A films visual success depends on so many factors from the director’s eye to the special effects crew. But it also has to start somewhere. It starts with a small team of people responsible for visualizing those sentences on the page of the script. Joseph Pepe is one such man; a conceptual artist. Having worked on both Alien vs. Predator films, Pepe also played in hand in conceptualizing the recent Predators film. He kindly took the time to sit down and talk to me.
AvPGalaxy – Corporal Hicks, signing in. Today I’ve trapped Joseph Pepe and I’ve attacked him with a barrage of Aliens/vs/Predator related questions! The first of which is…for those who don’t have a clue, what is your involvement with the franchise?
Joseph Pepe – I am a freelance concept artist that worked directly with the practical effects company ADI to design the final screen used Shuriken; Spear; Ceremonial Dagger; Shoulder Guns; Gauntlet and Blades; Wrist Computer; and armor for AVP. And worked on site at Troublemaker Studios in Austin, TX to be part of the design team that worked on the sets, Berserker tools, weapons and armor.
AvPGalaxy – When did you first realise you wanted a career in conceptual design?
Joseph Pepe – I would say that after seeing Star Wars in 1977, Alien in 1979 and Blade Runner in 1982 my path was set.
AvPGalaxy – As I understand it, Alien vs Predator was your first live action project. Up until that point you’d been working at Disney?
Joseph Pepe – That’s true. I worked at Disney Feature Animation for 11 years on the animated films starting with the Lion King and ending with Home on the Range as an effects animator. Let’s say things changed to digital and I was looking for new opportunities. One door closed and the door I had wanted to open was a step away.
AvPGalaxy – How did you come to work with ADI for AvP?
Joseph Pepe – My older brother Louis introduced me to a friend of his named Kevin McTurk who is a veteran practical FX artist. He liked my portfolio and we kept in contact. I was no longer working for Disney Feature Animation and Kevin contacted me to see if I was available to interview with Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff Jr. at ADI. They hired me on AVP back in July of 2003 for three months to design the weapons and armor for the predators.
AvPGalaxy – How did you get involved in the production of Predators?
Joseph Pepe – Now that’s a funny story. Two friends of mine from Stan Winston Studio in the former Digital Studio, Jabbar Raisani and Greg Smith were working at Troublemaker Digital and had contacted me to submit my portfolio to Robert Rodriguez for review for another science fiction project of his. Somehow the production designers Steve Joyner and Caylah Eddleblute saw my work and my resume indicating that I had worked on AVP. Caylah read up on my involvement on AVP in the ADI: Art of AVP book and thought I could be of some help since I was familiar with the design aspects already and they were working on an extremely time constricted deadline. Plus positive input on previous work experience from Jabbar and Greg helped.
AvPGalaxy – Tell us a little about the kind of work you did for Predators.
Joseph Pepe – I was originally hired on to help flesh out the Hunting Camp set, the stretched skins; alien carcasses; and design skinning tools. That also involved the totem that the original Predator in crucified on; the dog cages; and Berserker weapons that Royce uses. I then got involved with the Mining Machine; the altimeter; Noland’s armor and weapons; and the Berserker armor and weapons. I also took a stab at the Predator ship.
AvPGalaxy – Most of your work for AvP and Predators was equipment and weaponry design. Is this your area of specialty?
Joseph Pepe – I am also a character designer, creature designer and everything in between. I have a background in Industrial Design from Pratt Institute and can put those talents to practical use in film. I think pragmatically and mechanically and that is very useful when it comes to having to construct practical props and sets. It makes it a lot easier to translate to the real world. I found that the way I illustrated in side views; front views and orthographic made the model makers my best friends. They loved having technical sketches and illustrations to work from. When working with deadlines it’s so much faster to work off of an approved illustration like it was a blueprint.
AvPGalaxy – The predator masks are often the most distinguishing feature and as such as very important. What kind of process did you go through when creating Mr Black’s mask?
Joseph Pepe – Mike Broom had done some sketches of the Berserkers with the jawbone and tusks on them that Nimrod really liked and I had to keep the tusks and jawbone in mind when I was asked to take a pass at the Berserker helmet. But I also went back to the original film for reference. If it’s not broken, I say don’t fix it. So I took a photo of a copy of the original Predator helmet and worked on top of that to harden some of the edges, straighten some of the lines but keep the same overall proportions of the helmet. I also came up with the idea to use Damascus steel as a pattern on all of the Berserker armor and weaponry but it was too intricate to create in such a short time. (Some of the Damascus elements were still used in other aspects of Berserker tech.)
The original predator design is still my favorite and I wanted to keep as much of it as possible. Nothing new, nothing fancy. Just keep it simple, elegant and “Predator”. And I kept that philosophy through out my designs for the armor as well. Although my armor designs were not chosen, the helmet was. And it was slightly altered from my final illustration. But I think it still turned out nicely.
AvPGalaxy – Typically what kind of process do you go through when designing conceptual art?
Joseph Pepe – I start with research. I actually really love that part of the process. Most of my research is in science, technology and nature. I still try to ground my designs, even the fantastical and creature work, in what viewers may empathize with. I then do a few sketches, usually that’s all I have time for before I have to start something that can be presented in a day or two. I want to present and get approved designs that have elements that feel recognizable but can’t exactly be placed.
