Michael Broom is a concept artist, special effects illustrator, creature designer and was a key artist in the development of recent movie Predators. I recently got to chat with him and we talked about his work in some detail. Read on to learn about concept art, as well as the secrets of making Predators.
AvPGalaxy – Hello Michael, I’m so glad you decided to take the time to chat with us. First off, tell us a little about yourself and how you got involved with Predators.
Michael Broom – Hi, my name is Michael and I design monsters. I’ve been in the film business for about 5 or 6 years, I moved to California after living in the South all of my life and wanted to get into the monster movie business.
I’d heard that Robert Rodriguez was involved in ‘Predators’ and I was pretty sure KNB would be approached about the show. One day when I was over there, doing some artwork for Greg Nicotero, and I mentioned that I was really interested if it came in. A few weeks later he called me to get started.
AvPGalaxy – Predators is a film we have wanted to see made for many years. One of the things I really appreciated was all the character design – What kind of reference material did you use for this movie?
Michael Broom – For one thing, I took frame grabs from the ‘Predator’ DVD to utilize as my color scheme, to try and keep a palette that was from that same world. I have dozens of reference books and with the internet at my fingertips reference is always a click away.
I’m of the mindset (as a lot of FX guys are) that Predator was pretty much done right the first time out. The challenge is to see what I can bring new to the table and still keep it within that realm. I was always fascinated by those Predators on the ship at the end of part 2, and what kind of story they told by just looking at them. That old Predator had a gun from some pirate or something, which his clan undoubtedly had a run-in with somewhere in the past (now there’s a movie I’d like to see!). So I really tried to bring that kind of storytelling into some of my ideas and designs.
I really went back and looked at primitive African, Amazonian, and Native American tribes to see what kind of decorations and adornment they used. A number of my drawings had feathers or scarification or war paint of some type. I even did some Egyptian-styled helmet designs at one point, to try and tie in some of that flavour of artistry to give it a familiar vibe of an ancient civilization.
AvPGalaxy – We’ve seen your work on Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem. How was this time different from working on AvPR?
Michael Broom – It was very different. For one thing I was working at two different shops. Amalgamated Dynamics hired me for AVP2, and KNB EFX took up the duties for ‘Predators’. Both places are quite different to work with. Alec or Tom are more likely to draw me a sketch, while Greg is more likely to show me photos, art, or reference a film for an example. Each place varies in their own style, techniques, and preferences.
Another factor was that there was a lot more time on AVPR. It seems there was just a few weeks to get things done for ‘Predators’ but I remember being at a few different meetings, over the course of a few months. On AVPR, the Strause brothers would come to the ADI studio to check out work and give feedback on artwork. I did a lot of work on the Wolf Predator for that, and worked on designing his armor and weapons. Just that, in itself, was a big design phase.
AvPGalaxy – Talk us a bit through your work on Predators. What was your job there and what did you design for Robert Rodriguez?
Michael Broom – I never actually got to work with Robert Rodriguez. I worked with KNB EFX (more specifically under Greg Nicotero) and they just handed in work from there. The way I understand it is that the production team in Texas just had artists (including myself) generate a lot of ideas and sketches and just picked through them and got their favourites (like a buffet), which is pretty smart when you think about it for being such a short build time. They have an in-house design department there in Texas that I’m sure refined things and detailed what needed to be looked at more.
Greg pretty much told me to start coming up with Predators, and I began to kick out sketches. Some I fleshed out in Photoshop or in color a bit, and tried to follow up with things that he responded to, or that he told me the Production responded to. I remember getting an email from him that said something like “They like the one with the bone jaw, and the one with the horns” and I was thinking “Which one with the horns?” [laughs]
AvPGalaxy – What was your first impression of the film’s script?
Michael Broom – Script? Um, I never read it. Usually I don’t, it’s really only my job to know what the monsters are supposed to look like.
AvPGalaxy – Are you happy with what you saw on screen?
