With the end of the IDW Transformers: Prime - Beast Hunters comic series upon us, Seibertron.com has decided to sit down and talk to one of its creative team members, and in some ways, the face of it all: read on below for a full exclusive interview with cover, storyboard, videogame and concept artist Ken Christiansen!
Va'al - Ken, thanks for agreeing to do this. We've featured some of your work before on Seibertron.com, it's about time we got to meet the mind and man behind the artwork! Before we get into the nitty-gritty of your work with Transformers though, I need to ask: where did it all begin for you? How did you first encounter our favourite transforming robots?
KC - Well, thanks for having me! I really appreciate it when you guys post anything about my work, I've been a follower of the site for years.
The show was everything. It was the first episode which sucked me right in - I don't even remember the first figure I had, but I know it was the show that put me all in. I was 10 years old at the time of the launch, and I had slowed down on Star Wars, and was really into GI Joe toys and comics, with He-Man in the mix as well. But Transformers really took over, and knocked even the mighty Joes back a step.
Va'al - Ah, you're one of those! I admit, I like knowing that the current creators all started as fans, brings a lot more to the experience. I was going to ask which figure was your first, but you pre-empted me - so how about this: which was your favourite character or episode from the animated series?
KC - G1 Soundwave, is...and always will be...my favorite character. And he is an early toy I do remember getting, on a Christmas morning. Of course I loved his voice, and how he was Megatron's dependable commander, but the fact he had Transformers INSIDE of him really captured my imagination. And I really liked that, unlike a lot of the figures, he matched up pretty well to the box art, and animation model. I was a stickler for that kind of thing, even back then. Also, I always thought it was cool how he used Laserbeak and Ravage on the show, so they've become synonymous with any vision of Soundwave I have, I always want to try to figure out a way to include them in a figure pose, or a drawing/design I'm working on. (I figure Rumble and Frenzy can take care of themselves!)
Va'al - I think a lot of fans have a soft spot for Soundwave; he is terribly charismatic after all. You've mentioned your gateway, the toys and what it was that drew you in - but what about the artistic side? Did you read the comics as a kid, or did you start drawing based on box art and cartoons?
KC - I'll admit that I didn't really enjoy the comics, even though I still have the first 60 or so issues to this day - but yes, I did really enjoy the artwork. I loved the show and the toys, but I was always just lukewarm on the comics. That being said, I did probably draw most artistic inspiration from the comics, I remember drawing that cover corner Marvel Optimus Prime a lot. A lot. Another favorite image from those books was the reveal of Predaking, standing in a jungle. I drew that one a lot as well.
The box art images were another inspiration; I didn't have a massive collection by any means, but I did collect the trading cards, so even if I didn't have the toy and/or filecard, I did have nearly every character image from the cards. We had a project in the 4th or 5th Grade, where we wrote a story, and bound it into a book. Mine, of course, was about Autobots fighting Decepticons, carried into battle by the rocket of Omega Supreme. I designed characters back then too, usually military type vehicles, or cars that friends and family drove. I still have that little book, but I'm sure all those other drawings are long gone.
Va'al - That's some great, early KC art there. Must be worth a fortune by now! So if the comics didn't get to you as much back then, what brought you to their world later on? But I suppose, before we get to that, my question is: How did you start working for the franchise in general?
KC - I had been working freelance for about a year after leaving Disney Interactive, and I had just wrapped a series of projects for Activision in late 2005. One of the producers I had been working with asked "Hey, are you into Transformers at all?" I had heard, as did many other fans, that it was being shopped around as a movie, but I didn't know was finally happening, and Activision wanted to go after the franchise. The projects I had just finished were to lock down the Dreamworks games license for the next five or so movies, showing game play, etc. and this was going to be the same thing. Lots of storyboards and game play examples. But it just kept going and going, and it turned into character designs, and in-game production art - I was around for a lot of it, from the very beginning to helping out with marketing images.
The Transformers were a huge part of my childhood, and though I hadn't really followed the franchise overall since then, I did already have the 20th Anniversary MP Optimus Prime, and the Alternator Grimlock Mustang proudly displayed in my studio. Getting the chance to work on the franchise as a professional, really kind of blew my mind. And midway through the production, Hasbro said they were going to make some figures out of my designs... I kind of freaked out.
Va'al - That must be quite the phonecall/email! I've spotted some of the designs that made it into figures on your website - do you have any particular favourites? Which part of working with the new, movieverse, Transformers aesthetics did you enjoy the most?
KC - I was pretty honored that Hasbro/Paramount used the red car drone (AKA Swindle) in the press kits for the film. Of the drones, I think Payload (Armored Truck) and Long Arm (Tow Truck) are my favorites. Long Arm was originally to be an homage to Hoist, colored green and yellow, but was later changed to be the tow truck paint job from the film. I was glad to see the mold reused as a Hoist figure. All of those designs were done based on rough concepts I had seen at the production offices in early 2006. Not until late summer, a bit after I had wrapped on the drone characters, did I start to see marketing images and final movie models start showing up, and that's when I was tasked to do the Shockwave designs. So, that's why he's a little more in line with the film aesthetic - he's not a generic, energon created drone, he was meant to be a Cybertronian, and look more like the movie bots.
