Archive for August, 2020

The (Annotated) 2002 John Arcudi Interview – Part Twenty

Friday, August 7th, 2020

Stout’s annotations are in italics.

We resume talking about the attempts to make A Princess of Mars as a movie. This was not part of the printed interview in The Comics Journal.

ARCUDI: A lot of the stuff you’re talking about, like, “Why does he have to be from Virginia?” — not to let anybody off the hook — is inherent in adapting material from one medium to another.

STOUT: I understand that completely. I am not so naive as to think that a straight adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs‘ novel would be effective or successful. It wouldn’t. Burroughs did not write screenplays. His novels are not structured the way that films are structured. If you adapted A Princess of Mars exactly the way it was written, the audience would be way ahead of you from the start and drop you shortly thereafter. You have to make changes. But the changes I am suggesting are changes in the structure, not in the inherent qualities in the material that got you excited about doing the project in the first place.

I know; I’ve adapted Robert E. Howard‘s work for the screen — I wrote a Conan screenplay, Conan the Buccaneer, based upon his years as a pirate, when he became known as Amra the Lion.

One-day Stout painting of Arnold as Captain Blood.

Adapting Howard was one of the hardest writing challenges I’ve ever had. His stuff reads great as short stories and novels, but as soon as you put his writing into the structure of a screenplay…well, the audience would be so far ahead of you. There is almost no formal dramatic structure in Howard’s works. Instead, you’re sucked in by his exotic descriptions and his action passages. When you start breaking his stories down into the bare bones of plot, you realize there isn’t much of one there. So, you have to take those elements that got you excited about doing the project in the first place and weave them through your own dramatic structure, using a fresh structure to set off Howard’s tableaus and key visual elements. You can’t directly adapt literary source material 99% of the time. But in adapting you don’t want to take the essence of what made this project special and just toss it out from the get-go, as was planned by the first A Princess of Mars producers.

ARCUDI: So, you’re not anti-adaptation, per se.

STOUT: No. Not at all. And, before I forget, in regards to John Carter of Mars — it’s already been made into a movie; a really successful one. So, we need to ask ourselves, do we need to make another? That film’s title is Return of the Jedi. Princess Leia is dressed as Dejah Thoris throughout the film; you’ve got Martian flyers as ERB described them; the main characters sword fight throughout the movie. If you look at it, Return of the Jedi is essentially a John Carter movie. So, if you make a John Carter movie, your audience, who are mostly unaware of the Burroughs books, is going to think you’re ripping off a Star Wars film.

ARCUDI: Of course, that’s usually why people make a movie anyway. They remake a movie that was already successful even if they don’t call it the same thing. So that’s not an argument that wins you any points in Hollywood.

STOUT: Except that they were really going for an “A” picture; they had McTiernan. I can see your point if they had hired some hack to direct. Some other directors, if they’d been hired, I’d say, “Yeah. They were just making a buck.” But this really wanted to be a special “A” project.

ARCUDI: What finally happened?

STOUT: John McTiernan had a pay-or-play deal. For our readers who may be unaware of the meaning of that particular bit of show biz lingo, allow me to explain: You have it in your contract that if the project is not a “Go” project by a certain date, you get paid regardless and then you’re free to leave. They did not have the money in place to go into production by the time John’s pay-or-play time period expired, so he took the money and went on to another film project. That was the end of Princess.

ARCUDI: I’m in the wrong business. So, you still have big problems with the film biz.

STOUT: When I first got into the film business it was a really exciting time to be in that world. Working on Conan the Barbarian with Ron Cobb; Raiders of the Lost Ark with Steven Spielberg; The Return of the Living Dead with Dan O’Bannon; Invaders From Mars and Masters of the Universe with Cannon Films; Roger Corman producing a film of my first screenplay (The Warrior and the Sorceress) — I’m a very lucky guy.

Most of the films I worked on early in my career were shot out of the country. There I was in my wild youth, traveling around the world on somebody else’s dime, experiencing all of these different cultures; living in Spain, Yugoslavia, Rome, Mexico and Canada. I was working hard, romancing beautiful actresses, having a really great time with this tremendous family of filmmakers. I didn’t realize it at the time, but there was a very special quality to the people that the Dino DeLaurentiis family would put together to make their movies (Okay; there was fucking Carlo Rimbaldi, too — there’s always going to be at least one fly in the ointment). I became very close to those people.

That began to change dramatically in the 1990s. Most of the really nice people I knew in the business got out of the business. Because the expense of making movies had risen dramatically, fewer films were being made. Because of the greater costs involved in producing each film, more hung in the balance for the studios for each film. The studios also got extremely greedy. A healthy profit was no longer enough; the profits on each film had to be obscene or the film was considered a failure. In a climate like that, studios tend to play it safe. They do less adventurous projects. They make lots of sequels. They give the creators much less freedom. Most of the nice people got out of the business and the sharks and the really reptilian people took over — with apologies to my friends, the snakes and lizards.

