Posted on 2 Comments

Untold Tales of Hollywood #45

When Steve Miner made me the production designer on Godzilla – King of the Monster in 3-D, I immediately began putting together my dream art department.

There were effects in almost every scene, so I knew we pretty much needed to storyboard the entire film. I continued to do boards, designing the film as I drew them. I also hired Dave Stevens and Doug Wildey to do storyboards, giving each of them sequences to board. I offered Alex Toth a job on the film, but he passed. Dave and Richard Hescox were sharing the front third of my studio, so I saw Dave every day. Dave and Doug were close friends (Dave based the Peevy character in The Rocketeer on Wildey). To speed things up, I drew the layouts for most of Dave’s boards.

It was a little embarrassing for me to be Doug’s boss. Doug was the creator of the great prime time animated series Jonny Quest and knew much more about storyboarding and storytelling than I did. I was lucky to have access to Doug. I always had him check my boards to make sure I hadn’t left out an essential panel or two.

My pal Rick Baker got hired to create a gigantic robotic Godzilla head. I got stop motion animator/dinosaur sculptor par excellence Steve Czerkas to build the Godzilla armature and sculpt and cast the Godzilla body based upon my redesign of Godzilla. He did a great job.

New Godzilla-Meets-Old Godzilla. The foam rubber dorsal fins are already starting to deteriorate and fall off on Steve Czerkas’ animatible Godzilla figure.

David Allen was hired to do the film’s stop motion animation (our Godzilla was not going to be a guy in a baggy suit). Like I said, a real Dream Team was put together to bring Fred Dekker‘s brilliant script to life on the big screen. Fred at that time was one of the Pad o’ Guys, the hottest group of screenwriters in Hollywood. Shane (Lethal Weapon) Black was another Pad o’ Guys member.

Steve gave me a lot of leeway in designing the film. I even set my boards to music. I made a cassette tape of some stirring Peter Gabriel music to accompany the scene near the end of the film when young teen Kevin must sacrifice Godzilla on Alcatraz.

I think Steve was amazed by how much that music supported the screen action and captured and enhanced that scene’s mood — so much so that a short time later Steve told me that following our Godzilla film, Steve wanted me to direct Rodan (!).

Posted on 1 Comment

MondoCon and LightBox

Today’s my birthday. It’s one of those landmark numbers that ends in an “0” — but I don’t want to talk about myself today.

I am back from several back-to-back appearances around the country, promoting my book Fantastic Worlds. There were two art conventions which were amazing: MondoCon (this last weekend) and LightBox (the previous weekend). Both were outstanding and carefully curated; not a single piece of bad art in the room! I felt honored to be included in both shows.

MondoCon is in Austin, Texas and is sponsored by MondoTees, the terrific company connected to the Alamo Drafthouse theater chain. They hire top contemporary artists to create new posters for classic films and then sells serigraphs (limited edition silk screen prints) of those designs. They have also branched out into three-dimensional objects of art, too — like their series of Tiki mugs (I designed their Cthulhu Tiki mug, as well as posters for King Kong, White Zombie, Metropolis and Nosferatu).

The show is incredibly well-run and both guests and attendees are treated with prompt, thoughtful care. I got to hang for a little while with my pals (and neighbors) Drew Struzan and his lovely wife Dylan (Dillon?).

LightBox is the brain child of my wonderfully energetic and creative friend Bobby Chiu. It focuses on the creators of concept art and design in the film and television industries. Two of my close friends were honored with Lifetime Achievement Awards for their work in Concept Design (I believe I might be the first person to have received a Concept Designer or Concept Artist film credit): Ron Cobb and Jean “Moebius” Giraud. Also honored were Syd Meade, Ralph McQuarrie and H. R. Giger.

I wrote the speech about Ron Cobb; it was delivered by my pal Iain McCaig (on Saturday I was still guesting at the Salt Lake City Comic Con). Here is what I wrote:

There is no artist better to inaugurate this lifetime achievement award than Ron Cobb.

