An artist whose work has taken him from indie games to The Angry Birds Movie, Matt Gaser’s design and illustration skills are about as diverse and exciting as they come. Over the years, he has worked on all kinds of projects, including a long term position with Lucasfilm working on the animated Star Wars: The Clone Wars to his latest Kickstarter campaign for a resin model of his own character, Prof. Harkin.
Matt is known for his wonderful fantasy settings, spanning countryside landscapes to busy futuristic cities, and distinct character design. His work is immediately recognisable and is in high demand for good reason.
We caught up with Matt to find out more about his latest projects and the rollercoaster of a career that got him where he is today.
Kirstie: How did you get into art?
Matt: I got into art when I was a child, at a very early age. I had a childhood friend, and we would draw characters, make costumes using cardboard and cereal boxes and act out our adventures in the redwood forest behind our homes.
I kept drawing when most of my friends stopped to play video games. I think I was just so happy making up my own stories even back then. It was a place I could escape, a place I could call my own. My parents really gave me the support to pursue the arts.
Kirstie: Who were your earliest influences?
Matt: We had a great bookstore about a mile from my house. On rainy weekends (1980’s) my mother would take me and my brother there. I’d look up comics and books, that’s when I found these amazing artists. Books like, Visions by Robert McCall, Dinotopia by James Gurney, and Wayne Barlow’s Expedition. These three artists basically shaped my influences as a kid.
Movies like Star Wars, Alien, Gone with the Wind (just kidding).
Another friend of mine, his Dad would record all the movies I wasn’t supposed to watch… So, I’d pop over to Chris’s house and get a gigantic dose of action, sci-fi and horror movies growing up. My mother would have grounded me for life. In the end, I just had a few nightmares and some creative fuel for my drawings!
Kirstie: Who are your predominant influences now?
Matt: I have so many now, I collect art toys, art books (big library of books in my studio), Gizmodo, Coast to Coast (a conspiracy, cover up podcast), Elon Musk, and artists of all kinds: Daniel Horowitz, James Gurney, Iain McCaig, Hayao Miyazaki (Studio Ghibli), etc.
I still watch movies for inspiration and love to listen to my library of movie scores while I work. Cartoons get me thinking in different directions too. I like to watch Adventure Time, Rick and Morty, Gumball, etc… Sometimes they can solve a work problem over my lunch break.
Kirstie: What is your favourite material to work with?
Matt: I still love to draw with pen on marker paper. The process of doodling ideas and creating new characters and worlds is so fun.
I really love woodworking too. For my artist alley tables at comic cons, I build print racks, hanging lanterns, book stands, the process of making things for presentation can be very creative and makes a great platform to feature my prints, art books and apparel. You can find these on my store website here.
I’d say Photoshop is also one of my faves. Working digitally over the years has accelerated my growth as an artist far beyond what I thought was possible while going to art school 15+ years ago.
Kirstie: If you could design the poster for any movie, what would it be? What would your design be like?
Matt: Forbidden Planet, go super graphic! That would be a fun challenge. I design posters for an EDM concert each year called the: Daydream Festival. Poster design can be so fun. I also design the stage for the event. That is one of my favourite gigs each year.
Kirstie: What is the first piece of work you were really proud of?
Matt: There have been so many over the years. I’d say my painting of Gluba Vanderhon the Giant. It was the first time I had done a piece that got super recognition. I won an award in SPECTRUM back in 2005 for this piece. It set the tone for a whole world of paintings and sketches I’d create later on.
Kirstie: How have you changed as an artist since then?
Matt: I have in many ways, but the style of my personal work has stayed pretty much the same. Client work can sometimes take me out of my comfort zone, to push me to do some really cool work I otherwise wouldn’t do.
I’m getting to the age now where I just want to do my own stuff more and more, to hit my goals much faster. Time is ticking and I want to get some major stories and goals checked off my list. I’ve changed into less of a dreamer and more of a doer. It doesn’t help to lie around and hope that someone makes a book or toy of your work. Get up and do it yourself, make it happen!!
Kirstie: You design a lot of very distinct characters. How do you manage to get so much personality into a still image?
Matt: I’m influenced a lot by how people perceive my work. I remember an art director telling me once, “Your environment work is good, put characters in them, tell a story and they will be great!” Things like that inform me I need to change things up, make my work better. Push myself. When I work I like to pretend I’m inside the image, so meeting these characters happens as I paint/design them. The personality comes from this process.
Kirstie: How does the personality of a character you create affect how you design them physically?
Matt: Wow, great question… I like to think of their background, where they came from, etc… Maybe they want to be nice but situations in life have made them a villain. Or some hero type and his profession dictate how he/she is designed or the tools they use. Where do these characters fall in the arch of society? All of these things need to be running through your mind while you work.
Kirstie: How did you get into sculpting?
Matt: At Art School, I had a wonderful roommate who built custom sculptures, vehicles, and characters using super sculpty and found objects. He influenced me in a huge way. Sculpture is something I want to do more of, perhaps when all my other projects get done… haha. Oh, dear… that may take a while.
Kirstie: You’ve worked on a lot of huge projects over your career, including Eragon, Lord of the Rings and Star Wars: The Clone Wars. What’s your favourite project you worked on? Why?
Matt: So far, the most fun I’ve had working on a project has been my designs on The Angry Birds Movie. We designed the bird and pig island for eight months, I did tons of sketches. A lot of these became part of the actual movie, like Matilda’s Hut. It was also fun to see how my early designs influenced the final design through other artist’s eyes. It was such a fun collaborative process!
