The sun is going down while you’re out taking your daily run. You must have overestimated the amount of time you had before it got dark. Suddenly, you hear a loud and haunting neigh, and you see something that could have come only from your deepest and darkest nightmares. It’s dressed in Revolutionary War British garb, and it’s riding a red-eyed pale horse. It’s headless, and it’s holding an assault rifle.
Wait, what? Yes, that’s right, and you can thank Robert McKinnon for that.
We recently asked McKinnon, a concept artist over at Fox’s Sleepy Hollow, to share some of his work with us. He did us one better and explained what it really takes to be a concept artist and how sometimes it’s just downright crazy, especially when he’s looking for inspiration.
“I get inspiration from everywhere. Artists see things in trash and everyday things that some don’t. I say we’re special. My wife thinks I need a shrink!” he says.
McKinnon, an honors graduate from the Art Center College of Design, has been an artist since he was 3 years old, when his parents bought him a box of crayons right after watching the original Star Wars. This started his obsession with art as well as with all things Star Wars.
McKinnon, who recently joined the 501st Legion, an international fan-based organization dedicated to the construction and wearing of screen-accurate replica costumes of characters from the Star Wars universe, considers himself a traditional illustrator, meaning he’s not so ready to drop his pen and brush, yet he acknowledges that sometimes you have to go digital for many projects. He describes himself as a “jack of all trades” when it comes to specializing in specific concepts.
“I like to mix it up,” he says.
On Sleepy Hollow, McKinnon works as a character concept artist. Under the direction of Len Wiseman, McKinnon came up with the initial concepts of the characters in the show. But he doesn’t claim full responsibility for their creation.
“No one man can ever claim credit over anything I feel. Filmmaking is a team effort. It really is. Concept artists are contracted journeymen and women. We come in. We create to the best of our ability, and it’s on to the next project,” he says.
Wise words from a man who has worked on more than 30 motion pictures and who has ties to some of the biggest franchises in the film industry, including Underworld, Iron Man, Transformers, Tron, Resident Evil and Terminator. McKinnon is working on several projects, many of which he can’t talk about because of NDA issues with the studios or production companies. But you can see some of his concepts in the upcoming movie 300: Rise of the Empire as well as the video game Star Citizen. McKinnon also is developing concepts for Batman vs. Superman, which comes out in 2015.
McKinnon says one of his favorite things when working on certain projects is when he gets to work with a director who is also an artist, because “they get us. They understand us artists, because they are one of us. They get in the trenches with us.”
That’s how he feels about Sleepy Hollow and Len Wiseman.
“Len Wiseman is one of my all-time favorite action directors out there,” he says. “I’ve worked for him over the years on various films. He’s an amazing and generous guy. His take on the Sleepy Hollow story is not only unique but really exciting and fresh.”
Working with so many different directors and studios, McKinnon has learned to be adaptable to every project, and a lot of the time that means he gets to have a lot of freedom when designing his concepts. But sometimes it means that the director wants something specific. “Some directors are very clear on what they want. Other times, they want you to explore options for them to choose from. It really depends on the project, the budget, the time and the people you’re working with,” McKinnon says.
McKinnon recognizes that being a good concept artist means you have to make relationships with other artists in the industry, and he gives credit where credit is due. Several artists make his list of inspiring people whom he’s happy he “had the privilege to work with” including Patrick Tatopoulos, Neville Page, Christian Lorenz Scheurer, Anthony Francisco, Jerad Merantz and Ed Natividad, just to name a few. He says about the folks he considers inspiration, “The beauty and quality of their work aside, they’re great people with great ideas. Being an artist isn’t just about making pretty paintings or drawings and cool pictures. It’s about ideas. These people are creative problem solvers with warped minds! We’re insane people who have found a place to channel our madness. We’re nuts and I love it.”
That said, it’s pretty clear that McKinnon loves what he does as a concept artist. He loves the creativity and insanity that he gets to express day in and day out. He loves being challenged by directors and production designers. He loves that one day he can be designing a “space lab that houses genetic mutants” and the next day making “medieval armor for underwater space bugs.”
It’s everyone’s dream to love what you do for living. McKinnon is just glad he’s been able to do it for so long. And he has some advice for aspiring concept artists.
“Never grow up. Stay a kid at heart forever,” he says. “Always remember that this is a collaborative team business. Check your ego at the door if you’re good, and don’t get down on yourself if you’re not as good as someone else. Being an artist is a lifelong journey filled with ups and downs.
“Don’t work so hard that you damage your health or your relationships. Take time to enjoy your life. Be of service to your colleagues and the generation of young artists on your tail. And above all, never grow up. Stay a kid at heart forever!”
Be sure to check out Sleepy Hollow, which airs Monday nights at 8pm CST. To see more work by Robert McKinnon, head over to his website.