The visions created by graphic artist Kilian Eng inhabit an organic landscape grown of blinking lights. Structures of beautiful mechanics. Eng’s drawings show the artist as architect. As the omniscient voice controlling a self-created world.
He works in science-fiction, but not the modern version of it – there are no horrors, no desolate worlds. Kilian’s art goes beyond the common tropes of science-fiction and fantasy.He doesn’t envision an end-time apocalypse, but a future where mankind has evolved to a place where technology and nature intertwine. There is optimism and hope even in the darkest and most alien of his pieces.
CJ: What grabbed me first about your work is the depth of the world creation at play. There’s a unique future, or otherworld, that you’ve created. It’s almost as if each piece you’ve done is a moment in a large scale narrative. Is there a story, or theme, that you keep in mind when sitting down to work?
KE: Sometimes there is, I invent a short scenario that I want to visualize but most times I can’t really say where it comes from. The final piece tends to change through the process, but that’s mostly for the better.
I think it’s important to be spontaneous when creating and strive for complete freedom. It’s quite easy to see that some of my work belongs in the same world and could probably be tied to each other in some sort of longer narrative. I haven’t done it yet though. For me a story can be told in just one image, it’s really all about the viewer’s imagination. Because of that I don’t force any explanation of my ideas on anyone, its much better if it can mean different things for different people.
Your work has a wonderful blending of the organic and the technologic. Even with the vast structures you build, there’s always a flourish of life to the machines. Like in your piece ‘The Table,’ the characters are oddly robotic but still alien – there’s a strange sort of life to them. It’s a fascinating world that I wish I could visit. How did you land on your style? Did you struggle at all trying to find your voice as an artist?
I have never seen it as a struggle to get to a certain point, or like there was a goal to reach a specific style. Everything has been natural developing for many years and that still goes on, hopefully as long as I keep on drawing. I have a special interest in certain fields. like the use of light and color in art forms like film and theater. I guess you could say set design and scenography. I’m interested in how these things can create an atmosphere and have an impact on what goes on in the image.
I actually quite often like to think of my images as they take place as a part of a film or something like that. This helps me to create my own rules, it doesn’t necessarily have to be correct or naturalistic looking, as long as it has the feel I want. That doesn’t need to have anything to do with logic, it’s my imagination and language.
What I think is important at this point when people have started to notice the work a bit and have an opinion on it is to just keep on doing what you want, what feels honest to you. I mean the most common comment that viewers have is that it reminds them of another artist, I know this is something that all artists hear many times.’Your style looks exactly like this and that.’ I am of course inspired by other’s work, but what I do comes from inside me and no one can take that away.
I’ve read you referred to as a ‘fantasy artist’ in some places and as a ‘science fiction artist’ in others. Does this distinction matter to you? Or, for that matter, the distinction between being called an ‘artist’ versus ‘illustrator’?
When you work with commissions you take on one role, and when you create your own things another. With commercial jobs, like an editorial piece, I guess I would be an illustrator. Personally I’m not interested in putting titles on these things.
I like to say graphic artist and that can be whatever people want it to be, if it’s fantasy or sci-fi, doesn’t matter. I don’t care too much about different labels on the work, just want to create.
Your ‘Argo’ poster for Mondo’s Oscar series is brilliant on all levels. Conceptually it’s devious, matching the plot of the film. How many concepts did you do for before deciding on the final version?
Actually not so many but since the poster is based on the fake sci-fi movie in the film, I did research on the whole background of where that came from. In the beginning that fake film was loosely based on Roger Zelazny‘s sci-fi novel ‘Lord of Light’ which was heavily influenced by the Hindu-Buddhist religion, including many of those gods in the story. There was also some amazing designs by Jack Kirby that If I understood it correctly were used in the true events that Argo is based on.