AvPGalaxy – From what we know of Predators’ pre-production, it was very short. What is it like working under that kind of pressure?
Joseph Pepe – Let’s just say that it would be nice to have more time to develop the ideas, do more sketches and actually explore more concepts before the deadline date. Usually it’s never like that. Although, I did spend two and a half months designing Neytiri’s face with Jim Cameron on Avatar. That was the only film in the last seven years where a lot of time was allotted to development. Sometimes it works out to have a lot of time and vice versa. You can still get great work both ways. Every film is different, you just have to be flexible and adapt to the budget and production schedule. On Predators we had two months to design most of the film and it didn’t feel like enough time but it worked out pretty well.
AvPGalaxy – Michael Broom, a fellow Predators concept art, recently told us he’d never seen the script for the movie. Is this a common occurrence when doing concept design for a movie? As an artist, do you not feel that it hinders the effectiveness of your design when you don’t know the whole picture?
Joseph Pepe – We usually never get to read the script but sometimes we do get breakdowns of the scripts that delineate the elements that need to be designed with the descriptions from the script. I was fortunate to be at Troublemaker while working on Predators so I was “visible” to the team and I was given a script to read. It was helpful to read the full script and read things in context. I personally believe that it would help to read a films script entirely before starting the design phase but again the politics in the film industry are never fully understood by the film goers and people outside of the industry. There is always greater risk involved in more printed or digital scripts that could be lost, exposed or emailed to the public before the films release. It’s more about the business than the art most of the time. We concept artists do the best we can given the circumstances.
AvPGalaxy – As I understand it, you were a part of the team that designed the new armour for the Berserker Predator. What was the thinking when you went into its creation?
Joseph Pepe – My direction, as with the helmet, was to take the original and streamline it. Give it some harder edges; straighter lines and simplify it more. There were several artists contributing a plethora of designs. The final design came from Rodney Brunet at Troublemaker Studio. Nimrod picked the one he liked and then we all took that design and worked on it to come up with the other Berserkers armor also.
AvPGalaxy – You also designed Nolan’s gear. It had to tell a bit about Nolan with just a glance. But in your mind, what story did you want to tell with Nolan’s gear and kit? For example, what was that weapon?
Joseph Pepe – Well the concept of him wearing the scavenged Predator gear was already in the script. I just had to make it work on a human sized body, which I found very difficult, added the Japanese Samurai helmet and other accoutrements in Photoshop. I used some mercenary like clothing to help convey his situation as well. That giant gun was Nimrod’s idea. I had been designing more elegant “alien” rifles using bone shapes from animal skeletons and Nimrod wasn’t going for them. So he told me he wanted a “heavy metal alien rifle” and that’s what came out of it.
AvPGalaxy – You were also responsible for a spear used in the film? Was this the spear that killed Mombasa and how was it different to the other variations we’ve seen?
Joseph Pepe – I did several designs for the spear and I can’t recall how it looked in the film or if another artists’ design was chosen. The idea was to keep the basic extending elements but come up with a new variant.
AvPGalaxy – Rumor has it you also did work on the Falconer Predator’s glove? Can you tell us a little about that design?
Joseph Pepe – I also took a pass at the Falconer’s “falcon” and glove. It was my concept to make the falcon part of the gauntlet but it was all a group effort on most of the Berserker armor and weaponry. So there’s a little bit of everyone from Troublemaker to KNB on that. We had several group meetings about the Berserkers and they evolved from all the discussions and concepts from the team.
AvPGalaxy – Which of your contributions to Predators took the longest to create, and which the shortest?
Joseph Pepe – The longest was the Mining Machine and it’s interior which neither ended up in the film. And the shortest was the dog cages.
AvPGalaxy – Of all the designs you did for the film, which was your favorite and why?
Joseph Pepe – The dog cages were my favorite mainly because it was almost immediate. I was standing next to Caylah Eddleblute, one of the Production Designers talking about the cages. As we were discussing the creature the cages had to contain, I was sketching a little 2 inch x 2 inch drawing in pen. She looked at it and at me at we said almost in unison “that’s cool”. I took the sketch, scanned it in, scaled it up; printed it out and tightened it up. It was completed in about half a day. We then gave it to Adele Plauche, the set designer/draftsperson and she did the blueprints. And that’s what you see in the film.
AvPGalaxy – Have you seen the final film, if so what’s your opinion on it?
Joseph Pepe – The film is good. It’s so hard for me because I am completely biased towards the original film. I even own some of the original film used knives and one of the limited numbered sets from the knifemaker Jack W. Crain. Plus Arnold and the original cast really make the film and I can’t help but compare all the other films to it.
AvPGalaxy – Thanks for taking the time to talk with us. Before we sign off, is there anything you’d like to say?
Joseph Pepe – Thank you! I also want to thank Jack W. Crain for creating a machete for Adrian Brody to carry on his thigh rig. He was so kind and gracious to loan one of his original designs of the Predator Machete to the production for a little nostalgic nod to his work in the original film. He designed the original Machete; MCS and Hunter knives that Arnold and crew carry and use in Predator(1987).
P.S. I guess that’s why I also design the weapons for these films, I’m a big fan.
You can check out more of Joe’s work in the AvPGalaxy gallery.