ARCUDI: You don’t want them running the country. (Now there’s a prescient comment, John!)

STOUT: Too late for that. Each film project started to be less and less fun as a job. In fact, the last several films that I did the people I was working with kept asking me the same question: “Bill, you’re a really nice guy. What are you doing in the movie business?” You hear that enough times and you start to think, “Maybe there’s something to what they’re saying.” I started doing less production design and more of what I call emergency design surgery — design E. R., or design paramedic services. If you need a creature or something special designed or if you have a particularly hard design problem in your motion picture, come to me and I’ll work on it for a couple of days or weeks and solve it. In. Out. That usually works out pretty well for everybody. I get a taste of the business again, enough to make me realize why I don’t want to be in it permanently, and I get another credit on my resume. It’s a nice hit-and-run and I don’t have to deal with the politics.

ARCUDI: There’s kind of a big question actually that I’m sure will open up a bunch of other avenues, but working extensively in the industry as you were before you struck what’s analogous to a “script doctor” type relationship, did you feel that, artistically, film design stunted your growth?

STOUT: Oh, absolutely. Working in the film business is weird. You’ll never work harder in your life than working on a film. If you’re not working seven days a week, twelve to eighteen hours a day, you’re not doing your job — and there’s somebody very ready to take your place. On the other hand, it can make you really lazy as a writer or an artist.

When I write screenplays, I don’t have to use the precise language that I would use if I was writing prose. That’s not important to what you want to convey in the screenplay. It’s the opposite, in fact. You want as little variation as possible in your descriptions of recurring characters, things and events so as not to confuse the reader (and, eventually, your audience), to let him or her know that you haven’t just created something or someone new but, instead, you’re returning to something previously mentioned in the script. So, writing screenplays over a period of time can make you lazy with your choice of words.

As a designer, you are only asked for finished work in the very first stages of the film. That early finished work is mostly to set a visual direction for the production and to inspire your investors. The closer you get to production (the shooting of the film), the faster you have to turn out the art, the less finished your work gets until, finally, using Conan the Destroyer as an example, I was scribbling designs on the backs of envelopes and then handing them to the model maker so he could run back to his shop and start building it for a shot later that week!

You’re not really producing what anyone would call “art”. You’re creating designs in service of the final art, which is the motion picture itself.

It makes you sloppy as an artist. If you’re not careful and stop using your finishing skills and disciplines that you have honed over the years, you can lose them. If I had stayed strictly with production design I would have lost my ability to do the fine brush inking that I do or the detail work that I can achieve in oil paint. It’s “Use it or lose it”. I spend about a year or two on most of my films. That’s a lot of time away not only from my family but from my easel perfecting my oil painting skills. That’s time away from my drawing board perfecting my drawing and inking abilities. Things don’t have to be drawn perfectly for film. They just have to be clear enough so that someone can understand how to make or build it.

ARCUDI: Correct me if I’m wrong, but in a film you’re really doing all of these things, no matter how creative you are, in furtherance of someone else’s ideas. Do you find your imagination sapping away from you when you come away from a film as well? Are you at a loss for concocting your own imagery for your paintings?

STOUT: No, actually — I think it’s the opposite of that. I think film making is incredibly stimulating because you’re working with some of the smartest people you’ll ever encounter in your life and constantly solving really difficult problems on the fly — like visually creating the ERB Martian culture.

Prior to my involvement with the film, as an ERB illustrator, I’d never thought of that material with the same amount of depth that I approached it when putting it on film. My illustrations all stopped with Frazetta, Krenkel and Williamson.

Stout illustration for Warlord of Mars.

Going beyond what they had done never occurred to me; there was never that demand. But in the film version of those characters and settings, there has to be a certain level of richness and realism that goes deep below the surface. Plus, as an illustrator, you can get away with being vague; you can’t when you’re designing a film. Someone’s going to build whatever you’ve drawn, so your drawings have to be specific. You also compress a lot of visual information into that hour-and-a-half. I find that kind of thinking really inspiring.

The (Annotated) 2002 John Arcudi Interview – Part Nineteen

Thursday, August 6th, 2020

Annotated commentary by Stout is in italics.

This is a section that was cut from the magazine interview and posted on The Comic Journal‘s website.

Scene from The Gods of Mars by Stout featuring John Carter, the Thark Tars Tarkas, great white apes and plantmen.

THE PRINCESS OF MARS FILM
In 1990 Stout was hired to work on the (potentially) disastrous A Princess of Mars movie, an adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novel. The director was John McTiernan (Die Hard, The Hunt For Red October, The Thomas Crown Affair). Luckily, the movie was never made.

ARCUDI: There were a bunch of films you worked on that didn’t pan out; I remember one in particular: A Princess of Mars.

