By Joe Tash
From an office in a second-floor bedroom of his family’s home, local resident John Dickenson dreams of worlds that have never existed, and gives them life, depth and color.
His tools are his computer screen and electronic drawing board, powerful imaging programs, and sometimes simple pen and paper.
A digital concept artist, Dickenson works on feature films, video games and TV commercials, and has even been called in to help with designs for theme park rides. Among his film credits are two movies based on the Narnia novels of writer C.S. Lewis: “Prince Caspian” and “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.”
Dickenson, 57, has made his living as an artist for more than two decades; before he began working on films and video games, he was a freelance illustrator, graphic designer and comic book inker.
He was recently admitted to a union for film artists, which he expects will result in more calls from Hollywood directors and production designers. This year, two films that he worked on, “Snow White and the Huntsman,” and “47 Ronin,” will open in theaters.
Dickenson said his job often begins in the “pre-production” phase of a film, when a project is being pitched to studio executives. The executives then decide whether to “green light” the project (give it funding for full production).
Dickenson starts with a script, or a conversation with a filmmaker or video game designer, then begins to make sketches of the scene or character that is needed.
“It’s my job to try to capture their vision and chase it around a bit,” he said.
“I see shapes and colors and images and start to chase them. Sometimes it comes together with minimal effort, other times it takes a lot of work. It’s a back and forth, push and pull process,” he said.
In some cases, Dickenson works from his home office, while in others, the director or production designer wants him to commute to a studio in Los Angeles.
The final product can have many sources: sketches that are scanned into the computer; photographs; digital images “painted” onto an electronic drawing board, which are then digitized; and even scraps of fabric scanned into the computer for their texture or color.
For one of the Narnia movies, Dickenson used a sketch of trees with human faces that he drew in a sketchbook while on his honeymoon.
“It scratches an itch to do pen on paper. You don’t get to do that a lot in the heat of battle,” when working on deadline on a film project, he said.
Although he always loved to draw, Dickenson didn’t focus on art as a career until he was in his 20s. He raced dirt bikes in high school, and then held a series of jobs, from working in a machine shop to driving a forklift in a warehouse.
He attended Fullerton Art College, and then got a part-time job in an art store run by one of his teachers.
“That kind of started my art career,” he said.