Exclusive: Interview with Mike Corriero

Bleeding Sun, a painting Mike Corriero created for ImagineFX magazine #89.

Monster Legacy had the honour to interview a great (and frequently overlooked) contemporary creature designer and concept artist: Mike Corriero. Though not yet involved in the design work for films, Mike is one of the most talented creature designers – balancing realism and aesthetic purposes in his monstrous creations. With a Bachelors Degree in Illustration – Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, NYC – taken in May 2003, He has worked for ImagineFX Magazine, as well as the Topps company, Hasbro and Others.

Monster Legacy: Let’s start with a more-or-less personal question: when and how did your interest in creatures and creature design begin?

Mike Corriero: I was actually so young it’s hard to really know the exact age. I was already drawing monsters and creatures around 6-8 years old. Though at that period in my life, at such a young age, I was of course drawing everything and anything I could see or get my hands on. Cartoons, Comic Books, Games and Movies all played a part in my interest in fictional creations. I probably took more interest ‘specifically’ in creatures between the ages of 8-12 years old. This was as a result of visuals from such films as Willow, Legend, The Labyrinth and The Neverending Story. In the mid 1980’s and the early 1990’s those were some of the only real quality fantasy films that were out there. Fantasy was something that caught my attention from the moment I can even recall drawing anything fictional.

I loved Horror and Science Fiction as well but those four films I mentioned are some of the earlier films I can recall that really stand out in my memory as major influences. Then other films like Predator, Alien(s), Tremors, Critters, Harry and the Hendersons, Jurassic Park and the original Star Wars trilogy were what really caught my eye in relation to creatures. That was around the time when I wanted to know the answer to a few simple questions that weren’t so simple to figure out back then; especially given the lack of available content and resources.

I was around 12 or 13 years old and it was in some random game magazine where I saw an article for an arcade game where you could fight as giant apes and dinosaurs. The game was called Primal Rage and it was in this article that I came across creature pencil sketches by an artist and the term “Concept Art”. This was when I recognized that people got paid to create and design creatures for a living. I was captivated and inspired by the artwork and the notion that there were jobs out there where people actually drew creatures and got paid for it.

Monster Legacy: Who are the film creature designers that were (or are) most inspirational for you?

Mike Corriero: There are a lot of unknown names and new talent that I come across everyday but a few of the more well-known names would be: Terryl Whitlach, Wayne Barlowe, Steve Wang, Jordu Schell, Peter Konig, Greg Broadmore, Ben Mauro and many others whose names I have only come across in recent years. There is a whole list of CG and traditional Sculptors whose creature design work is a great inspiration to me as well, I mentioned a few above but the list is rather extensive.

Monster Legacy: What are your favourite Movie Monster designs?

Mike Corriero: I could name a hundred easy so I’ll try to keep it to 20 in no particular order: The Prawns in District 9, the Xenomorph and the Queen from Alien(s), the Graboids from Tremors, the Eborsisk from Willow,  the Rancor, Tauntaun and Ewoks from Star Wars, Darkness from Legend, Sammael, the Angel of Death and the Tooth Fairies  from Hellboy and Hellboy II, the Banshee/Ikran, Hammerhead Titanothere and the Great Leonopteryx from Avatar, the Oliphaunts, Cave Trolls, Fell Beast and the Balrog from Lord of the Rings, and the White Apes from John Carter of Mars. I think that is a nice mix of those that inspired the child creature enthusiast in me as I began to teach myself how to draw and some of the more current creatures in films that have only been recently released.

Mike’s Wader Walker.

Monster Legacy: Conversely, what are the worst Movie Monster designs you have ever seen?

Mike Corriero: Don’t put me on the spot or anything haha; without intending to offend any designers, art directors or film directors. I wouldn’t say these are the worst but these are creatures that kind of stood out for undesirable reasons in relation to their actions or existence within the film or the world they belonged to; the aliens in Skyline, The Aliens in Battle: Los Angeles and those seen in in Signs. I wasn’t too fond of Calibos or Medusa from the 2010 Clash of the Titans remake. The dragon from Narnia: The Dawn Treader, The Lizard from The Amazing Spider-man which almost reminded me of the Koopa Troopas from the Mario Brothers Film. It’s so hard to name bad designs without relating them to a bad film as well as low-budget, poor CG or practical FX which don’t necessarily denote a bad creature design. I can look back at dozens of bad designs but it generally comes down to how the FX departments handled the actual design versus what their role was in the story of a film or the type of film IE; Comedy, Campy, Horror, Fantasy or Sci-fi.