Michael Broom – Yeah! It’s always exciting to see something that you helped influence (even in a small way) on the big screen. I went to Mann’s Chinese on Hollywood boulevard
to see it. I was so excited about it. Heck, two of the guys are wearing helmets that were directly inspired by my sketches, how could I not be excited about that?
AvPGalaxy – Can you remember the first thing you were asked to do on Predators?
Michael Broom – Yep, Greg asked me to draw a profile and straight-on view of the original Predator to have a jumping-off point for the creatures. I’m pretty sure the second sketch I did is the one you have posted on the right with the closed mandibles and alien-bird feathers.
AvPGalaxy – How much time did you get to spend on concepting for this movie?
Michael Broom – Like I said, it was a pretty short build-time for the crew so just a few weeks. It was pretty run-and-gun. That can be a good way to work sometimes. It gives you a more instinctual, primal brainstorming design phase.
They have to get sculptors started pretty quickly, I would imagine. From there it has a whole process of molding and painting before those can get made into the Predators you see on screen.
AvPGalaxy – Could you please describe your general work flow: How you progress from the original idea to your first sketches, and finally on to the full concept? Also, what techniques, tools and software do you use?
Michael Broom – Wow, that’s a big question. Well, sometimes I don’t get to do more than a rough sketch. Somebody will see something that they like and immediately hand it over to a sculptor to work up a maquette and I’ll never get another pass at it.
Ideally, though, I’ll start with a drawing or a sketch and scan that into Painter or Photoshop and start building it up. Sometimes my sketches are really loose, and I’ll write notes on them to myself about colours or textures that I want to use. Digitally, pretty much anything is possible now. It’s really quite amazing, and things can evolve in this stage. When I was working up helmet designs for ‘Predators’, I did a few in a digital sculpting program called Zbrush. I took frame grabs from the first film of that mask and made a ‘clay’ material that matched the metal I saw in the film, so it was kind of like sculpting in the same metal. It had a really cool look.
I overlayed photos of frogs and alligators in Photoshop to experiment with different types of skin texture, cloned in textures of rusted metal (and sometimes sampled textures right from previous films) for the Predator armour… I just tried stuff out to see what I could come up with.
Artistically, I like to use everything; I try to work in as many mediums as possible. Even when I’m just sketching for a show, I’ll switch over to markers or something so I don’t get stale. Time is always a factor, though, so I don’t get to paint as often as I would like.
AvPGalaxy – On average how long does it take you to complete a concept?
Michael Broom – It depends, sometimes I don’t get very much time. Other times, things gets refined a lot. In some cases, directors had rather have 10 or 12 loose sketches to choose from before you refine and spend a lot of time detailing out a design.
AvPGalaxy – How much creative freedom do you have when you’re making concepts? Are you told specifically what to draw or are you free to do your own thing?
Michael Broom – Again, it depends on what the project is and who I’m working for. Some directors have a very specific idea in mind, other times they want to see what ideas you come up with. It’s not really ‘art’ in the traditional term, it’s more of a practical application. It most importantly has to serve a purpose. It’s a visual language so that everyone on the production is on the same page.
I had a lot of freedom on ‘Predators’, and on AVP2 as well, early on…I will usually put out my more personal concepts and ideas first, and see if any get responses. I’ll be the first to say that some of my ideas are pretty wild.
But, ultimately, I’m a tool, what they would call in the old gangster movies ‘Cheap muscle’, to get the job done, and I’m totally fine with that. I come up with ideas and draw, and try and get the director what he needs for the project.
AvPGalaxy – One of the most interesting designs in the movie is Berserker’s biomask. Can you talk us a bit about the story behind his mask? How many designs did you go through?
Michael Broom – You mean that bone-jaw thing? Haha!
