AC Masoen visdev
Artwork created by AC Masoen

What is a Visual Development Artist?

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The work done by a visual development artist closely relates to a concept artist, but vis dev usually applies to animated movies and TV shows.

Visual development artists create the mood, tone, and color palette of every piece for an animated movie. This can include environments, characters, clothing, props, you name it. The job is very demanding but also offers incredible freedom in actually designing an imaginary world from scratch.

There’s a great video interview of vis dev artist Samantha Kallis talking about her work. She explains the importance of adventure and the willingness to grow as an artist and a person.

Visual development artists work to create a world with characters that are appropriate to the storyline. Their job is to set the tone for various scenes, settings, landscapes, buildings, and almost everything else.

Once a movie is in motion the vis dev artist works to build a visual world that best aligns with the intended vision of the production.

Ideas come down from producers and writers which go to the creative director, art director, and the vis dev team.

Many vis dev artists work with a combination of 2D and 3D programs, but it also greatly depends on the production. Even if a movie is being animated in 3D the art director might prefer all vis dev work to be in 2D.

jules durand jungle visdev art
Jungle vis dev by Jules DURAND

Some productions may also push specific tasks to different artists(like environments and characters). But visual development artists should be good enough to handle it all!

One special part of vis dev work is the color key or color script. This is a board of shots featuring moods and colors made to reflect the tone of the production.

Color keys are not unique to movies, although they’re traditionally created by visual development artists for animated pieces. Lighting can take on different colors which will largely affect the mood of the piece.

Lou Romano has published various color scripts from the movie Up! with a complementary forum thread discussing the visuals.

color script disney movie up
Pixar UP! color script

In fact Pixar published a brilliant book titled The Art of Pixar: 25th Anniversary with color scripts picked from over 25 years of animation. This book is full of gorgeous visual development work and goes to show how much is hoisted onto these artists during production.

You can find tons of interviews online with visual development artists who spill the beans about their job. One interview with vis dev artist Katerina Pantela is extremely encouraging.

This is one of the most creative industries when it comes to entertainment art, and it’s right on par with concept art careers. Very high competition and not enough jobs for everyone. But if you’re good enough and have a quality portfolio you might get the chance to prove yourself.

If you’re interested in becoming a vis dev artist then you’ll really want to master your color selection skills. Visual development is tough work so you need to have your fundamentals down solid.

I highly recommend Aaron Blaise’s video talking about vis dev portfolios. He says a great vis dev portfolio demonstrates aptitude in figure, draftsmanship, versatility of artistic style, and a commanding knowledge of color theory.

Aaron is a veteran artist working for Disney over two decades. In his many years on the job he looked through thousands of these applicant portfolios. His advice would be useful for concept artists and vis dev artists alike, but the key factor is a knowledge of fundamentals and enough creativity to get the job done.