There are so many B-rated creature flicks that aren’t even worth mentioning but then again, they are kind of meant to give off that sort of campy/cheap comedic effects appearance. A few such films might be Howard the Duck (Dark Overlord), Ghoulies, Puppet Master, Creepshow and Mario Brothers the movie (koopa troopas). I mention these films because the designs of the creatures in a few are Horrible but in fact they actually work in regard to the tone the movie sets. They are also rather dated in regard to what was possible prior to the digital age and at the dawn of the digital age in which some Directors didn’t know how to use CG properly. I think I’ll just end off with practically every creature created for the SyFy Channel’s original films haha – that’s kind of a safe list to mention.

Monster Legacy: Generally, what makes for an effective creature design?

Mike Corriero: A concept that has a purpose and anatomy that serves that purpose; which is in line with the rule of “Form follows Function”. Creatures that tend to have a good back story are more successful. This includes, how they evolved or were created as well as where they came from and how they function in order to serve a purpose. Plausibility and Functionality are two major factors in what make a creature design believable and then the rest is left up to the beauty or visual appeal factor. A lot of the visual appeal needs to tie into the world they live within, whether it’s Earth, an Alien Planet or how they were “created” within the storyline. There needs to be a certain amount of consistent shape repetition, a strong color scheme, relation to real world anatomy and appealing proportions.

Mike’s Fernus Peranus.

Monster Legacy: What is your personal approach to creature designs?

Mike Corriero: I first think about the “Wow or Cool” factor. What will make the design stand out as “eye candy”? This is what will immediately capture the audience’s attention. This generally comes down to a strong silhouette, unique anatomy, a strong but sensible color scheme including patterns and textures. You want to captivate the audience’s attention by visual appearance alone. Once you get past the visual appeal, my focus is 100% on anatomy that relates back to real world animals. This is in respect to how it may relate to the viewer as well as the plausibility and functionality of how the creature will move.

At this point, I’m constantly thinking about certain tasks it may need to perform in a story, how the anatomy may affect the silhouette versus the importance of the believability of such changes. So when it comes down to what “Looks Cool” versus “What’s Believable” in regard to the anatomy and movement, you have to think more about what’s plausible first and then head back to the visual appeal later. Ultimately I tend to bounce back and forth from visual appeal and plausibility as I mold the functionality of the real world references to meet the manipulated proportions of the fictional creature.

There is a good deal that can be explained away with movie magic or the acceptance that it’s a horror or sci-fi creature (usually in horror films they often hide a lot of the creature in silhouette or shadows) but when you need to create something in a world that is very close to home/Earth – you have to make sure it’s plausible and that the audience can relate to the design so it’s as believable as possible while making it as visually appealing as the story and limitations may allow. To top it all off; I still want to retain as much originality as possible, so I will tend to stretch the limits of these rules so long as it still feels believable.

Monster Legacy: Many times you take inspiration from nature for your art. Would you name the species (animal, plant or anything else) that are most influential for you?

Mike Corriero: Insects and Birds are a great influence, because there are an almost endless amount of species and varying proportions, colours and functions. The same could be said for fish, amphibians and reptiles. Insects, however, are a great source of reference because the diversity is larger than most of the general public is aware of, and even if only altered slightly, it immediately becomes something unique. So I draw inspiration from the “tiny and generally unseen” real world species. Birds are also a great source of reference because the proportions and shape of the heads, beaks, and their mannerisms are quite alien and appealing. You can look at almost any of the mating rituals of “Birds of Paradise” and this will visually explain what I’m talking about. It’s not always simply the visual reference that can spark original ideas but often the way an animal moves and other types of personality behavior. I love mixing insect, bird or fish anatomy with larger mammals.

Mike’s feathered insect thumbnails (first concept sketches).

Monster Legacy: What are your preferred techniques for drawing and painting? Which ones achieve which purposes the best?

