Interview: Wardenlight Studio
Sometimes a thing is bigger than the sum of its parts. Such is the case with this lovely couple of French (Swiss) artists, who seem to be complementing one another professionally and, we can also guess, personally. Meet Jessica Rossier and Bastien Grivet, also known in both the art and the Mexican wrestling world as Wardenlight Studio.
Their list of clients includes fancy and varied names, from Ubisoft, Dell and Alienware, to Warner Bros and Sony Pictures Animation, a testimony to not only their skills, but also their versatility. But don't take my word for it, let's ask them directly.
Firestarter: Hello my dears! It's been quite a while since we last spoke. Even longer since we met for the first time at THU. Was it also your first international festival?
Wardenlight: Hello dear friend! Yeah, it’s been a while! We were so glad to meet you three years ago, and it was our second time in a big event of that size. Our first experience was the Cannes Film Festival. It was one of our weirdest experiences. We stepped on the red carpet but it definitely showed us a bad side of the entertainment industry in terms of human relationships - that’s why we were a bit skeptical when our friend Jeremy Vitry insisted, saying "you must come, it’ll change your lives" blah blah blah…and, hell, it did.
F: What did you take from that experience, and what made you return?
W: Well, first, we found some of the kindest people on earth (you included). Secondly, we saw so much passion in the eyes of so many artists and speakers that it changed our way of seeing our small but powerful community of artists - we were not alone anymore. We met our idols, our future colleagues, and we remember thinking, “Holy crap, we’re in Hogwarts!” We were surrounded by so many talented people! So of course, we wanted to return and even discover other events around the world as attendees and also as guests.
F: During my first few art festivals, I took my work with me and was eager to receive feedback from veterans of the industry. Later on, my aim drifted towards networking, and lately it’s more about meeting old friends. What was your own progression? Do you feel your mindset when attending similar events has changed over time?
W: At the beginning, yes, it was similar. We wanted to get feedback on how we could improve things with our studio from really incredible mentors. Talking with Alberto Mielgo and Iain McCaig changed so many things for us. At our second event, things changed. It was more like a big and expensive college reunion, and there were more people too, so it was impossible to meet as many people as we wanted. Our biggest change happened when we showed our work to the amazing Kevin Lima, and the only thing he said was, “Ok cool, what do you want me to say? You’re already on the road so you don’t need my advice.” We were a bit confused at first, but we understood that now our purpose at a festival like this was to network and drink with friends and colleagues.
F: What would be your advice to aspiring professionals when it comes to approaching potential clients and art directors in person?
W: First, find the bar! If you see an art director you want to approach, do it. Present yourself, compliment their work (we all love to receive compliments, right?) and talk about the festival you’re at or the taste of the wine. It’s never a good idea to jump on someone with your portfolio wide open and ask for feedback while he or she is waiting for their glass of wine! Chill out, we’re all “normal” people and everyone enjoys a good chat! The discussion will lead to your portfolio at some point, but be patient; having a good interaction can get you the job before showing anything of your work - or at least leave you some very precious feedback!
F: Have any of these connections resulted in more gigs for you?
W: Almost every time. We also prefer to start a mission with these kinds of connections because we were with someone in a special place, we talked, we had some common interests, laughed a lot, got drunk eventually and we created a very fun moment to remember. When everyone's coming home, we remember this and start to think about collaborations. But this is only one example among hundreds, all different with different people. Sometimes it works fine, sometimes not, and sometimes the greatest life-changing collaborations start this way. It’s the magic part of all those events.
F: Moving on, some of us have dated or had relationships with another artist at some point, which has plenty of good and bad points. How does it feel to be working shoulder to shoulder with your partner?
W: Well…let’s be honest, we’ve worked 24/7 together for thirteen years as a couple; it took time. It started in art school in Switzerland, we were so different at that time but we learned to move forward together, helping each other when one of us was down. We avoided all kinds of compromise; we based our relationship on a constant evolution of both our mentalities. The hardest is to put aside our egos and learn to trust what your partner can bring to the table. Even if we are both artists with a very similar style, each of us has our own strength with a particular skillset. It’s also just you two against the world sometimes, so keep moving forward - occasionally against your friends or family because your shared sense of what you believe to be right is stronger than anything. We’ve had some very rough times of course, it’s a part of the game, but when you learn to kill your past inner demons and cut the moorings to old toxic ideas or points of view, this can change everything for better.
