Greg Semkow talks about his project "ETERNAL"
Greg Semkow is a freelance concept artist and world creator.
We talked about his upcoming IP launching with a narrative artbook this September, “ETERNAL”, and how thinking globally helped him launch a career in entertainment design.
Me: I'm interested in learning about different artists experiences, particularly around their creative process. How are they drawing their inspiration? How are they following their intuitive hits?
Greg, how has that played out in helping you advance your career to where it's gotten already?
GS: The majority of my work is environment design and key frame illustration.
For example, making a particular scene from a script, or an important moment in a video game that developers want to pitch to demonstrate what gameplay could potentially look like.
Last year especially, I’ve been doing more characters than usual. When you design a character in a key frame you have to design the environment as well as a character, maybe a vehicle, etc. and put it all together in that moment.
Those tend to be the most work, and the designs need to be established for all those different elements.
You end up doing a little bit of everything.
Are you familiar with Game Informer? It's the biggest old school paper magazine for gaming. It’s been around since the early 90s. I did five different covers for their 300th issue, which was a lot of fun.
They wanted some images reminiscent of old school video game covers from the early 80s.
I also do covers for a company called Evolving Sound that makes music for movie trailers; a lot of Hollywood stuff. Every month or so they come out with a new album and they want a movie poster type cover for each album. They’re pretty cool to work with.
Me: That's super fun.
GS: Oh yeah! So, I get to do a little bit of everything.
Me: How did you find yourself in environments? Was it something that you chose, or did it choose you?
GS: It evolved in its own way.
I didn’t start doing concept work full-time until I was thirty-four or thirty-five. And I just turned 40. It’s been going well!
When I was a teenager, I wanted to do comics. That's what I wanted to do. But when I was in college, I got really big into fitness and lifting and working out. So, after school I got into personal training and corporate fitness and I did that for a while until one day, I just woke up and I decided I was miserable, and I knew I had to be an artist.
I don’t know why. Something just flipped a switch my brain, and I quit what I was doing. I was managing a fitness center in Manhattan for Morgan Stanley.
About 3 1/2 years ago moved down to North Carolina. I started pursuing comics but as I was doing that I discovered digital art and the Cintiq monitor. It's basically a monitor you put your hand on and draw on.
Once I got one of those it opened up the whole digital world to me, because I just couldn’t make the mental connections with a tablet.
I hated using it and I shied away from using the digital stuff. But using the Cintiq, I felt like I was actually drawing on paper almost. That really opened it up to me.
I taught myself photoshop and some 3D software, and worked for about nine years training part-time, learning all the digital stuff, taking small jobs to build up enough of a portfolio to go full-time.
It wasn't easy, especially getting married and starting a family. It was a struggle for a few years there but once I broke in around 2014, I cut the cord with fitness and just went full-time doing art.
I’m doing better doing art than I ever did in the fitness world. With video games
it's becoming more and more accepted to work remotely. That's been a huge benefit for me being in North Carolina. I’m close to many of the studios here, like Ubisoft Red Storm.
I was naturally drawn to doing environments, I generally liked designing whole worlds mores than isolated stuff like characters or props. Environments also tended to be my best work, so that’s what I would get hired for initially and helped me break into the industry.
Me: I’d like to talk about what makes you think about environments and about your work as a whole.
What is different in your thinking that makes you consider everything? And why do you like that more?
GS: I like escapism. I like going to movies. I like creating sci-fi and fantasy worlds and seeing the world as a whole. I want to create something that doesn't exist. To mentally escape into a world I created is just a lot of fun.
I’m also working on a personal project, and original IP I created along with my childhood buddy Jason Micciche, who’s writing the story. Its an art book of course, but also with a detailed story.
When I was designing it, before I could get to the characters and vehicles and creatures, I had a lot of world stuff to get a hold on. I had to understand what the world was before I got down to the details. That's how I think.
Some guys are just naturally good at making believable poses, and I find that harder to do. But I must be getting better because I get hired for that sometimes. That’s a good barometer for how much I have improved. (laughter)
Me: I love that you think globally.
GS: There's so many things to consider and I enjoy that! If I don't have details in the brief of a character I make it up myself a little bit just to add more to the character’s personality. People tend to like it as long as you don’t let them take over the design ideas from the world around them.
The same thing goes for vehicles. A cool satellite truck, I need to know the terrain it operates in. That’s why I like to do the world first and kind of work my way down.
The majority of the book I'm working on is key frames.
