Dennis Bredow

Dennis Bredow

On October 4th and 5th, Vancouver Wash. will host Design Vancouver, a conference that celebrates design in all of its forms. In support of Vancouver’s first design conference, The Section Magazine will feature “In Conversation with…” (a series of interviews with Design Vancouver speakers). First up is a conversation with Dennis Bredow.

As a concept artist, Dennis Bredow created groundbreaking images for films like The Polar Express. Now at Blizzard Entertainment as a Visual Development Supervisor, Dennis Bredow knows what it takes to succeed in the industry. In our conversation with Dennis Bredow, we explore the mind of a visual artist, and learn how Dennis Bredow creates images we have never seen before.

The Section Magazine: Let’s start with your childhood: Did your parents support your creativity and love of art? 

Dennis Bredow: I don't think there's any question that in our family we were encouraged to pursue things that we cared deeply about and we were encouraged in anything that we showed great interest in. I don't know that anyone in our family thought at the time that we were a particularly creative family or had certain creative connections but I think over time we realized, as I became interested in art design and illustration, that we knew people in those fields. 

[My parents] happened to have a friend whose son owned an advertising agency and so my parents contacted them and ended up getting me an internship there in high school. One of my parents would pick me up after school and drive me an hour to another city to work for about 4 hours and then they would pick me up and drive me home. They did that a couple times a week for about a year. They were extremely supportive.

My parents are very traditional. My dad was an electrical engineer for the first half of his career and my mom was a stay-at-home mom. Our home and our upbringing was very traditional and as I look back on it I think they set a good example of how to foster my creativity without even fully understanding it or knowing what it meant. 

Did you study art at university?

I did. I went to California State University, Fullerton (CSUF) as an illustration and graphic design major. I thought I would stay in the field of advertising but I ended up taking a different path. 

Tell me about that path.

I actually worked in that same agency that I interned in. I worked there my senior year of high school and into my time at University. It was at that time that I transition from advertising to the visual effects industry where my brother (Rob Bredow) was. I left CSUF and was working full-time in visual effects. 

What caused you shift gears to visual effects?

My brother. His story is similar to mine in that his [career in visual effects] started from high-school internships and he then worked full-time in the visual effects industry for a small studio in Santa Monica. They had a need for graphic design and some print advertising in their art department. I wanted to learn to concept design for film because that seemed more interesting than print advertising and so we made this arrangement where I would do their print advertising graphic design work in the art department and they would train me as a concept artist. That's when I made the switch.  

Help me understand what a concept artist does

It's a pretty broad term. It's essentially the step that happens between writing a script and getting an image on the screen. So, if a director or a writer has an idea for some effect, or an animated character or an animated film, they want to see what that world looks like or what those characters might look like or what that effect might look like as an illustration or a painting or a drawing before they pay the money to implement that into film. So the concept department is very often starting with taking a script reading some character, environment or special effects out of that script and then putting that into an image and then working that through whoever the stakeholders are to land on the final target for what the visual will be for the final product.  

What spoke to you about that specific career path?

I think it's fantastic in the true sense of that word. It's highly creative because you're translating words into images and you're often translating very vague ideas into very concrete ideas.

Can you give me an example?

There will be a line from a script: “the character enters into a world like we've never seen before.” It's a very vague description that in the end has to be something very specific and so the process of just finding some of those abstract ideas into something very concrete. It's really energizing and for film and animation it's usually very fun and interesting content. Film and vision effects and animation are often things that haven't been represented before or new takes on things that have been done in the past and I think that's a very exciting. It allows for a lot of creative freedom and I find that very attractive.

If you are creating a universe that has never been seen before, where do your ideas for what that universe looks like come from?  

I think everyone has a visual catalog of images and ideas or things they have seen or heard in their head that can be drawn from. I often think of artists that I fell in love with as a kid that I draw on for inspiration. I also think, maybe not everyone does this, but if I listen to music that doesn’t have words I see pictures or scenes in my head. When I read a book I visualize that book in my head, I have a very clear picture of those characters or scene that I am reading in my head. I don't know if everyone gets that, but it is the same process that happens when I read a script or a line or scene from a movie. That’s then where those ideas are generated as those things pop into my head and often it relates to something I've seen before and sometimes they are brand new. 

Everywhere I look from surfaces or objects or shapes or how light hits certain things or how it doesn't hit other things, I will find myself getting lost in a metal tabletop or stonewall or the mark of a tree, because I have found that it forces me to study the things around me for a reference so that I catalog them. 

What does that feel like to create images that millions of people will watch in cinemas around the world? 

It is certainly exciting and it's humbling. I realize that I get to do something that a lot of people would love to do. I feel like it has so much to do with circumstances or the grace of God, so I am very grateful and very humbled. I love the team aspect of what I do. I love working with a group of people and I think together we make something that I could never make on my own. There's so many people that have skills and abilities that I don't have so it is exciting to collaborate and be a part of something that you couldn't do by yourself. 

What do you think has led to your success? 

I really don't like to use "by the grace of God" as an aphorism. I truly believe it. I have tried to be very careful to be in the place where God wants me and directs me and to me that is a huge part of it. Aside from that, I credit my parents for instilling a deep sense of work ethic and professionalism.

There are people that are more talented and they get jobs because of their talent. I'm not one of those people. I have been able to set myself apart by hard work, working well with other people, and by communicating. I'm always taking the extra step. [I] never take it for granted or take advantage of the fact that someone is employing [me] for [my] skills. I think that's significant and I honestly think it's becoming more rare.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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