Interview with Peter Konig

Peter Konig’s resume is staggering. The visual effects artist, conceptual designer and animator has worked on a massive list of feature films, including Dragonheart (1996), Starship Troopers (1997), Beowulf (2007), Enchanted (2007), Splice (2009) and countless others. Konig was also the art director of Evolution (2001), as well as a contributing talent to the video games Portal 2 and Left 4 Dead 2. Today, I have the honor of talking with this art and design Renaissance man about his long and varied career in visual effects, his years with Tippett Studio, his recent work with the video game company VALve Software, and the personal fine art projects that keep him up at night.

You started work in the industry when you were very young. How did you decide that conceptual design and visual effects in film was something you wanted to pursue? Were you schooled specifically for this industry, or was it one you fell into because of the skills you already possessed?

splice PK: Well, originally I just wanted to sculpt monster-type stuff for makeup effects companies in Los Angeles. I had a few heroes like legendary makeup effects artists Rick Baker and Dick Smith; I mainly just wanted to do what they did or try to work for them somehow. I saw their work and others at a pretty young age, nine or ten years old, and it kind of set me on this path. Of course, movies like Godzilla (1954) and Planet of the Apes (1968) already had me headed in the movie monster direction, but finding out about the guys behind the work I loved made me realize that this is an actual job a person could have. That’s when I set about finding out all I could on how things were done. It quickly became apparent that drawing and sculpting were things to practice if I was ever to get into the field. Computers weren’t really on the map at that point.

Your early career began with Tippett Studio, and you joined them just as they began to shift from stop animation to computer-generated imagery for Jurassic Park in 1991. In the early 90s, you were doing some sculpting for puppetry and onscreen effects as well as creating maquettes for CGI imaging. Now, the sculpting you do for film is almost exclusively for a CGI end result. How is sculpting for CGI different than sculpting for puppetry or stop-motion animation? Do you ever miss working on onscreen or ‘old-fashioned’ effects?

PK: It’s not that different as far as how you think about what you’re trying to accomplish. You are still using many of the same parts of your brain and your creativity, but yeah, the hands on, getting dirty part is missing completely. I do miss it even though CGI is more efficient and quicker. I loved working with clay and plastics and paint all day, though at the same time I am perfectly happy not to have to breath chemical fumes any more. It was also a much more physical job back then. Now I sit at a desk 10 hours a day and move my hand around a little. I should mention that I do believe that people who have hands on, traditional experience with creating shapes and surfaces have a better understanding of the art; it’s just an additional layer of experience that adds another level of quality to the work.

You’re known partly for your creature design. When you’re designing something like a dragon, for example—like those you developed for Dragonheart and Enchanted—you’re working on a creature that already has a strong mythos, but that you have to give its own unique spin for a new story. What challenges do you face building a creature with a pre-existing ‘lore’ versus creating one that’s not based in any other legend or history?

dragons PK: That’s tricky to answer. A lot of what I do is try to understand the needs of the production, what they need out of the character. If I’m lucky enough to get in early, before they know what they want, I can try to throw characteristics in there that make sense to me, or things I’d like to try, keeping the story, time period and stuff like that in mind. More often than not, the production or the director has a certain look he’s going for and my job is then to try to give them what they want while also trying to add my personal touches. As far as the lore goes, the few dragons I’ve worked on for the most part have been for original stories and there was a fair amount of freedom. But If I was working on something like The Lord of the Rings movies, where the audience and the director have been living for years with the books and have certain histories and descriptions already there, it’s another story completely. For me personally and the way I work, I try not to get overly influenced by the lore and the traditional designs from years ago. My attitude is to try to make things fresh and as different as I can get away with, whether it’s a dragon, mermaid or completely new creature that’s never been done before.

In addition to 3D work, you also do a lot of beautiful conceptual design in 2D form—key frames, environments, as well as animation. Is there a particular role that is more gratifying for you as an artist? Is it refreshing to have a rotation of change-ups in medium, or is there one you’d prefer to do exclusively?

PK: I definitely have my comfort zones. Anything monstrous or scary is right up my alley and I don’t usually have much trouble there. But change is very good and keeps you on your toes and constantly evolving as an artist. Working in styles and subjects and mediums that vary is a great way to stretch and get exercise, and it only helps improve the stuff you really love working on. I do like to be diverse if for no reason other than to keep employed. If you can do a decent job with many subjects you’ll always be working.

What have been some of your favorite projects or experiences working in film?

PK: Jurassic Park (1993) stands out for me, even though I didn’t get to do too much on it. Looking back I was really lucky to be a witness at a key moment in special effects history when computer graphics really took over as the way to put fantastic characters in a movie. I remember the early tests from ILM [Industrial Light & Magic] and Tippett, seeing them for the first time and really understanding that this was important and momentous Starship Troopers (1997) was also an amazing experience because there was such an exciting gung-ho attitude at Tippett, so much neat stuff was happening all at once. I also got to do many interesting jobs, from sculpting creature maquettes to animating. It was one of those big growth moments for the company and for me professionally. And there was so much work being done, it was always exciting and stimulating and we all had such a sense of accomplishment when it finally was done. The most recent movie work I did was working with Guillermo del Toro on preliminary designs for H. P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness. Sadly it’s been put on hold, but having the chance work with Guillermo and the amazing concept artists like Wayne Barlowe and Guy Davis was a real honor for me.

concept art

Since 2009, you’ve also been an artist at the game company VALVe Software, creator of the Half-Life, Portal and Left 4 Dead games, and online gaming platform, Steam. Can you tell us about what you do there? Is it very different than working on film effects and design?