Dejah Thoris, Tars Tarkas and Woola the calot by Stout.

STOUT: I’m almost happy that one didn’t pan out. That was the right project in the wrong hands at the wrong time. I was first approached to work on A Princess of Mars in early 1990. I was called by Hollywood Pictures, a subsidiary arm of Disney, to show my work and be interviewed.As with most job interviews for the film business, they never really tell you for what job you’re being interviewed. It’s always been a mystery to me. I don’t know why they just don’t come out and say, “We’re considering you for production designer or creature designer.” But they don’t.

That was probably the single worst interview I’ve ever had in my life.

I met with two young producers, a man and a woman. After talking to them for five minutes I could tell that these clueless individuals had never produced anything in their lives. Plus, they were idiots. They began by asking me if I was familiar with Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Martian John Carter novels.

“Yes; very much so. I’ve read each one three times; I am now reading them to my young sons.”

“So, you’re familiar with the creatures in the books…”

“Yes! The tharks, zitidars thoats and calots…I’ve drawn them all many, many times.”

“Well, we want to see something different.”

At that point I thought, “Oh, my God. Right off the bat they’re already tampering with what may be the very thing that has kept these books alive for the past one hundred years.” Talk about throwing the baby out with the bath water! But I didn’t say anything. Our conversation from that point on went downhill fast, especially when we got to discussing contractual matters. They had real issues with my artist’s rights and concerns; getting my original art back and things like that.

“Of course Disney will retain ownership of all the original art that you produce.”

“I’m sorry; it’s my corporation’s policy that I keep all of my originals. You don’t need the originals to make your film; you can use copies of my art to make the movie.”

“Disney always keeps the original art.”

“My corporation always keeps the original art. It’s my 401K.”

It quickly turned nasty.

“Well, we’ve talked to some famous artists for whom our keeping their originals is not a problem.”

“They may be famous and excellent artists — but they’re lousy businessmen.”

A Burroughs artist never considered for the film: Reed Crandall (Collection of William Stout)

Anyway, I didn’t get hired. It was very clear about fifteen minutes into the interview that there was no way on earth that they would hire me to work on this film. So, I forgot about it. I was kind of relieved; I felt in their hands it couldn’t be anything less than a total disaster.

While on Conan the Barbarian, I learned that our line producer, Buzz Feitshans, owned the movie rights to several non-Tarzan Edgar Rice Burroughs novels. I let him know what a huge fan I was of ERB’s works. The novels I would like to film the most are his two novels featuring The Mucker.

A few months later I got a call from Buzz Feitshans.

“Bill, how would you like to work on a John Carter of Mars movie?”

“I’d love to…who’s it with?”

“Disney figured out they couldn’t make the film. So, it’s a joint production between Disney and Cinergi Productions. Cinergi will do the work; Disney will handle distribution.”

I knew that Cinergi was Andy Vajna‘s (1944-2019) new production company. Andy had produced First Blood, which I had storyboarded. I liked Andy.

“I interviewed with Disney for this film. We hit an impasse in regards to my keeping my original art. Do we have a similar issue?”

“No…I have no problem with you keeping your art. We don’t need your originals to make the movie.”

“Great! Let’s do it!”

So, I began working on A Princess of Mars. We were working out of Sylvester Stallone‘s Santa Monica art studio. To my amazement I found a room that contained over half a dozen huge bronzes by Antoine Louis Barye, the greatest animal sculptor who ever lived. Barye launched the Les Animaliers art movement in 1840 when he became the first European artist to acknowledge that wild animals were an appropriate subject for Fine Art. Prior to Barye, the only animals in Western art were animals in situations that related to man, either hunting scenes or domesticated animals. Barye changed all that.

As stated, the director was John McTiernan. We had briefly worked together on Predator when he asked me to design the creature. I greatly admired his film Die Hard. John seemed to be obsessed with an architectural computer program. Every time I visited his office he would show me a house he had designed.

I was given an enormous stack of John Carter art that had been previously produced by Ron Cobb, the Jim Henson studio and Ralph McQuarrie. I was told to select what I felt was appropriate and then toss the rest. I covered a wall of my office with some pretty wonderful art (especially Cobb’s pieces). But I’d say about 90% of what had been produced was unusable for our film’s needs.

Ron Cobb Thark (Collection of William Stout)
Cobb Thark with head gear (Collection of William Stout)
Cobb Thark Jeddak (Collection of William Stout)

Filming a John Carter movie with all its fantastic creatures was going to be extremely difficult. CGI had only just begun. It was an extremely slow process. So, I was told to design creature suits for camels and elephants. The four-armed Tharks (key creatures in the story) would now just have two arms each.

I was getting depressed. After two days, I was ready to bail. I explained the issues I was having to my friend and fellow Burroughs collector Robert Barrett. He focused me. I asked him if he thought I should quit.