F: Also, art is not the only passion you share, if I am not mistaken. Biking is another, and you probably have more shared interests up your sleeves.
W: Hahaha yes! The Oatmeal said it very well in his little strip: “Creativity is like breathing, when you create, you’re exhaling, and you can’t exhale forever! You need to take some rest in order to inhale.” Having side passions are our ways to inhale. I (Jessica) am a passionate whisky enthusiast and collector and I love riding my Harley Davidson; it’s how I can escape of all my responsibilities and enjoy my life, to feel the time slowing down again just like when we were kids.
For me (Bastien), I love to compose music, take photos, cook…for now, at least, because I love to find new passions! Maybe it will inspire my next creation or solve a problem, I don’t know…oh and I love to learn from Jessica about the difference between a Hogshead cask and a Port Pipe cask.
F: To art and motorcycles, we add music and photography. How do you make time for everything?
W: It’s mostly simple, we have our client’s deadlines and the planning is really clear. After that, if we need to dedicate the entire day to our motorcycles, music or anything we want and there is time, we do it. Enjoy life and don’t feel guilty about what you do. We know we will finish a mission on time, so if we can take a moment to rest, we will take it. It helps us so much to stay inspired, rested and passionate. We’ve seen too many artists on the edge of depression because of the lack of rest or passion for anything anymore. Even during the most critical moment of our collaboration with Sony Pictures Animation on Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, we took a whole day driving in the amazing landscape of Provence (the South of France), eating in small restaurants and drinking some of the best wine, before going back at the studio in the evening incredibly inspired. It truly saved our jobs! So, take the time to live and enjoy simple pleasures, dear friends.
F: And well, this is not even mentioning the boring side of business and setting time aside for sheer relationship life…
W: Amen, dear friend! At first, we tried to put aside the work at the end of the day because people told us to do so. But when you have more conflicts because you refrain from talking about it, it’s truly the highway to hell. So, we stopped thinking about whether or not to talk about work, even under the shower.
F: You'll have to excuse me, but I actually have no idea about your professional background. What and where did you study? Why did you choose this professional field?
W: It’s a funny story, we both come from Switzerland, we met in art school in Geneva and we got both kicked out…no, it’s not what you think. It’s just that we really wanted to work on films like Star Wars, Jurassic Park and stuff, but it wasn’t a school suited to those kinds of dreams. So, we started to learn things online and our grades started to fall down and…yeah, we got kicked out. Six months later Bastien got hired by Ubisoft in Montpellier, so we moved to the South of France. Here we started to jump from one production to another with ups and downs but we learned so much at this time, and we were only 18! We traveled around the world as well, working on different productions for films and video games. In 2013, after a whole year of working on Call of Duty: Black Ops III and a wonderful collaboration with Blur Studio, we thought that it was time to take things seriously, so we created Wardenlight Studio. Since then, things have gotten crazier every year. Oh, and as to why we chose this field: when we were in art school, we had no idea “concept art” and “matte painting” even existed and everything changed when we discovered The Gnomon Workshop’s DVDs. We didn’t have enough money to order them so we tried to learn with the time-lapse video teaser. We knew for sure that we would do this for our career when we saw a Christian L. Scheurer exhibition in Switzerland. It changed our perception of creativity on a computer.
F: Do you still paint traditionally from time to time? Furthermore, have you ever had to do so for a professional project?
W: Of course! Our sketchbooks never left our pockets. We love to draw for hours in small coffeehouses for whole afternoons. We came back to oil painting right after the Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse production. Spending almost a year and a half working with and learning techniques from our team (Alberto Mielgo, Robh Ruppel, Craig Mullins, Yun Ling, Vaughan Ling, Neil C. Ross…) you cannot resist - it calls to you. Every summer since we’ve loved to paint in our garden with a good glass of whisky and a cigar… yes, we love the cliché. Sadly, we don’t get to paint a lot traditionally for actual productions due to tight schedules. But we love to start with a good old sketch on paper when we can.
F: I know that you're always trying hard to improve and stay curious about the potential of new tools, and Procreate stands out as one you're fond of at this point. What's your connection with the app's team?
