ANDY PARK Looks Back on a Decade Designing the MARVEL CINEMATIC UNIVERSE

Black Widow movie poster
Credit: Andy Park (Marvel Studios)
Credit: Andy Park

From Pym Particles to Kree battle armor to the Earth’s Mightiest Heroes in the Avengers, chances are if you’ve enjoyed a Marvel Studios film over the past 10 years, you’ve enjoyed the work of Andy Park, the company’s Director of Visual Development.

But as the artist pulls triple-duty juggling productions like Black Widow, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, and WandaVision, we wanted to know: what’s it like to help bring the House of Ideas to life?

As he approaches his 10-year anniversary with the company, Newsarama caught up with Park in advance of his appearance Friday through Sunday Oct. 11-13 as guest of the ACE Comic Con Midwest at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center in Rosement, Illinois to discuss his jump from comic books to concept art, his wide-ranging and largely unprecedented responsibilities in the Marvel cinematic bullpen, and what it takes to keep reinventing one of the most financially lucrative wheels in Hollywood.

Newsarama: Andy, I'm going to start off asking some questions focusing on your time with Marvel Studios and your role there. First and foremost, can you talk a little bit about how you wound up at Marvel Studios? And for people who don't necessarily know all the behind-the-scenes, explain a bit about what your role is?

Andy Park: Sure. I'll start off with how I got there - it's kind of a long answer. Whether your readers know or not, I started off my career as a comic book artist, so I was drawing comics way back in 1995. I got hired at age 19 by Rob Liefeld. So I was at UCLA at the time and then I went to San Diego Comic Con. He looked at my portfolio and gave me my first job, so I left college. I drew comic books for about 10 years and I drew for Rob for a couple of years. I drew for Marc Silvestri's Top Cow, for the Tomb Raider series, Lara Croft. I did some X-Men stuff.

And then in 2005, I decided to make a switch in my career. By this time the internet was fully blown. I was seeing a lot more what was out there. But during my comic book days, that was pre-internet, and the knowledge of what was out there was less. So I started seeing concept art - which was a fairly new career, especially at that time. And that's when I decided I wanted to make a switch into concept art.

So I started building a portfolio on my own time. As I was drawing Tomb Raider, as I was drawing Uncanny X-Men. Because I knew that in order to do concept art I would need to show that I knew how to paint digitally, that I could paint realistically, I could do other styles beyond just my comic book style.

In 2005, I got a job at Sony Santa Monica, to work to work on the God of War series. So I designed characters and creatures for God of War II, God of War III, and God of War: Ascension. The guy who hired me, was a guy named Charlie Wen. He was the director of visual development at that time, and couple of years after I was there, he left. He went into movies. I met another guy while I was at Sony named Ryan Meinerding, who was a freelancer. He worked with us for a couple of months. He left and he started working on Iron Man.

Eventually Charlie started working on the Thor movie - and then right around the time when they were about to start pre-production concept art on the Avengers movie, that's when Kevin Feige and the leadership at Marvel, they saw what Charlie and Ryan brought to the table, and they decided to have them form a team of artists that can be in-house. Because usually in film concept artists are all just freelancers. They just get hired for a movie and then they lay them off, and then the artist has to go find another movie. Very much like the comic book world, right?

So there's no full-time, in-house kind of art jobs in film, usually. But because what Marvel was creating was unique, that's why they decided to create an in-house team of artists. Knowing that there's going to be years and years of films, it behooved them to kind of an art team that can maintain consistency, that understood the brand and can kind of design the characters throughout the films.

So I was the first one that they hired. They contacted me while I was at Sony and that's how I got my first job, starting to work on Avengers. But right before that I did a little bit of work on Captain America and Thor, then pretty much I got hired to start on Avengers. So that's, to answer that question, how I got to Marvel. My role, so I started working there in 2010, this is my tenth year there.

Credit: Andy Park (Marvel Studios)

Nrama: Congratulations.

Park: Yeah, I was a senior illustrator, a concept artist through all those years, and then about five years ago I got promoted to lead the films. So right now Ryan is the head of visual development. I'm the director of visual development, and we both lead the films separately. We have so many films going on at the same time, so he leads two or three films at the same time, and then I lead the other two or three films that are going on. So usually at any given moment, we have up to six projects going on at the same time. So I will lead three of them.