“If you leave, then who on the film will be in Burroughs’ corner?”

What Bob said made sense; I stayed on.

John Carter confronts a Great White Ape lacking the second pair of its arms.

I began to focus on Barsoom (the Martians’ term for their planet) and what I thought it should look like. I gave each part of Barsoom it’s own distinctive architectural look. I saw parallels between Helium (the city of Dejah Thoris, the princess and love of John Carter’s life) and Beirut.

I began thinking about and designing the city of Helium. I based the architecture of the city on some of the designs by Austrian architect Otto Wagner (1841-1918).

Otto Wagner drawing.

This planet had been engulfed in war for so long that the city’s needs had changed. Most Martian men and women functioned as warriors. The core of Helium was protected but the closer you got to the outskirts of the city, the more ruins there were from the war. Like Beruit, there were not enough civilians to maintain the outskirts of Helium, which was under regular attack.

Some Stout Thark head designs: “I am not happy with these designs; they’re too compromised,” said Stout.

I began to re-examine the Barsoomian cultures. I thought about the Tharks and their nomadic culture. I researched what nomadic cultures had in common. They tend to carry all of their wealth with them. They don’t use banks or have a permanent place like a home where they leave everything. Nomadic cultures tend to wear a lot of their personal wealth and decorate themselves. Those observations gave me good design directions. I had the Tharks, who have these big tusks, I had their tusks covered with scrimshaw-like, Maori-like carvings. I thought it was cool because it took the notion of what had been done visually in the past with Burroughs creatures to the next level, a deeper level. It went beyond what Burroughs had described without really violating what ERB had described — just adding to the richness of it.

ARCUDI: Right. Essentially fleshing it out for more “sophisticated” audiences, but also for the sake of yourself, for keeping your enthusiasm.

STOUT: But also, making it real for us and the actors. The more detail you can layer into things like that, the easier it is for the actors to have something to chew on and be inspired.

ARCUDI: How was the script?

STOUT: There were several John Carter scripts. I read all of them. I hated the one that made John Carter a gum-chewing goofball from Brooklyn. Had the writer even read the books? This was not John Carter’s character.

Okay; I understand why the writer did that. It’s really easy to do. It’s much easier to write humor if you’re writing jokes. It’s much harder to do what Burroughs did; he had humor all through the story in the form of reflective irony. Irony is much harder to write than wisecracks. It’s more subtle. But, hey — that’s why you’re paid the Big Bucks, writer guy.

The best John Carter script I read was one of the scripts planned to be directed by Kerry Conran. Kerry’s A Princess of Mars will be discussed in an upcoming Journal entry.

So, I’m happily humming away on this and from the other room (his office was right next to mine) I hear McTiernan say, “Virginia! Does he have to be from Virginia? How about if he’s from Alaska? That’s a much more butch state…and, we wouldn’t have to deal with those touchy race issues.”

I put down my pencil and walked into John’s office.

“John, there are really great reasons why John Carter needs to be from Virginia. During the Civil War, John Carter was a captain in the Confederacy. He was on the losing side. As the greatest warrior on earth, this was too much for him to take. To escape the turmoil within him he went west, away from all of the Civil War elements in his life. He didn’t own slaves; he was a warrior his entire life. He leaves Virginia for Arizona, where his plan is to be alone and mine for gold. Soon, he’s engulfed in another warrior situation; he gets caught up in the Indian Wars. Then, he ends up on Mars, in the middle of a world civil war. He’s back to Square One — but now he’s in a world he was born for. He learns that he can’t run away from himself; he comes to the realization that he is the greatest warrior of two worlds — there’s no escaping it. That is who he is; that is his ultimate destiny. If you make him come from Alaska, you lose all that.”

John came to me one morning. He was extremely excited.

“I just saw Jurassic Park. We can do all the creatures using CGI!”

“John,” I responded, “how much CGI do you think is in Jurassic Park?”

“Tons! It was all over the place!”

“John, there were twelve minutes of CG animation in Jurassic Park. The rest was Stan Winston‘s puppets and robotics. That twelve minutes of CG animation you saw took them two years to produce.”

John’s face fell.

“John,” I continued, “If we’re lucky, we could spend six years creating the CG for this film — but, honestly, I think it will be more like eight to ten years if we do it right. That’s how long it takes to do this kind of stuff right now.” We still had the enormous problem of creating believable Barsoomian creatures.

A budget was done for the film; my friend Buzz’s face was ashen. If we had made the film as written and budgeted, it would have been the most expensive film in movie history.

Not too long after that, the project fell apart.

More Mars and ERB to come….

The (Annotated) 2002 John Arcudi Interview – Part Eighteen

Tuesday, August 4th, 2020

Stout’s annotations are all in italics.