“Genius” is a word I use only on the rarest of occasions and only for those most deserving of that word. Ron Cobb is a true genius.

Just out of Burbank High School and with no formal art training, Ron became a breakdown artist on Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. In 1960 Cobb was drafted into the Army, becoming one of the first American soldiers sent to Vietnam.

In 1965 Ron began contributing remarkable editorial cartoons, unlike anything else being done in that genre, for the Los Angeles Free Press. For five years, the Underground Press Syndicate distributed Cobb’s cartoons to underground/alternative newspapers all over the United States, as well as in Europe, Asia and Australia. Forrest J. Ackerman became Ron’s agent and commissioned Ron to paint covers for LPs as well as covers for Famous Monsters of Filmland and Monster World.

In 1967 he designed the wraparound cover for the Jefferson Airplane LP After Bathing at Baxter’s and a famous poster depicting Los Angeles slipping into the Pacific Ocean after The Big One. In 1969 Cobb designed the Ecology symbol and Ecology flag. He donated them to the Public Domain. Within two weeks Ron’s ecology symbol designs were being used all over the world. Ron’s original cartoon creation of the Ecology symbol is on permanent display at the Smithsonian.

In 1972 Cobb toured Australia, lecturing at all of that country’s universities. He brought along his friend, folk singer Phil Ochs, for musical relief. Ron met the love of his life (and future wife), Robin Love, in Sydney and moved there, drawing political cartoons that commented on the life and societal problems of Australia.

In 1973 Ron hopped back into film, creating the space ship for John Carpenter’s first film, Dark Star, which he designed on an International House of Pancakes napkin. During this time Cobb created a painting of a desert rider atop a huge alien lizard for director John Milius. Upon seeing this painting, George Lucas was inspired to create Star Wars. Cobb was hired to design creatures for that film’s memorable cantina sequence.

Cobb then worked on Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune, prior to designing the Nostromo for Alien. Milius hired Ron to create conceptual designs for his mountain man feature, Half the Sky, and then made him the production designer on Conan the Barbarian. This is when I met Cobb, who hired me to storyboard and help design Conan. I have always said that the best two years of my life in film were the two years I spent in a room with Ron Cobb. It was like sitting next to a fountain that gushed great ideas all day long, seemingly effortlessly. I learned an enormous amount from Ron, much by example. Besides what I learned art-wise from Ron, with his phone calls to Robin he showed me how to be sweet and kind to women in a gentle, caring way.

Ron became the production designer on The Last Starfighter, the very first film to extensively make use of CG animation. Cobb convinced the Pentagon to loan him two Kray super computers — the most powerful computer in the world at that time — to generate the images for this technically groundbreaking film. Always at the forefront of new technology, Cobb also was one of the first — and best — artists to plunge into creating graphic art with a computer. Ron also production designed Leviathan, and contributed key designs to films such as the revised Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Total Recall, True Lies, Real Genius, My Science Project, Aliens, The Abyss, Robot Joxs, The Running Man, The Rocketeer, Space Truckers, Titan A. E., The Sixth Day, District Nine, John Carter of Mars and Firefly. He also designed the ill-fated American version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy but became good friends with Douglas Adams. Much of Ron’s conceptual design was uncredited, done as favors for friends.

A consistency throughout Ron’s conceptual work is that everything he designed was fully functional. If you built it, whether it was a passenger craft traveling to Mars or a “Wheel of Pain”, it would work.

His debut as a feature film director, Night Skies (co-written with John Sayles), eventually changed direction and changed hands to become Steven Spielberg’s E. T. – The Extraterrestrial. It was Cobb’s idea to make the time traveling car in Back to the Future a redesigned DeLorean.

In the early 1980s, NASA approached Steven Spielberg to design their space exhibit for the Smithsonian.

“You’ve got the wrong guy,” Steven declared. “You want Ron Cobb.”

