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Credit: Cynthia Halley

Q&A with Marvel Studios art director Cynthia Halley

12 December 2022• Written by Lucy Dunn

As Art Director and Visual Development Artist at creative powerhouse Marvel Studios, design and imagination is in Cynthia Halley’s DNA. Using both current and time-honoured entertainment design theories and practices, she creates immersive fantasy worlds that will transport an audience to another time and place, setting the mood, and telling a story.

So how can these techniques be used to inspire superyacht design, arguably one of the world’s ultimate fantasies? Ahead of her appearance at the Superyacht Design Festival 2023, Cynthia talks to BOAT about a typical day at one of the world’s most creative film studios and reveals how she keeps her imagination pin-sharp.

Cynthia Halley
Credit: Cynthia Halley

How did you get into animation?

“I’ve been drawing and making things for as long as I can remember! Art was always my go to, but I didn’t know until the very end of college that I would go into animation.

I grew up watching movies like The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, which had these incredible imagined realms made into real places that could be filmed. I was so excited by that and knew I wanted to design environments. I was also a little unusual as a child in that I had more interest in setting up the environments that my toys would live in, rather than playing with the toys themselves!

I was still a kid when Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy came out, and that was a huge influence. I was unbelievably inspired and encouraged by fantasy being taken so seriously, and the behind-the-scenes footage of all the artists creating LOTR’s visuals made me realise not only could I be paid to do this as a living, but I could be part of a whole team working together to craft an entire world!

My teachers at Art Center College of Design introduced me to the world of animation. I was aiming to go into set design for theatre or live action, but then I started learning how to draw for entertainment - not just to make great designs, but how to give my images narrative power. I really fell in love with it, and I was able to jump into the industry immediately after graduating in 2013. The rest - as they say - is history.”

Credit: Cynthia Halley

Describe your nine to five

“I act as gatekeeper for the look and feel of each production, following and translating the brief given to me by the director, and making sure every detail in every scene matches in with the overall concept.

Day to day this means lots of meetings working with different teams of artists in different departments - including bridging the gap between 2D and 3D. I do a lot of guiding, teaching, and policing of artists on my own crew and at third-party vendor studios. I am responsible for a lot of the initial design work, help the artists distil further ideas to deliver a clear visual message with their art, then hand that over and help all the other departments work through making the design a “reality”.

I’ve been an art director at Marvel for the past four years, but over my career I have been fortunate enough to work in both TV and feature animation at a number of major studios - including Sony Pictures Animation, Nickelodeon, and Disney.

What all these studios have in common is great storytelling, and it’s my responsibility as an art director and an environment designer - wherever I am - to guide my team of artists through the creation of new worlds that are not only fantastic designs, but that support the characters and narratives in profound and subtle ways.

It’s always tough to be creatively on tap, and schedules and budgets can be insanely demanding and stressful. But the rewards are always worth it. It’s always fun, the people are amazing, it keeps the world entertained, and sometimes I have to pinch myself that I’m paid to do what I love.”

Credit: Cynthia Halley

The Marvel universe is constantly pushing the boundaries of creativity. Where do you get the inspiration?

“Influences can come from anywhere, and everywhere! It’s all about gathering reference, learning from others, being open to new experiences, and doing research.

The more you know where the edges of the box are, the more you can think outside of it. Each design has to be very specific, and I might gather hundreds of visual references for the smallest detail. But what’s important is the essence - the feeling - of an image, because that can be distilled and reshaped into a perfect fit for the show - be it the shape of a specific mountain in a background, or the style of a main character’s motorbike.

There are also things that just inspire me personally and I never know what that will be! Who can predict a muse? I think that’s common to all designers in any industry. But it’s what I think about as I’m pulling references that is unique to working in animation and entertainment. I’ll be going into this quite a bit more in my talk!”

Smurfs: The Lost Village art direction and visual development
Credit: Cynthia Halley

Like film and animation, yacht design is also about going bigger and further than before and doing something no one else has done. What would you advise someone who is stuck for inspiration?

“Get outside. Go do something you’ve never done before. Go look at something weird, or quietly study the ordinary. Clear your head and then try to think about how things got where they are now.

Any good design is about telling a story - if you have a strong design narrative, everything starts to fall into place.

I’m excited to share some of the visual storytelling techniques that have never failed the entertainment industry, and also how this can be applied to yacht design.

Marvel takes superheroes very seriously. But at the end of the day, the goal is to entertain - and that’s the real design superpower! Hopefully some of my experiences will inspire others to push the boundaries of what’s possible, think more freely, and above all have more fun on their next projects!”

Cynthia Halley will be opening up her sketchbook and revealing the secret to showstopping design at the 2023 Superyacht Design Festival. Tickets are still available. Find out more here

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