Mike Corriero: Generally focusing on small and loose thumbnails before even thinking about any sort of details is one of the best ways to let unique designs evolve and take form. I feel this helps provide more accurate, more interesting and more unique proportions. It also helps you take some simple shapes or abstract shapes and keep them grounded or relatable to things an audience can understand. So I’ll often work with pen or pencil sketches first and then take them into Photoshop.

If I see something that looks interesting or is working well at the thumbnail stage, it’s almost always going to transition smoothly from that rough step straight through to the final rendered version. I will blow up the thumbnail to a larger scale and try to retain as much of the original proportions and general concept as possible.  At this stage, it still allows enough freedom to explore specifics and minor changes. I often only change things when it’s completely necessary after using relevant references and fixing underlying anatomy for believable functionality.

If you know that you’re going to be going through hundreds of changes, it may suit the job best if you start off with digital sketches. These can be easily manipulated in scale, proportions, mixing and matching and changing rough color ideas very quickly. Most concept artists don’t have enough time to render out a pretty picture; it’s more about getting down as many interesting and original ideas as possible within a given amount of time. They only need to make sense to you, the art director and film director. Most of the rough work won’t be seen by the general public, so it doesn’t need a nice polished finish. So working digitally is probably the best way to go when it comes to very short deadlines.

Monster Legacy: Could you talk about your book, Planet to Planet: Creatures and Strange Worlds — how did it come to be, and how was your experience making it?

Mike Corriero: Planet to Planet: Creatures and Strange Worlds” came about as a simple personal project during some down time while recovering from a health issue. I had wanted to get some sort of art book out to the public for quite a while, but trying to get a publisher to back you isn’t too easy. It’s an issue between putting a book out that basically highlights a portfolio of work by an artist or one of two other options that publishers would prefer. I personally would rather put out a book that exhibits a consistent look with well thought out environments, characters, creatures and exploratory sketch work revolving around a specific genre and a strong story. Over the years, I’ve started many personal projects but I have never had the time to really follow through with completing any of them. So the book “Planet to Planet” is a small culmination of the rough sketch work of a few of these projects with a selection of additional sketchbook drawings included.

Not all, but most publishing companies want a tutorial or workshop-style book. They’re keener on books they can sell to art schools, libraries, bookstores and material that reads more like a technical manual for the novice and amateur art student. I would much rather publish something that could be developed into a movie, novel or videogame. I decided with “Planet to Planet” that it would be easier on myself and more interesting for the buyer if I just packed a book full of my rough and detailed sketches. After all; one of the things almost any artist or aspiring artist will tell you is that they’re more interested in seeing the rough preliminary work and sketchbooks than finished illustrations.

I saw a few other friends use lulu to sell self-published small art books in a similar manner. It’s at no cost to the artist; it’s easy to manage the layout, pricing, discounts and keeping track of the revenue and sales. It may not be anywhere near on par with the marketing, promotion and sales a well-known publishing company can bring to the table, but at least you have full control over how it’s presented. It’s also ready for print on demand and you can have the book up for sale within a week or two. The book has sold considerably well and it also caught the attention of a few clients and well-known artists. I think if I was to ever put out a second addition the only thing I would change is to include personal insight and thoughts on my design process and notes regarding some of the sketches and designs. However; I may still be holding out to see if I can get a book deal with a publishing company and put together a large 200+ pg. full-colour art book in the future.

Monster Legacy: If you could select a Movie Monster to redesign and put into a remake of the film it stars in, which one would you choose and why?

Mike Corriero: Great question; It’s funny actually because they are already coming out with a remake of the film, though they haven’t shown anything yet and it’s categorized as ‘in development’: The Neverending Story. I would love to take a shot at redesigning either Falcor or G’mork. Falcor would be a real challenge to re-design because he’s supposed to have a lot of personality, he can talk, he is more of a mixed canine/reptile type of dragon and trying to produce a unique dragon is always a difficult task. I think it would be a great deal of fun because there would be a limitless amount of possibilities one could explore. On the opposite hand, there is G’mork; the dark wolf that is trying to help “the nothing” destroy Fantasia. Evil creatures like a giant dark fantasy wolf that talks would be a great concept to try and evolve to fit today’s standards of what CG effects can achieve because the only limit is the artist’ imagination.