Anyway, my first concept sketch for the Mondo poster was much more influenced by the Hindu-Buddhist aspect with a representation that reminded a lot of Buddha in a kind of space environment. After some feedback, I had to tone down the religious connection and the final sketch had a much more retro sci-fi vibe to it. The Jack Kirby drawings were definitely great inspiration for the final poster too. You should really check them out, they are easy to find on the web.
One of my favorite pieces of yours is ‘The Hand.’ There’s a unique beauty in it. The environment built of lights is so calming and serene, yet so overwhelming and unfamiliar that it’s a bit frightening. It’s a version of science-fiction that shows hope and beauty rather than generic intergalactic space fights. That feeling of awe is there, for me at least, in all of what you do. I love the way that you explore what science-fiction is, what fantasy is. You stretch those two genres into incredible shapes. What is science-fiction to you? Is that something you think about when working?
One important aspect of sci-fi is about the curiosity to explore other worlds and the unknown. I think that’s why I like the genre, for me its unlimited freedom to visualize the strange, mysterious, the advanced, or very simple. I really don’t know what I’m looking at many times when an image is finished. It is something unknown that has just been discovered.
I picked up the double vinyl ‘Oblivion’ soundtrack that Mondo put out with your cover design. What was your process like for matching the look of director Joseph Kosinski’s film and M83’s score? How close did Mondo and the filmmakers watch what you were doing?
I didn’t get to see the film beforehand, but they provided me with a lot of great photo material. Then the artwork was made quite close to the release date so there were a couple of trailers out already. As you know the final front cover is not based on any direct scene from the film, but more a representation of the solitude of a world left behind. I wanted to show two sides of this, so I think the artwork shows both the threat and the peaceful atmosphere with the warm sky in contrast to the dark surface.
In the process, I worked closely with Rob Jones from Mondo who helped me with the art direction, the artist Jay Shaw was also involved with the text layout part. Rob handled the studio contact and came back to me with their feedback on the concepts. It was far from the easiest job I have done, much because of a misunderstanding in the beginning when the studio thought they had a clear idea of what they were after. They wanted that idea to be done without checking with the director and composer of the soundtrack beforehand. I did a finished original based on that but it turned out that the director and composer didn’t want that direction at all. This meant we had to start from the beginning because someone had tried to save time. I’m actually glad afterward because the final piece is more interesting than the original idea, but it was quite frustrating when in the middle of the process and on a short deadline. I would say that the process was very closely watched over by the studio.
When you collaborate with a filmmaker or a band to use your art to represent the art of another, how do you approach that mentally? Is it just a job?
Well, it can be just a job but it all depends on how much I feel inspired by the music. You can’t obviously like everything you hear, even though I have been very lucky most times and have been contacted by great musicians. The best and most inspiring jobs I have done are the ones connected to music that I enjoy. Those have been smooth rides when you just listen to the sounds and the images comes to you through it, that is a great feeling. Music can be a fantastic key to open up new worlds.
When it comes to film concept I have only worked with one so far, ‘Koyakatsi.’ That one was a true pleasure with plenty of freedom and opportunities to experiment. A collaboration with a director who had visions and great imagination. It didn’t go far from how I usually work with personal stuff which I definitely could appreciate.
I’d heard that you did some of the concept work for Ayoub Qanir’s film ‘Koyakatsi.’ The trailer recently came out and it looks awesome. Were you approached to design specific elements of the film or create the entire world?
Yes, it was a great experience to be involved in that project. My part in the development was very early on. Me and Ayoub brainstormed new ideas but he also had specific scenarios based on work I had done earlier that he wanted to incorporate into the world of ‘Koyakatsi.’ Since the film is still in development I don’t actually know how much of my concepts will show in the end product, but judging from the trailer I recognize quite a bit so It seems like at least some key scenes from the film will be based on them. I didn’t come up with the design of the whole world, that was something Ayoub had done already, just helped to give it a form.
Your book ‘Object 10’ was recently released by Floating World Comics. It’s an awesome assemblage of your work. Do you have any plans for doing a straight narrative book, like a graphic novel?
