Last week William Stout and I discussed a large part of his fascinating life; from swimming in Hef’s grotto to creating album covers for bootleg recordings, working with the Firesign Theatre, and being one of the first Americans to be published in Heavy Metal magazine.
This week it gets even better as we discuss his work in the film and entertainment industries, his trips to every corner of the world, his love of the Blues, and how he turned drawing dinosaurs into a booming career.
You seem like a guy who has trouble sitting still, or at least someone who just wants to try a little bit of everything.
You got that right! Chalk it up to a restless mind with a lot of energy and a short attention span.
Because of that, it’s no surprise that you made the leap into film and television. You began your production artwork career with the poster for my favorite animated film, Ralph Bakshi’s Wizards, the first of an impressive 120 plus pieces of film advertising. How did your career in film come about?
An old friend of mine, Bob Greenberg, was working as a production assistant on Conan the Barbarian. I was a huge Robert E. Howard fans. I was shocked to learn that Ron Cobb had been hired to be the production designer on Conan. I only knew Ron from his political cartoons for the Los Angeles Free Press. I was extremely curious as to the visual direction Ron would be taking Conan.
I was so busy doing movie posters, though, that I didn’t have time to take Bob up on his offer to show me what was being done on the Conan film. I finally got a break in my schedule. Instead of visiting the Conan offices, though, I headed over to the annual ABA (American Booksellers Association), being held that year in Los Angeles. I could meet every publisher and editor in the country at the ABA. It was a great way for an illustrator to pick up a ton of work.
The first person I ran into there was Ron Cobb. He told me I was his first choice as someone to add to the Conan art department but that Cobb and John Milius had an agreement that gave them veto power over each potential art department hire. Ron asked if I could drop off my portfolio so that Milius could see and (hopefully) approve my hiring.
Milius happened to be in his office the next day when I arrived. He quickly flipped through my book, fondly remembered the Heavy Metal story I had done and handed my book back to me. As he strolled out of the office he dramatically growled, “Hire him!”
I was called into the line producer’s office. He told me what I would be making on Conan. I nearly fell off my chair laughing, as it was about ten percent of what I was making in advertising. The gig was only for two weeks, though. I thought it would be fun to learn how movies were made. Well, the two weeks turned into two years and a film career.
What was it like working for Ralph Bakshi?
I never worked for Ralph. I didn’t meet him until after the Wizards poster was printed in 1977. Movie advertising and making movies are two completely separate worlds. They almost never meet. Despite my working on over 120 film ad campaigns, I was never (except for Masters of the Universe) asked to do the advertising on any of the 45 films I’ve worked on.
You shared a studio with fellow artist Richard Hescox, and for a time Dave Stevens as well. What was it like working in the studio?
Hilarious, exciting, inspirational. I got to watch my pal Dave Stevens create The Rocketeer!
Ours was the hottest studio in L. A. We had everyone coming through our place: a Who’s Who of top directors, movie stars, rock stars, writers, artists, sculptors, make-up artists, cartoonists, animators, producers, comedians, comic book creators… I wish I’d kept a diary!
Did you guys work together on the same films, or did you just share a studio?
We’d collaborate — but not often. I did hire Dave to work with me on the American Godzilla movie. I was on that film for two years; Dave, a few months less. Rich finished the back cover to a wraparound Empire Strikes Back LP cover I was working on. Dave and I also collaborated on a drawing toy. Mostly, we worked on our own projects and jobs, though.
You’ve done production and character design on over thirty films, including fan favorites Raiders of the Lost Ark, both of the Conan films, Men in Black, Pan’s Labyrinth, and one of my favorites, Return of the Living Dead. I have to ask about the Tar Man zombie. What was your process like creating this creepy favorite?
I began with the script and the description therein, then talked with writer-director Dan O’Bannon. I did a small ink and watercolor pass on Tarman. Dan told me I nailed it, so I drew some larger, more detailed turnarounds. The trick in designing Tarman was making him appear to be skeletal, even though we were counterintuitively adding stuff on top of the actor, Alan Trautman. To solve this potential visual problem, I brought the bones to the surface of the costume.
It was Alan, though, who brought that suit to life and really sold it. He deserves at least half the credit for the success of Tarman.
Did you have a lot of creative freedom?
Dan left me pretty much to my own devises, although, ultimately, I had to answer to him. We were pretty much in synch, though. Disagreements were rare.
You spent time working for Walt Disney Imagineering, conceptualizing and designing for their various themeparks before leaving for Lucasfilm/Industrial Light and Magic to do the same thing. How different was this from working in film, or was it conceptually the same thing?
It was very similar. I describe themed entertainment design as “designing sets that aren’t going to be torn down”.
Which offered you more freedom?
Theme park and themed entertainment design gave me much more freedom. My three biggest clients, Disney, Universal, and Landmark Entertainment Group, allowed me to produce, direct, design, illustrate and write all kinds of projects — and to come up with projects on my own. I got to design rides, shops, music clubs and water parks. I even designed an entire second Disneyland for Tokyo. Plus, I got to work regular hours, which allowed me lots more time with my kids.
As I mentioned earlier, you really like dinosaurs. What inspires this love? Did it start when you were a child?
Absolutely. When I was three years old my parents took me to see my first movie, King Kong. I think it did damage at a genetic level. Between seeing King Kong and the Rites of Spring sequence in Fantasia, I was hooked and it’s been dinosaurs, dinosaurs, dinosaurs ever since. Kong is still my favorite movie of all time.
You had your first one-man show in 1977, The Prehistoric World of William Stout, which I guess was the beginning of your career drawing prehistoric creatures. But how did you make the jump from the film and entertainment industries to primarily work on paleontological art?
