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The Golden Bird: Building up the Magic of a Story Through Environment Design

Senior Background Artist Sarah Guedes shows us the progression of how she melded art styles to create background designs for her project in Environment Sketching for Production.


My name is Sarah Guedes, I am a Brazilian visual development artist currently working as art director of the new animation feature movie: Chef Jack. I hold a Bachelor’s degree in Animation and Digital Arts from Minas Gerais State Federal University (UFMG), where the studies are mostly focused on animation techniques and principles. As my dream was always to work with an animation background I sought specialization in visual development. Therefore, I started studying the visual aspects of building up a story, especially by constructing interesting design locations to set up universes. While searching for related courses, I came across the CGmasters academy and got really interested in the environment design courses and their depth. I have already completed more than one CGmasters course, and I was invited to write a little about my experience at developing the visual of Grimm’s fairy tale The Golden Bird. From the course  Environment Sketching for Production, with the instruction of Patrick Raines, I saw how strong research and deep understanding of your story can make environments much more believable, and somehow make magic.

The Story Project

In the course’s first week we had to choose a story to work through the 8 weeks of exercises, exploring different locations and moods. I chose The Golden Bird as I wanted to use a different fairy tale, less influenced by other interpretations. The story is about a kingdom, its king, and his three sons. Their palace had a special apple tree that had golden apples and one day they began to disappear because a bird with gold feathers started to steal them. It’s a magical story with castles and forests. For me, it was the perfect place to explore!

My first thumbnails were rough sketches 20-30 minutes just to start thinking through the story and places action could happen. Although neither of them was used in the final explorations of the course, they were really important to start to feel the narrative and the elements such as architecture type, the palace, and the forest.

This first exercise was important to define the main references for the story. For me, that was the illustrations from Ivan Bilibin (1876-1942) and the orientalism art movement, and the Arabic and Indian gardens/forests. Then, in the first weeks, we focused on making deep research to establish the mood of the story. During this time Patrick Raines reinforced the importance of references, and he couldn’t be more right.

Storytelling in Art

Image 1: Art Nouveau references, Image 2: Art Deco references

In the third week, we started to explore our initial ideas by moving to a different level, adding character to our environments, giving a second layer to them, and exploring the shape languages of different art movements. For my exercise, I explored the differences between art nouveau and art deco styles, studying trees, bushes, and two different approaches to the castle of the golden bird.

It was really interesting trying to think how an architecture style could influence the shape language of organic elements such as trees, a kind of exercise that could create unexpected and unique results. During the exercise, PJ Raines asked us to pay attention to the principles of big, medium, and small shapes, giving some directions to the viewer’s eyes. I tried to focus on the tree top as the big shape, the trunk as the medium, and the roots as the small shape. At that point, I saw how a background could tell so much more than I had expected by just giving more layers of storytelling to it. After exploring and looking at the shapes of art deco and art nouveau styles I understood that the arabesques and organic flow from art nouveau worked better with the story I was trying to create. I wanted a vintage and antique look for the story and it fits perfectly.

Architecture exploration for the golden bird palace.

Architecture Studies & Art Direction and Style

After exploring these structures we should apply them together transforming our original concept with the architecture style we were using before, (in my case the Indian/arabian style) to the new reference, the art nouveau style, and the result was this:

Planning this design change was a difficult task. Keeping the overall composition but rethinking all the motifs and adornments was a real challenge. This kind of exercise prepares you for the different approaches an art director can request while producing the visual development of a movie or a game. At the end of this exercise, I appreciated the new version more than the first one. Feeling motivated, I took the third step by further exploring the light and producing a colored version.

Later, after studying architecture approaches, Raines asked us to start thinking about the organic settings of the story. For my story, I decided to produce the prince and the golden bird’s first encounter at the palace grove. The professor made important corrections that made me realize a more interesting way to use the tree trunk to guide the eyes, which improved the negative space, making it better to see the golden bird and the prince at the composition. He also suggested I explore the bird design separately, still using the Art Nouveau style.

Image 1: My Design, Image 2: Professor’s Feedback

After all the suggestions I moved forward to explore the line art of the drawing, it was not easy to imagine how to suggest some leaves and moss just in line, so I took a look at the work of the amazing artists Paul Felix and Moebius, to be inspired, and this was the result of the line drawing:

Explorations of the golden bird.

Moving forward, we came to the final exercise: explore an interior set of the story. I decided to create a room where the golden bird was locked and held captive, a place inspired by the idea of the cabinet of curiosities, a room that hides strange treasures. In the first explorations, I tried some ways to illuminate the room, and after some feedback I realized I was not giving the right attention to the golden bird and the prince, although he was stealing the bird, to show them properly and put the bird in emphasis was more important than paint the scene dark and mysterious.

First attempt.

Second attempt.

Hence, I tried a second attempt but it was so bright that it lacked contrast to see the bird. There were too many light sources in the scenes and nothing was in focus. Talking to PJ, a better way to see the bird was to darken the wall and diminish the intensity of the light from the window. After that, the scene got more contrast and the eyes were directed to the bird and the prince. Finally, the image was properly showing what was important to look at.

Left: Final results after feedback, Right: Color explorations of the illustration after class.

Final Thoughts

Taking this course was an amazing way to explore and give life to an idea. Sometimes, exploring a background without the guidance of a story may make us feel a lack of purpose, but this class made me committed to transmitting feelings through a story and made me understand the idea of developing a background in layers which I never imagined before.  I hope this little interview can help some artists to see a possible approach behind the construction of a story.

If you want to see more of Sarah’s work, visit her website here: www.sarahguedes.com