It's designing elements of the world from characters to vehicles to creatures. I create the assets and then they’re already designed to place in the scenes.
Most of the time I do it backwards. I've used 3D programs like ZBrush to build my initial ideas. Then I pose them at the angle I want and render it to bring it to life.
Me: that's awesome.
GS: I'll sketch stuff early on to get the design worked out before I do it in ZBrush. Before I sculpt the character I'll just do rough drawings mainly for myself.
My wife looks at it like it's all just scribbles, but I know where I'm going!
Once you have it in 3D it’s like an action figure I can pose and put in a scene and not have to redraw it a million times.
Me: It's a different medium. You're sculpting and setting a scene that's almost like a diorama but it's in the computer.
GS: My father was in advertising in New York when I was a kid and he had a hard time getting his mind around that what I do actually is art. It's just different because it’s digital.
Me: But you're making something new. If it was going to work with just a photograph, you would take a photograph and be done.
GS: Exactly. I realize I might use a photograph or bits and pieces of it but I'm still creating something that doesn't exist. There’s more to it than just grabbing crap off the internet. If it was that easy, I wouldn't have a job. But most of the things I create don't exist in the real world.
Me: So where do you gather the most references and inspiration?
GS: For references, of course, I pull stuff off the Internet. I try not to use Google that much. Pinterest is good.
For reference, there's a couple of websites especially for landscapes like Photobash.org. And there are other stock photo sites like textures.com that help gather filler that are critical to the design ideas.
If it's for an environment project I might look at real-world environments to get an idea for design elements. It might sound weird, but I’ve looked at kitchen utensils for vehicle design inspiration. Because it was an odd shape, it might give you an idea for something new as opposed to just looking at other actual vehicles.
So I'll try to find little tricks like that which a lot of artists do, but a lot of it is also just sketching different shapes.
Me: I love that.
GS: It’s good to start with different shapes before you worry about any kind of details to get unique silhouettes and see how that's going to look with the lighting. Because that's what you see first.
Sometimes we're sold on the details, but we should just experiment with shape and try getting all the crap out of our heads first. People tend to do what they know automatically. Once I spend the day just flushing out all that stuff, I find I get more unique ideas.
Sometimes what I think is cool isn’t what my client thinks is cool. That's one thing about being professional concept artist. It’s not just doing what I want, it’s capturing what somebody else wants which is the hardest part of the job.
Me: Absolutely. Well it's always fun to do what we want, and I enjoy doing that for myself as well.
But after I've played with that for a week or whatever it falls short if I haven't shown someone else or they're not getting anything out of it. If I make it just for myself, I can only take it so far, and it's through getting feedback from other people that helps me push my art or make it better. I think we instinctively feel that.
GS: Completely. Even when I’m doing client work, I have to enjoy it too. But it’s good to get someone else's perspective on something too. If you want to have a career obviously you have to get that feedback. It helps to get it from other artists.
Me: I'm curious about personal work vs. client work. Do you do a lot of personal work or do you find that almost all of your time is in concept work?
GS: It's definitely a struggle. When I'm loaded up with work there isn't much time for personal stuff.
For a good year or two, I didn’t have a lot of time for my personal work, especially with my family growing. It’s hard to make time for personal art, but over the last two years, I made a point to make time.
Even if it's staying up late or working on the weekends if I can I do that I will. Because ultimately, I would like to have a career where I'm doing just my personal stuff.
I'm working on my own property now which I should get on Indiegogo in September of this year.
It's going to be a decent-sized art book of its own world. (It’s created jointly with my childhood best friend Jason Micciche.) We're going to publish and then shop around for a game spin-off, cartoon series, or even a toyline.
That’s a long shot, but it's the kind of thing we'll never know until we try.
We also have ideas for board games and a whole load of books we want to publish and get out there.
I love working on games and movies, but I want at some point to at least try and make a career out of doing my own ideas and see if it's even possible.
We’ve been working on this since fall 2016. It'll be about three years in when we get on Indiegogo and we keep making a bigger and bigger.
We decided the game plan right now is to break the book up into two parts and publish the first part this year and then the second half the story about a year later. We'll see how it goes.
Me: I love it! Tell me about how you work with Kickstarter to promote something like this.How do you start that process?
Do you already know how you're going to set up your page and how you're going to crowdfund it? Did they give you like a series of things that you have to do, or do you just wing it?