STOUT: Long ago our readers must have thought, “What in the hell does this have to do with comics – or even movies?”

ARCUDI: Fair question.

STOUT: I think what we’re talking about here is crucial to both comics fans and creators – and especially movie fans.

ARCUDI: How so?

STOUT: I used to be a huge movie fan; seriously, a bigger movie fan you’d never met. I’d go to all the L. A. film festivals, movie marathons where you enter the theater on Friday and don’t emerge until Sunday evening. I was walking up Vine Street in Hollywood when a friend spotted me from his car. He pulled over. (Since this interview, I’ve promised not to mention any names here for the sake of privacy) It was the brother of my best friend at art school. He had led an extraordinary life, growing up in Mexico City, running away to Tahiti when he was fourteen, taking up with an older Tahitian woman and teaching Spanish Literature at UCLA. His family was amazing as well. His grandparents were famous novelists; one uncle was a movie star; another had won some cinematography Oscars. His dad was English and his mom was French Tahitian (and a helluva cook; she made me the best mole poblano — the oldest known complex recipe in the history of cooking, pre-dating French and Chinese cuisine by two thousand years — I’ve ever had) and his sister became a top model. Damn good genes!

“Hey, Bill — Whatcha doing?”

“I’m going to see a new movie!”

He looked at me like I was some kind of schmuck. He cut off my brief excited rant about the movie I was going to see. He sneered at my anticipation of whatever cinematic event was forthcoming and said, “Wow. Watching a movie — two hours alone in the dark. Movies are someone else’s adventures. Wouldn’t you rather spend those two hours having your own adventures?” It really stopped me.

I thought about all that time I had spent in the dark living someone else’s dreams and adventures. It flipped a switch in me. I decided to make it a point to start having my own adventures, living and creating my own compelling stories based upon my own life rather than wasting those two hours in the dark. Errol Flynn’s autobiography My Wicked, Wicked Ways was an inspiration to live life to the fullest as well.

Using the money I made from my Wizards poster, my first big adventure was traveling to Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands and Lima, Cuzco and the lost Inca city of Machu Picchu in Peru. I took a fantastic all-day train ride from Quito, Ecuador up in the Andes, all the way down to the city of Guayaquil on the coast — riding on top of the train though jungles and rainforests! And I’ve been doing that kind of thing ever since. I’ve tried to pack three lives into one.

ARCUDI: Wake up, everybody! Get out of your parents’ basements!

STOUT: Exactly! Do something you can call your own for chrissake. Live! Feed yourself and your creativity with adventures! Expand your world view!

Okay, on to the National Science Foundation trip to Antarctica: this time, I was down there for three months. For six weeks I was based at McMurdo Station, a U. S. station – the largest station in Antarctica. During the Antarctic summer, which is our winter, there are about 1200 people there, so it’s like a small town. The other six weeks I was based at Palmer Station, which is on the Antarctic Peninsula. There are only thirty-nine beds at Palmer so there are only thirty-nine people at that station. You can fly into McMurdo station, but the only way to get to Palmer station is by ship, because there’s no place to land even a helicopter at Palmer. I took an American scientific research vessel down from Punta Arenas, Chile, down the coast of Chile, crossed the dreaded Drake Passage (fifty ft. waves breaking over the ship on an average day) and sailed down the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula until we got to my drop-off point: Palmer Station. Palmer Station is the station most tourists visit because the Antarctic Peninsula is where you see the greatest abundance of life. It’s warmer than the rest of continental Antarctica.

I got certified as a Zodiac operator at Palmer so that I could man a Zodiac, a type of inflatable boat, and take it to a different island each day. Each island was unique. I’d spend the entire day sketching and painting the wildlife. I did all of my ice dives at McMurdo; I did one shore dive at Palmer. At McMurdo I was transported to my ice dive locations in a Spryte, a box-like ice vehicle with tank treads. I drove my own Spryte over the sea ice to see a distant Weddell seal colony.

Weddell seal in alarm posture. Behind the seal is a ten ft. tall sponge Stout saw on his first Antarctic dive.

If where I needed to go was farther than the range of a Spryte they’d put me on helicopter and helo me out to where I wanted to go. If it was too far for a helicopter they put me on a Twin Otter, a fixed wing plane, and fly me out. When I went to visit an Emperor penguin colony, I took a Twin Otter to get there.

Emperor penguins

The two Canadian pilots who flew me there died in an Antarctic plane crash two years later.

Recent Slow Death cover by Stout. The book should be out later this year.
Page one of a new Slow Death story by Stout.

Here’s the Happy Ending to this Antarctica section of the interview: Pressure from the UK and Japan was put on President Bush to renew The Antarctic Treaty. He finally signed it, protecting Antarctica for another fifty years. But for me, that’s not enough. I want Antarctica protected forever, hence my involvement in making Antarctica the First World Park.

