Leveraging a Filmmaker's Skill Set to Illustrate a Sci-Fi Story

When he was a kid, Dylan Cole was always drawing. Looking back, he figures his biggest influence at the time was Star Wars—a fact that could not have escaped his mom, whose Mother’s Day cards were always decorated with the trilogy’s Star Destroyers and X-wing starfighters. In high school, Star Wars played an even more pivotal role in shaping Cole’s future when he discovered his love of matte painting and concept art while paging through The Art of Star Wars. “I loved the simplicity and romance of doing a traditional matte painting and having it become a shot in a film,” he recalls.
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Cover image

Dylan Cole used simple 3D spheres with a fleshy, bumpy textures to create a “blobby-style world” for the cover of his new book. Blobs in the foreground were created by painting over photographs he took of squishy toys and balloons.
Cole followed his dream and, today, his list of credits as a matte painter and concept artist includes high-profile films such as Avatar, Alice in Wonderland, Tron: Legacy and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Currently the co-production designer for Disney’s Maleficent, he recently published his first book, The Otherworldly Adventures of Tyler Washburn. Created using Photoshop and Cinema 4D, the book tells the story of Tyler, a curious boy who loves to invent things. One day, Tyler’s curiosity leads him way across the galaxy to the STAR (Society for Technologically Advanced Races) Academy, and a whole school filled with aliens from other worlds. 
No Ordinary Storybook
From the start, Cole thought his book would appeal to a wide audience. While kids love the story and pictures, adults are drawn to the book's art, concept and design. Cole originally envisioned the book as a film for Hydra Entertainment, which Cole founded with pre-vis company The Third Floor and Oscar-winning production designer Robert Stromberg. While thinking about film development, he thought it would be fun to do a children’s book as a way of exploring the idea. So, after doing a simple outline, Cole began creating rough paintings so he could get an idea of what the book would look like as a whole. Next, he put text over the sketches so he could work on the art and writing at the same time. 

Most of the book’s spreads began as thumbnail sketches painted in Photoshop. Characters were designed by Cole and his intern, Ahmed Aldoori, with Aldoori contributing to most of the character illustrations and Cole adding finishing touches.
Cole was aiming for a “cinematic feel,” something not seen in most children’s books. So he used the large double-page spreads as he normally would for his concept art and matte painting. “I love the amazing heritage of traditionally illustrated children’s books,” Cole says. “But children are bombarded with film and video games these days, so I tried to bring a level of flash and style that would be immersive enough to get them excited about reading.” 
In many ways, Cole says, the story was influenced by his own childhood. “I just tried to think of what an 8-year-old version of myself would enjoy,” he says, adding that he loved to make things out of stuff like scraps of wood and duct tape as a kid, and he I wanted Tyler’s contraptions to have the same low-tech took. 

Cole created the meatball-like phyllopods in this scene by using balloons covered with silly string and maple syrup as the basis for his painting. 
“I was going for something timeless, almost sentimental, so there are no cell phones or other modern gadgets.” And while the space scenes are meant to feel modern, the earthbound parts of the story have an intentionally small-town feel reminiscent of painter Norman Rockwell and 80’s movies Cole liked, including The Goonies, E.T. and Stand By Me
An Immersive Experience
Hoping to complete the book in about six months while balancing other projects, Cole brought on Ahmed Aldoori, a student at the Art Center College of Design, as an intern to help with character illustration. In all, the book is 48 pages and includes 22 colorful spreads, as well as the cover and title page. “Most books of this format are 32 pages, but I wanted to stretch it so I could pack in a lot more fun stuff,” Cole says. 

The secret world beneath Tyler’s school began as a rough 3D model by artists at The Third Floor, which Cole refined in C4D. Dozens of render passes were created to achieve different lighting effects and materials that he brought together in Photoshop.
While some of the spreads began as models in Cinema 4D, most started as thumbnail sketches painted by Cole in Photoshop. After coming up with a rough layout, Cole would pass his in-process models and paintings to Aldoori, who would work on character development with Cole weighing in on revisions. Once a spread reached a certain level, Cole would drop Aldoori’s characters into his finished environments before doing the final expressions, lighting and other details in Photoshop.  
Throughout the project, the biggest challenge was maintaining the same level of detail and consistency, Cole says. Architecturally heavy scenes were the most time consuming, Cole says, pointing to both the expansive portal hall Tyler steps into when he arrives at the STAR Academy and the hanger filled with spaceships from around the galaxy. “For the hall, I modeled one portal bay in Cinema and instanced it around to create a huge space,” Cole explains. “I wanted to have enough sci-fi detail to make it interesting, but I tried to have a retro vibe with the simplicity of the overall layout.” 

To create the STAR Academy’s expansive portal hall, Cole modeled one portal bay in C4D and instanced it around to create an enormous-looking space. He made the hall feel alive and fun by using warm light and a variety of colors, because he was wary of creating “cold and sterile sci-fi”.
Cole did an ambient occlusion pass in addition to using global illumination to bring out certain details in the hall. “I like using ambient occlusion, but I rarely use it as a whole pass,” he says. “I usually just isolate areas and either screen, multiply or overlay it over my painting in Photoshop as I need it to bring out certain details.” To render additional passes or mattes that he needed, Cole went back and forth between 3D and painting constantly. “I would render separate passes for every light and its bounce light,” he explains, adding that he did massive GI passes on these scenes.

The hangar scene was the biggest and most time-consuming spread in the book, says Cole, who modeled the hanger in Cinema 4D before populating it with a variety of ships made in C4D, as well. 
To create the hangar scene, Cole built all of the spaceships as geometry in C4D, and the main painted elements were all of the figures. “Even the holograms were put on cards and geometry in 3D space to have the correct perspectives and reflections,” he explains. 
More Stories to Tell
One of Cole favorite scenes from the book is near the end, when Tyler gets to compete in the Thrustersuit Races, a subject Cole is looking forward to developing in future books. After laying the entire spread out in C4D so he could find the most dynamic camera angle, Cole used MoGraph to instance a lot of asteroids into a big ring.
Jetpack trails were created using Sketch and Toon’s art shader. “I used a swirly fractal pattern and applied it to an ellipse extruded along a spline,” Cole explains, adding that he rendered several variations and mixed his favorite parts together in Photoshop to make the final trail. The space station is a painting he created in Photoshop. 

Thundersuit racing will definitely be part of future books by Cole. 
Cole was nearly finished with the book when he realized he would one day be reading it to his own son, who is not yet a year old. Just thinking about that is inspiring, and he’s already thinking about ways to expand the first book into a series. An interactive app version of the book that includes parallaxing art, interactive features and games will be coming out soon. And a script for a film that would be produced by Hydra Entertainment is also underway, 
“I set the book up to be a series, so I am definitely thinking about the next adventure,” Cole says. “I really like that this story is more about a feeling than an obvious moral. I wanted it to end where he is at home and happy to keep it grounded in reality and family.” 

Dylan Cole Studio: www.dylancolestudio.com/ | www.facebook.com/DylanColeStudio
Hydra Entertainment: hydra-entertainment.com/
Design Studio Press: www.designstudiopress.com/
Amazon.com: www.amazon.com/The-Otherworldly-Adventures-Tyler-Washburn/dp/1933492775/

Meleah Maynard is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer and editor.