For example, right now I was leading the Black Widow film. I'm currently leading the Shang-Chi film, as well as leading the Disney+ WandaVision show. And then what I do, just to explain the visual development team, our main job is to design the characters. So the heroes, the villains that you see in the films, we design those. A lot of times that pertains to the costumes a real actor will wear. A lot of times, if it's a CG character like Korg, or Thanos, we'll design the characters and the creatures. And then the other part of our job is to design the key frame illustrations - key frame illustrations are basically a still story moment of a film.

So since we're working in the very beginning of the moviemaking process, a lot of times the script isn't even written yet. The director, they have ideas and they want to see what can this look like. For example, like Avengers, [writer/director Joss Whedon] talked about the moment when the portal opens up above Avengers Tower and then you see the aliens start to come down, as Iron Man starts flying upward. So I did a simple illustration of that.

It's one thing that the director and all the producers have it in their mind what this moment is, but once they see it, as a picture speaks a thousand words, he saw that image and he said something along the lines of like, "This movie is going to be cool." It's an affirmation of what the artist does, right? We help actualize ideas and we help further those ideas that are either just in someone's mind or on paper. So in a nutshell, that's our job.

Nrama: When you're drawing, who do you consider your audience to be? I know you touched upon a little bit of visualizing things that directors and producers have brought up. Do you see your job as primarily helping the comics properties make that leap to three-dimensional live action media? Or is it primarily, like you were saying, sort of the director saying, "I have this idea, can you see if it's possible to execute it?"

Park: Yeah, I mean I think it's kind of both of those, because my job, at the end of the day, my boss who I'm serving, the master that I'm serving is the director and the producers of Marvel. So we're there to help. They have a vision, they have an idea and we're there to help execute that, as well as provide ideas that they didn't think of, that will help them to be like, "Oh my God, that's awesome." It's a collaboration.

But our main job is to help the director and the producers figure out their vision for the film that they want to make. But because we're Marvel Studios and we're not just creating movies out of thin air, we're basing it off of existing properties that have been there for almost a century. The directors, the writers, as well as on our side, the concept artists, the visual development department, we're there to honor what Stan Lee, what Jack Kirby, what Steve Ditko, what all those creators of the past decades have created. So we're not doing a one-to-one translation exactly, we're creating a new mythology within an existing mythology.

But the trick is to try to find both of those things, to serve both those things. Because at the end of the day, we know that fan base is rabid, right? They'll voice it when they're not happy. And it's great because I grew up in the '80s and the early '90s, and I was a Marvel fan. I grew up collecting Marvel Comics. So for me, whenever I'm designing these things, in my mind, I'm always thinking, "Okay, if I'm working for someone, like Joss Whedon, or the Russo brothers, or whoever. I'm thinking, "Okay, what does he want? When I had a sit-down with him, I talked to him, what is his vision?"

And then of course I'm thinking, "What do Kevin Feige and the producers at Marvel, what do they like when we're making these movies?" And then the third person I'm always thinking of, "Is what do the fans want?" That one's a little easier for me because that one's just, "What do I want?" And a lot of times I'll do designs. Because when I'm designing a character like Ant-Man, I'm not just doing one design, I'm doing dozens of designs - some I'll do like, "Okay, this is exactly what the director wants." And then I'll do other versions where it's like, "This is what I as a fan want to see." I'm still trying to still try to sprinkle it in what, say, Peyton Reed wants to see. So it's a balancing act.

Credit: Andy Park (Marvel Studios)

Nrama: And have you ever personally contributed something that's shown up in a movie exactly as you conceptualized it?

Park: Yeah. That's what's great about our department, because it's a unique department within the film industry. Normally a concept artist will just do a design and after they're done with the design on paper, or digitally on Photoshop, they'll turn it in and then they'll never see it again until they see it in the movie. Our department's unique because, especially for me, since I'm leading this film, I'm one of the heads of the departments. So after we design it, I work with a costume designer, and then she's the one who actually makes it for the actor, so I will work with them as they try to figure out things like the material, the fabric. I'll do detailed drawings of what does each element look like, and I'm part of the process when they start doing the fittings with the actor.