That’s a very ‘Frankenstein-monster’ sort of idea. My feeling was to try and come up with something cool and dangerous, but to also have a feeling of movies that I liked when I was a kid. In my mind, I kind of saw it hinged on springs or something, So you’d get some movement out of it when the actor moved, like a weird, nightmarish ventriloquist dummy.
Nobody was more surprised than I was to see that thing on the poster! I’m glad that it went over well with everybody. People seem to dig it.
AvPGalaxy – Tell us about Tusks. What did you reference for this design?
Michael Broom – Well, that started as a weird jaw-piece too. I just did a moody sort of painting in Photoshop (I don’t even think I sketched it in pencil first) with the mask having this rusty metal jaw with those Elephantine tusks poking out, like a wild boar or something, and that was all there was to it. It got a thumbs-up.
AvPGalaxy – One of the most iconic new Alien creatures are the Predator dogs. What was your involvement with them?
Michael Broom – Very little. I’m pretty sure they were done before I even started on the show. I saw the Zbrush design that was done at Troublemaker in Texas not long after I began. I did a few sketches to come up with some other ideas for Greg, but nothing stuck. I did draw a version of that design, but that was about all I had to do with that one.
AvPGalaxy – Concept artists spend months or even years designing the look and feel of a project. Many ideas are left unused. Can you tell us about any rejected ideas on Predators?
Michael Broom – Funny you should mention Predator Dogs. Early on, before I knew of them, I did a sketch for a kind of ‘Hannibal Lector’-type Predator. You know Steve Buchemi’s character in ‘Con Air’, how they kept him strapped into this thing and a mask chained on him? Similar concept, but Predator version. Skinnier, scarier, kept on a chain to be released upon prey, like some freaky Berserker. My friend Walter Phelan does some suit work for KNB, and I was kinda trying to get him a gig on the show, he’s real slender and not the typical ‘Predator’ body type.
And I did one drawing that I knew would be way over the top, but put it out there anyway, of a Predator whose mandibles open out so far that there’s just a meaty, fleshy skull visible underneath. My concept was that when it was closed it would be sleeker and almost cocoon-like in appearance (somewhat more like a H.R. Giger Alien), an eyeless fleshy thing that perhaps would ‘sense’ things on a different level than its other Predator counterparts.
AvPGalaxy – As we can see on your portfolio, female Predators were designed but never appeared in the final version of the movie. Tell us a bit about them. Were you told what their role was going to be in the movie?
Michael Broom – They’ve been doing garage resin kits of those for years, so I thought I’d do one and see if it took. I still think it would be kind of neat to see a ninja-like female that was stealthier than the fellahs, covered in scars, sleek and graceful but still deadly…like some kind of snake. But in that same design that we’re referencing, she has that glowing Predator blood warpaint that I thought was so cool. I’m surprised nobody bit that hook! [laughs] That would be awesome to see, instead of the trademark glowing eyes, weird alien tribal patterns in the darkness..
I honestly didn’t know how many Predators there would be in the film, as far as I knew it could be dozens. I just was coming up with as many unique ideas as possible for the project.
AvPGalaxy – You have more fantastic concept art of Predators in your portfolio. Can you tell us what the story is behind them?
Michael Broom – Thanks! For that color one, I tried to build up a heavier, ‘Arnold/Conan the Barbarian’-type of Predator. Kind of based on a tusked wild hog, tattooed, muscular. Also you will notice the multi-layer clear armour, inspired by the Giger Alien in a way, a clear-hard shell over the more intricate (possible moving robotic) inner workings. I know there wasn’t time or budget for a mechanical head like that, though.
That other sketch was one of the first ones I drew, with more of a headdress, decorated with bones and feathers and such. Those little boney growths might be interpreted as inset jewels, maybe. Might be a cool concept to have a hierarchy of royalty with more decorative things like that, they could catch light and stuff on set and it would add some different texture to the warty sort of skin. That’s the nice thing about sketches like that, it can open up dialogue for different ideas.
