Interview: Andy Park, the artist behind Iron Man, Lara Croft, and Kratos

Here’s how the imagination of one of the world’s greatest concept artists served as the midwife to an entire universe.

Exactly ten Christmases ago, my parents hesitantly bought their twelve-year-old child a copy of God of War III. Like many zit-covered teens, I wasn’t necessarily drawn toward the infamously ultra violent hack-and-slash game because I wanted to live out some subconscious power fantasy. Rather, I wanted to play the game for the simple, straightforward reason that it looked cool — very cool — cooler than anything I had ever seen, in fact.

Just try to picture for yourself the following scene: a fearsome general with ashen white skin and bright red tattoos covering his hulking torso, armed with flaming chainblades, climbing Mount Olympus on the shoulders of vengeful giants as they are being attacked by Zeus, Hades, Hermes, Helios, Hercules and, last but not least, Poseidon. Now imagine all of that rendered in graphics so gorgeous they make the even the PlayStation 5's best attempts look boring.

As far as size, scale and scope go, it’s a sequence that — at least in my own opinion — knows no equal among video games. Really, the only true competition that I can think of for it is the final fight scene in Avengers: Endgame. That actually isn’t all that surprising when you find out that the creatures, costumes, and conflicts in each of these two cinematic masterpieces were designed by the same group of people.

Andy Park at WonderCon 2017

One of these people is Andy Park. Starting out his career as a comic book illustrator under the guidance of Deadpool creator Rob Liefeld, Andy’s epic drawings quickly garnered the attention of both Sony Santa Monica, who invited him to join their already titanic God of War franchise, and Marvel Studios, where he would produce concept art for some of the most iconic films ever made, from The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy to Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok.

But Andy’s job is about more than merely making things look cool. As far as expansive, intricate epics like Kratos’ revenge saga or the MCU are concerned, concept artists make that brave first step in bringing an idea from mind to page to screen. Via the tiniest design choices, they can make a fictional world feel real — connecting individual stories to the single, overarching narratives we know, love, and admire.

'Avengers: Endgame' concept art by Andy Park.Marvel Studios

Tim Brinkhof: How are you doing, Andy?

Andy Park: It's been a busy week. I'm a little stressed, but hanging in there.

Tim: Can you tell me anything about the projects you're involved with at the moment, or is that top secret?

Andy: I've been working on the tail end of WandaVision, Shang-Chi ,The Legend of the Ten Rings, Thor: Love and Thunder, and a couple that I probably can't mention.

Tim: Don't worry, I'm not going to probe. In fact, I actually want to jump all the way back to the opposite end of your career. How did you end up at Sony Santa Monica, the studio that developed the God of War games?

Andy: I started my career at 19 as a comic book artist. I eventually took a two year hiatus to go to art school because I was self-taught and I wanted to learn the fundamentals — color theory, figure drawing. I took a concept art class over at Gnomon, which is a VFX school in Hollywood. At the end of the class, the teacher put our work on display and invited people in film and video games to come check it out. That's where I met a guy named Charlie Wen. He told me he worked at Santa Monica and had me come in for an interview and I guess they liked my work, because I got the job.

'Guardians of the Galaxy' concept art by Andy Park.Marvel Studios

Tim: Once you were in, what was the first assignment you got to work on?

Andy: I think it was a boss from God of War II — one of the Sisters of Fate. The thing about concept art is that multiple artists on your team are working on the same assignments. When we showed our designs to Cory Barlog, the director, he couldn't decide between my design and that of another artist, Dwayne Turner. We spent the next month refining our drawings. Finally, he put both of our work on the wall, brought in all of the other concept artists up there, and said, "Let's vote." They picked Dwayne's, and I just remember feeling so dejected. This was my introduction to what concept artists go through: months of work and nothing to show for it. It was rough.

Tim: But on the flip side, your first design was so good that it required a tie-breaker.