For those of you out there who think this is a worthy idea, please contribute to The Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition. Their website is at: www.asoc.org.

The (Annotated) 2002 John Arcudi Interview – Part Seventeen

Monday, August 3rd, 2020

All Stout annotations are in italics.

Stout: My first Antarctic dive is probably one of the most astounding memories of my entire life. I was sitting on the edge of the hole – they’ve cored out a hole with a big drill through the ice; the ice is 12 feet thick – and I’m looking down into the water. Because diving is ordinarily a stressful activity, ice diving in Antarctica is exponentially stressful. And dangerous: A 22-year-old diver had died during a dive the previous year when he got a carotid squeeze from a too-tight dive suit neck line that resulted in his losing consciousness. He rocketed upwards, cracking his skull on the concrete-hard underside of the sea ice. So as a diver, before your dive you don’t do much of anything. You have dive tenders to check all of your equipment for you and put your equipment on you so you don’t have to think about anything except for the dive, which is –

ARCUDI: …Enough.

STOUT: I’m sitting there with my feet dangling in the water; I’m looking down and I make a remark that, “I thought our first dive was going to be a deep dive,” because I can clearly see the bottom from where I’m sitting. The tenders asked, “How deep do you think that is?” I said, “Well, it looks like it’s about 20 to 25 feet deep, 30 at the most.” The tender said, “You’re looking at a 100 feet bottom.” The water was so crystal clear – it was just extraordinary. I get all of my stuff on and there’s a rope called a “down line” that goes from the top of the hole down to the sea bottom. I start going down the rope through the ice. Intellectually I know this is not happening, but I swear to God that the tube I’m descending is getting narrower and narrower. I’m getting more claustrophobic going down this twelve-foot tube of ice. The sides of the tube are like milk glass, really extraordinary. I finally clear the bottom of the ice; this enormous vista opens up for me. I can see forever. The light shining through the twelve feet of ice turns that ice’s under surface a deep, brilliant turquoise blue. The visibility is astounding. As I said, it felt like I was flying, hovering in thick air. There is so much to see; I’m trying to take it all in – I’m just on total sensory overload, just short-circuiting all over the place. I felt like the fetus baby in 2001: A Space Odyssey on Jupiter, just trying to take all this stuff in.

At the same time, this was a test-dive for me; I’m supposed to be diving responsibly and doing all of this stuff that the other diver on the bottom is telling me to do. And at the same time as that, my brain is completely shorting out from the input, from all of this spectacle. This goose egg-sized and egg-shaped creature floats past me. It’s clear like a jellyfish; it’s called a ctenophore, a comb jelly. It’s got psychedelic rainbow track lights that are zipping up the sides of its body. I’m seeing this ten-foot jellyfish drifting by in all of its different colors. It was just unbelievable. At the same time, I’m thinking, “Oh, yeah. You’re supposed to be following particular instructions and functions as a diver.” It was absolutely exhilarating.

I was surprised, too, by the cold. The things that get coldest first and fastest are your fingers because you’ve got an enormous amount of surface area surrounding your fingers. Just before you make your dive, the gloves are the last things that you put on. The tenders pour hot water in the gloves, you plunge your hands into this water, they snap the top of the gloves around your wrists and your gloves seal tight. You make the initial part of your dive with gloves full of hot water. The only area of you that is really exposed to the icy water directly is parts of your face, because you’ve got the mask over most of your face. You’ve got a hood over most of your head and the hood also covers your neck and the underside of your chin. Mostly, what are exposed are your lips and your cheeks. I thought that would be really painful, but in actuality I found it exhilarating. It felt like my skin was sizzling from the cold – not an unpleasant sensation at all; an extraordinary feeling, although in a very short time my lips were frozen numb. I couldn’t feel my regulator – my breathing apparatus. Every once in a while I’d taste saltwater; I’d know that my breathing apparatus had drifted out of my mouth without my realizing it; I’d just mash it back in with my hand.

OK. This seems like the most appropriate spot to tell you two Antarctic scuba dive stories.

Days later I suited up for my second ice dive. Instead of a round hole drilled through the ice, or entering the water through a random fissure in the ice, I was taken to a small shack built by some of the New Zealand divers. Inside the shelter was a square dive hole. It was much smaller in diameter that the drilled hole of my previous dive.

Ready to make my dive, I sat at the edge and lifted myself up to enter the water. The bottom of my air tank caught one edge of the square rim of the dive hole, quickly plunging me face forward into the opposite rim. My face hit the rim, shattering my dive mask. Dive over. I was helped out of the hole and moved back into the shack. I took off my shattered mask. There was a lot of blood. A shard of glass had hit and cut into my brow (I still have the scar).

This was a moment of truth time. End any attempt to dive at that moment(or that day) — or borrow a mask, summon up my courage and try again? I opted for the latter. It proved to be the right decision, as it showed the regular Antarctic divers that I had heart. It made them much more welcoming of me; they all became defenders of my right to dive down there.

