James Carson helps create cities, worlds and sometimes universes.
As a concept artist and illustrator for movies, the 56-year-old Utah artist has applied his imagination to Gotham City, a web-slinger in New York, the Pirates of the Caribbean, and good chunks of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Now, another world that he had a hand in designing — the undersea wonders of DC Comics’ “Aquaman” — will attract moviegoers worldwide. (The movie opens nationwide Friday.)
“It’s always exciting seeing the things you worked on,” Carson said from his American Fork home this week.
A concept artist, Carson explained, works with the movie’s production designer “to help establish the visuals, the aesthetics of a film.” Carson’s work usually happens a couple of years before the movie is scheduled to be released, and all the set building and visual effects flow from there. Sometimes the final product looks a lot like the concept art; sometimes the look goes in a different direction.
“First and foremost, the art is a means to the storytelling,” Carson said. “How does it help the look and move the story along? And secondarily, it’s to help with the visual effects, as a springboard.”
Usually, the concept artist works with the production designer, though sometimes there are early meetings with the director. In the case of “Aquaman,” Carson met early with production designer Bill Brzeski and director James Wan, who worked together on “Furious 7.”
“Some designers are very specific about what they want,” Carson said. Brzeski, Carson said, “let us have full rein to do whatever we wanted, initially. [Later on,] we’d hone it until everything was more cohesive.”
Carson has worked on all three of Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” movies, and for Marvel has contributed to “Thor,” the first two “Captain America” movies, “Ant-Man” and “Doctor Strange.” With movies based on comic books, he said, there is some debate about how much to borrow from the original comic-book art.
“There’s the fans that are very tied to the culture and the story of the comic books,” Carson said. “But film is a different medium. We’ll often try to capture the flavor of the comic books, but we don’t typically use the comic books overtly as a reference point.”
Carson grew up in northern California. “I was one of those art-geek kids,” he said. “I was a little socially behind, so art seemed like a good thing to hide behind a little bit.”
Concerned with falling into the “starving artist” cliché, Carson studied industrial design at Brigham Young University. That work, he said, segued right into film. He packed up his pickup truck and left Provo for Los Angeles, bearing the name of one contact who helped him find a job.
“They hired me, and one thing led to another,” Carson said, adding that his first jobs got him his union card, which opened up more possibilities.
His first big movie was “Batman Forever,” the 1995 Joel Schumacher-directed superhero drama with Val Kilmer as the Caped Crusader, and Jim Carrey and Tommy Lee Jones as the mismatched villains The Riddler and Two-Face.
In the 1990s, Carson worked as an illustrator on such movies as “Men in Black,” “Face/Off” and “Armageddon.” He worked with Steven Spielberg on “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” and “Minority Report,” and Gore Verbinski on the second and third “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, “Rango” and “The Lone Ranger.” (See his earlier work on his website, jamescarsondesign.com.)
About a dozen years ago, he left L.A. for Utah County, first in Highland and for the past seven years on a small farm in American Fork. “We’re kind of doing the ‘Green Acres’ thing,” said Carson, who’s recently taken a role in his wife’s interior design business.
One notable director he worked with early in his career is Tim Burton, with gigs on “Ed Wood” and “Mars Attacks!” He went to work for Burton again recently, for the live-action remake of Disney’s “Dumbo,” which hits theaters next March.
“Tim Burton has such an iconic stamp and feel to everything he does,” Carson said. “When you go onto a Tim Burton film, you’re like, ‘OK, time to do a Tim Burton.’”