Concept Designer David Levy on creating worlds for Tron: Legacy and Prometheus
I can’t draw.
If you want a stick man, an imperfect circle or a blocky house with four windows and a front door (complete with chimney and squiggly smoke) then I could help you out, but really it’s best you look elsewhere for artistic ability - especially when making a film. For that, you need to speak to someone like David Levy. I recently had the chance to do just that and learn a lot more about the role of the Concept Artist.
At this point I will mention that while based in L.A., David is from France, so please add a friendly, warm and silky French accent to everything he says…
“The work that I usually do for feature film is at the very beginning of the process. Usually there is a script that's been written, but not always. The director, the producer and the production designer want to have an idea of what the movie may look like so they ask us to do illustrations or designs based on the script and the story idea. Sometimes that's used as a pitch. That's the first part of our job. The second part of our job, usually, is to take the design work and follow through with the production designer, making sure that every part of the movie is designed and ready to go into production, ready for construction or ready for visual effects.”
His path to the movies was not a straight-forward one. Before the bright lights of Hollywood stole David away, his early career began in France in a very different environment.
“Nowadays, there are Concept Design schools but when I grew up I got two diplomas, one in Industrial Design and one in Interior Architecture. It was a very repetitive type of environment. Industrial designers touch a little bit of everything that we see on our daily life. It can be like a monitor, it can be lights. It wasn't as exciting. I had always been particularly fascinated by science fiction. I've always loved science fiction and reading science fiction books, like those by Theodore Sturgeon. I felt like I really wanted to do something in that world. But at that time I was living in the South of France and Hollywood was a very, very long way for me, so it took me many years!”
It would be the world of video games that would allow David his first foray into the fantastical, working on some big name projects.
Fortunately, indeed I am old school enough to remember Turok (and the Nintendo 64, which also boasted GoldenEye, possibly the greatest game ever made - I digress). With such a substantial career in video game concept design under his belt, it make sense that when Hollywood did come calling there was a significant ‘computer’ element attached.
“I had my first break in the movie industry when I got contacted by Disney to work on TRON: Legacy. I was supposed to go there just for two months and I ended up working on the project for two years, so I was very, very happy. That was one of the best experiences I've ever had because I was able to see the movie really from day one, so it was really a huge, huge inspiring learning experience for me. I would say that the thing that I was most blown away by was when I walked on set, it was like a giant night club had been built just for few weeks of shooting. It was just mind boggling.”
From there David has not looked back, yet ironically his next two projects would do just that, with The Thing and Prometheus both being prequels. I ask what it was like for a team of designers trying to bring new ideas to an already well-established cinematic world, particularly in the case of Prometheus.
“For us it was great. There were three of us main concept artists working in an office here in LA. What was amazing for us is that Ridley Scott would bring us photos from the shoot of the original Alien, pictures I had never seen before, black and white shots. He would joke with us about the stuff that happened in the movie. It was more than a child’s dream come true. Ridley Scott is an incredible artist himself. He would sketch with us, he would sit with us and just sketch something and say, "Hey, what do you think about that shape?" I'd be like, "Yes, sure, okay. Whatever you want.” For us as designers, that's the best kind of relationships. When we really feel that the director understands the process, and really respects us as artists and doesn't also step on our toes, that is the best. Ridley was very respectful about that and about our creative freedom, but at the same time would be very clear about his vision of things.”
David is quick to choose his favourite addition that the design team brought to the Alien universe.
“I was really proud of the design of the Rover. First I was blown away when they said they’d actually build it. Then they built three of them and those things are gigantic. I never saw them in real life because at the time I'd jumped on another project, but I saw photos. I think they’re in a museum in England now, I don't know where.”
“That was very interesting because when I worked in video games, my first job 20-plus years ago, I was a trainee designer and there was a guy, Nic Mathieu, that was working in the same company who was taking care of the cinematics for some of the games. Funnily enough that's the director of Spectral, so very strange that we reconnected more than 20 years later on Spectral. I was super excited to work for a friend's first movie. The thing that was also great is that I've always loved robotic designs, and while I've done them for myself, I’ve never had a chance to really push it fully for the projects I’ve worked on. So that was the first time for me that I was given the task to design a robot from start to finish.”
Speaking of designing for himself, David has also utilised his skills when directing his own short film Plug.
“First of all, I would say that I made a few short films before that one which were horrendous. I then worked on Tron and the director of the movie Joseph Kosinski and production designer Darren Gilford were two of the most inspiring people I've ever worked for and they really helped me to give it another shot. At the same time, one camera that came out on market was the Cannon 7D, which was everything to me. You could finally shoot full frame and in a beautiful way because you could attach beautiful lenses to the camera. These are the two things that inspired me to do my own short film. At the time, did I know it was going to be such a nightmare? No.”
We both laugh heartily.
“If I had known, maybe I would not have started it, but I'm very happy I did it. The most useful experience I had was the fact that I knew how to design things and so on that side I saved a lot of money. The side where I didn't save money was the VFX because I had very little experience. I had to learn everything from scratch and that's where I spent a lot of money. The other thing I didn't have any experience with was directing actors, which is also its own world. I think when you're directing, especially your first thing, you will be blindsided. There are things that you will know about just because of what you've done in the past or the works you've done in the past, and there are things that you will not know and these are the things you will have to learn. I think that's the thing I didn't expect as much, I was blindsided in many ways. I would say that’s something to learn when you are starting to direct. Accept the fact that you will fail and that's a normal part of growing. The short is in festivals right now. The first two festivals that we applied to, we won best of festival for both of them, so we're proud of that achievement. I really hope that I can do another one. I have scripts already written. The difficult part is the financing.”
David is also clear that had he not left France for L.A. it’s unlikely he could have pursued his own projects to the level he has been able.
“For me, what was amazing is that even though I love France, one of the biggest issues I have with France is related to the work I do in general. The movie market in France is very static and very blocked. It's very hard to do anything new, original or something that's not necessarily in the vein of what people consider proper movie-making. In France, proper movie-making is a lot of what's been coming through the New Wave phase, in the '70s. If you do something that's more action, science-fiction, you are considered like it's not really art-making. So, I felt there's a difficulty to work in films in France that I have not encountered at all in America. When I told my friends here in LA that I wanted to do a sci-fi movie, everybody's reaction was, "Hell yes, let's do it".
Next up for David is production designing the next Scooby-Doo movie, a Pixar-style animation, having spent the last two years on the upcoming Avatar sequels. Now 43 years old with all that experience and that of an extensive career in feature film concept design, what has been the lesson that David has taken to heart most of all?
“There are so many lessons. The one thing that I've learned, which I don't know if it would be considered a lesson, is that whoever you are, however famous a director you may be, every new project you jump on you will always have to prove yourself. I think that's the biggest lesson I've learnt. Is that you're never at a point where people fully respect you. You'll always have to work hard to earn people's respect. I think that's the biggest lesson I've learnt is that you never let your guard down. You should always try to prove yourself to the best of your ability. I think that's a law that applies to every position in film-making, definitely.”
You can follow David on Twitter: @DavidVyleLevy
You can also check out more of David's work at his official website.