Igor Staritsin On the World of Visual Effects

Igor Staritsin is a known concept artist and matte painter in the world of visual effects. He started working in the industry back in 2008 for Disney. Since then Igor contributed to over 50 films and video game cinematics, including projects such as Star Wars, Star Trek, Indiana Jones, Jurassic World and Ant Man.

Igor was a part of the VES Award winning team for Outstanding Visual Effects on Maleficent in 2015 as well as Asian Film Award for Best Visual Effects for his work on Gone with the Bullets. Igor’s artworks were featured in “D’artiste Matte Painting 3” as best entry as well as in other Ballistic Publishing’s art books. He has a background in traditional painting that has helped him work both digitally and traditionally.

Igor believes that being an artist means being a lifelong student constantly looking for new ways to get better. Whether it is digital or traditional it is all about making it look beautiful and conveying to the audience the key component of what makes you feel alive about that specific piece.

Tell us a little bit about yourself. What sparked your interest in digital art? Were you formally trained or self-taught?

My name is Igor Staritsin. I am a concept artist, matte-painter and art director in the visual effects industry. I started back in 2008 and soon after ended up working for Disney which set a great path for my future career. Since then I was fortunate enough to contribute to over 50 films and video game cinematics, including projects such as Star Wars, Star Trek, Indiana Jones, Jurassic World and Ant Man.

Painting and drawing have always been my passion. I grew up in Russia and from my early days I was exposed to the art of traditional Russian painters from the 18th and 19th century. Most of them are still considered to be the best artists ever lived. This set me to start taking workshops from my most favorite artists. In 2008 I was exposed to the world of concept art and matte-painting and the very fact that your painting can be shown on a large cinema screen and millions of people would see it made me excited about pursuing that career. My main passion has always been environments and landscapes, it was no question that environment art would be the thing I would go for. Background in traditional painting was and still is extremely helpful.

You’ve tried your hand at digital painting as well as traditional painting, could you outline the ups and downs of each method?

Traditional skills are extremely valuable in my opinion. In fact it is the most important thing. You can learn any of the modern 3D tools. It is not as difficult. The thing that is most appreciated at the job is your trained eye and ability to recognize issues and have solutions on how to fix them on the go. Light, color, shapes, composition are some of the most important things. You learn them by focusing on fundamentals whether you work traditionally or digitally. Traditional painting has a bit more to offer as far as knowledge goes, because in order to achieve something meaningful one needs to really understand what he is doing. In digital the temptation to cheat is very high, in traditional – you either can do it or not. Usually great digital artists have abilities to do traditional art as well.

Describe the types of software and processes you use to create artwork.

Throughout my career I tried so many different software pieces. It will be hard to even remember them all. I usually try to keep my workflow as simple as possible. Oftentimes having very complicated setups may slow down your creative approach. Sometimes it is necessary of course and you do not have other choice, but quite often limitations can actually work to your advantage. These days it is Photoshop, 3D Coat and Blender (or Maya and Vray if needed). If I need to look into any 2.5D solution I will use Nuke. It is usually great to have a jumping off point, so I often start by doing a 2D sketch or start right away in 3D. After that I usually take the render into Photoshop and finalize it there.

Everyone has artists that they look up to, so please tell us about yours and how they influence the work that you currently do.

There are too many. Some of the Russian painters that influenced me a lot and whose art I had a chance to see at museums are Ivan Shishkin, Isaac Levitan, Ilya Repin, Arkhip Kuindzhi, Vasiliy Polenov and many-many more. Some of my favorite American painters and illustrators from the past are Edgar Payne, John F Carlson, Aldro Hibbard, James Reynolds, Dean Cornwell, JC Leyendecker, Richard Schmid and many-many more. Bill Anton, Scott Christensen, Clyde Aspevig, Matt Smith are some of the best ones right now.