Monster Legacy: What are your feelings towards the techniques used to bring Monsters to the film screen? Practical or CGI, or Both? Why?

Mike Corriero: I love CG because there are no limits to what you can create. You don’t need to think about how it will be built or how it might fit over an actor. I do however love Practical FX because without them there is no real grounding in reality. Some of the best films have come from straight Practical FX or a mixing of Practical and CG. Could you imagine if they tried to create the Predator in full CG? It would look much less believable especially when it interacts with an actor. I remember when they created full CG versions of the Xenomorph for Alien: Resurrection and Alien vs. Predator and it just didn’t have the same effect as the practical version. This is why I love how Guillermo del Toro handles a lot of his films; Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy I and II in particular. He knew how to mix the two techniques in a very effective manner.

CG tends to only work on its own if there is a HUGE budget and even then, it’s still difficult to keep everything strictly Computer Generated. Avatar was able to pull this off in a believable manner, but that was because most of the scenes were fully CG. It’s when CG needs to interact with live action that there tend to be some issues with the believability. However; we’re getting to that point with CG where it’s becoming less possible to spot these problem areas. A good example would be The Life of Pi which worked movie magic with CG animals in ways that we had never really seen before. Still; I’m partial to a mixing of both techniques and mediums.

Monster Legacy: How complex is it to enter the film design industry?

Mike Corriero: It’s like trying to win the lottery to put it simply. You either know someone already in the industry who is a close relation; perhaps a friend you went to college with or a family member. I know others just got “lucky” and happened to somehow snag an internship at a young age because a distant uncle used to work at one of the Art Studios. I do see a few friends and acquaintances getting hired on long-term freelance gigs for films and often hired again by the same Director to work on their next big film.

This is a rare case among freelance artists unless they have had some kind of experience already working full time and have kept a relationship with insider connections. I can tell you it’s not about the quality of your work but more about your reputation and experience. It’s about networking and who you know which can help give you a leg up or a foot in the door. The film industry is tricky, it’s sketchy, and it’s unstable. In my opinion, it’s one of the most difficult industries to break into.

Mike’s Lilium Caudam Iaxi Oris, a straight Copic multiliner pen sketch on Moleskine sketchbook paper.

Monster Legacy: When you enter the film design industry, what kind of film project would you like to be your first film work?

Mike Corriero: I would love to work on a film like Avatar, Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit. Anything that involves a large ecosystem filled with dozens of creatures, animals and plants that have been given a lot of thought behind their relation to the world and the story. Something that has enough creative freedom and a large enough budget to create a zoo’s worth of imaginary creatures. I wouldn’t care if it was Fantasy, Sci-fi or Horror… anything that would allow me to tackle an ecosystem of fictional creatures would be a dream job.

If they sat me down and let me just have a go at producing some crazy horror creatures for a film like The Mist or some of the creatures on Skull Island in Peter Jackson’s King Kong; that would have been an amazing opportunity. I haven’t even seen the film yet, but it would have been great to have been hired to tackle even one of the creatures for Pacific Rim. A lot of people kept asking me if I worked on that film because apparently my design approach looks similar to some of the Kaiju created for that movie. I would just like to be allowed to explore and be given free range to create some unique creatures of my own design sense.

Monster Legacy: Say anything you want to fellow creature designers and concept artists.

Mike Corriero: Stick to your own design sense and be as creative as possible. You’ll also want to familiarize yourself with a few CG programs since even the 2D aspect of concept art is pushing for more realistic designs. The uses of programs like Zbrush are becoming more common practice for concept artists even if they may not be the ones rigging or animating the final model. A rough model or a mixed medium CG model and Photoshop paint-over will help problem solve many design aspects and make it much easier on those who are retopologizing your rough base model. It also makes the turnaround sheets a lot easier and quicker to handle. One last bit of advice; make sure you familiarize yourself and study up on real world animal and human anatomy to the best of your ability.

Mike’s Ilium-Backed Mast-Head, modeled in Sculptris and rendered and painted in PhotoShop CS5.


About the monster philologist

I'm always bored and monsters were the first thing to entertain me

Posted on 28/09/2013, in Monster Legacy Exclusives and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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