GS: We've been researching for a little while. They don't really tell you what you have to do. But we've been looking at how people are going about getting their books funded. Obviously, you have to start promoting it a couple of months before you launch the campaign. We will build up to it with a little mini-trailer for the campaign. The first half will be generally telling what the story is about, and the second half of the video will speak about what we want to do with it.
We grew up in the 80s. So we want to go back to that old-school sci-fi action feel and build our world in that genre with a little modernization.
Our first one is a cross between a Mad Max situation on another planet in a post-apocalyptic world, with ruins that are inspired by Conan the Barbarian fantasy worlds. And how human colonies that are exploring the world have fallen into a survival situation.
There’s warring factions, ancient alien secrets mixed into it...
For the Indiegogo, we will showcase some art, share the ideas behind the story, and provide different tiers people can contribute at with different prints available.
We’ll also share a lot about the world. We want people to know there’s more about the world that you don’t see in the story. There’s potential for a lot more – a series, a spin-off, a board game, a base for creating their own stories that take place in the world. It could be the base for an RPG.
We have a lot of ideas that we've had for years and kept coming up with excuses about why we couldn’t do them, but now we are going to give it a try and do it all.
We’re carving out the the time to make it happen.
Me: Tell me about the first conversation you had with your friend that made you decide you were going to make this book.
GS: My best friend since I was about 10 years old or so, Jason Micciche, and I had been talking about doing this for a long time. In 2016 we saw a couple of books come out like what we had been discussing. And they weren’t anything that we couldn’t do. So, we thought, we can totally do this.
We just had to make the decision to actually carve out the time to do it, and finally decided to just go for it. We had a lot of different ideas about what we wanted to do, and we chose the one we thought had the a lot possibilities for developing into other things like games, and toys.
We wanted to create a world where you could have an unlimited number of stories completely unrelated to the book we're working on.
That's the reason we want to do this one first.
Me: I think a lot a lot of things in life come down to - Are you willing to take the action or are you just going to think about it and let someone else do it?
It's exciting when you finally realize, s#!t, I'm the only one standing in my way here! Like, if I see that it's a skill that I have and I have the opportunity to get on Kickstarter, why not? All I have to do is learn how to post it.
I'm really excited for you.
GS: Yeah. That was a huge part of it.
Once we started looking into the logistics of how to do it we found a really cool printer that does books and board games. I got samples and they are really high-end quality work. What it came down to really was just a decision between us to carve out time to make it happen.
Me: What is the emotion that you want people to feel when they open that book?
GS: The first one is a sense of wonder and mystery about the universe. The nature of the universe and what secrets it has that we can't possibly comprehend fascinates me.
This is why we wanted to set the story in a world once that hosted an advanced, yet extremely ancient civilization, and at the time the story is set, now looks like the ruins of a Barbarian fantasy world. It really holds all sorts of power and mysteries. They had high technology but, just not in the way we think of it.
The ancients in our story knew how to harness natural forces the universe, like zero-point energy, in ways we don’t understand.
There are also themes about immortality and how that affects somebody's mental state, thinking they're godlike and how that might corrupt people or change them, for better or worse. Did it potentially ruin a once utopian civilization? That’s one of the big themes of the book.
Me: I love this so much. I love that it's exploring human nature, it's exploring natural forces. I like that you're adding this element of mystery and human struggle. What does it mean to be human? You have a lot to explore.
GS: It has a lot of action too, of course, battles, fight scenes, giant creatures, ancient death traps, all the fun stuff.
We grew up in the eighties, and were definitely inspired by a lot of our favorites from that time, Aliens, Mad Max, Conan, Masters of the Universe…
Me: I think that's where creativity lies. It’s part it's the process. You can take control over the trajectory of your artwork and to be able to say, “I have this thing that I want to explore and there's possibilities for me to get it out there and I'm not limited by waiting for someone to raise their hand and say, hey you know what - I want you, Greg, to make this book for me.”
No one's ever going just show up out of nowhere and tell you to make the thing. You have to hear that calling card and raise your hand and say, “I'm going to do it.” It's a calling from the universe and not someone physical getting on the phone calling you.
GS: With the way crowdfunding is now it makes it possible to give this a real shot. I don't know if I'll get to a point where I could make enough money just to get work on my own properties full-time, but that's ultimately my goal. And we feel this is a first step towards that.
Me: I can't wait to see a little snippet of what that world looks like!
You can follow the pre-launch of Greg Semkow's Kickstarter for ETERNAL and give feedback that will help shape the final form of the project by following Greg’s personal social media: