Joshua Kim on Finding the Place You Fit In
Artists can be torn between doing everything well or specializing.
Previsual concept artist Joshua Kim talks about his position in the games and film industries and about finding what inspires you and following that, even to the detriment of acing your classes.
Sometimes keying in on a single style that you love leads to the job of your dreams!
Me: You’re a concept artist for previsualization and production. Could you tell me more about what that is and where you fit into the process?
JK: Early on, before going into production, I directly work with art directors or visual directors. They pass around the stories or story board ideas. They want to see the ideas in drawings or sketches.
I give them ideas of where they could start out from visually. Expressing the director’s environments or the time of day, or color palettes. I visually show them through sketching or painting; that’s pre-vis.
Me: Where would you gather materials to show them what they are describing? Is it a very fast process? Do you sketch and draw, or do you cut and collage?
JK: I usually start out with gathering reference, because you need knowledge in order to paint out something, so I start out finding the stories or the films or books, or whatever is already there because a lot of the stories were referenced from original ideas.
You can find different type of cultures, or different types of stories, or similar types of stories that they already had.
I gather reference, and from that, I use my imagination to create based on the reference and start designing from there.
It depends on what they actually need, too.
But the story always starts out with a character, or they have someone or something that has to be involved. I am talking more about a game or a film-based project right now because that is where I have the most experience.
Me: So, you can pull from other iterations of the game from the past or pick up from the stories that have been written that lead into the film.
JK: Right, yes.
Me: I saw that you wrote that some design principles like Less is More, and Form Follows Function influence you in design. Can you tell me more about that? How does that play out?
JK: I graduated in 2005 from the Art Center and it was a design-focused school.
Going into that school I had no idea about German architecture or environments design, or transportation design or IT. I knew it was surrounding us, but it wasn’t a term that I used to get interested in. A lot of new subjects came into my head then.
About German architecture… One of my professors said, Less is More, and he had all these ideas about how architecture is used in life and it was very refreshing. At the time I had been only looking at animations. Disney animations, Japanese mangas, and things like that.
And this guy was talking about how the form could interact with humans and how it helps our living lifestyle, and it influences people to create something greater, like an entire landscape of buildings. And that influenced me to do architecture designs.
From then on, I looked up a lot of different architectures of many cultures around the world. Japanese architecture or Asian architecture, in general, has its purpose and reason to build it in their own way. Unlike European castles or modern architecture, they have their purpose, and that was really interesting because they were constructed differently for a reason.
And space, the idea of using space in that design theory, had foundations – the origin theory was already there. Reusing the idea to create something new was very fascinating.
Going to Art Center was a big influence on me because I never would have been exposed to design if I hadn’t gone to that school.
That is already 14 years ago. And looking back, animations and the products that are already made are all influenced by the things that are surrounding us.
Me: I see that you make these sweeping environments that they have this strong architectural element in them. Have you traveled or are you mostly gathering your reference through the internet, or books or film?
JK: I like taking photos. I like taking textures or landscape photos because I used to go out and do landscape paintings, going out painting and coming back late.
But after I started working digitally it got so much faster and easier, so I started focusing more on photography. How people capture one shot of things that have everything in it.
I started looking at a lot of modern photography, too. And that influenced me to see light in a different way.
I like traveling, and when I do travel, I take a lot of pictures. But people I’m making connections with, and the people I was hanging out with, like my wife – she didn’t like it. When we were traveling and I was interested in landscapes and stuff, she wasn’t happy with it. (laughter)
Me: I get that! So, you say that your designs start with a character. Do you build an environment around person or a character that is going to be featured? Or do you work on the environment and let that influence your character?
JK: Some of the projects I work on the character was already there, already distinguished. If the character was an adventurer or he had to go to certain locations to look for some things, then I would have to design the environments first, because the character was already there.
But behind all the visuals, the story was already there too, so I had to describe how people could be more visually interested in certain environments.
Me: When you get an assignment, what is the first thing that you do? How do you flow through the project if something showed up in your inbox today?
JK: I would gather reference and design out the basic shapes and forms and ideas. Like, if the story said the time of day was daytime, I would do lighting studies first with basic shapes. And from that, I would gather reference based on the story. I try to get a lot of ideas in my head first, then refine and work from there.
