The (Annotated) 2002 John Arcudi Interview – Part Twelve

A COMMITMENT TO DINOSAURS
ARCUDI:
Let’s backtrack a little to segue into this dinosaur thing and see if we can work Roy Krenkel into this, too. You had done a show of your prehistoric work in 1977, right?

STOUT: That was my first one-man show. It consisted primarily of the pieces that I’d done for Don Glut’s book, The (revised) Dinosaur Dictionary.

ARCUDI: I’m sure you had a lot of influences, but you said that you became pretty good friends with Krenkel, and he, of course, was a huge [Edgar Rice] Burroughs fan. I know that even at that time you were working to make your dinosaurs accurate. But how much of an impact did the way Krenkel staged some of this stuff have on the way you would stage your drawings? You know Roy’s stuff… It’s not just a dinosaur standing there. It’s a whole dramatic scene. 

STOUT: Through osmosis and careful study I picked up an enormous amount of information on how to both stage and design. Roy was really good at designing vignettes as well as full-picture scenes. He told me he learned an enormous amount about design and composition from studying Titian. I absorbed as much from Roy as I could. Another thing I was trying to absorb was the way that both Krenkel and Frank Frazetta conveyed an atmosphere – that almost tangible romanticism of theirs. They really captured that rarified exoticism of Edgar Rice Burroughs and the slightly harsher decadent drama of Robert E. Howard in the way they portrayed things, designed things and presented things.

Krenkel and Frazetta were sort of doorways to the past for me as well. I became so enamored of their work I needed to find out where it all came from. That led to an investigation of all of the different artists that influenced them who in turn became even bigger influences on me than both Krenkel and Frazetta. I became hugely affected by a lot of the great turn of the century artists and illustrators: Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac, Charles R. Knight, J. C. Leyendecker, [Norman] Rockwell, Dean Cornwell, N.C. Wyeth – all of them great turn of the century artists. 

ARCUDI: Now, you continued to do film work after you did THE DINOSAURS – A Fantastic New View of a Lost Era book?

STOUT: The film business is hard to get into, but it’s even harder to get out of unless you deliberately sabotage yourself by not showing up or doing horrible work and insulting people. Even then…

 I found myself in a business that was both enticing and repulsive at the same time. I met Rod Stewart back in 1968 when he was with the Jeff Beck Group. Rod once described certain ex-wives or ex-girlfriends as being 51/49. The film business is like that. Fifty-one percent of it is the best time you’ll ever have. Forty-nine percent is the absolute worst. The more distance there is between you and the girlfriend (or in my case, between me and the film business) the larger the 51% appears to loom, until you’re thinking, “No. It was really more like 80/20 or 85/15.” So you agree to take on another film, and the first day back you remember, it hits you, and you realize, “Damn! I forgot! Half the time spent over the next year or so on this project is going to be about the worst time I’ve ever had in my life.” 

ARCUDI: Let’s return to your illustrations for the newly revised Dinosaur Dictionary. When you started doing that, you said it was your mission to make this stuff as accurate as possible, to not just throw it off.

STOUT: I was going to be the first, and maybe the only person, to ever depict the dinosaurs that I was illustrating for Don’s book. It dawned on me that because of that I had this enormous responsibility to the public to make it as accurate as possible. My picture might visually define that animal for quite a long time. I started to consult with the best paleontologists. I joined the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology in the late ‘70s so I could have access to all current information, which changes at an amazing rate. It especially started changing in the late ‘70s.

The first picture Stout created for THE DINOSAURS – A Fantastic New View of a Lost Era

As I drew the dinosaurs, I began to think about their settings. They needed to be accurate as well. That got me involved in researching paleobotany – prehistoric plants – and paleoecology. At the time I started doing this, around 1976-‘77, very little was known about paleobotany, because plants and soft material fossilizes very poorly – if at all. There wasn’t a whole lot known. However, at that time, there was an enormous breakthrough when the paleobotanists said, “You know what? Leaves don’t preserve very well nor stems and all of that stuff; but pollen is small, hard and compact.” So they started looking at microfossils; they found pollen all over the place. Suddenly, where they only had the sketchiest bits of information, whole forests were springing up. They discovered all kinds of plants that existed in prehistoric times by studying the pollen. I was the beneficiary of this knowledge. Suddenly I was able to foliate my dinosaur worlds with all of this new information. 

ARCUDI: The interesting thing to me is that although you do see some dinosaurs cropping up earlier in your work, until The Dinosaurs prehistoric animals were just a small part of your overall career. Did you think you were going to end up having the kind of commitment to paleontological reconstruction in 1977 that has ended up consuming your life as it is right now?

STOUT: Not at all. That certainly was not my goal. I was a subscriber to what I call the “Pinball School of Career Planning” – I just bounced from job to job, project to project without any rhyme or reason or guiding direction other than I knew I wanted to do stuff that paid well. That’s why I ended up doing movie posters, and why I ended up in film. Even though the film business didn’t pay well initially, I saw that by pursuing a certain job niche within the industry, that of production designer, I would be making pretty decent money eventually. As far as a career doing dinosaurs, man, that was… The books initially started as just some more freelance jobs for me – the Dinosaur Dictionary, and THE DINOSAURS – A Fantastic New View of A Lost Era. I had no idea what an impact those books would have on my career.

ARCUDI: Well, and on you personally.

STOUT: And on me personally.

ARCUDI: You say it started as a job, but clearly that book is not just a job. I mean, you look at that stuff and clearly there’s a lot of care and, let’s say the word, “love” put into a lot of those pieces.