So we start taking notes, I'll take photos and I'll help try to further figure out how do we solve the initial design that everyone loved and approved. And a lot of times when they start making it real, on a real person, it doesn't always translate. It looks like, "Oh, it doesn't look as good as that original painting." So part of my job is to help try to help bridge that gap and to figure out how do we get that real person, Paul Rudd, who has real human proportions - not eight heads tall like a comic book - how do we get that to look like the original design that I did? And that's part of the fun.

And a lot of time it even goes into the VFX. So a character like Hela, where we knew from the get-go that a lot of her final look is going to be CG. That even in post-production as they're doing the VFX, I will still be in those meetings where, "Okay. It's not looking as good as what we thought it was going to look like." Once we start getting shots from the vendors, then they'll have me come and even do more art direction, more paint overs over the VFX shots. To help figure out, "Okay, how do we get this to look correct?"

So to answer your question, yes. Because a lot of the stuff is very, very accurate to what I have designed. From Ant-Man, to the Wasp, to Black Widow, to Hawkeye, to Captain Marvel and her look. Yeah. A lot of those look very much just like the concept art that I did in the very beginning.

Nrama: That's interesting. So you're really in the process through the whole thing, even from pre-production all the way to post.

Park: Yes. And that, again, that's a unique thing that doesn't really exist in Hollywood, but something that Marvel set up. And then because Marvel's beginnings were very much like a startup. They didn't start off in Disney, right? They started up their own little company: "Let's just start our own movies." Right? And then because they were successful in Iron Man, and that's why eventually Disney bought them up. But because of that, it's very much like Pixar. Pixar was their own little company. They made something on their own and once they're successful, then someone like Disney buys them up, but they're able to still maintain what made that studio special.

And part of that is doing things differently than how they would normally make movies. So I think that's a testament to the leadership in Kevin Feige, first and foremost. And I think that's why what we've experienced in the past 10 years is something unique in film history, right? Obviously, you've seen Avengers: Endgame - that's never been done in Hollywood. But it's because of the beginnings that Kevin Feige started in Iron Man.

Credit: Andy Park (Marvel Studios)

Nrama: Right. And so just looking back at your career, because you're saying that you're hitting 10 years, is there anything that you've been most proud of in your tenure at Marvel?

Park: Yeah, definitely. I think whenever I get asked that question, it's always hard, because every year, every step, every movie that I did is special. Because there's something special about it. I think definitely, I started leading films since Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and then I led Thor: Ragnarok, and Ant-Man and the Wasp, Captain Marvel, Black Widow.

I think designing Ant-Man and the Wasp, I think those two, as well as Captain Marvel, I think those three are kind of the characters I'm most proud I've designed. And those are costumes, as I mentioned, that I was very extensively involved in from the beginning, just from the blank page. And I just started like, "What is this design going to look like?" Because something like that in the comics has great comic book design, but it's a little harder to translate that to live action. If I just do one-to-one translation, it's going to come out very kind of goofy, with the big helmet and everything. So that was one that I was very proud to try to figure out.

And that original one was designed with Edgar Wright. So that one was really fun, to try to take that and how do you be respectful to the comics? And then translate for the story that we're telling? Where the costume is not a slick modern-day creation - it's actually something that was made by Hank Pym back in the day, decades ago, maybe in the '60s. But then Scott Lang was going to be wearing it in the modern day. It’s easy to make something look retro, but how do you make something look retro, but cool today? And all while still being faithful to the comic as much as you can. So that one was a really fun one to try to figure out, looking at old astronaut suits.

And then being part of what's great about designing consistently for the MCU - I also did design a couple Iron Man suits, and knowing that we have to contrast that. A Hank Pym-designed Ant-Man suit has to be very different than a Tony Stark Iron Man suit. Tony Stark's all sleek - it's almost like, how does this suit even work? You can't even figure it out. An Ant-Man suit should be clunky, it's made by Hank Pym, he's old-school, right? But you're still trying to make it cool. So I think problem-solving, that kind of suit is really fun and rewarding because even though most of the audience would just see a suit and be like, "Oh, that's cool. That looks like the comic. I'm happy."