Drawing and painting, of course, I do that, but it is so much easier when you have a lot more knowledge behind it to back up your technique and skill.
Me: When would you consider a piece finished? When would your director consider what you’ve given to be a complete project?
JK: Let’s say I am an artist in the studio and the director or my coworkers are telling me that they need some piece by the end of the week, then I start with a very rough painting or drawing and start showing it to them, to show them what direction I am going in.
They approve it and give me feedback, and then I go from there.
I could finish a painting in a day but then I go through revisions. Day one, try the lighting in a different setting. And day two, I try a different palette. But these kinds of things I would start slowly.
I would show them a small comp. I can always refine some images, so I would do very rough comps and show them, then they pick one and I develop that more.
Me: I noticed when I went through your website that your personal work seems to be adding more characters into the environments and that you are sometimes getting inspiration from Korean folklore and stuff you heard about as a kid.
What are some favorite pet projects that you’ve worked on?
JK: So that’s my personal work, and at that time I was very interested in looking at children’s books, and I wanted to do something different from what I was doing.
I was always doing something realistic and modern, and working on edgy environments, but then I went to this restaurant and it had its culture’s ideas represented using their food. This was a Chinese restaurant, and it had paintings, and the surrounding of the restaurant was sculpted into dragons.
One of the dragons was based on a children’s book I had read as a kid, and I thought the idea was interesting, so I started looking up books I had read as a child.
That was one of the Korean books I read, and I chose to develop it into a concept painting.
Me: What would you say that an artist needs to have in their portfolio to stand out in today’s market?
JK: It really depends on the field that you are going into, or the studio that you really want to get into, or the projects that you are interested in. You have to match the style. I think that’s the keyword: match your focus.
For instance, Blizzard Entertainment: you would have to do a similar style as Diablo or whatever they were working on and show them you can do this type of work.
Because there are so many different types of styles and different designs out there. Say if you were doing something very different from Diablo, they won’t like it or pick it up.
You have to show them that you can work in their particular style.
Me: I think that saves you a lot of heartaches, too. If you know what you like to do, you should find the companies that do what you like to do.
JK: Yes. Another thing I would like to say is that I had a friend who was doing really bad in school and he had this one style that he really liked. And he was really focusing on what he was doing, on what he enjoyed doing.
And now he is an art director at Blizzard.
Me: There you go!
JK: Yeah! So, he was just focusing on that style for years, and that is what he enjoyed the most. Whatever they were doing, that was his stuff, and he was the first to get referenced from Blizzard.
They loved him. And now he’s an art director there!
But other studios weren’t interested in him because they weren’t into that style.
Me: You can certainly take that as a nugget of advice and think, there’s something that I am really good at and there is someone out there that wants me and wants what I do. I don’t need everyone, I just need to find the one place that I fit.
Me: So I’d like to end by asking, what’s a dream project that you would love to be chosen for, and why?
JK: As a kid, I saw a lot of science fiction films, and projects like Bladerunner or Aliens. That was a big influence on me. Even right now, that’s what I am trying to get into. The major film industry.
And from now on I should work on more on a film project idea. Independent film or whatever is popular right now; I should try to match with that.
Marvel Universe is getting really popular right now, and I do have some friends in that industry.
I am trying to become a full-time studio artist because currently, I’m freelancing. So many projects going on. A lot of it is mobile, but I would like to get full-time into the film industry in a studio.
Me: I hope that you find that and really click in with the studio that fits your vibe. That’s great! I wish you the best!
Following your heart and developing your signature style might come easily to you or it might not - sometimes we think we have to do EVERYTHING in order to make art work for us.
But the truth is usually somewhere in the middle - finding the thing you are great at and you enjoy, then finding ways to enhance and cultivate that in a way that grows your experience, enjoyment and career, too.
If you are ready to explore how to step into your own truth in a way that feels authentic and helps move your life and career forward in a big way - let's talk.
I'd love to support you in the energetic and emotional shifts you need to make to embrace life your way. Schedule a free consultation call at your convenience, and together we'll map out your next steps toward creative freedom.