Andy: Yeah. But, you know, at the end of the day, you don't feel consoled.

Tim: I can imagine. Speaking of Cory, his 2018 God of War reboot did really well, and he's currently working on the sequel. If he were to ask you to design a character in God of War: Ragnarok, who'd you pick?

Andy: Oh, I don't know. I didn't play the new God of War. They actually wanted me to join their team in 2012, but Avengers had just come out and it was a huge success. I had a phone conversation with Cory and told him I would love to come back but that I thought I was where I needed to be.

Tim: As a concept artist, do you approach your work differently depending on whether you're designing for a film as opposed to a video game? Or do you just let your creativity take you wherever?

Andy: With video games, you're always thinking about the playability, whether it's an enemy that you're facing, or a character that you're controlling. You're always thinking of their abilities and playing with their silhouettes, because you're gonna constantly encounter different beasts, creatures, humans, non-humans, and they need to look distinct from each other. If the player can't tell whether they're fighting a Cerberus or Minotaur, you've failed.

In film, it's more about believability. With Marvel, I'm designing costumes for real actors. I have to think about functionality — whether the things I'm drawing can actually be made.

'God of War III' concept art showing Kratos fighting a Chimera by Andy Park.SIE Santa Monica

Tim: Once you joined Marvel's Visual Development Team, were there any things that your work on God of War taught you which you had to unlearn?

Andy: With video games, you can be a little bit freer in your drawing style. When I look back at my God of War artwork, a lot of the proportions are exaggerated — characters have really long legs or large arms. It's all very stylized, which I had to adjust when I came to Marvel. If I'm painting Scarlett Johansson, my job is to show the directors what Scarlett Johansson can look like in her new Black Widow costume. If I make her eight heads tall, push the proportions, I'm not helping; I had to make it real.

Another thing I had to learn was the speed with which you have to make concept pieces. In video games, a lot of the time you can just do quick sketches and rough paintings — sometimes even a silhouette is fine — and then you get feedback. For a live-action film, I have to make four, five, or six options of a finished painting, because the director and producers want to see exactly what a character could look like in the final film.

Unused Artemis concept art for 'God of War: Ascension' by Andy Park.SIE Santa Monica Studios

Tim: It sounds like video games give you a bit more wiggle room to experiment. Does that mean drawing for Marvel is more challenging?

Andy: There's definitely an argument for both, but in a lot of ways — yes. Like I said, I'm making real costumes for real actors so I have to work within those parameters. When I was designing for God of War, I didn't have to think about likenesses. I could just kind of create, especially because I was mostly designing creatures. Whereas with Marvel, the heroes and villains that I work on are human. There are limitations, but in no way am I saying it's less fun.

Black Widow costume concept art by Andy Park.Marvel Studios

Tim: You’re not the only former God of War employee who is now with Marvel. Aside from you, there's also Ryan Meinerding, who did some work on God of War II, as well as Charlie Wen, whom you already mentioned. Did Marvel actively seek you guys out?

Andy: It's definitely not a coincidence. Ryan came to Santa Monica as a freelancer when he was already working with Jon Favreau. He was only with us for about two months but his work was just amazing. Next I heard, he was designing Iron Man and recommended Charlie to work on Thor. Finally, I got contacted by Charlie, who said that he and Ryan were starting a team... much like Nick Fury did.

I don't know if you know this, but in film, there isn't an in-house group of artists that work full-time; everyone's a freelancer, so you get hired to work on a project and then you're laid off. But because Marvel used to be its own little studio, they said, "Hey, we know we're leading up to the Avengers, and it's going to be a film with five or six leads — the kind of which has never been done before in Hollywood. So why don't you guys form a group?"

Tim: If I look back at all the MCU films in sequence, it seems to me that the visual style of the early entries was very militaristic, whereas the later films — starting with the release of Guardians of the Galaxy — became more alien, fantastical and magical.

Andy: I think that's a good assessment. We were leaning more into the militaristic because we took a lot of inspiration from Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch's Ultimates universe. Those comics read like movies, taking the concepts of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee and putting a really realistic spin on everything — nothing fantastical at all. Of all of the Phase One films, Thor made us go, "Oh, no," because it was a time we went outside the realism and into space. If it failed at the box office, we’d be doomed. But we pulled it off, and that’s what made Avengers work.

'The Avengers' concept art by Andy Park.Marvel Studios

From there on, the next big thing was Guardians, like you said. The trick was to make the audience believe that these characters could coexist with the world of Tony Stark, which is tech and science-based. Actually, more than military-based, I would say the MCU has always been science-based. There's that one line in Thor — what do they say?

Tim: "What you call magic is our science" or something.

Andy: Right, and that makes sense to me; this is a more advanced society — we do not understand their technology. Anyway, because each subsequent film added another layer to this cake, that's how you can get to Endgame and believe all of this craziness. You would never be able to get there by jumping straight from the first Avengers. Now, though, it's hard for me to think of anything they could throw at you that you wouldn't accept. I mean, Doctor Strange saw magic.

Tim: And actual magic, at that, not science that looks like magic. After you first teased Thanos back in 2012, I knew that one day I would get to see the Avengers fight him somewhere in space, but for the longest time I just couldn't picture how you’d pull that off in a way that not only looks natural but feels natural — yet you did.

Andy: I'm still shocked. The first film I worked on was Captain America: The First Avenger, then Thor and Avengers. My coworkers and I were joking, “When is this going to end?” We now have 20+ films, and while some are better than others, none of them bombed. They weren't successful just because of the action, but because we care about each and every one of these characters. When you see Star Lord come in with Tony Stark and Spider-Man, your mind is blown because you know each of these characters separately and now they're interacting.

Tim: Then pump that feeling up to the Nth power, and you get the final fight sequence of Endgame.

Andy: Every time I watch that, the little kid inside me can’t believe what I’m seeing, let alone the fact that I actually worked on it.

Black Panther concept art by Andy Park.Marvel Studios

Tim: But you know, just as my 2012 self was wondering how you were going to make Infinity War work, my 2020 self is now wondering how you are going to top Endgame. Because, come on, if there was ever a scene that reaches a maximum level of epic-ness, that final fight has to be it.

Andy: Obviously, I can't be specific about what's going to happen in the future but I feel your sentiment. For me, everything boils down to Kevin Feige, the mastermind, the captain, the visionary. Most executives would have said, "We have the third highest-grossing film with Avengers, let's just keep doing the same." But immediately after the film's success, Kevin said, "We're doing Guardians." What executive thinks like that? Especially because, in Hollywood, you're only as good as your last success. Moving forward, I don't know how to replicate Endgame, but I have faith in that kind of risk-taking. The whole history of the MCU has been about trying new things.

Tim: The situation you currently find yourself in with Marvel is probably somewhat similar to when you and the Santa Monica team finished God of War II, a game that many believed broke the absolute limits of the PlayStation hardware, and which could never be topped. It only took you five minutes into God of War III to prove them wrong, and how.

Andy: When they asked me to design Poseidon, they said they wanted it to be a water boss, and I thought, "You can do that!?" As I was designing, I was wondering how they were going to pull it off. And then I saw it...

'God of War III' concept art showing Poseidon’s final form by Andy Park.SIE Santa Monica Studio

Tim: As for the sheer scale and scope of that first level, I think you put it best in this bit of commentary you wrote for The Art of God of War III about one of the game's promotional posters that you put together: "I had to make a drawing of Kratos, riding on top of a cyclops, killing sentries, while they're on top of Gaia, who is climbing Mount Olympus, while she's being attacked by Poseidon."

Andy: Just drawing two guys fighting is hard enough. Trying to convey all of those things was really challenging, but so much fun.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. Interested in seeing more of Andy’s work? Check out his portfolio.