14th General Election (GE14)

George Lucas is Ting’s superhero in the world of film and digital designs.

“ILLUSTRATORS used to call concept artists the scum of the art industry. They viewed us as cheaters because we use technology to aid us in our artwork. They felt we were breaking the rules that were set in place long time ago,” begins Johnson Ting, a local concept artist who’s making great waves in the industry, as I settle down for our chat in the confines of his SoHo studio in Subang Jaya.

Today, concept artists are paid in the thousands, if not millions, for a small piece of digital illustration. They’re highly sought-after individuals in the entertainment industry, with many of them making a name for themselves and garnering a large following that’s on par with any celebrity.

The down-to-earth Ting may look as ordinary as the rest of us decked in an understated all-black outfit complete with dark-rimmed glasses but his portfolio rivals the likes of Banksy (the anonymous England-based graffiti artist).

His name is not unfamiliar to gaming fans. His social networking accounts? They have followings that number in the tens of thousands. It’s no small feat to build an empire this large, and it certainly wasn’t built in a day.

It takes more than just natural talent to succeed in the world of a concept artist.

Changing tides

Long before the computer boom, the entertainment and gaming industry relied mostly on the talents of illustrators who would draw sketches of what they envisioned in the early stages of production.

They were the key players behind the creation of such fantasy worlds like Middle Earth in The Lord Of The Rings or the intricate backdrop of video games such as Mortal Kombat.

The job of an illustrator was a crucial one in the pre-production phase and only a handful of individuals were required, making the position a tough one to obtain.

But as technology began to improve, new expertise such as that of concept artists began to replace many conventional and manual jobs including that of an illustrator.

This was all due to the high demand for 3D imagery and computer-generated animation. Graphics started becoming more digitised and the landscape started shifting.

Today, the tasks carried out by a concept artist are pretty similar to those of an illustrator, namely, they spearhead the design language and art direction of any film or video game that they’re hired to work on.

They are one of the first people a director or a scriptwriter will seek out to turn their vision and written words into tangible screen reality.

“The job of a concept artist may only encompass five per cent of the entire project but it takes more than one of us to be able to finish it and many man-hours poring over screens,” shares Ting.

“Without people like us, a lot of new high-definition graphic movies and games you see today won’t exist.”

It’s their skills that have brought us the realistic hide of Smaug the dragon in The Hobbit trilogy, the intricate mask of Darth Vader in Star Wars, as well as detailed artillery designs in Call Of Duty. They are the people who successfully convert fictional words into pictorial gems.

“It’s a laborious job but at the end of the day, it’s also a very satisfying one when you see your artwork being used,” confides Ting, eyes sparkling.

Despite their significance, concept artists are the least credited and recognised individuals by the audience.

They are the people whose names you’d see at the end of the credits list of a movie or located in an obscure options folder in a game.

An illustration of Argonath from Lord Of The Rings.

Struggling artist

The Kuching-raised Ting has been involved in the industry since his graduation from The One Academy in Bandar Sunway back in 2009.

He first began as a part-timer at Lemon Sky, one of the country’s largest concept artist houses, which has worked on popular video games such as FIFA 2014 and Sonic the Hedgehog. It was an opportunity given by his previous college mentor, Jarold Sng, who is now his colleague at Project TriForce (a high-end creator of officially licensed video game replicas headquartered in New York, USA) and very close friend whom he shares the studio with.

Prior to his employment with his current company, it was at Passion Republic, another Malaysian digital content creator with an office located in Puchong, Selangor, that Ting gained most of his industrial knowledge, under the wings of Hoi Mun Numioh. Smiling, Ting admits that his journey has been a long and hard one but highly satisfying.

“I was never naturally talented in drawing so I needed to work extra hard to be where I am today. But honestly speaking, you don’t really need natural talent to begin with to excel in this industry. What you need is pure hard work and dedication to the craft,” reveals Ting.

He sheepishly shows me a rather amateurish drawing of a character with pink hair. It’s his first completed artwork attempt. Placing it side by side with his current digital renditions, the contrast is simply blinding. His struggles were also compounded by the fact that he hailed from an underprivileged family.

“I remember my father having to sell our only family car and withdrawing the last remaining cash in his EPF to finance my studies,” confides Ting, continuing: “That’s why I worked extra hard even when it meant that I needed to juggle several part-time and freelance jobs on top of my full-time studies.”

In addition, he also made sure he got his money’s worth in college by doing more than what was required for the subject.

“When my lecturers said to draw five artworks, I’d usually double or triple the amount. I was also the one who kept asking questions in class and making sure I truly understood the syllabus. I’d also keep my lecturers around for another half-hour or so after class to seek further advice,” he recalls. His hard work and perseverance finally paid off when he was able to gift his parents a brand new car in place of the one they sold off years before to pay for his studies.

“I’m slowly giving back to my parents as best as I can,” says Ting before adding: “I guess I also owe my thanks to a Tibetan Rinpoche (a higher ranking monk) who convinced my parents that I was destined for this field of work even when they were at first reluctant to send me.”

Some of Ting’s creations for famous video games such as Call of Duty.

Working together

Although our country has seen much improvements in the industry, Ting is quick to point out that many concept artists working here are still not being paid what they’re worth.

“There needs to be more awareness about the skills needed and just how much time is spent laboring over each artwork. Students also need to be aware of their value so that they don’t get scammed.”

Ting confides that he believes that we may need another 10 or 20 years to actually be on par with other heavyweights like America or Japan, countries which have been doing this a lot longer and built a really strong and lucrative foundation for concept artists.

That said, he’s convinced that if concept artists are able to market themselves properly through various social networking sites, it’s possible to tap into ample resources out there.

Before I take my leave to avoid the storm that’s threatening to pour, Ting offers me his parting words: “Maybe one day we’ll be able to start an association for the benefit of us artists in the country. Or maybe a cafe by artists for artists? Then we’ll have an appropriate space which will enable us to grow. Because no man is an island, right? And you can’t just stare at your computer screens all the time even if you tried. I’m sure we all need each other.”


One of Johnson Ting’s latest designs for Hong Kong toymaker, Devil Toys.

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