal Tournament type of games I played a lot in high school. I really loved the worlds they created and the architecture. I thought that would be a fun job to do. After going out to Seattle for school to do just that for a 3D animation course I decided I was more interested in the design side of things, the actual designing and building of the worlds which meant I needed a different set of skills. This lead me to switch schools and move to Pasadena California to attend Art Center College of Design to study industrial design. 

Orangutan demo from class. Sculpts here

Designs for ELYSIUM

You have influenced a lot of upcoming artists, who are your inspirations?

It is weird to think about that as I am still learning and growing myself! Early on I was inspired a lot by people like Syd Mead, I remember buying a book of his Oblagon in high school, it was way over my head what he was doing technically and creatively but the incredible draftsmanship always stuck in my mind as something to aim for. Even now his work is still rarely matched by digital artists (and he was using Gouache paint!). Aside from that a lot of Japanese and French artists were really inspiring to me, guys like Moebius and Otomo/Shirow/Terada really influenced me when I was in school trying to find things that resonated with me as I learned. 

Images done for Neill Blomkamp's CHAPPIE

You’ve worked on some of the biggest movies in modern times, what do you regard as your big break into the industry?

I don't know if there was any big ‘break’ per se. Going to Art Center, all of your instructors are working professionals, so in the later terms if you did well in a class your instructors would just ask you to help out on whatever film/game they were working on. Scott Robertson was my instructor for my ID foundation and that's what led to me working on books like Alien Race with him over summer internships, it really wasn’t a very difficult transition (other than you working really hard and being a nice person to be around). I also took classes at a school called the Concept Design Academy in Pasadena to learn more, again all the instructors and many of the students are working professionals so you almost have to try really hard NOT to get a job when everything is right there. 

What movie from the past do you wish you could have worked on? (It could be from the 30s or last year)

Well there are many classics like Bladerunner, Alien/Aliens, 2001: A Space Odyssey of course but I think the most recent film that I really wish I could have been a part of would be Interstellar, to me that was a huge achievement of filmmaking and storytelling, not necessarily because of some massive future world created like some of the earlier films I mentioned but because of the feelings it evoked in me. Watching that film was a very humbling experience, it shows our place as humans in the universe and the possible struggles we may face in the future, after watching it I just had to sit down and think about life and existence for a while. As a viewer it also took me places I have always wanted to see, especially later in the film where I literally could not believe what I was seeing as they went further and further down the rabbit hole…which is an extremely rare experience for me! I had a lot of friends that didn’t like it or picked it apart for little things but that wasn’t the point of the film to me, it was  a true masterpiece in my book and the type of project I hope I get the chance to work on someday. 

You studied Industrial Design at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. Do you think you would have achieved as much as you have without this education? 

I think having an industrial design foundation is essential to being a designer in our industry as it teaches you how to draw and render forms accurately from imagination, which is our job in a nutshell. When I was starting there were very few places to learn this information other than Art Center, but now Scott Robertson has put a lot of the information into his fantastic books How to Draw and How to Render so it’s much more widely available for a fraction of the cost of school (but you still have to put in the 10,000 hours of work to learn it of course!)

LYCON - Transcend

How has the industry changed since you first started?

Well the information and training needed to get a job is much more widely available now which is great for students all over the world, so peoples’ futures are in their own hands, which is really cool. If you want the job you just have to put in the hours to attain the skill. Also everything is much more connected now which makes it an amazing time to be working in our industry; when I started the only way to work in games and films was going in-house at the studio, but now all you need is the internet and a laptop and you can really work from anywhere in the world (which is what I have been doing for the last year or so while I travel), you can hop on Skype to talk with the director or whoever, so you can really live the life you want while working on the projects you want, which is sort of what I hoped I could do when I was in college.

You worked on The Hobbit and Elysium during your four years at Weta. Can you tell us more about what it was like to work on those blockbusters?

It was a really good learning experience, I feel like those four years completed my education and then it was time to go off on my own and be independent (which I have been doing since then).

Can you tell us a little about your process? How do you start a project? For example, your work on the Wargs on The Hobbit?

Each project can be very different but in general things usually work from general to specific when solving problems for clients. For the Wargs there were dozens of images done for them over the years on the project by some of the other artists, the current one that Peter liked was one that Gus Hunter had been putting into his illustrations that I had to then bring to life in 3D. It was a lot of back and forth, again general to specific so I mocked up something similar to the illustration which looked a bit closer to the ones seen in Lord of the Rings if I remember correctly. I did a range of designs from the more hyena-looking creature and more of a wolf looking creature. Then getting feedback from Peter wanting to make it more like a wolf but a bit more stylized and theatrical, he used the demon from Legend as an example, so I went back and again did a range of options exploring the idea and he picked the one he wanted and the work was handed off to Weta Digital to do their magic.

Warg designs from Hobbit.Full development and story here

Final WARG sculpt seen in the film. Full development and story of the wargs here

You are in Europe at the moment, and lived in New Zealand for four years. Do you think travelling has helped your art?

I didn’t travel much when I was younger but I think it is hugely important as an artist to travel and see the world, let it soak in and affect you and the way you think about life and your work. Sitting in an office looking at photos on Google is not the same as getting out in the world and having life experiences and seeing things in person. For me it’s just the best way to build my visual library and a depth of life experiences to draw from to make my work more unique, so a year or so ago I sold all my belongings and have been living out of a suitcase while I travel the world with my girlfriend. 

Do you have any personal projects you are working on?

There is a graphic novel I have wanted to make for about a year now, some of it is finished and most of it is sketched out, whenever Valerian is finished I will be taking time off to work on that full time and finish it. 

I understand that you are a very keen photographer. How do you think that helps you in your profession?

I think understanding how a camera/lens works helps you understand film much more. It helps the way I compose images, tone/mood, the way I think about light as I understand how the camera sees the world and also helps me see details in much more clarity when I’m shooting my own reference and study further later on. I would definitely recommend getting a decent camera and starting to explore the world a bit more. 

Is there a big difference between working in games and films?

As far as lifestyle goes working in games is a much more fun experience for me and game studios tend to take care of their employees really well; you still have to work hard of course, but it’s easier to have a life/family since the production cycles are much longer than film in most cases. Working in film is much more stressful/unstable in my experience and the studios usually are pretty bad about taking care of employees (not all of them of course!) Deadlines are usually tight and everything is 'due yesterday’ so it’s something I am more wary about working on unless the project is really different and worth the stress, otherwise I would rather work on games and enjoy life. 

Talking of something different, you are currently working on Luc Besson’s Valerian. Can you tell us anything about that project? :)

It’s going to be awesome! :)

Thanks Ben Mauro for being so generous with your time! I eagerly await seeing your wizardry at work in Valerian.