The Final Frontier… Talking Slugs and Space Zombies with Illustrator Brett Bean [Interview]

Interview with Illustrator Brett Bean

It’s been a long time coming as we reanimate our Interview column for 2013 and here to kickstart things with us is a brand new friend and amazingly talented Character Designer and Visual Artist, Brett Bean! If you haven’t heard of him before it’s okay, I’m sure he won’t hold it against you (for long), but you’ve no doubt seen his work which includes conceptual design for companies like Disney, Sony, Wizards of the Coast, Atari, Bento Box and more.

Most recently he served as Lead Designer for Disney’s new Slugterra show which, if you haven’t seen it, is pretty awesome. Think Pokémon with guns and a bit of a BraveStarr vibe going on. Aside from that, Bean is hard at work on his first graphic novel and helps manage a small art collective called Think Tank. Did I mention he also does a wicked impression of a Tauntaun?

Tell us Brett… how did you fall so far into the underbelly of illustration and design? One too many bad decisions in preschool or was it simply destiny?

I really wanted to be a musician, [specifically] a drummer, when I was young. My mother was not prepared for the noise so she handed me paper and a pencil and said, “Here, this is quieter.” I was a fan of comics and cartoons so I just went with it and drew my favorite superheroes and characters. When I had to go to church I would just sit and draw all over the church programs out of sheer childhood boredom. So, a combination of things really led me to this door step. The final one that kicked the door down was winning a contest to have your image painted on the back of the Puget Sound Aquarium truck that went around to schools that couldn’t afford field trips (so the Aquarium went to them). Still a cool program but my image was plastered on trucks and other kids my age ran around with stickers of my art. Totally hooked after that in being an artist.

Just how long have you been working in the entertainment industry?

I have been in the industry since 2005. I started as a 3D environment artist making video games for 3rd person realistic shooters. I did that for a few years until I realized I was dying artistically inside. I left a very nice, high profile paying job to start all over from scratch as my schooling never included conceptual design and illustration. My wife and I (newly married for 2 months mind you) packed up a Uhaul and moved to LA into a tiny 500 sq ft studio apartment. I went to school again at Gnomon, interned there while I had no money and worked part time at a Gamestop (selling the games I had just finished making at Sony). It was a humbling and nerve-racking decision, but the best by far.

So what have been a few career highlights for you?

That decision to switch was the biggest one. Highlights for me are always things on the horizon, and then when you are knee deep in it, it’s just reality and you look off into the sunset again so I think I’m in the middle of one. I am currently making my own graphic novel in between freelance jobs. So the act of doing instead of just saying I will, is a highlight. I’ve gotten to work with so many talented people and companies it’s hard to pinpoint one. I believe I get a huge mental high when people come up to me and feel they grew as an artist because of something I said or showed. That and when I see a kid drawing my character. Huge thrill. I feel the next one is when I get to hold a toy based off of my work. I will completely nerd out.

Last year you worked with Nerd Corps on Disney’s SLUGTERRA, how did that opportunity come about?

The creative director was walking around Comic Con a few years back and came up to my booth. We talked and I could tell he was reading what type of person I was (kids this is huge, don’t be a jerk) we hit it off and he showed me some preliminary stuff from the show. It was so cool and right up my young adult geek brain I wanted in. But you can’t seem eager because this industry is fickle and things don’t always work out. You can’t get your hopes up, you can just think, “this would be fun if it falls into place.” It certainly did, they called a few months later and we were off to the races. I went up to Canada a few times to meet with the group and got a feel for what they wanted.

Can you describe your role as Lead Designer? What sort of creative input did you get to make on the show?

My role, just like any in my career, came about because of hard work I believe. I always gave them what they asked for, but always tried to add a little bit more at the end; an idea, a new slug, and so on. They liked what I was bringing to the table so it became a very fluid transition where they relied on a lot of the basic slug creature designs based off of my work. Other talented artists at the studio would take the ideas and mold/massage them until the final design worked in the shows design language. The adult slugs are very close to my original ideas and vision. I [also] worked a tiny bit on characters but most of that work was done by the awesome guys at Creature Box so I wasn’t needed by that time. As for the baby slugs, some were done and I would have to push the adult version or another artist would have to “cute-fy” my adult design. It was definitely a team effort. Most of my work was done in Los Angeles and on the phone too.

Did you have a favorite slug?

I did. It wasn’t used, which is 90% of the time for most designers. There were [also] a couple of early versions of Burpy I really, really pushed for but in the end didn’t work out. I’d say of the ones already on the show, I’d say Polaro. There was something really funny to me about a lil guy cutting himself in half and making one eyed little version – silly face and all. He’s an unexpected power that I enjoyed and glad it made it in.

Has there been any word if the show will be returning for a Season 2?

No word yet. I hope so, we have too many cool ideas and slugs waiting to be seen and shared with the kids and adults at heart.

How do you approach character design? Do you rely on a script or is it more of an organic process to uncover the personality of a person/creature?