Typically, when I wanted to make a dive and the conditions were right, I would tag along with a small group of Antarctic marine biologists and dive with them. On another dive occasion, we stopped to make a dive in what’s called a “seal crack”. That’s a fissure in the ice that seals surface out of. Two divers went in. They shot out of the water about two minutes later followed by an angry Weddell’s bull seal. That was his crack!

We moved to another location. The two divers went in. They emerged a little over half an hour later.

“How was it?” I asked. “Is it worth suiting up?”

“It’s cathedrals of ice.”

With that description in mind, I immediately and enthusiastically suited up and went into the fissure with two female divers.

It was truly fantastic. Underwater I could hear the Weddell seals communicating with each other. They sounded like a combination of Japanese Taico drums and electronic synthesizer rising and falling trills.

One diver signaled to me that she was cold. She went back to the fissure hole and got out.

I didn’t want to be the last diver down there, so I made my way over to the down line. It was heavily flagged so that it would be difficult to miss. I went up the line hand over hand until I reached the under surface of the twelve feet thick ice sheet. But instead of the hole I had entered from, there was just a thin crack in the ice just big enough to fit my fingers. What had I done wrong?

I went back down to the bottom and tried again. Same thing.

“Hmmm,” I thought. “Is this my worst nightmare come true? Trapped beneath the Antarctic ice?”

I checked my air; I still had another half an hour (I had become really good at “sipping” my air, using very little of it during my dives).

I swam over to the remaining diver and explained to her using sign language of the difficulty I was having. She pointed to where I had been, then made a broad “No! No!” gesture, then pointed in a different direction. I swam in that direction — and found my entry hole! I was elated.

Here’s what had happened: The divers I was with were making four or five dives each day (I was just doing one per day). In doing so, they had become a bit cavalier in regards to watching the down line. The ocean current had taken our down line from the wide entry point of the crack down to the narrow sliver of the crack — with no one noticing.

I did seven dives total down there. I feel really privileged. I am on the extremely short list of people who have scuba-dived in Antarctica [pause]. I also made the very first telephone call from Antarctica. AT &T were testing their new satellite equipment down there and offered me the chance to speak to my wife. It was a frustrating (because of the satellite delay time confusion) but thrilling.

I was also on television for several days while I was down at McMurdo Station. ABC-TV had a crew down there, doing science reports from Antarctica. I quickly became ABC’s go-to guy because I could “translate” what the scientists were saying into everyday language the public could understand. My segments aired every morning in the US on their ABC affiliates (including KABC Channel 7 in Los Angeles where my family got to see me each morning) for about a week or two.

The (Annotated) 2002 John Arudi Interview – Part Sixteen

Sunday, August 2nd, 2020

All Stout annotations are in italics.

ARCUDI: The Antarctica project wasn’t just that one show. Your dedication to that project didn’t end with that one show. You went back to Antarctica again a few years later, right?

Post-show painting of Fin Whales by Stout

STOUT: As soon as I finished my first Antarctica show I knew I wasn’t finished with that subject.

ARCUDI: We should mention the name of that show, shouldn’t we?

STOUT: Dinosaurs, Penguins and Whales: The Wildlife of Antarctica. As I finished that show it I felt like I’d come home; I was doing something that I really wanted to do a lot more of. I said to myself, “Why stop? Why not continue to paint on the same theme?” I got the idea of doing a book, which, when it’s finished, will be the first visual history of life in Antarctica from prehistoric times to the present day; one hundred oil paintings and fifty drawings. It’s never been done – and after all this work on it, now I know why!

After I completed the first show I discovered that the National Science Foundation has a program called the Antarctic Artists and Writers Program. I believe I found out about this program from fellow CalArts graduate and brilliant photographer Robert Glenn Ketchum. It’s a competitive grant program; every year the NSF picks one or two artists, writers, or photographers to go to Antarctica and live. The NSF gives them full support. What the artist, writer or photographer has to do in return is come back and produce something that conveys information about Antarctica to the public. That could be a book, a series of articles, an exhibition, a video, a comic book, a children’s book. I was awarded that grant for the 1992/1993 Season. They gave me a year’s advance notice, so I was able to really prepare for the trip. That lead-time was important because one of the things I had asked for in my grant was the chance to scuba dive underneath the Antarctic ice.

ARCUDI: Why did you want to do that?

STOUT: I felt that the scope of my book wouldn’t be complete without showing the diversity of life on Antarctica’s nutrient-rich shores. All of the Antarctic scientists I talked to said that it was the most spectacular diving in the world. Life under the ice is incredibly rich and diverse. I also found out that it indeed is the best diving in the world. In the Great Barrier Reef or in the Bahamas, on a good day visibility is 120 feet. In Antarctica diving visibility on a good day is 800 feet – clearer than the air I’m looking at right now in Pasadena. You don’t feel so much like you’re diving; it’s more like you’re flying through thick air. It’s absolutely unbelievable.