AvPGalaxy – What is your favourite and most inspiring Alien/Predator movie to date and why?
Michael Broom – C’mon, Man…You KNOW it’s the first ones! Ha!
‘Alien’ not only set the standard for science fiction films, it re-designed creature design. I don’t think H.R. Giger did any film work before ‘Alien’, did he? I’m pretty sure he was a fine artist and Ridley Scott was inspired by that work, so much so that he was brought in for production to help build the thing. Old school. His sculptures and pretty much his whole concept of ‘Organic-meets-Mechanical’ is so genius that it’s pretty hard to top. So, yeah, that’s pretty inspiring.
The first ‘Predator’ was such a testosterone-fuelled action flick, totally summer movie popcorn fun. You know some guy went into the studio to pitch that and said “Okay, check it out…It’s like ‘the Wild Bunch’ versus a bad-ass Alien”. Once they got ‘The Terminator’ and Apollo Creed in it, it totally hooked every dude around to see it. What’s that? Jesse ‘the Body’ Ventura carries a damn mini-gun?
I couldn’t see it fast enough.
In a lot of ways, ‘Predator’ works so well because you, as an audience, are made to fill in the gaps yourself. The creature is gone largely unseen for most of the movie, and you really start to get a sense of the fear that the soldiers are going through. I remember the first time I saw ‘Predator’, and at the end the Predator starts typing something into his wrist gauntlet. I thought he might be trying to translate English or something, so that maybe he could communicate. I pretty much figured it out about the same time that Dutch in the movie does, so that really worked for me as an audience member.
AvPGalaxy – Does your personal work influence your professional work?
Michael Broom – I don’t see how it can’t help but do so. Sure, I know it’s ‘product’, but it’s still kinda ‘art’, too.
I love my job, I love coming up with cool creatures, I like going to the movies so I want for the film, and my concept design ideas to be the best they can be, and something (on a personal level) that I’d want to go see in a movie, ya know?
AvPGalaxy – What’s next for Michael Broom? Are there any new projects on the horizon?
Michael Broom – I just got off the prequel to John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’ and I’m still waiting for ‘A Cabin in the Woods’ to get released. And, of course (like seemingly everybody else in this town) I’m working on developing my own project, a horror/creature feature.
AvPGalaxy – Do you have any advice for the aspiring artist out there?
Michael Broom – Well, I’d say make sure you first have the basics. Nobody likes drawing fruit, but it really is important to be able to ‘see’ as an artist. Always have as much reference as possible, draw from life as much as you can, draw or paint every day. Study the best artists that you can find, and see, whenever possible, the real pieces up close. You can learn a lot from seeing what the Masters have done, and studying what they have already learned.
A lot of aspiring artist, naturally, want to start working with the human figure or portraits which is one of the most difficult thing you will ever draw. It takes years of study and decades of practice to get good at the human form. But I’d say draw it from life as much as possible, it can only help you improve.
I’ll tell you what helped me, though. I surrounded myself with the best artists possible. When I moved to L.A. a few years ago, I realized that I was going to have to step my game up real quick if I was going to be able to keep up with all of the bad-asses I was working with. I mean, some of these artists, just a few years before, I have been drawing their creatures and stuff from the pages of magazines. Now I was designing on the same show as them. In a way it can be mind-boggling, but it also forced me to learn, and try and keep up with those guys and that really helped me get better fast.
Oh, you just wanted the short answer, right? Sorry ‘bout that…. Well, it couldn’t hurt to get Harley Brown’s book, it has a lot of good advice in there, and carry a sketchbook with you everywhere you can. Draw in it all the time. If you buy a brand new sketchbook and, on every page, draw..let’s say..an apple…By the time you’re at the last page of that book you will have learned everything you ever wanted to know about drawing apples, and will have learned some very valuable lessons during the filling of those pages.
AvPGalaxy – Thank you very much for your time, and all the best for your upcoming projects.