Both. I believe, as a freelancer, you have to be ready to help accommodate that particular project. If there is a script, you read it and start to pick basic traits of that character, shapes help reinforce those ideas. Projects [typically] will have a voiceover, reference, or already have a basic idea the writer or designer has in mind. They may very well have established a look and feel so you have to work within another designer’s framework and form language. I try to adhere to as much as they provide. Some companies just like the way I think, so some directors will tell me to have a go at it and then we’ll focus down from there. All [of that really] depends on what they have, budget constraints, and of course deadlines.

If it’s my own character or idea then it can be a lot more organic. There’s no one to tell me no and no words or story yet that are concrete. I usually have a notion but allow myself to be taken in opposite directions. You can never tell where the road is unless you swerve in several directions (please only try this in your metaphoric vehicular brain!). I, of course, go in random directions on every project but will only do so after I feel I have given the project what it has asked of me. That way they get the best of both sides.

What’s one of the most important factors in making a character unique/memorable?

In my opinion, and this will change from person to person, the most important factors to me are the initial reaction to the character – that’s the most important aspect. Some people just call it appeal but that’s just on the heroic spectrum. It’s feeling you get as soon as you see them. Is it fear? Disgust? Do you want to hug it? Smother it? Be best friends with them? Appeal is so subjective and very much on one side of the spectrum regarding design. It varies depending on your experiences and what you grew up watching, liking, playing and doing. But look and feel, to me, seems easier to comprehend and attain. We know that gut feeling if something is evil, or off putting. But if THAT’s the goal of the design, it doesn’t have to do with appeal, it works for what you need it to be.

As far as memorable? There are more hands that need to be a part of it, from acting to the animators and the story I think the memories come from. Storytelling is so such a strong force in our lives that without it we don’t care much for long. Imagine if Mel Blanc and the animators never did anything and Bugs Bunny was just a static drawing of a rabbit. Not many of us would remember him. Not to take away from the designers who made him, but I just think there is so much more to it to make a character unique and memorable. [It] takes a village… or at least a story. But again, it’s all subjective and this is just how I feel at this time at this age. 10 years from now, who knows?

As a freelance artist, what are some of the most important lessons you’ve learned?

Here’s a few:

Interview with Illustrator Brett Bean– Find artists that you not only enjoy their work but admire them as a person. It’s good to see how to act. Learn from them.
– Meet your deadlines
– Not everyone will pay you and most not on time. Be good with your money.
– Screwing up IS part of the process
– Say yes to opportunity, it does NOT always have to have a certain dollar amount, but it should always have something that works in your benefit.
– Story story story!
– Don’t dismiss non-artists. They have some of the best ideas!
– Get your name out there on a regular basis. Forums, cons, expos.
– It’s a small community, how you treat clients, jobs, and a project will come back to either promote you or haunt you.
– See the world and acquire a better understanding of it’s people, cultures, differences, and how people live.
– Learn perspective, which has nothing to do with paper and pencil
– Don’t erase, just move on to the next one
– Always keep drawing
– Hold the pencil in different ways for different ideas
– And the one you don’t like is ALWAYS the one they choose.

What can you tell us about the THINK TANK and how that got started?

Think Tank started about a year into freelancing [when] I was getting farther and farther removed from other artists and “real-time” conversations. It’s lonely most of the day alone in your man cave. My wife and I were returning from a lovely little Bed and Breakfast in Cambria when I thought of the idea, I just yelled out THINK TANK as we drove. She, of course, is now used to randomness coming from my mouth but I immediately started planning out some weekly “assignments” and a schedule to meet once a week to discuss work, art, the projects etc. By the time we got back to LA it was all done in my head. I asked two of my freelance friends Mark McDonnell and Justin Rodrigues if they would like to be a part of it. We try to get together 2-3 weeks a month. Every session someone suggests 3 topics and as a group we decide which one to do that week, just to keep up and push ourselves. It’s tough as our schedules can fluctuate rapidly but we try. I’d love to put out a book of all the projects one day.

Two words: Space Zombie. Is it just me or is that a brilliant idea for a web comic waiting to happen?

Nice, I’m stealing it… but I’d want him to be the hero. Maybe there’s a larger alien threat and humanity has taken old bodies and reanimated them because no one in the future knows nor wants to fight. Zombies are now our saviors. Maybe the aliens have big brains which makes for deliciousness… great now look what you started…

Ha – I’m jut getting warmed up! We’ll come back to that. Before we wrap up, though, there’s one last question… what’s the strangest thing you can remember doing as a kid?

Hmmm… I distinctly remember my mom, on many occasions, asking me to run around the house acting like a Tauntaun. “Do the Tauntaun,” she’d say and I’d growl, make all the sound effects, then die and pretend to be cut open with a lightsaber… as I type this out, I [realize it] sounds a little… off.

We wouldn’t have it any other way, Brett!

Written by Rondal

Rondal is the Editor-in-Chief of Strange Kids Club and a creative instigator who tackles each day with Red Bull-induced enthusiasm and a mind for adventure. Rondal has written for other sites including Rue Morgue, Fuel Your Illustration and Bloodsprayer. His obsession with horror movies, 80s animation and action figures is considered unhealthy by medical professionals.

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