While I agreed with the design philosophy from the first movie, I thought that the bots should have shown a little more alt mode elements, so you can really see the connection between forms. With Shockwave I tried to bring it back a little bit to that, with clear iconic character details, and visible alt mode elements. And that's the design philosophy I took into my next Transformers project, the Revenge of the Fallen game.
Va'al - Those are good designs! And that Shockwave looks intriguing, but it looks like DotM Skyhammer took his mode later down the line. How did you find working with videogames, compared to the work you're currently doing on comic covers? And how did that transition happen?
KC - Maybe. To me, the transformation logic is totally different., around the canopy and fuselage. But I did work a bit on the alt mode of the Skyhammer toy, and was given direction to use a Russian Hind for inspiration, but I didn't work on the robot mode. I did three copter drawings, and when the toy came out, it looked like the designers used elements of all three.
I'm not a gamer, but when I'm into a game I like, I kind of get obsessed with it. I thought Luxoflux did a fantastic job with the gameplay of the Revenge game - especially given the short production time, notorious with movie tie-in games - and was really excited to see how they would build on the engine. Sadly, none of that was meant to be. It was the first time I felt that someone captured the essence of a Transformer, being both things at once. I know some people had issues with holding down the trigger, but I much preferred that, to the 'sit and wait to transform' style of other games. My entire career to that point was in the game industry. But after doing the games for so long, I was looking to expand out a little, I wanted to see if I could work directly with IDW and Hasbro.
I took the designs of Megatron, Optimus, and Starscream, from the DLC content of the Revenge game, and did full illustrations of them in comic cover format. I included Bumblebee, Jazz, and Soundwave designs, and pitched myself to Andy Schmidt at IDW, and for a meet up with Aaron Archer at BotCon 2009.
For IDW, Andy had me do the cover to the much-loved, revered, and indisputably go-to source of information, the Transformers: Continuum. Yikes, that one was a bit of a mess, I guess. I never kept up on the IDW relationship, maybe both sides needed that sting to heal a little. And I just got too busy following that meeting with Aaron to come back to the books. Years later, I met John Barber at BotCon 2012, and that's how I got involved with the Rage of the Dinobots and Beast Hunters covers.
Va'al - Ah, the IDW Aligned comics! As an artist who had worked on the movieverse and videogame aesthetics - though WfC and FoC are also part of the new continuity - how did you find adjusting to the sleeker, more rounded style of the two series? And how much were you involved in the series themselves?
KC - Well, doing a wide range of shape styles for what was then called 'tv show' was that first assignment I had from Archer at Hasbro, in 2009, as they were putting the studio together, and hiring the actual production team. I would call myself a concept artist before anything else, so something like coming up with new character designs/versions is what I like to do best. And then about a year later, I worked on some product ideas for the Prime line. At that point, I was working with final character design models from the production's art department. And, every once and awhile I would do some product development, or I was asked to do some character ideas for HasLabs to use as conversation starters for meetings with the show runners. So before the comics, I had a lot of experience working with the shows' aesthetic. I never was a part of the production of the actual show, with Hasbro Studios, but through Hasbro, Inc., I got to play in that universe a bit.
The Cybertron games, on the other hand, I had no experience with the art style. So that was the learning curve for me. I was asked to 'update' the FoC dinobots into a Prime style, with a heavy lean on the FoC style...visually meaning they didn't 'evolve' as much as Team Prime, for example. So I just eliminated some minor details from the FoC versions, and did a 'wrap metal' pass, in the Prime style, at the main form elements of the bots. John Barber OK'd the sketch of Grimlock I did as an example, and I was off and running.
I had nothing to do with what was inside the books; in most cases, I don't think any of the scripts were even completely written at the time I needed to have the cover done, about three months in advance. I'm sure an overview and series arc were long completed though. Barber, then Carlos Guzman, would give me their idea on what was going on in the book, and what they'd like to see on the cover. I'd do some sketches and we'd go from there. I met Mairghread Scott for the first time at BotCon 2013, and we chatted about what was coming up in #7, we pulled Carlos into the conversation, and I did a sketch of it right there at my table. For number 8, Carlos and I chatted at SDCC, and he told me what he was looking for, and Mike Johnson, through email, pretty much said what he'd like to see on the cover. I did those last sketches for Carlos to approve, and that wrapped the series when I turned in the final.
It was a lot of fun to do those covers. I loved the Fall of Cybertron game, so it was a real treat to get to draw those characters, and get reconnected with IDW.
Va'al - I always enjoy hearing stories of how creators come to join the IDW team, they never seem to be the same! So you were working on the comics covers, but still had quite a bit of involvement in other aspects of the Transformers universe. I've seen some designs for characters that never made it on the show, too. What were you doing between the comics? How were you being kept busy?
