Untold Tales of Hollywood #32

My time on Conan the Barbarian was coming to a close…and the film had not even begun to be shot.


Ron Cobb‘s design for our big final Thulsa Doom set:

While I was still in the States, my friend and publisher Byron Preiss paid a visit to my La Brea studio. He asked me, “If you could do your own book on anything, what would you like to do?”

I thought Byron was just being conversational.

“I don’t know,” was my brilliant response.

Scattered around my studio were various drawings I had done for my pal Don Glut‘s revised Dinosaur Dictionary.

“Would you like to do one on dinosaurs?”

“Sure…” I replied.

A couple of months later, while working on Conan I received a call from Byron.

“Bill! We got our book deal! Bantam Books wants to publish your dinosaur book!”

I suddenly had this big book project dropped into my lap.

Young, dumb and full of the energy of youth, I thought I could do both projects at the same time: work as a designer on Conan and write and illustrate my dinosaur book.

Boy, was I wrong.

It started out great. While in Madrid on Conan, during my off-work evenings I would venture up to my apartment building’s rooftop and draw sketches for the illustrations I wanted to have in my dinosaur book, while watching my Lufthansa friends cavort in the swimming pool.

Eventually, though, I was forced to face the reality of my book’s deadline. I couldn’t do both. I decided to leave Conan to finish my book and then jump back to Madrid to complete my work on Conan.

Before returning to the United States I planned a trip around Europe to do research for my dinosaur book at the great European natural history museums — which is what I did.

Once back in L. A., I began producing the finished art for my dinosaur book. To keep my interest in this massive long term project, I decided to experiment and create dinosaur illustrations in the various styles of my artistic heroes.

“What if Andrew Wyeth painted dinosaurs…What would that look like? Or Arthur Rackham? Or the Detmold brothers? Or Moebius?”

By doing this I was stretching myself artistically and learning lots of new style chops. Originally, the book was to have 50 color illustrations and about 30 black and white pictures. I bumped those color illustration numbers up by being clever: I would do the required black and white illustrations in full color and then tell Bantam to just print them in black and white. I got the response I was hoping for:

“We can’t print these in black and white…They’re too beautiful!”

I eventually bumped the picture numbers up to 80 full color illustrations and 50 black and white pictures. By doing so, this became a much more important book for Bantam.

I stopped mimicking different artistic styles. I no longer had time for that indulgence. I never had what I called “my own style” prior to my dinosaur book. But the pressure to produce to meet my deadlines meant plunging into the pictures and finishing them as quickly as possible. Out of that, what people recognize as my own style emerged.

By expanding the illustration count, I was also delaying my return to Conan. Month after month slipped by. One day I got a frantic call from Madrid. It was one of the producers — and he seemed to be literally crying over the phone out of sheer desperation.

“Bill! You’ve got to come back! We need you! John won’t come out of his trailer. Ron is directing Second Unit. We need to have you back here designing and directing, too.”

It was a tough choice. I loved my Conan family, especially Ron Cobb. But my dinosaur book was the chance of a lifetime. Bantam was gearing up for a huge promotion. The first printing had ballooned from 2000 copies to 250,000 copies — a quarter of a million books! LIFE magazine did an unprecedented eight page full color spread on my dinosaur book.  Conan the Barbarian would be John Milius’ movie; The Dinosaurs – A Fantastic New View of a Lost Era would be all mine.

I finished The Dinosaurs about the same time Ron and John returned from Europe. I gave Ron Cobb, John Milius and Buzz Feitshans a nice dedication in my book.

The Dinosaurs – A Fantastic New View of a Lost Era became a bestseller. It changed my life and my art career forever.

Conan the Barbarian didn’t do so bad, either.

2 Responses to “Untold Tales of Hollywood #32”

  1. Great stories, and nice to see so much art I haven’t seen before.

  2. SBrannan says:

    So of the seven here, five I’ve not seen before. One of – if not THE – all time favourite movies for me. Especially the character of Thulsa Doom – amazing Temple he had btw – and that scene in his innermost sanctum. ^_^

    Can’t wait to see what else you have about it. 🙂

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