Marvel: Heroes turn fantasy world into reality

The Avengers

It is now 10 years since Iron Man rocketed his way into cinemas, with Robert Downey Jr’s quick-witted charm winning over audiences across the globe.

And from the afro-futurist Wakanda to the gleaming Asgard and nightmarish Dark Dimension, advances in computer-generated effects and the studio’s blockbuster budgets have enabled filmmakers to push the envelope ever more.

But while the fantastical deeds of its costumed crusaders continue to thrill, the Marvel Cinematic Universe owes much of its success to the teams of unsung stars who never appear on screen.

For long before the films are released to sold-out showings amid a media frenzy, concept artists spend months painstakingly creating and honing the look and feel of each instalment.

“It’s totally critical [to the end product],” says Ron Ashtiani, director of Atomhawk Design, which counts Thor: The Dark World, Guardians of the Galaxy and Avengers: Age of Ultron among its portfolio.

“It’s a huge amount of pressure, but also really rewarding.”


The studio, based in Gateshead in north-east England, is displaying examples of its work as part of the Great Exhibition of the North.

Atomhawk was enlisted by Marvel after impressing with its videogame design work.

That area of expertise, Ashtiani believes, lent itself well to the vision Marvel had for its films.

Working digitally with illustration software, its team of artists design and refine the appearance of characters, props and environments – often dozens of times over.

From initial sketches through to detailed scene shots, no stone is left unturned.

“Every project we work on, we do a significant amount of reference-gathering,” Ashtiani reveals.

“We explore real-world reference points and fiction.

“You’ve got to be careful not to create something that’s been done before. You can get easily influenced by things you’ve seen.”

Atomhawk Design's Asgardian Skiff craft

Tasked with adding “an extra layer of believability” to the second Thor adventure, the team dived deep into Norse mythology and created the Asgardian skiff by combining a Viking longboat with futuristic-looking technology and materials.

It would be the first Guardians of the Galaxy instalment, though, that provided the company with its biggest opportunity to stamp its authority on a film’s final look.

The comics, Ashtiani says, had “always been a bit niche”, without a settled visual identity.

“It was a new imagining of IP [intellectual property] for Marvel.

“We looked at pulp movies like Barbarella and Forbidden Planet – a lot of very colourful and comic sci-fi, as they wanted to take that kind of feeling and mix it with a modern sci-fi look.”

Concept art for Guardians of the Galaxy showing the Boot of Jemiah, a bar on the space colony of Exitar

As drawn up by Atomhawk, the hero crew’s Milano spaceship as well as the Kyln interstellar prison and Knowhere – the floating giant skull of a celestial being – all took starring roles.

Far from a simple process, “upwards of 50 versions” of the spaceship were designed.

The 18 months of hard work ultimately paid off, though. “About 25%” of the firm’s ideas ended up on screen, having been realised by the film’s visual effects teams.

Director James Gunn was so impressed he later tweeted his approval, saying Atomhawk’s efforts had helped inspire a key scene between the villainous Thanos and Ronan.