KC - Relatively, I'm a newbie to comics, with only 13 IDW covers to date. Concept art is my main source of income, since graduating from art school in 1997. Happily, now at least half my workload comes from Hasbro, covering many different brands. Mainly in that first year, it started off with early re-imaginings of core Transformers characters, mixed with some work on Dark of the Moon ideas, and then going back to work on designs for the 13 Primes, and filling out the brand bible, which had used a lot of that earlier character design work, done by myself and other great artists.
After that, HasLabs expanded into a lot of other brands and concepts, that kept me really busy, MASK, Inhumanoids, Micronauts, to name a few. Some of those ideas were teased in that NYCC giveaway comic, Unit:E, if you remember it. And as other designers move to other brands within Hasbro, I've been able to 'travel' with them, and do lot of work on stuff like Star Wars, etc. Always though, I try to stay connected to the big bots, with doing some Hasbro Inc. commissioned work, movie/tv show stuff or product design for example, or licensed work with IDW, and other publishers.
Va'al - So what you're telling us is.. you're everywhere! And we know that some of your art features in the upcoming Covenant of Primus - the result of all the concept work for the Aligned continuity - due early December. Anything you can tell us about that?
KC - Now everyone finally can see it! After years of working with Hasbro off and on, I've only been able to release a grand total of 8 Transformers images. Including Prima, of the 13, which was published previously in the Transformers: Vault. I'm so excited to see the rest of the designs coming out, along with some new art I was asked to contribute, alongside some other great Transformers artists.
Binder of Revelation - Art by Emiliano Santalucia
After working six or so months with Hasbro, they booked me to do four of the 13 Primes. By then I had a pretty good feel of what Aaron Archer was looking for from me, and I had gotten pretty tight with Eric Siebenaler who acted as my art director on previous projects. I was also then introduced to Rik Alvarez, who had sent me a giant document to work from, that he was putting together. A compiled history from the comics and games, and new stuff he had written - basically the bones of the Aligned Continuity. So, under those guys, I went to work. 4 became 6, then 8, then Eric asked if I wanted to do all 13. Of course! But then Takara chimed in, and they wanted to do some images, and they took over the designs of Micronus and Alpha Trion. So I ended up doing 11...and a second version of one of them.
I had never really heard much about it since then, other than Aaron and Rik teased some images at a couple of BotCons, but I really thought they would remain in the vault, the Brand Bible. Last November, I got an email from Tyler Freidenrich from Becker&Mayer, asking if I could do some illustrations for what would be the Covenant. I jumped at the chance, and got to contribute 7 illustrations, a new character design for Unicron, and the cover. And that's about all I can tell you about it. I know what I did, but I've only seen the same trailer for it as everyone else. I was asked to upload every Hasbro image I did related to the Aligned Continuity, beyond just the Primes, but I don't what, if anything more, was included in the book.
So, I'm just as excited as any other fan to see what's in there!
Va'al - I can assure you, a lot of us are really, really excited for this book. I'm not sure what else could hype it up more.. do you have any ideas?
KC - That's great to hear! Hmm...how about a contest for a free copy of the book? On my Facebook page, the Art of Ken Christiansen, I'll be running a 'Like Drive' contest. Participants enter their names into a drawing by making a comment in the page's Cover Photo comments section, saying they shared the page to at least five people. That Cover Photo, (containing all the contest info) signaling the beginning of the contest, will be posted on Monday, November 25th, at 9 AM PST, and ending Sunday, December 8th at midnight PST.
Monday, December 9th, (the day before the book is released) I'll draw the winning name, and announce it by 9 AM PST. That winner will receive a free copy of the Covenant of Primus... AND, I'll insert a custom black and white rendered portrait, of any character of their choosing.
Va'al - Hear that, readers? Head over to Ken's page for a chance to win what looks to be an amazing piece of Transformers lore. Ken, thanks again for agreeing to do this interview with us, we're looking forward to more of your amazing work soon! Any last words?
KC - Thank you - I can't tell you how much I appreciate it!
I do have a couple more things to add. I also put together a new website, kenchristiansen.com, which replaces to old site, badflip.com. Finally I have galleries collecting all the Transformers (and more!) work that I've done, in one easy to find place, rather than have to search through months and years of blog posts on the old Bad Flip Blog. I will keep that blog online, but it will go inactive. The new site has a blog built in, so that's how I'll continue, along with the Facebook page, to make announcements, and post new artwork. And once it's ready, there will also be a online store, to purchase original art, make commission inquiries, and get leftover convention prints and sketchbooks. It's coming very soon, but right now the only way to get that stuff is through the Art of Ken Christiansen on Facebook, or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
There you have it, readers - we hope you enjoyed our voyage into the Christiansen world! Join the competition today, follow Ken's work and keep your eyes tuned for more exclusive content, coming soon, to Seibertron.com.