W: Procreate changed everything in our way to create outside our office. We dreamed for a long time of having this kind of tool in our hands, creating on a coffee table, on a plane, on a train and having the same creative freedom as we can have on a big screen in our office. We started to create more and more with this incredible app on our iPad Pro, even for our professional projects, and it’s now an extension of our hand when we’re on the go, or even lying on the couch. Now, we’ve been really happy to get to work with the Procreate team on few commissions, trying new tools and giving feedback about our user experiences. The best surprise was to actually meet some of them; they’re so nice and, as we’re really attached to human interactions in our lives and work, it was a pleasure to meet people who love what they do and really take care of what we need or the ideas we have. We can’t wait for the next adventure with them!
F: I personally haven't tried the latest update yet, but I had a chance to talk to the guys during Promised Land and it seems juicy. What can you say about it?
W: It’s incredible. What you can achieve with some of the new tools is truly mesmerising. The Warp tool is really powerful, the Quick Shape tool is a life saver in some critical situations and the Liquify tool is like watching live witchcraft happen at the tip of your pencil…and that’s only the tip of the iceberg.
F: Have you ever attended Promised Land in Poland? Which other events are you planning on attending next year?
W: Sadly, we’ve never had the opportunity yet, but we would love to go there one day - we’ve heard so many good things about it! For now, we are happy to talk about our studio philosophy and working on Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse in March at IAMAG, in Paris. We also hope to come back to Futuro Festival in Varna, Bulgaria, because it was one of our best speaker experiences. We’re also in discussion with three other events…we’ll announce which ones very soon!
F: You have even organised your own little event, or is the name Art Weekend misleading me?
W: Yes! We were a group of crazy artists with a mission: create the same family spirit you can find in a huge event, but with one hundred people…we’ve ended up handling this pretty well for six editions now and the concept grew so fast. Now we organise it twice a year in Switzerland and the South of France, and for those two occasions each year, we can live the best moments of our lives as artists.
F: Back to your professional work, which one would you consider your break-through project - the one that was the turning point?
W: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, hands down. Working with some of the best artists in the world gathered by one of our idols and friend, Alberto Mielgo, was a turning point on so many levels. We changed everything in our creative pipeline. Our creative mind had to be destroyed first and then rebuilt by one of the best art directors we’ve ever had the chance to work with. We were paid to experiment, discover, learn, think differently, fail and try again; it was crazy. And now that the film has been released, it’s like a dream come true. People love it, and to see all the work done by every artist in the team is amazing! From the story, to the music and the animation, everything is f*cking good and we couldn’t be prouder or more honoured. We can now use what we learned since we finished work on Spider-Man two years ago and enjoy new challenges!
F: Did you ever doubt that you'd make it as professional artists? Have you ever thought about sending everything to hell and starting fresh as something completely different?
W: Hahaha yes. Two or three times. We thought we could open a whisky distillery or open a small coffee shop…but it was only because of external pressures. In the end we always handled it, even if it was tough.
F: What kept you going?
W: Thirteen years ago, we agreed on one thing: it doesn’t matter if we end up sleeping under a bridge, because we’re together and there will always be someone to buy a drawing for a little bit of food and help us to rise again somehow. Now we’re less afraid of life events and this philosophy is still the same…we’re not afraid to sleep under a bridge because, together, we can move mountains.
F: What about nightmare projects, those few in which nothing works as it was supposed to work? How have you dealt with those?
W: Always be diplomatic. Always. We’ve never experienced crazy clashes with clients (yet), but when we wanted to quit a mission or were just sick to death of the client (yes, we're polite), we find a way to step back from the project for a bit. Our little secret is, for example, leaving the studio for a day. We just vanish for the day. We take the car or motorcycles and spend the day on the roads of Provence, tasting wine in the numerous castles in the region and then eat delicious French cooking with good friends. Here we can do that for less than 50 euros, so if it can save our job it’s well spent. But sometimes nothing can help you or the client, so, find the most peaceful way to end the relationship quickly. And remember, your reputation can be destroyed with a single bad email or worse, an angry Facebook post.
F: On the other hand, you have collaborated on great projects and with amazing professionals, like Alberto Mielgo and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Those experiences can really make you grow artistically.
W: Of course. Since our first professional experience we’ve never stopped learning from our successes and mistakes, and we still have a lot of things to learn. Shadow of War with Blur Studio and Warner Games was a perfect job where we learned to trust our inner fantasy fan. On Call of Duty: Black Ops III we learned to create everything from a single sentence from the art director. I mention only few of them but all those were great challenges and important steps in our artistic path. But, as we said, Spider-Man was a giant leap. Alberto taught us so much. He’s a great guide and one of the best art directors we’ve had the chance to work with. With him we learned to take our time, put our stressed brains aside and just look at things from another angle. We had to learn to be confident in our eyes and guts and go crazy with our minds and hands. Now we can continue to work with new tools and skills for new or returning clients on various productions and, of course, in our personal artwork. We can say that we were bitten by the good spider.
