At Trojan Horse was a Unicorn in Portugal recently, I got to sit down with Ben Mauro, an art director, concept artist, creature designer and illustrator whose work has appeared in such films as Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, Lucy, Elysium, Chappie and the Hobbit films, plus several games and other places.
Our conversation appeared as a live THU TV episode, with Mauro discussing his work in particular on Valerian and generally what it’s like to be on a production all the way through. For vfxblog readers, I was able to present some of Ben’s thoughts here in a Q&A, and show a few of his many designs for Valerian, below.
vfxblog: How’d you get started in concept design?
Ben Mauro: I studied industrial design and entertainment design at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. After that I started working locally in games, films and theme park design for various studios. After that I went down to Weta Workshop for about four years working on the Hobbit trilogy, Elysium, Chappie among many other projects before going independent. Since then i have been freelancing for games and film projects like Call of Duty and Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets for the last couple of years full time.
vfxblog: I don’t think many people get to talk about this – and that is, with these films and games, hundreds of people work on them, but what is that feeling like of working on something for months and months, and then, finally, seeing it up on the screen?
Ben Mauro: It can be really cool but also a bit odd, kind of like listening to a recording of your voice for the first time. You’ve been spending so much time working on all these different parts of the film for years and then you see it in the final product how all the puzzle pieces have been put together. Because of that its definitely hard for me to just sit back and enjoy it as a viewer, you are thinking about how everything was put together and how something you worked on was used in context of the story. Valerian was a bit different since I was pretty involved up till the end, so I was seeing some early VFX and was on set watching them film every step of the way which made for a really cool experience. Most of the other projects i worked on there was usually a gap in design finishing, then waiting a year or two to see the final product so it was cool to be much more involved on this one to see the entire process from start to finish.
vfxblog: Where did you end up seeing Valerian?
Ben Mauro: I saw it for the first time in LA at the Chinese Theater premiere, It was great to see it with Luc and the cast for the first time.
vfxblog: How did you come on board the show?
Ben Mauro: I was involved on an earlier version of the project 7-8 years ago now, Luc found some of my work that I did as a student while I was working in New Zealand, I was pretty busy but the project was really interesting so I worked weekends and nights to do some early work for the film for a couple months. After that it went on hold for a couple of years while Luc re-wrote the script to make it a much bigger film. I kept in touch with him over that period, and helped him out on Lucy in the meantime. After that film did so well and there was a resurgence of epic sci-fi films coming back to the cinema it seemed as good a time as ever to do it so Luc got me started on the current version of the film around that time.
vfxblog: Did you move to Paris, or were you able to do this from somewhere else?
Ben Mauro: I was freelancing on the film while I was traveling for the first year or so, but I did move to Paris for about a year once production and filming started. I usually prefer to work offsite but I was enjoying the project so much that I really wanted to be there to get the full experience of being on set and see it all come together. On other projects I was usually cut off from that part of production, I felt like that was the last missing piece that I still hadn’t experienced yet so it was great to be able to understand a bit more how a film is made.
vfxblog: What sort of team did Luc bring on for design and concept art?
Ben Mauro: It was a mostly French team so i was very fortunate to be involved. There was Patrice Garcia, who is one of the original Fifth Element artists, Sylvain Despretz, who’s a legendary French concept designer, Marc Simonetti who is a fantastic illustrator/designer and also a group of great french artists working with the production designer in house. It was a pretty small team of artists who got to help create a giant universe from the ground up, which is exactly the experience I wanted.
Other projects I’ve worked on there are hundreds of artists so for one creature there’s ten artists just doing eyeball variations and you end up with one artist who did the eyeball, then someone else did the fingernail, and someone else did this part of the pattern so it can be hard to feel a big sense of ownership as a designer. On Valerian with such a small design team It was really satisfying to have the Director allow artists to really own large sections of the film and see it translated 1:1 in the film.
vfxblog: In terms of specific things, what were you designing?
Ben Mauro: My hands touched a bit of everything on the film by the end of it, which was a very rare (but welcomed) experience for me. We were all working in isolation for about a year, we didn’t know who was on the project and didn’t see anyone’s work over that time. On one level this was pretty stressful but also pushed you to do your most original work for the Director which is always a good challenge and lead to things going in wild directions that might not have happened otherwise. Typically on films if you’re in the art department, if the director likes something then people tend to stop exploring new ideas and head down a singular direction, so it was definitely the most creatively challenging project for me.
vfxblog: What was a part of the world, or a character that you were most proud of, or most challenging?