Eragon was fun too. I was working on the video game doing concept art before the movie was getting made. So we had to reference the book a lot. We had done so much concept work ahead of the movie pre-production they actually referenced some of our work for the movie. The coolest part, my art director and I had to fly to Budapest, Hungary to photograph reference for the video game. We toured the sets, met the cast and crew. Even visited the forge where they made all the armour and swords for the movie.
Kirstie: You’ve worked been involved in some really huge releases recently, like Hop and The Angry Birds Movie, but you also do a lot of smaller, more niche projects. What’s the difference between working on projects on such contrasting scales?
Matt: I’d say the niche projects can be the most liberating, with the freedom for creativity and exploration. I was on a small mobile game a few months ago. The world was so imaginative and the client gave us total freedom to create almost anything we wanted. This is rare, especially when working on bigger, higher profile assignments.
Kirstie: Does that difference affect your process?
Matt: Not really, all that changes is the direction of the assignment. Or schedule is sometimes impacted. It’s still just creating designs and illustration for what the client needs. Pay can be less on smaller projects I suppose.
Kirstie: Which type of project do you prefer?
Matt: Blue sky projects are the best! They offer full creative freedom and allow for some amazing imagery to be generated. Feature Animation is so fun to work on. I like these types of projects too because they tend to pay well, offer creative assignments, and exposure is generally good too. Getting into art of books from feature development is free advertising!
Kirstie: What made you decide to freelance full time?
Matt: Back in 2008, I decided to leave Lucasfilm Animation to work for a start-up game company as their art director. Then, the stock market crashed… funding dried up and the company had to close its doors. I was forced to push out on my own or look for another studio job. I choose to work freelance full time, I’ve been a contractor ever since.
Kirstie: You’re launching a Kickstarter later this month for a Prof. Harkin project. Tell us about it.
Matt: Yes, on Feb 23rd – March 23rd “Prof. Harkin: Resin Art Toy” I will be launching my Kickstarter: www.profharkin.com. I’ll be crowd funding enough capital to put this robot toy into production. It will be a resin art toy collectible standing 8.5 inches tall.
After designing the robot, I made an orthography (front, side, back view of the design). Once that was done, I hired my friend Ryan Calloway to 3D model the character. After I approved the final model I had it 3D printed as a prototype, made a mould and two casts. One of the casts I used as my paint master. All I need now is capital from the Kickstarter to put this collectible toy into production.
Prof. Harkin is from a world I’ve been developing for some time.
Gallagan is a strange universe of giants, slug people, humans, little creatures with top hats and of course robots of all kinds. Prof. Harkin lives in a metropolis called New Logan. It’s an alternate New York with creatures and things of all sizes living in the same city. Robots go to work like everyone else, so does Prof. Harkin. He teaches at the Kronsworth University for Gifted Entities. Specializing in helping talented students learn complex mathematics. Because he’s been doing this trade for some time, Prof. Harkin is showing signs of aging, stains, and grime. But, that never slows him down. He never stops teaching and is always on time.
Kirstie: Why did you choose Kickstarter to fund the project?
Matt: I chose Kickstarter because a lot of my friends and colleagues have had great success on this platform. It will be my first Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign. I’m so excited, hoping all goes well and we can raise the $8,000 needed to put this robot art toy into production.
Kirstie: What’s your plan for once the campaign is over? Do you have any plans for the future of Prof. Harkin?
Matt: I’m excited to see how well my campaign does over the 30 days. I’m offering a lot of reward tiers to get people interested in donating to my project. Once the campaign is over and we meet our goals, I already have a respected art toy production company lined up to get things rolling. If we do exceptionally well, I will be adding one to three more resin toy designs to the line-up. Again, this all depends on how well we do, so please help out, donate, and make this toy a reality!
Kirstie: You’ve currently got a book deal with Chronicle Books for your own fantasy series. What’s it about?
Matt: It’s currently called: The Numerical Adventures of Edmund and Hunter. It starts out in the year 2036, the polar ice caps have melted too much opening up big nature preserves. Hunter (aged 12) is invited by his Uncle Edmund to go camping to this newly discovered polar region with their assistant droid “Niner”.
When they arrive and start hiking around they find a portal to a magical floating city, uncloaked from another dimension. As they walk into this other realm the portal closes and they’re stuck in a new world. They soon learn they have to unlock clues, use maths and crack the Fibonacci sequence to reopen the portal to get home. Along the way they share adventures, meet interesting characters and explore an ancient fantasy city unlike any other…
The best part about this book is that we are teaching kids real maths along the way. The whole book is told through diary entries (with lots of drawings and paintings) from Hunter’s perspective.
Kirstie: What are your hopes for the series?
Matt: The plan is to get the first book done, adapt the book into a screenplay and pitch this series as a movie or TV franchise. Keeping my fingers crossed!
Kirstie: Do you have any advice for aspiring artists?
Matt: Make sure you practice what you love every day. Never stop believing in your dreams (one day it may come true). Above all else, learn to trust your inner artistic voice. Stay with it because in time you will find your own artistic sauce that comes from you. Finally, if you want to make a career out of doing art you must be good, really good. If you have the drive and talent, seek out training to become the best you can be!
We’d like to say a huge thank you to Matt for taking the time to answer our questions and the very best of luck with his Kickstarter campaign, which you can view here!