ARCUDI: But it’s really cold.

STOUT: It is cold: 28 degrees. Our more astute readers will say, “How can that be? 32 degrees F is the freezing temperature for water.”

ARCUDI: Salt water, right?

STOUT: Right. Salt water freezes at a lower temperature than fresh water. But you dress appropriately. To do dives under the ice I put on Patagonia extra heavy weight long underwear. On top of that I put on a Thermalite jumpsuit, sort of like an astronaut suit; after that I’d put on my dry suit, which is the opposite of a wet suit. The wet suit uses your body heat and the water to keep you warm. Antarctica is too cold for that; you wear a dry suit. It allows you to do that cool James Bond thing – do a dive, come out of the water, unzip your suit and reveal your tuxedo.

ARCUDI: For all of the soirees at McMurdo Station.

STOUT: Party Central.

ARCUDI: We may have gotten ahead of ourselves but anyway you probably want to go back to the point where you started training for the scuba diving.

STOUT: The National Science Foundation told me that I had to contact James Stewart, not the actor (who was coincidentally down in Antarctica on a different ship while I was in Antarctica for my first time), but the head of the dive program in Antarctica.

Jim Stewart, Antarctica OAE (1927–2017)

He’s a great old time diver (OAE is an honorific term in Antarctica. It means “Old Antarctic Explorer”. You cannot give this name to yourself; it must be bestowed upon you by others. Jim Stewart was a genuine OAE). He created the dive-training program for the Navy SEALs, an amazing guy. Back in the 1960s, Jim was diving under the Antarctic ice in a wet suit!

I found it thrilling and hilarious whenever I was around the older divers in Antarctica, listening to their tales. Always, at one point in their conversations, they would start taking off their clothes to show each other their massive shark bite scars!

He said in order for me to dive in Antarctica – and mind you, I’d never done any scuba diving in my life at that point, just snorkeling — I’d have to get Open Water certification, Advanced Open Water certification, Medic First Aid certification, Rescue Diver certification, Dry Suit Diver certification, and Ice Diver certification. So thank God I had a year to do this; my very last dive to complete my certifications was made just two weeks before I left for Antarctica. It was really intensive training, especially when I became a rescue diver. That certification made me a really good diver. Rescue Diver is the certification I recommend the most.

The (Annotated) 2002 John Arcudi Interview – Part Fifteen

Saturday, August 1st, 2020

All Stout annotations are in italics.

Stout: As soon as I got back from my first trip to Antarctica, I flew to Columbus, Ohio to the Byrd Polar Research Center at Ohio State and got a crash course in Antarctic paleontology from Dr. David Elliot.

Initially, most of the Mesozoic Antarctic fossil discoveries were from the Triassic, the first age of dinosaurs, the later two dinosaur ages being the Jurassic and then the Cretaceous.

Stout painting of some Antarctic creatures from the Triassic.

I noticed in studying prehistoric Antarctica, the same names kept coming up over and over again. There are just a special handful of people who do their studies down there. I contacted each of these scientists and became friends with them. To create reconstructions of prehistoric life in Antarctica, my process was to draw sketches of a particular creature, then contact the person who had actually found the fossilized animal and run the sketches and my ideas for the pictures past him or her, involving them in each step of the production of the painting so that it would be the most accurate piece possible.

Triassic Antarctic Thecodont (Crocodilian ancestor) by Stout

I did five large sample paintings and showed them to Dr. Craig Black, the director of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. I got his okay and go ahead to do the complete show, 45 paintings, for the museum. They then indeed held the exhibition in Los Angeles.

“Fantasia Antarctica” by Stout

The Museum’s Special Exhibits Department then traveled the show around the U. S. and the world for about seven years. Mikhail Gorbachev personally requested that the exhibition come to Moscow. It profoundly changed my life and the direction of my career.

For those two and a half years it took me to paint the show, I pretty much dropped out of the entertainment business. Obviously this had a dramatic effect on my bank account. I was making less than 10% of what I was making prior to that, but I was never happier in my life than when I was doing these paintings. I really felt for the first time in my life that I had finally graduated from that Pinball School of Career Planning. I had a direction; I had finally come home. I felt these paintings were something I could do for the rest of my life and really be happy and satisfied. This was real Fine Art — not commercial art. Other guys run out and buy Corvettes at that age. My midlife crisis resolved itself in a much more positive and productive way, a way that’s completely in-sync with my personal philosophy regarding the earth.

ARCUDI: Which is…?

STOUT: We have not inherited this planet from our parents; we are borrowing it from our grandchildren. That philosophy drives most of my politics, actions and decisions.