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Sci-Fi's Hired Gun: An Interview with Concept Artist Col Price

Whether he's working with the big wigs or freelance, Col Price has kept his inner world teeming with alien life.

Wrapped into the folds of Col Price’s brain is a separate universe. As a UK based concept artist, Price makes a living off of it. 

Col is an artist of the mercenary variety. He put in 20 years of work as an Art Director for top-tier gaming companies such as Sony and Electronic Arts, guiding the art teams of games and franchises like Battlefield, F1, Driveclub, and Wipeout. In 2014, he moved on to personally uncharted territory, the wide open fields of the freelance artist. Freelance work has given Col something he didn’t have as an in-house artist: range of movement. Having the power to choose what project he puts his heart into next has catalyzed his imagination, and he hasn’t been hurting for work since the switch either. Coldesign, LTD, his one man design studio, has helped realize productions for the BBC and AMC, worked for the upcoming Chinese TV mini-series Lost in Kunlun, and is now in the midst of working on a major film for New Line Cinema / Warner Bros. Pictures (which his lawyers say is too cool to talk about).

Besides the contract work, Col Price has been foraging the baby universe inside his brain for stories and slices of life. Taking cues from past sci-fi art masters like Jim Burns, his work shows how much you can say by just setting a scene.

The best science fiction pulls our notion of humanity outside of its comfort zone, while ostensibly keeping things “real.” Col nails this with his mix of 3D renders and 2D digital painting, creating worlds full of hulking machines and shady extraterrestrial beings going about their lives: filling the gas tank, delivering the mail, grillings worms and waiting for the kill. Think of him as a science fiction anthropologist. What follows are some words from the artist himself, and some pictures documenting the lives and dramas of his universe.

"Deep Breath" by Col Price

What kickstarted your interest in science fiction illustration?

I have always had an interest in sci-fi, ever since I was a kid. I suppose it helped that when I was 10, Star Wars first came out and my whole brain went into overdrive. Before Star Wars sci-fi was pretty limited, but I was always into comics and loved Ray Harryhausen films.

What was your first professional artist gig and how did you get it?

I was 26, I’d just finished uni and really wanted to get into film vfx. Digital effects were just coming out at that point, but jobs were very few and far. So I stumbled into the games industry. I was self taught in 3D by that point. I used to spend almost 24 hours animating and rendering. I landed a job at Krisalis Software, which was such a fantastic place. I worked on some really early Lego projects and stuff like Carmageddon. It was a real family community. I still keep in touch with some of the guys today. 

"Escape Plan" by Col Price

"Mediation Before War" by Col Price

"Wangs Worms" by Col Price

As a concept artist how do you figure into the development of a product?

I spent most of my games industry career as an Art Director, so concept art was a vital communication tool. Concept art is super important in development pipelines. It helps plan and organize. It’s a very effective communication tool , not only to the team but also to executives, who tend to have a hard time visualizing a project. Concept art can also greenlight a project!

Concept art and the whole pre-production art cycle is super important, helping to map out a project and define a look and mood for the game or film. It never used to be that way. In fact, it’s been a hard slog to push studios to do this. I’ve worked for places in the past that have totally ignored the whole phase and its proven time and time again to cause problems and headaches right through to the end of the project. It’s also made the product mismatched and have no cohesive look.

What prompted you to go freelance as a concept artist?

I’d spent 20 years in studios, and I just wanted to move on. I wanted to get back to doing what I love and just do the art. Over the years I had gotten more and more removed from this and more into running teams and studios, and I had just lost the passion for it. The times scales on a project were getting longer and longer. Driveclub, for example, took almost 4 years. I wanted to prove to myself as well that I could do this and make a success of it. It’s been possibly the most rewarding part of my career. Now I get to work on projects and let someone else deal with the stress! 

"The post must get through!" by Col Price

"Re-fuel at the Spaceport" by Col Price

Many of your images show a relationship between one or several big machines and comparatively small human figures. Sometimes the relationship is mundane, other times scary. What is so satisfying about putting such singularly massive machines next to a frail and simple human?

Scale. I love scale, and the fact that something that huge could just be floating around the sky. It’s really that simple. Doing shots like that always makes me smile. I always try and inject a bit of humor into the shots too. Its nice when people get them too or make up their own stories.

Do you have stories in mind for your illustrations? If so, how do you get them into the picture?

Always. For me that's incredibly important. Concept art is there to tell a story, to communicate ideas. I try to put story into everything I do, even the titles!

The stories come before the designs for sure. Sometimes these change while I’m creating them or they will spawn other stories. I’ve always got about 3 or 4 ideas going on at once, and like to extend these to multiple shots too. I think having this discipline, (and it is a discipline to constantly train your brain to think in a narrative) helps when you’re dealing with film or game projects. It lets you almost preempt the next shots, or suggest ideas to clients and help them out as much as possible. It’s always great to tap into a client's ideas and help them expand and really run with an idea, to help them tell their stories.

You have an ongoing collection of illustrations titled “Tales of the Universe." Is this a world you're building?

I’m looking at putting a book together based on the “Tales of the Universe.” It’s going to be a long process, but I’ve a lot of ideas and it’s varied enough to keep my interest. I want to tie everything together -- creatures, technology, worlds -- so that it becomes a self contained record. The whole idea is to show aliens in really mundane situations that are incredible from our perspective. So going to the shops, or cleaning the streets. It’s just nice to set all this wonder with a bit of humour. 

Be sure to check Col out on Twitter, and bookmark the Coldesign website while you're at it!

"At the End of the Conversation" by Col Price

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