But for me, as a designer, I spent months and months figuring out how do I tell a story in every part of this costume? From the exposed tubing, to tell the story of the astronaut containment suit, of the Pym Particles. And to contrast it with the Tony Stark suit, you would never see the exposed piping. Little things like that. Then the same thing goes for the Captain Marvel suit. I'm trying to tell the story of Carol Danvers and being a Kree soldier. So that suit is very true and faithful to the comic. But I'm trying to make it more of a militaristic heavy armor feel, rather than just that skin-tight look like that the comic has.

She goes on missions and that has a little bit more of an armor feel to it. So yeah, I think those three suits. We’re just really proud of those. So much hard work put into them.

Credit: Andy Park (Marvel Studios)

Nrama: It sounds like there's a lot of characterization that goes into the visuals as well.

Park: Yes, yes, yes. Definitely more than people realize.

Nrama: So I know you mentioned that you're currently working on Black Widow, you're working on WandaVision, you're working on Shang-Chi, and I know you recently tweeted some images from Black Widow and WandaVision. Just looking at the WandaVision image here — like you said, you got to pick out very specific key moments, that sometimes it's the director kind of calling the shots. But this is interesting, because it's forward-facing. It's something that the consumers are seeing at D23. Was there anything in particular that was going through your head in being able to tease a certain kind of vibe, or a certain kind of tone, without spoiling a whole bunch of the story?

Park: I think the only thing I can say about that image is, this was probably the hardest key frame that I've ever done. And I think because a lot of artists, especially with my comic book background, I enjoy doing those action moments with a character fighting another character, with an explosion in the background and all that kind of special effects. But with two characters sitting in a living room looking at each other, that straight-on kind of shot, that was harder than anything I've done. And there was a lot of back-and-forth working on that piece to kind of get it right. So I think that's the only thing I can say.

Nrama: Yeah. Without going into too many details, because this is a TV show versus a film, are there any particular differences in terms of the mediums? Or is it because Marvel's already serialized in terms of its filmmaking operations, that this leap for television is fairly similar?

Park: I think that for our department, our approach is the same. Everything we do, we're essentially making a long movie. So the quality and everything, especially on our side, for the visual development side, we're not thinking about like... That's one of the fun parts of my job is I don't have to think about budgets. I'm just thinking like, "I'm going to design everything to the maximum." How cool I can make that, to the maximum of my ability.

So that's fun, because I think a lot of other departments have to think more about the budget. We're a little bit more free. Blue-skying what is cool. But I think that's part of what's exciting about Disney+. Because now Marvel has an opportunity to tell stories in a totally different way than the normal two-hour movie, right? Now we can tell like episodic. And for me in a lot of ways we're in the age of television, right?

Because we get to see streaming shows and we really get to dive into characters, more so than in a lot of ways than a movie can. I think the excitement among the creators, amongst us individuals of the development department, we're so excited to see, for this particular show, I'm so excited to see Wanda. She's been a fan-favorite. Everyone loves Wanda, but we want to see more of her. So I think this is going to be a great opportunity to kind of dive in and see what makes her tick and what's going on in her life.

Credit: Andy Park (Marvel Studios)

Nrama: And then to switch gears a little bit - and I know there's only so much you can say - I know you released a new image of Black Widow. And the thing that kind of stood out to me is she's got a brand-new costume here. Without any story spoilers, this is not the first time that a Marvel character has had different iterations of their suit across different films. First off, just specifically about Black Widow, were there any challenges that you had in terms of coming up with this new iteration? But even just in general, the thing with all these suits is they're typically so iconic - how do you guys go about kind of tweaking it movie to movie?

Park: Yeah, I think that's part of the challenge, but it's also part of the fun. Because I've been fortunate to be able to design Black Widow for almost all of her film appearances - the only time I didn't design her was her first appearance, in Iron Man 2. But since Avengers, I think this is her seventh or eighth film.

But that is the challenge. With every costume we're trying to tell a different kind of story, how they evolve, but part of the fun is also because I'm working for different directors a lot of times for each iteration. So the first time I designed her was for Joss Whedon, and then the second time I designed her was for Winter Soldier, for the Russo brothers.

