Freelance senior concept artist Gus Mendonça has a cooler job than most everyone. That's because he creates, from scratch, the visual language that other artists on a film, game, or comic book production will use as a springboard or visual target. His designs are so seamless that it's impossible to distinguish his new work from the established universe. And the universes he works in include Star Wars, Halo, The Avengers and Call of Duty.
He also works harder than almost everyone else.
"A concept artist is someone who comes in to help visualize what it is we're going to make," Mendonça tells SYFY WIRE. "As a visual designer, your job is to help everyone to agree on what it is we're making. What is the new Star Wars game or Halo game supposed to look like? What do the world and the characters look like? Our job is to [answer these questions] and to connect what everyone wants to do together visually. Concept art is about solving visual and storytelling problems of any given production."
Essentially, concept art is a visual draft of the look of the property, before the first scene is filmed or the first level designed. It acts as a cornucopia for artists and designers to pull from. And in some cases, the tone has to be perfect from Day 1. As Mendonça said, "Star Wars, for example, has a very specific look that if you don't get it right, fans will look at it and say, 'It doesn't look authentic, it doesn't feel like Star Wars.'"
Mendonça found his calling early in life, when at the age of 7 he fell madly, passionately in love with the art of comic books, specifically O Incrivel Hulk #7, illustrated by Ron Wilson and Alfredo Alcala, and A Espada Selvagem de Conan #3, illustrated by John Buscema and Alfredo Alcala. "How lucky was I that the very first comics that I got my hands on were made by titans of the comic book world."
He studied the art carefully until he was able to produce his own—with one catch: the now 38-year-old Mendonça was raised in poverty in Brazil and had no money for paint. "I learned to paint watercolor with Kool-aid. They gave it away for free," he said.
In high school, a friend had borrowed Mendonça's notebook filled with sketches, and a passing advertising agency owner spotted the young man's talent. The owner hired him immediately. The year was 1995, and he was 15 years old.
Mendonça worked full time during the day while attending high school at night.
After three years in the advertising trenches, Mendonça, at age 18, became the winner of a talent search that brought his work to the United States; working as a freelance concept artist he had his work seen by Marvel Comics and DC Comics, among others. Fast-forward four years, when Mendonca traveled to San Diego Comic-Con with a book of his art. "I was hired by Electronic Arts on the spot," he said.
From there he has gone from project to project, including TV shows Stargate SG-1 and Sanctuary. Today he's working on a VR Darth Vader project for Star Wars, as well as Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order for Respawn Entertainment, the upcoming Avengers videogame for Crystal Dynamics, Gears of War 5 for Microsoft's The Coalition Studio, and Guild Wars for ArenaNet.
Mendonça said, "Coming from the background that I come from, you need to be very methodical and mindful of what you want for your future. Living in the projects, you don't have the luxury to just go with the flow. You have to be a little more deliberate. So when I was 14, I created a narrative of what I wanted my life to be. I wanted to work with the things that inspired me the most. I had a plan, and I would work with that in mind."
If you think the life of a concept artist is easy, Mendonça is here to tell you he has also encountered speed bumps in the road to success. "I was a senior concept artist on Star Wars 1313 for four years. I helped design the look of the world and the primary characters — a new take on Boba Fett — with direct input from George Lucas. I produced literally thousands of concepts. Thousands." The project was shelved in 2013, when Disney purchased Lucasfilm for $4 billion.
But it wasn't a waste of four years, creatively speaking. Mendonça said, "I know for a fact that the work we did on that project influenced the Star Wars projects that came out after." Lucasfilm is very good at not letting good work go to waste.
Mendonça credits his love of fandom for his career. "Fandom quite literally changed my life. It influenced me to a point where it defined what I wanted to do. I was such a big fan of comics, movies and games that I want to be a part of it. I don't want to just watch the movies or play the videogames. I want to help make them."
His fandom has also positively impacted his career in another important way. "It facilitates my work." When Mendonça, a gamer, was hired to do concept art for Gears of War 5, he already knew the series. "I don't need to do the research," he said. "I can start right away."
And that's the real reason why Mendonça's job is better than yours: When he watches Star Wars or plays a video game, he gets to call it "research."