Rochester Hills native Ben Mauro has traveled the globe in his quest to create new monsters and alien civilizations that are featured in some of the latest television shows, movies and video games.
Now operating his own Seattle-based freelance business, Mauro's work as an art director and concept designer has taken him to California, New Zealand, Paris, Portugal, and across Asia. His designs have been featured in movies like "The Hobbit" series, "The Amazing Spiderman 2," "LUCY," and "Man of Steel," and have been used by NASA, Activision, Lexus and others. His latest project, "Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets," is the work of French director Luc Besson that took nearly two years to complete.
"I lived on the road for about four years while freelancing, then Valerian came up and I went to Paris for a year when production started," Mauro said. "That cup is full. I don't want to travel. I want to sit down for a year or two and digest everything and work on a few of my own projects."
A graduate of Rochester Adams High School, Mauro moved to the Seattle area to study at the DigiPen Institute of Technology and pursue work in the video gaming industry. He followed that up with additional studies at the Los Angeles Academy of Figurative Arts and the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California.
"I was into video games and stuff in high school," he said. "It was about convincing my parents that it was a real career in the entertainment industry, and that they had salaries and it was a legitimate thing. Luckily, I was able to convince them. I moved out to Seattle to go into the gaming industry, then I focused on design. I needed more training."
Design work may begin with a pencil and paper or drawings on a computer and develop through three-dimensional rendering or modeling. And ideas may begin with direction from a script or book, or a completely original concept from Mauro's mind.
Based on a French science fiction comic book, Valerian said the City of a Thousand Planets is a visually striking movie that takes place in a 28th century, space traveling city inhabited by creatures from thousands of planets. Mauro said Besson brought him on as the senior concept designer after seeing some of his work years earlier.
"Typically, I get a script and the director has some ideas. For example, on Valerian, the director gave me about 20 things to design – aliens, weapons and all sorts of stuff. Then you figure out what effects will be needed and what needs to be built on set," Mauro said. "On Valerian, the director had a better idea of what he wanted, but sometimes it's just, 'show me some cool ideas.' Since it was based on a comic book, there was something to start with. Each project is different."
The work not only requires creativity on Mauro's part, but a detailed knowledge of science fiction and fantasy worlds that already exist.
"It's important to watch and look at everything to know what is out there and what has been done. Otherwise you design something and think it's original, then you realize Star Wars did it 20 years ago," Mauro said. "That's on us designers to know what is out there. People trust that you are going to do something cool and different."