Friday, April 24, 2009

Concept Designer James Clyne Talks "Avatar" & "Battle Angel"!!

Hi everyone, Michael here.  We are very proud to have the opportunity to talk to concept/production designer James Clyne about his experiences working on James Cameron's Avatar and Battle Angel!

Clyne's paintings are like an adrenaline kick to the imagination.  They invoke a sense of childlike wonder and limitless possibility and, well, awesomeness.  His portrayals of alien worlds, futuristic cityscapes, and fantastic characters are rendered at a level of detail and have a sense of scope that define the word "epic."  Indeed, Clyne's resume reads like a list of the biggest and most iconic imagery seen in the past decade of motion pictures: from the drowned ruins of an amusement park from Spielberg's AI to the Trojan Horse of Wolfgang Peterson's Troy to the vertical highways of Minority Report to enormous tripods laying fiery waste to the landscape to Megatron frozen in ice, Clyne's designs have become woven into the fabric of popular culture worldwide.

Given this history, Clyne's collaboration with James Cameron on Avatar and Battle Angel strikes me as one of the most exciting pairings of visionaries I can imagine.  I absolutely cannot wait to see the designs James has come up with for these movies.  One thing is for sure, however-whatever he has come up with is sure to kindle the imagination of the world and push the limits of movie imagery beyond our wildest dreams.

(note: the examples of Clyne's work interspersed throughout this article are unrelated to his work on the Cameron movies.  Click on them for bigger versions)

Michael: James Cameron is an artist himself. On either or both both of these projects (Avatar and Battle Angel), did he often come to you with designs already on paper? Does the fact that he draws and knows so much about technology lead to a more collaborative relationship between director and designer?

James Clyne: Surprisingly Jim didn't provide much feedback drawing wise as far as Avatar and Battle Angel were concerned. Most of Jim's feedback was verbal, along with the artists using the script as the templet for ideas. It's a shame too, one thing I found working on these projects was what a fantastic artist Jim is. I don't remember if it was Avatar or Battle, but one day Jim brought in a collection of his drawings from Aliens and the Abyss. So cool, and so humbling, man the guy can draw! What's so great about his designs, because they are so grounded in real science and engineering, they still hold up years after. Not many film designs (including my own) hold up over time.

Michael: What aspects of the Avatar and Battle Angel worlds were you called upon to create (landscapes / vistas, vehicles, characters, creatures, etc), or was your work spread amongst various aspects of the design of the films?

James Clyne: For Battle I was asked to focus in on the character design, primarily Alita herself. I'd say the first year was spent entirely on the mechanics behind her many incarnations. For Avatar, most of my work's emphasis was on everything "human". Obviously due to contractual agreements i've signed in blood, i can't release too much regarding specifics, but in Avatar I can say there is a large alien aspect to the world, but there is also a contingency of humans involved as well. Most of my job was to envision that world. Fun stuff, the engineering behind the world is very Jim.

Michael: How did you first come on board the Battle Angel project? At what stage of the Avatar project (which has been in serious development / production for almost five years) did you come on board?

James Clyne: Typically the way i'm hired is either by the Director, a Producer, or the Production Designer. In both cases I was hired by the Production Designer. I guess I didn't piss off too many people in Jim's camp to be asked back for Avatar.

Michael: Were you a fan of the Battle Angel manga series before working on the film? If you are a fan now, what aspect of the graphic novels appeals to you the most? How does either being a fan /not being a fan of the source material of a project (either before or after starting work) affect your approach to working on that project?

James Clyne: No, I really knew very little about Battle Angel before jumping on the project. I knew a bit of the artwork, but story wise I was very new to it. I kinda enjoy not knowing too much about the project before starting. Gives me a way to jump in fresh with the material. I guess that's why when I travel I tend to not read up on the country I'm traveling to. Makes the journey a bit more unexpected I guess. Once I was on the show, all the artists of course read through the many published books. There's some really great new ideas in technology and the future of society that i found compelling. For example, the gladiatorial aspect of future sports was a fun one. The wide social gap of the "have and have nots" in the story was intriguing as well.