F: There seems to be a strong trend in recent years of artists creating their own personal IP and pushing it to become books, films, etc. What do you think about it? Any ideas in that direction?
Bastien: Well, we’ve a mobile game in the oven, made in co-production with 1492 Studios and Ubisoft! It’s gonna be our first game and we’re really excited about it! We also have some very cool stuff up our sleeves but we’ll talk about it very soon! I also want to experiment more with filming things so I guess I’ll put a few ideas to paper for a short film.
F: Checking your ArtStation galleries, I see some mutual tendencies, but also some personal touches in the work of each of you. When starting a new image, what are your main concerns and what do you consider essential?
Jessica: The most important thing is to understand what the client wants. We try to analyse everything from the briefing, and avoid the “carte blanche” effect. Because on a short timeline carte blanche is never a good idea, we try to get a lot of information from the client (mood board, references, ideas, ugly sketches, etc.). Then, when we’re sure we know perfectly what we need to do, we decide who’s gonna start with the 3D modelling part or the first background elements. It depends on our personal mood. Bastien is very good with Cinema 4D so I prefer let him play with it and then I take the PSD file and start to make the background because I love to create huge clouds or storms. We both work on the same PSD file during the whole process, while helping each other based on our own skills and preference. In the end, you have a great piece of art made in half the time. Oh, and it helps a lot when one of us gets a little art-blocked.
F: When it comes to artistic tools, what is your weapon of choice?
W: At the office, a MacBook Pro with a Wacom Intuos Pro Medium, Photoshop and Cinema 4D, and in any other situation, an iPad Pro with Procreate and a good old sketchbook!
F: Let's talk about a different art now: music. Are you self-taught? Where do you find your inspiration?
Bastien: I started to study classical percussion at six and I had one of the best teachers, but my path as musician stopped at 18 when I left Switzerland for my first job at Ubisoft Montpellier. I had this terrible decision to make: should I become a professional percussionist or concept artist? I chose the world which seemed the most welcoming in terms of human relationships and it was the best choice I could have made. I started to write music at 14. I tried to imitate some of John Williams’ and Danny Elfman’s pieces at first and then I tried to study the way of writing of great masters such Rachmaninov, Stravinsky, Dvořák and Sibelius on my own. In the end, I wrote music for short films and brands like Louis Vuitton. For me it's the best escape: when I'm tired of painting, I compose a lot and then, when I struggle to compose, I safely go back to painting, full of inspiration.
F: I know you use some software in your musical process. What about real instruments?
Bastien: Hahaha I would love to, but being a percussionist means you’ll need to have a lot of space for playing and recording, and recording my own music as I want it to sound would require a 120-piece orchestra in our living room. But as I love to learn new things, I’ve started to learn cello, so wait ten more years and I’ll maybe record something, okay?
F: And also related to things of beauty: what about your loyal metal steeds? Tell us about your motorcycles.
Jessica: It was a dream I’ve had since I was a little girl. I told Bastien that one day I would have a motorcycle but he was really afraid of this idea, which I can understand. But one day, Bastien’s cousin’s husband came home with a beautiful Dyna Street Bob from Harley Davidson. The day after we were both enrolled for our motorcycle license! Now I have my beloved Harley Davidson Iron 883, Bastien rides a Kawasaki Vulcan 900, fully customised. It’s our new way to visit the countryside! For me, it’s the best way to free my mind from external pressures. I enjoy the road and the loud roars of the exhaust. It’s like flying on a wild creature!
F: Have you ever taken them for a long, long ride? Across several countries, for instance?
Jessica: Yes! We’ve traveled from France to Switzerland a few times and did the trip from the South to the North of France! It’s always a cool adventure! We plan to visit Austria for a big Harley Davidson gathering or Portugal, in Faro. Everywhere we go, it’s always a perfect source of inspiration for our work, so we’ll see!
F: Well, my hearties, this is coming to an end. I hope to see your beautiful faces soon. Take care and stay awesome!
W: Likewise, Diego, it was a pleasure to answer your questions! Continue to amaze us with your incredible art! We’re looking forward for the next beer with you!