Like most of us working in the industry, I always enjoyed drawing and creating since before I can remember. It was just something I did. So I grew up drawing super heroes, robots, and space ships. Most of my early art interest was comics and Star Wars. I didn't really understand it at the time, but that is what shaped my interest in art the most.
I read a lot of comics, but my first exposure to concept art was like many my age, the Star Wars art books! I must have been around seven and in a small book store in the mall in the 80s flipping through them in amazement. McQuarrie's work was like nothing I had ever seen before. My seven year old mind could not even comprehend what I was looking at. I mean, it was Star Wars, but not exactly as it was seen in the films or the toys I played with. It was ideas and revisions for this world I thought I knew. But here were all these images of Han or Luke that were slightly different, or at times drastically different.
Besides this amazing art, what stuck with me was the idea that there could be different designs, different ideas for these iconic characters and worlds. I continued to see flashes of concept art in Starlog or the few art books on films after.
Even though I was exposed to concept art, when I hit my teens, I was way deep into comics... both reading and drawing them! I was drawing maybe a page a day, sometimes two, for most of my teen years. This is what I decided I wanted to do! Storytelling with drawings! I was that chubby kid walking around comic conventions with a big beat-down portfolio, ink-stained hand with the black magic under my nails, showing my work and getting crits from whoever would take a gander. It was grueling on my ego at that young age. I would spend a month drawing 30 new pages of art, only to be crushed by industry pros and editors. This went on for years! It was a good learning experience in its own way. Doing this month after month, year after year gives you a thick skin. It also pushed me harder to get better at my craft.
Finally, in my senior year of high school, I had to decide what I was going to do. Now, I grew up pretty poor, and it sucked. I knew I wasn't able to get work as an artist of course. I thought maybe I could use some formal training at an art school. And here was my big decision - Do I take the gamble on going to art school or go and get a "proper education"? In my senior year, besides drawing comics like crazy, I concocted my back up plan. I was looking into being a pharmacist of all things. The path looked pretty doable for me and I knew I would have a job after school. The art thing was shady. Even when I visited my art school, I felt like it was a scam. Really, they are going to train me to be a "working" artist?
I could have easily chosen the path of Eddie Del Rio, pharmacist, and I almost did. I mean, I didn't want to be poor anymore, and I was the first from my family to actually have the ability to go to any kind of college.
But what really decided my fate was my mom. She saw all the those years of me working hard with art, saw the blood, sweat and tears as I pushed hard on creating. She always saw the creativity in me. She was the one who pushed me to art school.
So I ended up going to art school, still hell bent on making comics! At least I was for the first two years. As I got better and talked to more professionals in comics, I found out a heart breaking lesson. Most comic artists hardly make ends meet. Most were living in poverty, or they do it as a second income. I had two years of college debt and was heading towards a career that could hardly sustain me, more or less pay back my loans. And my classes at the art school were a joke. It was all wildlife illustrations, or editorial. Something had to change. Instead of dropping out of art school I chose to stay on for another year, but this time I would focus on concept art. I mean, I always followed it the best I could and always kept an interest in it. There was not much in those days.
The problem was, no one in the school had any idea of what that was. This was the 90s, and here was no entertainment design classes at any school at that time.
They were like film? Oh, you want to be an animator? Ok, you need to take some animation classes. I didn't listen to any of them. I took classes that I knew I could Jerry rig the assignments into concept art. I took a wildlife class, but only illustrated aliens and creatures. I took figure drawing and halfway through a clothed figure pose, loaded the person I was drawing with weapons and gear, or maybe added a small creature on their shoulder. The teachers had no idea what to make of me. Some classes straight up failed me. The head of the illustration dept took me aside at one point and made it clear what they were teaching: "Classic illustration" and I needed to get with the program or I was going to "fail". Again, screw'em! I'm in debt, and worried I may have really messed up my future.
One of the big reasons I stayed in art school in my third years was because from time to time, studios would stop by looking for talents. And a game studio did just that. So, I kindly asked my dept head if I could have my portfolio seen by them. The answer was no! Portfolio reviews are for graduating seniors. In other words, they haven't squeezed enough money from me.
I politely nodded and left the dept heads office. I then immediately asked around and found out where portfolios for review were being kept. I snuck into the room and dropped off my book onto the table with the rest of the portfolios of flamingo illustrations and editorial spot illustrations.
So, of course the game studio picked my portfolio. It was full of exactly what they wanted. I soon got a job offer and happily left art school behind.
I worked at several big game studios for most of my early career. At one point I wanted to try feature films. I contacted my friend and fellow concept artist Emmanuel Shiu. He was working with the talented Doug Chiang at a disney studio. I was introduced to Doug and hired shortly after to work on several projects with him.
It was a crazy winding path that eventually brought me to film!
Truly Inspiring! It seems like all of that hard work definitely payed off! As an artist in the film industry how was your process in working on feature films changed throughout the years? And where do you see the industry going?
When I first started it was totally different than today. I was only trained in traditional media in school. Computers were just starting to be used to create art, specifically concept art. It was all pen ink, markers, and gouche.
First day at my first job, I was sat in front of a computer. Someone clicked on the old adobe photoshop icon. One of the old black and white eye with a red box around it. I was told I would be making my art in this. I had no real computer training up until that point. In a matter of weeks I didn't just find it ok compared to traditional, but I really enjoyed the work flow.