Michael: What aspect of adapting Kishiro's designs and unique art style for the cinema screen proved the most challenging? The most rewarding?

James Clyne: Because my job was spent mostly developing Alita herself, I'd say the most challenging part was to find a way to successfully blend Kishiro's Anime style with a photo-real look. Jim certainly wanted to retain the look, the soul, of the book's illustrations, but also wanted to step up the visual landscape into something never seen before on film, which in a way, if you can pull it off, is also the most rewarding.

Michael: For me, one of the most fascinating and brilliant things about the Battle Angel graphic novels is how Alita's appearance seems to change along with her personality. As she grows up and accumulates life experiences, the new faces, bodies, and outfits she acquires are very much reflections of where she is in her psychological development. Cameron has spoken about this too. Did you design multiple "looks" for Alita in this fashion?

James Clyne: Without opening my mouth and firmly placing my foot in it, yes there were many "developmental incarnations" explored.

Michael: The Battle Angel Alita graphic novels are one of the best examples of the power of setting in a story. The industrial Scrapyard city, with the massive, oppressive and mysterious sky city hovering overhead, immediately draws the reader into the world by becoming a character in and of itself. The characters wouldn't be who they are if it weren't for the setting in which they are living and fighting. How much emphasis was placed on designing the backdrops /settings? Did you have any initial discussions regarding the overall aesthetic or mood you would aim for?

James Clyne: Yeah, Alita is only one of many characters in the story. Another one, which you describe, is the world in which she lives. Along with the Alita designs I worked on developing the look of the scrapyard city. Mark Goerner, who I believe you have also interviewed, spent much of his time on the environments. He was perfect for the job, he has such a proficient knowledge of scale, architecture, and technology and came up with such an amazing catalog of environments. I really wish you could see what we came up with.

Michael: Was there a consensus amongst the art team and director on which aspects of the original manga were the most vital to preserve in the film?

James Clyne: Yes there was, but we were also given freedom to expand the universe a bit. Unfortunately any specifics would get me in hot Cameron water.

Michael: How did the experience of working as a part of such a small art team on Battle Angel influence your creative process? I'd imagine that such a work environment would be conducive to a more free exchange of ideas amongst the artists. Was this the case? How did this compare to your experience working on Avatar?

James Clyne: Yeah, it definitely was the case. With such a small team on Battle, we had time to throw a lot of ideas around, along with shooting hoops on our indoor double basketball hoop. On Avatar it was much more akin to being an ensign on a battleship. We all had our specific daily duties, with captain JC at the helm.

Michael: Do you have any personal favorite pieces that you created from your time working on Avatar and Battle Angel? Any chance we might see some of your work in the recently announced "The Art of Avatar" book?

James Clyne: Nice try Michael, can't really go into too much detail regarding my favorites, sorry. As far as Avatar is concerned, I'm hoping you'll be seeing plenty of my designs in the "Art of" book!

Michael: Without giving away any spoilers, what is it that excites you the most about the Avatar and Battle Angel projects? What was your favorite thing about working on these projects?

James Clyne: I think the favorite thing about working on these projects was the fact that Jim was able to wrangle the best in the industry from the top down. From the concept artist to the Visual Effects supervisors everyone was total pro. It's seldom you have the chance to work in collaboration with such a high caliber level of artists and technicians at one time. For Avatar, I think all that hard work and talent won't be wasted on screen.

Michael: What can you tell us about what you are currently working on?

James Clyne: After Avatar I had the opportunity to work on the upcoming Star Trek film followed by Roland Emmerich's 2012. I'm currently production designing an in development Animated Feature.

A huge thank you to James for talking with us!

For more of James' work, visit

Check out James' professional concept design tutorial DVDs at The Gnomon Workshop, and art books showcasing his work here and here!

Contact Me

Jim Dorey
jim (at) marketsaw (dot) com

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