When it comes to movie designs my all time favorite artists are Ralph Mcquarrie, Syd Mead and Joe Johnston. From a digital art stand point, early on I was heavily influenced by Dylan Cole and Yanick Dusseault and in my humble opinion Yanick is one of the greatest in the world of VFX. I was fortunate enough to work with James Clyne who is another legendary artist in the industry. Of course, Jaime Jones and Craig Mullins are the ones that everyone constantly looks up to. My good friend Sasha Beliaev is one of the greatest in both digital and traditional art. Oleksiy Golovchenko is also a good friend and an awesome artist that I have known for many years.

You’ve worked with well known companies like ILM, Digic Pictures, Axis Animation, Warner Brothers, MPC, Pixomondo, Disney etc., so we want to know what was the most exciting project you’ve worked on so far?

I think every project has its own great things in it. By now I had a chance to work on over 50 movies, so it is a bit tricky to pick one. I would probably say working on Star Wars movies was one of the nicest as I have always been a fan of the franchise from an aesthetic point of view. On some of them we had such a legendary team of artists, it was a true honor to be a part of it. In general, I think, it all comes down to the team and tasks you have. It can be a very small project, but working with nice people can always make the experience much more fun as well as having an interesting task on a very small project can also make you feel happy.

Tell us a little bit about your online workshops at CGSociety/CGMA and Gnomon. Are your students enjoying it?

I currently have a class at CGMA – Matte Painting and Concept Art for Production. The class is designed with the emphasis on how you work as a concept artist and a matte-painter. This is not a class that will show you how to use a single piece of software, but rather teach you how to think as an artist, what to pay attention to when you are facing a new task, how to be efficient, how to utilize light, color and composition to achieve artistic and photorealistic results. All of that along with the latest modern techniques that we use on a daily basis at work. You will see how to create an entire moving shot starting from a black and white sketch all the way to the final touch. There are many examples and demos from real movie production projects. The class is 8 weeks long and I mentor students throughout the entire process.

I also have a Gnomon workshop DVD that is now available as digital download or you could watch it online. It covers the entire process of creating an epic matte shot, starting from the very rough explorations to the very final touch ups. After watching that you should be able to create an epic cinematic matte shot all by yourself!
Most of the people who have taken the class are industry professionals now. Some of them are working at ILM, Pixomondo and MPC and I am super happy for them!

You’ve recently worked on Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (2023) at Industrial Light & Magic, could you tell us more about it?

Actually it was back in 2020 at Method Studios. I was working during early pre-production for a few months and we had so much creative freedom to explore the worlds where Ant Man would exist. Pre-production is probably my favorite because quite often it is a “blue sky” with enough information from the director so that you can pretty much do whatever feels right for that without having any technical restrictions. All that matters is evocative looks and designs, everything else will be taken care of later. Sometimes our design decisions influence script writers and can provoke something new or different in the movie. Lots of fun!!

Do you believe that working on personal artworks in one’s spare time is important?

Working on personal art is extremely valuable and important. I don’t think I know any artist who would not do that or who would disagree with it. There are multiple advantages to it. Sometimes it is a great opportunity to learn some new tools and see if they make sense to you, other times you just want to get that idea down on paper, you want to tell your own story and show it through your own vision. There is nothing quite like it. Finding the color that is appropriate for that certain thing, finding that shape design that you have been struggling to find for a while or that composition… All of it is extremely satisfying and challenging to do sometimes. We all inspire each other and that is great!

What next for Igor Staritsin?

My main goal has always been to grow as an artist no matter what. Things change, means of achieving certain results might change as well. However, to me the tools are always the same. My tools are values, colors, compositions and lighting. As long as I am getting better at utilizing those tools day by day – I am happy. It doesn’t really matter to me whether art is digital or traditional, whether it was done using this software or oil. At the end of the day if a painting looks good that is all that matters.

There is some magic in art created by humans, it touches you, it speaks to you, it invites you to the scene and you basically can talk to the painter. Art is one of the best things that God has given to us and we should cherish it and it is a blessing to be able to do that, even though sometimes it is not easy.

Igor Staritsin – Artist

By Vox Groovy staff writer;
All images used with permission by the artist
© Igor Staritsin or respective copyright holders

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Reading by: Asha

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