After spending half an hour with Cobb, the NASA officials sheepishly observed, “Ron…this is a little embarrassing. We think you know more about NASA than we do!”

And he did.

He and his wife Robin co-wrote a Twilight Zone (“Shelter Skelter”) for the 1980s reboot of that TV series. His designs for ZZ Top’s “Rough Boys” won Ron the 1986 MTV award for best art direction in a music video.

During the early 1990s, Cobb co-founded the game company Rocket Science in 1992. Ron finally directed a film of his own, the hilarious 1992 Australian comedy Garbo.

The phrase “Conceptual Designer” was tailor made for Ron Cobb. It was he who broke that important ground with absolutely brilliant, always droll, humorous and slightly subversive and amazingly functional design concepts, showing the rest of us a truly inspiring path forward into the future.

Posted on 1 Comment

Untold Tales of Hollywood #44

Film #13: Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1982)
Produced & Directed by Steve Miner
Written by Fred Dekker
Production designed by William Stout

When I was in the thick of painting movie posters, I was also creating something called presentation art. Presentation art usually looked just like a movie poster. Typically, it was commissioned for a film project that a producer wanted to make. It’s hard to get people to read your script in this town but almost no one has a problem looking at pictures.

The presentation art solves a couple of problems. It tells the viewer just what kind of movie you want financed, and it also indicates how that movie might be advertised and sold. Producer Sandy Howard used to come to me each year with a dozen titles. For example:

“Bill, this one’s called Terror Train — teenage girls get terrorized on a train.”

On the basis of that title and Sandy’s (very) brief description, I would come up with the art that I thought would sell the project. Sandy didn’t have any scripts, mind you — just titles. On the basis of each title and my art he would then go to Cannes or MiFed and get the financing for each of his twelve movies. I created the presentation art for Terror Train (it got made with Jamie Lee Curtis) and lots of other movies. My batting average when it came to getting the financing for a film based upon my art was incredibly high. That’s how Re-Animator got its money and green light.

Those were exciting times! It was so much easier (and cheaper) to make movies back then…

One day I got a call from horror director Steve Miner (Steve directed Friday the 13th 2 and 3). He needed a presentation painting for an American Godzilla movie he wanted to direct. He planned to shoot it in 3-D and wanted the presentation art to reflect that. In Steve’s movie Godzilla attacks San Francisco, beginning with the Golden Gate Bridge. I drew up this charcoal piece:

After Steve approved it, I did a full color painted version of it. Unfortunately, that color piece seems to have disappeared.

Steve was very impressed by my painting and visual storytelling skills. When he found out that I had storyboarded First Blood, he hired me to start storyboarding Godzilla, King of the Monsters in 3-D. I read the screenplay by Fred Dekker. It was great; one of the best screenplays I have ever read. It was told from the point of view of a junior high school boy with a fascination for reptiles (he has his own pet iguana). Since there were going to be special effects in almost every shot in the movie, the entire film needed to be storyboarded. The boards also helped in Steve’s presentations to the movie studios. Because the storyboards were also being used as presentation art, I made the panels fairly large and detailed.

During this time Mentor Huebner was considered to be the best storyboard artist in the Film Biz. He boarded North by Northwest for Alfred Hitchcock. He and Sherm Labby storyboarded BladeRunner. As an unusual side note, Mentor’s wife Louise Huebner was the Official Witch of Los Angeles.

Mentor was also a friend of mine. He was visiting my studio when he saw some of my Godzilla storyboards.

“My God, Bill,” he exclaimed, “With the detail you’ve put into these boards, you’re actually designing the film. They can build from your drawings. You should ask to be the production designer.”

I hadn’t thought of that. I decided to take Mentor’s advice. I called Steve Miner and asked him to consider me as being the film’s production designer.

“Let me make a few calls,” he said. After doing a background check on me with some of the people I had worked with in film (including Ron Cobb), Steve called me back.

“You’ve got the job.”