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Concept Artist John Giang Brings Silver Screen Secrets Back Home

Posted January 19, 2016 in Classes & PresentationsDigital MediaIllustration

Self-proclaimed illustration junkie and native Grand Rapidian John Giang went all out to land his dream job in Hollywood. So naturally, more than a few students at Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University (KCAD) were eager to learn how they might do the same when he stopped by KCAD on a recent visit back to his hometown for Grand Rapids Comic-Con.  

Having had a string of jobs in the creative sector after graduating from The Art Institute of Pittsburgh with a degree in Graphic Design, Giang wasn’t afraid to quit them all in pursuit of a gig with Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), the motion picture visual effects company founded by George Lucas in 1975 that continues to set the bar for computer animation in Hollywood today.

As a concept artist for ILM, Giang has had a hand in designing the landscapes and characters from some of the biggest blockbuster films in recent history, including Iron Man, Star Trek, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Transformers: Dark of the Moon. At KCAD, Giang showed the students his portfolio of concept art he created for the films, and even conducted a lengthy public portfolio review session in which he critiqued students’ work so that everyone could benefit from the feedback.

John Giang at KCAD(above): Concept Artist John Giang speaks with students during an open portfolio review session at KCAD; (below): Students presented their work publicly, so that Giang's feedback could be heard by everyone in attendance

Many of the students in attendance have their eyes and hearts set on working in digital media epicenters like New York and Los Angeles, and while Giang was largely impressed with the students’ work, he was adamant in telling them that talent is only part of the equation. Capitalizing on that talent, he said, takes a concentrated effort to sharpen it daily and willingness to take advantage of networking opportunities.

“If you’re someone who wants to draw all the time, figure out ways to make sure you do that all the time. If you want to work on graphic design all the time, figure out a way to make that happen. Always make sure you’re not isolating yourself; expose that work, and show the world out there that you’re doing it.”

For the students, hearing directly from someone who has already made the journey from Grand Rapids to the big time was a real eye-opener. After graduating from college, Giang came back to Michigan but wasn’t satisfied with the job prospects in front of him. Determined to pursue his passion, he moved to California with no new job lined up and nowhere to live. Eventually, he worked a few jobs in concept design before getting lucky and landing a job in Silicon Valley as an art director for eBay. However, eBay still wasn’t where he wanted to be.

Giang used this particular moment in his career to show the students how important self-examination is to achieving one’s goals.

“I had to ask myself, ‘Is this job creatively feeding my soul? Is it making me as happy as I want to be? Is it answering my question in terms of ‘Am I going to be happy if I never give it a shot?’” he recalled.

So just like that, Giang left eBay and headed off to San Francisco to pursue his lifelong dream: a job at ILM.  

samples of John Giang's workGiang brought in some of the concept design work he's done for Hollywood blockbusters

“I made the jump again without any job in place and I started to really concentrate on illustrating and concept art and also doing conventions, making sure I was really exposing my work,” Giang told the students.

It was at a convention that he met some artists from ILM, who were impressed by his work. They suggested he apply to the company, and in due time he was hired on as a production assistant. It was a fairly low level position compared to the cushy Silicon Valley job he’d had at eBay, but despite the cut in pay, Giang says he took the position in a heartbeat, telling the students that no one ever landed their dream job without making some personal and professional sacrifices along the way.

“ILM wanted to bring in people who were showing the work ethic to find references, create reference reels, to do whatever it takes,” Giang said. “The work I was doing as a production assistant could be considered menial work, but in actuality what’s happening is that you’re developing your visual vocabulary for everything. You’re also, through osmosis, around some of the best artists in the world, concept art wise, so you’re learning whenever you get the opportunity.”

John Ginang conducting portfolio review with KCAD studentsA student presents his portfolio for Giang to critique in front of the group

Having done just that, Giang now spends his days creating concept art that inspires the breathtaking visuals seen on movie screens throughout the world. At the end of the day, he told the students, the difference between dreams and reality all comes down to drive, desire, and a willingness to learn wherever possible.

Judging by the number of students who turned up to hear Giang speak, it seems that they’re already more than capable of recognizing an invaluable networking opportunity when they see one.

“It’s always about proximity to me,” Giang said. “If I can be around people and things that are connected to what I love to do, then through networking and osmosis, good things will happen.”


Check out John Giang’s concept art at orbitalharvest.com.

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