PK: At VALVe I work primarily in concept, modeling and texture. It’s a very different work environment from film. With effects and design for film, you’re always under the pressure of the production schedule, which gets shorter every year it seems. VALVe has the luxury of putting out products when they’re ready and encouraging a lot of experimentation. In addition, you’re really on your own to figure out what your job is and what you should be doing. There’s nobody chasing you around with a clipboard reminding you of your next task. You really have to be independent and self-starting to be successful there, yet at the same time, you have to be good at working within a team. I’ve also noticed that there’s a lot less ego in what I’m doing right now. We’re trying as a team of people to make a great product that we and the fans will love.

What are some of the games you’ve worked on for VALVe?

PK: I’ve only been here two and a half years, but so far I’ve worked on Left 4 Dead 2, a bit on Portal 2, and some other projects I can’t mention yet. All really fun stuff. I was a VALVe fan long before getting a job here, so I’m really loving it.

I see you are doing more fine art these days. Is that something you plan to make more of a transition to?

fine art sculptures PK: I’m not sure about “transition,” but it’s something I’m always pursuing. When you have a family and a house and all that good stuff, you have to earn a living. I’d love to someday have the choice to do fine art full-time, but it’s just not possible yet. Nevertheless, I work at it whenever I can; lots of late nights. Right now I’m just in this exploration mode, trying to find a place in that world for me. It’s tricky when you love to do so many different things. Should I paint today? Should I sculpt? Draw? I’m a little all over the map right now, and I think it has a lot to do with having such limited time for it.

What influences or inspires you for your fine art projects?

PK: This is such a hard thing to talk about for me. When I let my mind go, I get glimpses of what I’m after. It’s not solid or direct, like painting existing things—people, nature. It’s like there’s a world on the other side of my brain, just out of reach. It has similarities to our world but it’s all out of focus, like when your eyes don’t work right in a dream. You try to make things out but you just can’t get any clarity. I just see flashes of objects, figures, environments, textures. But I can’t really put my finger on it or describe what I see perfectly. Making things is a way for me to try to tease out what I’ve always had floating somewhere in the back of my head. Goofy, I know, but what can I tell you—it’s a bit of a mystery to me too. I’m certainly inspired and influenced by other artists, though their work may be really different than what I’m after. I love dark stuff like Witkin, Beksinski, Giger. But I’m equally interested in Jenny Saville’s paintings, Richard Diebenkorn, Joe Sorren, John Currin, Ron Pippin. As far as what I like, the list is really long and it all makes an impression on me and affects how I approach my work.

I noticed a toy prototype on your website as well. Is that a personal project?

PK: Yeah—speaking of being a little all over the place. I’d really love to do some very strange art toys or collectibles. That little bunny suited guy isn’t the most original idea, I had done a little digital 3D sketch and was just playing with a 3D printer I have access too. But yes, I have a bunch of toy ideas and they’re just not right. I’d be certainly be interested in doing a series of toys that like-minded individuals would appreciate.

View more of Peter’s work on his main website, You can also browse Peter’s complete film resume on The Internet Movie Database, and see some of his past sculpture work on his 2006/2007 blog.

Peter also features a detailed, step-by-step photo tutorial on his website that shows his complete process for making a sculpy maquette, from start to finish. This is not only a fascinating exercise to observe, but also a great window into the world of creating a 3D maquette for CGI imaging. Artists, sculptors, film effects buffs and aspiring creature-designers will find much here of interest, including some mind-blowing process photos as well as some great advice from Peter on craft and artistic discipline. So don’t forget to check out Peter Konig’s Sculpy Maquette Tutorial.

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  1. […] thanks to Rosemary Van Deuren for the interview she did with me that is now on The Idler. She did a great job and made me look halfway intelligent […]

  2. […] I’ve been looking forward to posting about this interview, because it was such a fun one for me to have to opportunity to conduct. Peter Konig is a charming and delightful guy, in addition to being an amazing talent. He’s a visual effects artist, conceptual designer and animator who’s contributed to such films as Dragonheart (1996), Starship Troopers (1997), Enchanted (2007), Cloverfield (2008) and Splice (2009), as well as the video games Portal 2 and Left 4 Dead 2. Peter is also an accomplished fine artist, and it was wonderful to learn a little more about that side of his work. Especially if you’re an artist, sculptor or interested in film effects or creature design, check the interview out here on The Idler – Interview: Visual effects artist, conceptual designer and animator Peter Konig […]

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