Yes actually there is some loose ideas in development but it’s in collaboration form as well, can’t say much about it at this early stage but it has to do with ice and snow.
The only thing published so far is a short comic book that I did with Norwegian comic book writer and artist Martin Ernstsen called ‘Syklus,’ I illustrated his story.
What about your animated short film ‘Marchmounts’? The trailer has been around for a while. Where is that project at these days?
It’s still there and I think about it from time to time. Still plan to finish it at some point but there hasn’t been any time to work on it for almost two years. It’s hard to explain how much time animation takes, so many different things that play together. People asked about it for some time but now I think most have forgotten about it which is good, no expectations and when it finally shows up it will be a surprise, hopefully, a good one.
With digital being your main medium, do you ever do finished artwork with traditional tools like pens and paints?
Yes, I do a lot of drawings with pen and paper, some of my outline work are scans that I then color in Photoshop. Haven’t done any painting for many years though.
There’s an influence of ‘80s digital graphics evident in your work. There’s a classic animation quality to something like ‘The Gate Opens,’ where it seems like we caught a frame from a lost film. What attracts you to that style, that look of early computer graphics?
If it reminds of that style I think it has a lot to do with the impact that many of the point and click games had on me when I was young.
Those games, where you walk around in strange environments finding clues to solve a mystery. The ones that come to mind with heavy visual influence on me are ‘The Dig,’ ‘Loom,’ ‘Monkey Island’ and ‘Another World.’
The last one was perhaps a bit more action-oriented though. I also like to have a small amount of textures on some of my work, that’s why it perhaps look a bit old, like the VHS quality instead of the re-mastered Blu-ray.
Are you 100% freelance, able to make your own hours? Have you ever worked for a design firm?
Yes I work 100% freelance but I’m connected to an agency in London, Début Art, so the commissions I take on goes through them.
You’ve done work for Mondo, bands, and magazines. Is there a common type of job that you are approached to do? Any work you’d turn down?
At the moment it’s mostly posters and album covers. I turn down jobs all the time for different reasons, mostly because clients are unfortunately in such a hurry that I just feel I won’t make it time-wise. I have learned that really short deadlines are common, like 4 days or so.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t fit very well with my way of working. It’s a shame that often when a band is about to release a record, they have spent like two years on the music, which is, of course, understandable, but they don’t think about involving they visual aspect until a month or less before release date. There’s also a lot of jobs I would turn down because of political or moral aspects but haven’t been faced with these decisions so far.
8 thoughts on “Interview: The Inspired Future of Artist Kilian Eng”
I found Kilian’s work about an hour ago and have since then browsed through many of his images, read this interview and ordered the book… This was the first time, after many many years of enjoying digital art, that I actually got goosebumps from still images.
Maybe it was the combination of his images and the retro-electronic soundtrack I was listening to, maybe it was the fact that somebody would actually mention the game LOOM (which still is an icon on my desktop) as a source of inspiration or maybe it was a combination of all those factors.
What I know is that I have been looking for these images for a very long time without knowing what I was actually looking for. (Sounding like a client?) They feel strangely familiar and immediately relevant, even though the actual scenarios are far away from what I have seen in film, games or reality so far.
Chris J said it really well: “There is optimism and hope even in the darkest and most alien of his pieces.”
This contrast between hope and darkness appears to make them emotionally complex, true and beautiful – a rare contrast that can still be found in Studio Ghibli films, some live action classics from between ~1977 and ~1988 and a few games from the golden days of games; when team sizes were small and idealists and storytellers were still attractive employees. Truly a lost art…
Lost and found!
I wish Kilian all the best.
Joachim, I totally felt the same way when I first saw Kilian’s work. He has a stunning way with world creation that I just totally responded to on a gut level. ALthough I have to admit I have no idea what Loom is, but I do see the relationship to his work and Miyazaki’s.