And each of these directors has different sensibilities. Joss Whedon has a little bit more comic books sensibilities. So that's why Age of Ultron he has those glowy lights, little bit more like sci-fi.

Nrama: Yeah. Like the Tron piping.

Park: And then Russo brothers are always a little bit more grounded, and down and dirty, and gritty. So there's a lot more darks and not so much of the flash. And then, so this one was a fun one. I can't go into what the design is, or why, or my thinking behind the design. But it was so fun to be able to work with Cate Shortland, a whole new director that we've never worked with before. She's amazing, if you've seen any of her films. And so this one is really fun to kind of come up with. Yeah. I wish I could say more.

Credit: Andy Park (Marvel Studios)

Nrama: I get that. And if you can't say anything about this, I totally get it - can you say anything about what it took in terms of bringing characters like Taskmaster or Red Guardian to life? I mean, Taskmaster, I imagine, must've been a tough one because he's a guy with a skull mask, and the buccaneer boots. Can you say anything about what it was like bringing those characters, especially ones that don't really have a whole lot of expectations and not a ton of fan following, bringing those to life?

Park: Yeah, of course. I can barely say anything, but the only thing I can say is, I had so much fun coming up with a design for Taskmaster. He's one of those characters that I think people have always known of.

Nrama: He's my favorite Marvel villain. So yeah.

Park: Yeah. But I think a lot of people like Taskmaster, he's always been really cool looking in the comics. So being able to tackle that look, was really a lot of fun. I wish I could say more - I have a lot more to say once the film comes out, into the reasons why and what and this. And it's funny too, because when I released the first image a lot of people will like it, other people who will question like, "Oh, why this?" Or, "Why that?" That's par for the course working on these Marvel films. All I can say is there are always reasons.

Credit: Andy Park (Marvel Studios)

Nrama: Yeah, of course. For you, this all sounds like a very creatively demanding job, and it sounds like you have to constantly put a lot of thought into it. My question is, how do you recharge your batteries? Is there anything in particular that you draw upon for inspiration? Whether it's related to comics or otherwise, what does it take for you to keep on this marathon and be delivering the level of quality that you've been delivering over the last 10 years?

Park: Yeah, it's definitely a challenge. And as I go further and further into Marvel Studios, into my tenth year, it gets harder and harder because we have so many projects going on at the same time. For me, I always had been passionate about the source material. Again, I mentioned that I grew up reading Marvel Comics. So I think that alone really fuels me - the fanboy in me is just like, "Oh my gosh, I wish I could tell everybody. I wish I could call Newsarama and tell them all the stuff that's coming up." [Laughs] It’s so exciting.

Another thing that really charges me, it's the once-a-year charge, is Comic-Con, San Diego Comic-Con. It's where I first met Rob Liefeld and got my first job when I was 19 years old. And it's where I go every year. I've been going every year since then. So it's been over 20 years. And then when I go to the Hall H presentation, things like that. And when I have a booth at Comic-Con and I meet fans, they are always so gracious. And they're saying how much they love these movies and they would say, "I grew up with these movies." It sounds so weird to even hear that statement so many times.

But think about that - 10 years, right? That they were 10 years old, they're now in college or young adults at 20 years old, and they grew up watching these films. And they often say, "I grew up watching these films with my family. It's how I connected with my parents." That kind of stuff just puts things in perspective of like, "Wow, it is just entertainment, but it also means something to people." And so that's every year at San Diego Comic-Con. That is always something that really just charges me up and it's like, "Wow, this is awesome."

And then I'd say the third thing that really just kind of helps me because I have a family, I have two kids. So being able to spend time with them on the weekends and also being able to share with them the stuff that I'm doing. We watch the movies together, we go to the theater when it comes out. And they enjoy the stuff that I do. And just being able to spend time with them and get away. Get away from just always drawing and painting. It's something that I need because I'm human.

This interview has been edited for clarity. You can find Andy on Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube at @andyparkart and again he'll appear Friday through Sunday Oct. 11-13 at the ACE Comic Con Midwest.

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