STOUT: When I say it started as a job, at that point in my career I was in a position where I could pick and choose pretty much any of the work that I cared to do. I was being inundated with offers of every kind of work every week, sometimes every day. I felt like a little king deciding which of the subjects to favor. I gave tons of work away to friends. I don’t recall being paid anything for the 45 illustrations I did for The Dinosaur Dictionary. So yes, the dinosaur stuff was a job. But it was also…

The only jobs I chose to do at the time were the jobs that really excited me and that I was really passionate about. I did feel a responsibility but there was an excitement, too. I was the conduit to the public of all of this arcane knowledge that the scientists were discovering about dinosaurs that was only getting to the public, at that time, in little trickles and dribs and drabs. Here was a chance to put all of that new information – the fact that dinosaurs weren’t stupid, that they weren’t slow, that they were fairly intelligent, that they moved rapidly, that they possibly were warm-blooded and may have been covered in feathers – put all of this information into one book, one source for everyone. That got me really excited. I was in the right place at the right time and I had the opportunity to do it all in a very entertaining way. It was a groundbreaking book with a lot of “firsts”: the first picture of dinosaurs having sex; the first pic of a dinosaur pooping; some of the first illustrations of dinosaurs with feathers; the first illustrations of dinosaurs caring for their young. My idea of pterosaurs picking out the parasites from a Tyrannosaurus rex‘s mouth has become an accepted part of the paleontological canon.

ARCUDI: This was a huge undertaking, really. You were doing roughs initially to showboat the book, but then when it came down to drawing the stuff, you had to decide on all of the different techniques you wanted to use. Tell me about the thought process of why you chose to go with one style for this piece, another style for this piece, charcoal for that, watercolor for that.

STOUT: It was initially so that I wouldn’t get bored — and to expand my skills. I had a fear that if I did everything the same style I’d be so sick of that style by the end of the book that I’d never want to touch that style again and that I’d burn out before I’d finished the book. Plus, I was still somewhat in an experimental mode, and I had this huge passion for the turn-of-the-century children’s book illustrators. One of my goals was to see if I could do illustrations in those styles. It helped to keep the project exciting for me, jumping from style to style to style. Let me try to do N.C. Wyeth here. Now I’ll attempt Arthur Rackham. How about Edmund Dulac, or maybe the Detmold brothers. What would an Andrew Wyeth dinosaur illustration look like?

It might look like this…

I figured if I kept everything interesting for me, it would have the same effect on the public, as well. They would look at this book and never get bored. 

ARCUDI: Was it as capricious as you make it sound? For instance, you look at the two mating dinosaurs done more or less in a Mucha-esque style.

Alphonse Mucha-esque dinosaur illustration by Stout

Did you try to choose a style that would match the mood of the piece?

STOUT: Oh, certainly. And that comes from my training at the Chouinard Art Institute. I never ever tried to force one style or approach to solve everything. I always let the problem dictate the style and solution. I’ve done that all through my career, which is why there’s such a variety to my work.

The dinosaur book was the same way. For that particular piece you mentioned, the dinosaurs mating, I thought this could be really gross or coarse if done improperly; it had to be handled very delicately. So I went back to Mucha and I also went to Edward Detmold, who does stuff that is so light and so airy it looks like it can float off the page like a feather. I attempted to do that.

Dinosaur sex; a young lover with a patient older female

In my own interpretation, as soon as I finished the picture I thought, Wow! I think I’ve done it. Of course, when I go back and compare my piece to the Detmold illustration that inspired it, my thing looks ham-fisted as hell. But that’s how you grow. You aim for 100 and you hit 70 or 80; maybe the next time you’ll hit 85.

ARCUDI: It’s interesting that you mention Detmold as an influence, because I think a lot of people have heard of Dulac and Rackham, but remarkably, for some reason, because the Detmold brothers were so good, they’re names you never hear. 

STOUT: They were astounding. Really, really tragic lives. 

ARCUDI: In any event, The Dinosaurs was a huge undertaking. Just a little later you did at least the cover and the frontispiece for The Little Blue Brontosaurus, right?

STOUT: For that one I did the cover, designed all of the characters, the frontispiece, the back cover, the endpapers, and then did the layouts for the whole rest of the book. The finished art from the layouts were painted by Don Morgan, who ghosted Pogo for Walt Kelly the last several years of the strip. 

ARCUDI: Only you and Alex Toth, I think, have ever propounded that philosophy, saying that each problem deserves a different approach for a solution. Creative problems, if they were approached that way more frequently you’d have… I guess that’s why there are so few geniuses in life. Little Blue Brontosaurus bears a not so…

STOUT: …more than a passing resemblance to The Land Before Time. My friend, producer Robert K. Weiss (he produced The Blues Brothers movie and other comedies) called me one afternoon. He knew about the dinosaur film I had written for Jim Henson. I was in the middle of designing it. He told me, “Bill; they’re ripping you off. I just came from Kathleen Kennedy‘s office. I just saw The Little Blue Brontosaurus on top of Kathy’s desk.” That hurt. Kathy and I had been friends. She had done me a favor, though, and in Hollywood everyone keeps careful track of favors. My not suing Kathy and The Land Before Time production — even though I knew there was a contingency fund that was kept for just such a situation — was my way of paying back that favor.

I love irony — when it happens to someone else. Ironically, I was hired to create some of the advertising for The Land Before Time, the film that killed my own movie I had been making with Jim Henson.

Talk about bittersweet…

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