Ben Mauro: There’s a lot of early exploration design I really loved that I don’t think made it into the film that i liked a lot. Some of the early aliens that come out at the beginning montage I really liked and was cool to see how faithful they were to the designs. The Pearls were very fun to work on as well, Luc had a pretty clear idea about what he wanted but it was still fun to bring them to life. He really wanted this almost ‘Maasai tribe’ alien race but inverted, so they had pale pearlescent skin with a cephalopod-like changing patterns on their skin and a more androgynous look to them. I also really liked how Igon Siruss and his guards/creatures turned out, i was lucky enough to be able to design the whole crew so it was really satisfying to see that come to life, ending with the Megaptor chase at the end of the scene.
vfxblog: How tough was that to make it appear that they were human-esque, but also alien?
Ben Mauro: That was the fine line to walk with those characters, keeping it humanoid but not too much. A lot of the more alien tweaks were in the shifting skin patterns, eye colors and their costuming to help push them more away from being too human and also the ear design which was one of Luc’s ideas.
vfxblog: Another part of the Pearls is their beach setting, and, of course, that’s such a contrast to the rest of the film, which is, either desert landscapes, or space.
Ben Mauro: It was really cool and i thought Weta Digital did such an awesome job visualizing that whole setting. We went back and forth quite a bit on the setting side of things. The comic book is a bit more jungle-like, so we explored a lush tropical forest and more of a sandy/rocky beach setting. It went back and forth a few times but ended up more with the tropical beach like setting with all the shells and Santorini-looking structures that Marc came up with which i thought looked great. It just has a really unique look to it and works really well, especially in the context of the rest of the film.
vfxblog: You’re involved early, because you’re designing the film, but what kind of interaction did you also have during filming and post production?
Ben Mauro: Early on i was working with Luc directly, we would have a Skype meeting each week and he would just give me a big list of things he wanted me to work on. It was up to me what i wanted to tackle, whichever task i was most excited about most. Once it got more into production, things shifted towards locking down final designs and detailing/refining them to be ready to be handed off to the costume or VFX dept.
Being that involved it helped to get a better idea what needed to be designed, who it was going to and what they needed from me to make sure they could do their job as everything started to get built and finalized. Then you see it get built and how it is used in a scene with the actors, it really helped me understand the pipeline more every step of the way. I would have loved to sculpt all of my designs in ZBrush and take them even further from 2D but it just wouldn’t have been physically possible with the amount of things that needed to be done so it was cool to see how everything got built and finalized in VFX for the film.
vfxblog: I think these days there’s more and more of a recognition of how much goes into the design of these films, especially with ‘art of’ books. How do you feel about that?
Ben Mauro: Yeah, it’s really cool. Valerian was the first time that I’ve seen the concept artists put out front so much in the marketing of the project and also given a single card credit at the end of a film like that. Luc put the concept artists right behind him, the producer, and Jean-Claude Mézières [who co-created the Valerian comic books], I am still picking my jaw up off the floor. So for me, it was really cool to see this happen because usually we are buried underneath catering and janitors if we are lucky.
vfxblog: Can you remember any little details that you put in to your designs that people might not know about, like Easter eggs?
Ben Mauro: There’s definitely some in the Big Market. I tried to do something to memorialize Moebius, being such a fan of his work and also because him and Mezieres were friends and both worked on The Fifth Element together. So I was trying to get something in there but I don’t think that made the cut, but there’s definitely a couple Fifth Element things in there.
vfxblog: Come on, you’ve got to tell me what it is.
Ben Mauro: Marc did one in Big Market that was in the scene where Valerian’s being chased by Igon Siruss guards and they’re initially sitting at a bar drinking something and the bar is called ‘Korben’s’, so maybe Korben Dallas from The Fifth Element has some sort of bar in the future at this market. Also if you pause the film during some of the fly-throughs there should be a few advertisements on the billboards such as ‘Korben Taxi Service’, ‘Ruby Rod’, and maybe a couple things advertising the ‘Diva’ as though she’s still singing operas in this universe too. You definitely need to wait till the DVD is out to be able to pause and find everything since it goes by so fast. I’m not sure if anything else made it through, but those are some that I tried to put in there. It definitely wasn’t planned, it just came up when i was working on the project and thought ‘Would it be funny/cool if …” Luc liked the idea and let some things go into the film.
Find out more about THU TV at https://trojan-unicorn.com/tv.