Nowadays, it isn't just photoshop, but also having a good understanding of a whole hoist of different packages. Mostly a lot of 3d. Along the way I picked up those skills and find it exciting learning new ways to make images.
But all that aside, the most important arsenal in a concept artist repertoire isn't the software packages he/she knows or has mastered, but just having big ideas! Ideas is what this job is really about. Not someone's style, or what software he used to render a scene, but the content! Ideas is what makes a concept artist.
Okay to switch gears a bit, how did you get your foot in the door to work on Kong: Skull Island, and what did the initial stages of work look like?
The director Jordan Vogt-Roberts assistant contacted me and asked if I was available for a few weeks. A conference call was set up. I spoke with Jordan. He saw something online of mine and wanted to hire me to develop some of his ideas. He had a crazy take on the big monkey and he was super excited about his vision for Kong and I could tell that this would be really fun to work on with this guy. So of course I said yes!
Cool, and what is your process when developing key concepts for the film?
Jordan had a very strong vision for his version of Kong. He had a list of scenes he wanted my take on. Some of those scenes he was very explicit for what he was looking for, others it was kind of up in the air. But we talked about the images he wanted constantly, both through email and phone.
Some were pretty self explanatory - Kong in the distance walking into the mountains group in that binocular view. Others, like "the wall" was kind of up in the air and was not sure what direction to go in. So those were like fishing expedition - Hit or miss.
So back and forth we went for about three weeks, going through and adding to the directors list.
What was your collaboration like with the film's director? Did you work closely with the director to design certain shots for the film?
Absolutely! Big shots in the film like the hero running through a cloud of pink gas and using the samurai sword to cut a path through the flying creatures. That shot was in Jordan's head from day one. Same with Kong approaching out of the mist onto a tiny figure.
These images were clear in his head. And they were very graphic in design and I pushed that even further and gave them an almost "dime store pulp" look to them. It was refreshing after just having things look "real" for so long.
Some not as clear would be the bone field. I knew he wanted the film to have a very Apocalypse Now feel to the work. So I turned up the saturation on the background and made it a mustardy yellow to help the feeling of decay and death. The whole film has that colorful look to it. Kind of refreshing after the stark grey most genre films have out there.
Another shot that was cut from the film is the boat haul. I know Jordan had a very specific look he wanted for that shot. Some things, like Kong being worshiped as a literal king, was just ideas that Jordan was playing with. So I had fun with those.
Towards the end, I worked a bit with the talented production designer Stefan Dechant on a few shots and environments.
All around it was a pleasure working with them both.
What were the average turnaround times for concepts on Kong Skull Island, and does that vary from project to project?
That's a good question. This was very much a blue sky pass on the overall look of the film. I was doing maybe two new concepts a day and maybe a revision or two on the days-previous concepts. So turnaround was quick. It was all about ideas and mood and just seeing what would stick. Sometimes I would get a call from Jordan at 11:00 at night with an idea he wanted to see. I would try and get something together that night and maybe spend an hour or two in the morning to get it to his eyes and see if it was close to what he was thinking. It was all rough around the edges, quick and dirty. But the images where all quick read, bold illustrations.
I'll have to say Godzilla (2014) is a personal favorite film of mine to say the very least! Was it an exiting moment in your career working on that film?
Yea, it was a fun film to work on. I got an email from the PD and wanted to know if I was interested in working on a big sci-if film. It wasn't until signing the NDA that I found out what it was! So I was excited for sure to get a chance to work on a Godzilla flick.
How much did your experiences differ between Kong and Godzilla, and what learning curves did you face in the production of Godzilla that you were able to apply to your work on Kong?
For Godzilla I worked with the production designer Gavin Bocquet, so it was a bit different. Gavin had a good idea of what he wanted for this big pitch meeting that was going to green light the film. The images work. They were very detailed and some of them took maybe five days counting all the revisions. With Kong, it was rough and fast and I was working directly with the director, so his feedback was immediate and it made it a lot easier to hit what he was looking for.
And last but not least, what advice would you give to aspiring artists looking to become a concept artist of feature films like Godzilla (2014) and Kong Skull Island?
In your own work, try things that haven't been done before. It's hard, but you would be surprised how you can rethink how a shape works or how a "world" works. Ideas! Cool and interesting ideas, and it helps if you can show them cinematically. If it's a ship design, what does that ship look like in that world it resides in?
But the most important thing is ideas, storytelling, and creating something that's wholeheartedly your own thing, something that gets people to remember those images. It's tough, but put your spin on a ship. Think how it works, how it cuts through the sky, how engines propel it through space. Be creative! Look at the work that's out there, and forget it. There are probably dozens of people at a given moment making that same old image. You are going to say forget that, turn it on its sides, try it with a totally different palette or a different genre! But make it different, make it unique, make it memorable!!
It's just that easy lol.
Your work will be pushed to the top, and it will be seen by PDs and directors. Soon they will start to contact you.
We would like to thank Eddie Del Rio for taking the time to speak with us! This was extremely inspiring to see the full progression of Eddie as an artist and we truly do wish all the best for Eddie in his future works!