12 questions with Paul Tobin

Weta Workshop’s senior concept designer Paul Tobin is a legend in the digital designindustry. The internationally-acclaimed artist has worked on a phenomenal line-up of film, television and computer game projects, including The Hobbit trilogy, Hercules, Avatar and The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. He has also just released his third White Cloud Worlds science fiction and fantasy art book, celebrating the work of more than 60 of New Zealand’s most talented artists. Last month Paul visited ACG Yoobee Wellington to deliver a mind-blowing 2D Concept Design masterclass to a lucky group of students.  He also donated some signed copies of his newest book project. We caught up with him again yesterday to find out more about White Cloud Worlds and his thoughts on where New Zealand’s digital design industry is heading…

Can you tell us a little about your latest White Cloud Worlds book?  Why do you think it’s important to produce books like this? 

Well, in a nutshell, it’s an anthology of Science Fiction and Fantasy Art from New Zealand. For us, there was a desire to produce a book which would inspire a new generation of artists and demonstrate that imaginary art is both a legitimate art form and that you can make a career producing it.  

I understand the book celebrates the work of more than 60 of the country’s top digital and traditional genre artists. Can you describe the process of getting so many artists on board with this project?

Well it’s been an accumulation of artists over time. The first book only had 27 artists and many of those came from my network of professionals working primarily in the film and Wellington industry. The speed at which the first book came together did not allow me much of a chance to look much further. However, once we started to promote the book around the country at conventions like Chromacon we met more and more artists who we incorporated into subsequent volumes. I also discover new talent running workshops at schools like ACG Yoobee, along with spending time on sites like CGNZ, DeviantArt and various blogs.

How do you think New Zealand fantasy artists stack up on a global stage?  As an artist yourself, what advice would you give to up and coming artists hoping to bepublished in books like White Cloud Worlds?

I’d like to think we have some truly world-class talent coming out of New Zealand in the genre arts. I think much of this was born out of the Lord of the Rings, which literally trained a whole generation of NZ artists in this field. These artists in turn have helped pave the way and inspire a new generation which are making their mark in the burgeoning game industry. In terms of advice, it’s all about channelling your passion and creativity through learning your craft. If you are not failing you are not learning. It’s so important not to be afraid of failure, rather focus what you have learnt into getting progressively better.I understand this project was funded through Kickstarter, the US-based global crowd funding platform.

 Is this the first project you have done that has been funded this way?  Can you tell us a bit about the process of launching a project on Kickstarter?

Yes, this is our first crowd funded project and it’s been a really fantastic experience, but a huge amount of work as well. Kickstarter as a site is really well set up, easy to use and has fantastic customer support. So most of the time goes into researching other similar projects and understanding what they are doing right or wrong. Video is incredibly important, but budget will be an issue, so you need to be really clever in how you message people and hit a level of professionalism that gives backers confidence in your ability to deliver. Spend plenty of time budgeting out your rewards so you don’t offer something that is going to eat into all your production money and ensure you do some very careful research into shipping costs. You may be surprised by how many international backers you may get and you need to try to factor that into your costs.

Did you have expectations on how Kickstarter would go before you launched it? Did the response surprise you?

Well we have a proven track record of making great books and we did have an existing fan base, but we were all very surprised when we hit our goal in just over 24 hours. We were not expecting people to spend quite so much with us. I think the offer of free shipping which we built into our costs encouraged people to buy plenty of books.

What advice would you give to other New Zealanders wanting to use Kickstarter to fund their next creative project?

Do your research, spend time building a marketing strategy before you launch and ideally try to offer a product that is already well under way. People like to fund a sure bet - if your project is already in production that can help backers commit to the cause.

How has the design industry changed since you first started out? And how has digital design education changed since your days as a student?

