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  • Writer's pictureGerard Kunkel

AI in Art Direction and Ideation

Updated: Jun 5, 2023

June 1, 2023 - Patrick Donoghue, Partner, NMP

A Robot and Human artist working together

Enhancing the Creative Process

Introduction

The advent of AI has sparked curiosity and debate, with its influence pervading various aspects of our lives. As an avid designer and storyteller, I have embarked on an experimental journey, incorporating AI tools into my creative process. In this article, I will share my insights and reflections on how AI, particularly in the realm of art direction and ideation, has transformed my approach to narrative creation. Join me as we delve into the possibilities and potential of AI in the creative domain.


Where Does AI Fit In

For my most of my life, I have been designing in multiple mediums and always with storytelling and communications in mind. As with all others in the creative arts, I have refined my process through decades of personal and professional design using the tools readily available to me. Throughout, I have always sought new ways to enhance my creative process. Intrigued by the capabilities of AI, I devised a simple test: How would my work on my video game "Life Hutch VR" have been different if AI art tools were available? Being a visual person, I have relied on traditional techniques like mood boards, sketches, and concept art to convey my vision effectively. However, with AI tools now at our disposal, I wondered if they could streamline and augment this process, allowing for more efficient ideation and execution.


The Traditional Approach

To illustrate the traditional approach, let's examine the original development of "Life Hutch VR." This classic story by Harlan Ellison describes the struggles of a lone castaway spaceman on a desolate alien world.My initial step was to create mood boards to assist in directing the work of the entire creative and technical production team on the development project. This step begins with assembling imagery from readily available sources - or sketching/drawing new original reference. Searching for suitable 3D models and crafting a deserted island environment took me several hours. This initial step allowed me to create the image "Castaway," capturing the essence of the story and sparking creativity. Collaborating with my art director, Mark Bloom, we discussed gameplay opportunities and sketched ideas for the desolate alien planet environment. Mark's expertise in combining hand-drawn sketches with Photoshop resulted in the image "Lava Planet." Integrating these concepts, I crafted "Stranded," portraying the main character observing his damaged ship sinking into the lava. This traditional approach, while effective, consumed significant time and resources, spanning weeks and incurring substantial costs.


“Castaway” My early exploration into what a sci fi castaway might look like rendered in 3D software

“Castaway” My early exploration into what a sci fi castaway might look like rendered in 3D software


“Lava Planet” by Mark Bloom

“Lava Planet” by Mark Bloom


My refined sketch “Stranded” produced with found 3D models, images and renders combined in Photoshop.

My refined sketch “Stranded” produced with found 3D models, images and renders combined in Photoshop.


The next step in the development of "Life Hutch VR," was collaborating with concept artist Dmitry Tsmokh. I shared the images produced by me and Mark with Dmitry, who then embarked on a journey of refining and iterating on the design. Over the course of several weeks, Dmitry brought his artistic expertise to the table, incorporating feedback from our discussions. Together, we shaped and enhanced the high-quality concept art that would serve as a visual guide for model creation and game development. This collaborative process allowed us to fine-tune every detail, from the overall visual style to the intricate elements such as the spaceship wreckage and the protagonist's spacesuit. Dmitry's artistic vision resulted in stunning images that not only served marketing and social media purposes but also became a cornerstone for establishing the environment's look and feel in the game.


“Crash Site” concept art rendered by Dmitry Tsmokh for Life Hutch VR - 2017

“Crash Site” concept art rendered by Dmitry Tsmokh for Life Hutch VR - 2017


“Crash Site” concept art rendered by Dmitry Tsmokh for Life Hutch VR - 2017

“Crash Site” concept art rendered by Dmitry Tsmokh for Life Hutch VR - 2017


The AI Approach

Fast forward to today, where AI tools have evolved and become more accessible. Drawing from my experience using AI image generators like Midjourney and DALL-E, I decided to explore their potential in the creative process.


A collage of my AI art

A sampling of my AI art


Instead of spending hours in Photoshop and 3D rendering programs, I turned to Midjourney to visualize my ideas for this seminal "Life Hutch VR" scene. With a simple text prompt, I set the stage for a castaway spaceman witnessing his ship's descent into a lava flow. Though the initial AI-generated images didn't align precisely with my vision, through iterative refinement, I eventually produced "Alone." However, one critical element remained absent—the crashed spaceship pivotal to the story. After multiple iterations, Midjourney produced "Desperate Times," which truly encapsulated the desired atmosphere. Surprisingly, I created this final image in just 30 minutes, while commuting on the train - a significant reduction in time and effort compared to the traditional process.


 “Alone” rendered in Midjourney - 2023

“Alone” rendered in Midjourney - 2023


“Desperate Times” rendered in Midjourney - 2023

“Desperate Times” rendered in Midjourney - 2023


Similar to the traditional approach, I would use these AI images to guide and inspire a human concept designer, saving time and money while clearly expressing my visual ideas.


The Power of AI Integration

Reflecting on this experiment, I am convinced that AI will undoubtedly become an integral part of my creative process moving forward. These new tools supercharged my ideation process, saving time and money while producing a better result. History has shown that artists have consistently embraced new technologies to enhance their artistic expression. Just as the invention of paint tubes allowed artists to paint outdoors and sparked the birth of Impressionism, AI tools like Midjourney provide a new avenue for creativity. The ability to generate high-quality sketches and visuals rapidly has proven to be a time and resource-saving asset. While these tools have their limitations and are not meant to replace professional artists, they are continuously improving. In my experience, I found that while the final Midjourney image was impressive, it lacked the flexibility and collaborative process that working with an artist like Dmitry provided. However, I envision an exciting future where generative AI seamlessly merges with the interactive and iterative nature of art direction and the next generation of tools provides a simple and intuitive mechanism that enhances the process.


Note: This article was co-written with ChatGPT.

Cover image created with Midjourney.











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