The Battleship movie is an epic-scaled action-adventure that unfolded across the skies, over land and in the seas on cinema screens in the past month. Director/Producer Peter Berg is said to have delivered an immensely enjoyable piece of work, his love letter to the military in a movie disguised as an Alien Invasion board game. The work by Image Engine, ILM, The Third Floor, DNeg, Prologue Films and a host of others on battles, water, flames, and atmosphere effects were beyond impressive. Concept designer and leading cinematic artist George Hull, was given some blue sky time to create the alien vehicles early on. Hull’s work on The Matrix trilogy, Speed Racer and Transformers: Dark of the Moonis well known.
George Hull was called onto the Battleship production in September 2009 to start creating the initial designs the alien warships. The only brief he was given was pretty simple. It was described as, “Humans are fighting Alien warships at sea. What could that look like?.”
“I was actually planning to take six months off to work on a personal art project, and this call really made me pause,” says Hull, fresh from another day in production. “As much as I love creating art for myself… drawing/designing warships, painting naval battles, this was pure ‘cat-nip’ for me!” Thats how he described it to his wife and friends. The ten-year-old kid in him took over and he was soon drawing war-ship ideas on the back of bills and junk mail. “As the saying goes, when you love what you do, you never work a day in your life,” he says.
As a lead concept artist on the movie, George Hull was left to explore some initial ideas freely. Working under the view of the production designer, Neil Spisak and one of the Art Directors, Hull worked entirely off site at his home studio in San Francisco and from there, he would discuss what Director Peter Berg was responding to about once a week.
When starting to brainstorm and sketch ideas out, George began with some strange looking naval ships. “I drew threatening battle cruisers that were more like alien submarines that could unfold their weapon array in surface mode,” he says. Hull always approaches a design with function in mind. “I imagined on my own these warships had to plummet from space into the oceans. Consequently they had to have thrusters for interplanetary travel as well as submarine propulsion.”
George is always asking himself what the purpose of these warships would be, and what functional aspect could drive the design into a more unique territory. “I imagined imperialist invaders coming to mine a scarce resource only found in the oceans or via deep sea drilling. I drew hoses and crane arms to look like collection mechanics of some sort,” he says.
As seen in his paintings, he includes hints of gushing water spilling out of vents all over the body and wings of the craft. He might have imagined the machines used water or Hydrogen/Oxygen to fuel and cool its engines. “Since I didn’t have a script to inform my thinking, I had to make it up as I went along, and then revise with the director’s feedback,” he says.
You can see from Hull’s early designs, he was focussing on creating a threatening silhouette of a warship with weapons spiking upward along its spine. “I think I did a month or so of these, but Peter Berg knew he wanted something more surprising, unexpected,” he explains.
“I remember the day I was told about the waterbug idea that would eventually change everything. Pete mentioned on the side that he liked how small waterbugs can raise up off the water with their legs, and even glide on the surface.” Hull’s initial reaction was to cringe at the idea. “How could something so big and heavy really stand over the water using surface tension?” He only intended to do a few sketches to satisfy the idea, and move back to the submarine looks. But then he put his reservations aside and focused on the raised shape Berg reacted to and started designing legs, wings and lobster like mandibles hanging down. “I quickly enjoyed how fresh the silhouette was looking and within few days (using this waterbug idea), I drew the first warship that the director approved! My sketches moved away from militarized crocodiles to more of a water-wasp integration. This was a lesson in not letting your design sense become a slave to functionality all the time. Sometimes turning that off for a bit helps your brain consider new shapes and ideas in a new light,” explains Hull.
George Hull says was a hired gun at the starting line, creating the shapes to consider from his imagination. “But plenty of other people worked together to take it to the finish line,” he qualifies “There was a large art department and films take years to realize, many hands will touch the look of the ships along the way. Only each individual artist and their colleagues know how much they initiated a look versus adapted a look. I’m happy to see some of my work is very evident in the big shape vocabulary.”
“I was thinking ‘giant armoured prehistoric aquatic dinosaur’ with a military crustacean aesthetic,” says Hull. “The vocabulary of shapes had to read ‘not of this earth,’ yet maintain recognizability and functionality. This is the challenge I love as a designer!! When I started there was nothing except the brief and a blank sheet of paper.”
George Hull has most recently completed work on The Amazing Spider-Man as conceptual designer, and is working to complete work on Cloud Atlas, Neil Blomkamp’s Elysium and as lead concept designer on the Wachowski brother’s Jupiter Ascending, according to IMDB.