Technology as always has continued to shape and evolve our industry tremendously. It’s both a blessing and a curse. Thanks to the internet and broadband you can live in NZ as an artist but be working for clients all over the world. This has been an incredibly liberating opportunity to now make a living in more specialized fields like science fiction and fantasy. On the flip side, the amount of time you have to complete work these days seems to have shrunk considerably. With the shift from traditional mediums to digital there is now a common client expectation to just keep making changes right up to the last minute. As for digital design education, certainly students run the risk of investing too much time learning software that is not industry standard, or spend so much time learning so many types of software that it comes to the detriment of fundamental skills like drawing, design process and research. As a student it’s important to be open to learning software, but just make sure you don’t become a technician. You are a designer first and foremost and the software is merely a tool to express and sell your conceptual design.

What were some of the biggest hurdles you faced trying to launch your career? How did you overcome them?  What do you think are some of the biggest hurdles for people starting out in the industry today?

Getting noticed is difficult. It’s a very fine line to walk. You need to actively pursue some jobs and even people, but at what point do you stop being proactive and a go-getter and become a nuisance and potentially undermine your chances. It’s a balance and often comes down to context. If a professional is undertaking an industry event like a convention or teaching a workshop then this is the perfect time to politely try to get on their radar. Meeting people face to face can be a huge advantage and they should be receptive to your questions, as they are putting themselves out there. You probably won’t get the same response if you track them down at their favourite café!  So meeting people in person at industry events is really good. With sites like Squarespace and Cargo Collective there is no justifiable reason why you can’t have a professional looking website that showcases your work. However, you are far more likely to be discovered on an online community site like DeviantArt, CG Society, ArtStation or wherever your target market hangs out. 

What are three things you wish someone had told you when you were first starting out?

I think that if you are allowing yourself to be in this position when starting out, then you have not done your homework!  As a newbie, it's your job to be as proactive as possible and arm yourself with the reality of the job and industry you are going into. These days it can be very specific so my “three things” may have no direct relevance to you, or be so generic as to be useless. Research is the key thing here. Read online, talk to MULTIPLE people, glean what you can from as many sources as possible and then employ your own judgement. I am always so surprised by how many design portfolios we receive at Weta Workshop, where it’s clear that the artist has made no attempt to look at the work we actually produce for a film. We have dozens of books out now, just look through them, understand our work process and then tailor your portfolio to what we require.

 I hear you are always on the lookout for new talent. What are the skills or traits that really catch your eye?

I am always on the lookout for new talent, both for Weta Workshop and White Cloud Worlds. Passion and tenacity are admirable traits for creatives, because it’s a hard road and you need both to stay the course. I have little time for people that talk about being creative but show little evidence. You need to devote yourself to learning your craft, not being afraid of failure and striving to be original in your own work. Don’t copy other designers and artists. Be inspired by them, try to understand their techniques but think for yourself and go back to source material. If you love drawing robots look at the real science of robotics for ideas not other film robot designers. Being polite, professional and knowing your place in a team-based project is also really important when working at Weta Workshop. You have to really enjoy collaborating and most importantly being generous with what you know - it’s the sharing of knowledge that builds artistic community and support. You’ve been at Weta Workshop for over a decade now.

What project are you most proud of?  What keeps you excited and inspired?

I still have a very soft spot for my first film “The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe”. I loved my time in Narnia and then having the chance to work on “The Hobbit” was pretty amazing. Weta Workshop does tend to land some incredible projects, but what I have found over the years for me personally, is that the finished film has become less important than the actual experience of making it with inspiring colleagues. When I think back on some of the incredible designers, artisans and actors I have met on my career journey and how they have improved my own work - that’s what keeps me excited and inspired.

Where do you hope to be/what do you hope to be doing in another ten years’ time?

Well, I hope to still be working as a creative! Ideally it will be working more on my own projects and I would love to learn more traditional medium techniques. For me the love of storytelling and building worlds will never cease to fascinate me, so in the shorter term I would love to produce my own art book exploring my version of the lost continent of Atlantis. At this rate it might likely be my next Kickstarter!