In the mid-1970s my friend Don Glut was revising his book The Dinosaur Dictionary. So many new dinosaurs had been discovered since the book’s first publication. Don wanted an illustration for every entry. I agreed to do four…which turned into forty-four. While drawing them, I though, “This may be the only picture of this animal the public ever sees. It had better be accurate.” So I joined the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP) and began using the great paleontologists of the world as my consultants. After I decided I wanted to paint murals, I began putting the word out to anyone in the SVP who would listen. Eventually, it paid off. Mural gigs don’t come by very often, though. I’ve been lucky…helped by the fact that I deliver.
Your paleoart has been featured in children’s books and art books, on trading cards, and even in the Smithsonian Museum. It’s taken you around the world, including Antarctica, Patagonia, and Chile. Your trip to Antarctica in 1989 resulted in a one-man exhibition Dinosaurs, Penguins and Whales — The Wildlife of Antarctica. This exhibition was part of an international effort to make Antarctica the first “World Park”. Can you tell our readers a little about this?
I began planning my first trip to Antarctica after I discovered that the Antarctic Treaty, the treaty created to protect Antarctica, was due to expire in 1991. It’s an extraordinary treaty, created by President Eisenhower as a way to extend the International Geophysical Year (IGY), a year of international cooperation between the world’s scientists. Ironically, the United States was not going to re-sign and extend the treaty. The first President Bush wanted to open up Antarctica to oil drilling. The Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition is a small umbrella group working to extend the Antarctic Treaty forever. The ASOC is working with larger groups like Greenpeace, the Environmental Defense Fund, etc., coordinating their activities with the goal of making Antarctica the first World Park.
My part in this is making the public aware such a movement exists and creating paintings of Antarctica’s past and present wildlife to educate the public and show them through my paintings what might be lost without that protection. Eventually, George Bush was pressured by Japan and the UK to re-sign the treaty, protecting Antarctica for another 50 years.
My father spent time in Antarctica as part of Operation Highjump with Admiral Byrd. He was stationed on the Ross ice shelf, and I read where he was stationed broke off some time fifteen years ago. I’m more than a little fascinated by the continent, and your time there. You spent three months there in 1992-1993 at McMurdo and Palmer stations where you dove beneath the ice, climbed an active volcano, and created hundreds of wildlife paintings. This must have been a thrilling time for you. Can you tell us a little about the purpose of your stay, and how the whole thing came about?
I got a grant from the National Science Foundation called the Antarctic Artists and Writers Program grant. It allowed me to live in Antarctica for three months, based at the Palmer and McMurdo stations. In addition to what you listed above, I also got to camp out in Antarctica’s Dry Valleys.
To obtain the grant (open to artists, writers and photographers), you have to show what the American public will receive from you in regards to information about Antarctica in return for the free trip. In my case, it’s a book I’m working on that will be the first illustrated book on the history of life in Antarctica.
What was it like for you living in such a different, and I assume rather unforgiving world? I’m sure the rest of us can’t even imagine.
I was in danger of losing my life every single day. I had to stop telling my wife what was happening down there (I just told her happy news). To me it was all a big adventure; to her, my stories were about her nearly losing her husband or my kids losing their dad.
From one climate to another, you drove over one thousand miles through central southern Chile, documenting the prehistoric forests there. What was the purpose of this trip?
Chile has araucaria forests. Araucarias (sometimes called Monkey Puzzle Trees) were prevalent in prehistoric Antarctica and other parts of the world. I wanted to see how these primitive conifers spaced themselves in the wild and what kind of undergrowth there was for my prehistoric reconstructions. There are several pockets of araucaria forests in the spectacular Patagonian and Lake District National Parks of Chile. I visited them all.
Is there any city or country that you’d jump at the chance to visit?
Madagascar! It’s nearly gone. The entire island used to be forested; now there’s just one tiny strip left on this island that was home to more indigenous species than anywhere else.
You have paintings and murals on display everywhere from the San Diego Zoo to Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Your work is also on permanent display in a couple of museums. You draw dinosaurs for a living, every kid’s dream job. When you were a child would you ever have thought this possible?
I had no idea as to the work opportunities for artists (other than working for Disney) when I was a youngster. It wasn’t until art school that the diversity of the art world began to open up and reveal itself to me. Now it feels like I’m living my childhood dreams.
You’ve lived a fantastic life, from drawing comics to designing movie creatures, painting dinosaurs to illustrating children’s books, and even owning your own publishing company. What is the origin and purpose of Terra Nova Press?
Terra Nova Press not only allows me to present my own work to the public on a regular basis, it enables me to share the art of many of my favorite artists with the public — Charles R. Knight, for example. His granddaughter and I co-published three book collections of his unpublished drawings through Terra Nova Press. I assembled and published an extremely successful book on American pen master Joseph Clement Coll that eventually inspired even bigger and better volumes on Coll. This week, in anticipation of Comic-Con International, I published three new books, including Terra Nova Press’ 49th book. My fans are going to have to build some new bookshelves!
2003 was named The Year of the Blues in the United States. To celebrate, Shout! Factory decided to release a series of Best Of compilations by some of the blues greats. They licensed Robert Crumb’s blues card images for the CD covers. There were some folks Robert hadn’t drawn, though, and he didn’t want to do any more. Shout! asked me if I would create those covers in the same format as Robert’s blues cards. I agreed.
It was the most fun I’d had in a long time and I didn’t want to stop. About that time I underwent some surgery. While recuperating I made a list of every old blues musician that Robert hadn’t included in his set and began drawing them. In short time, I had fifty portraits. I contacted Denis Kitchen about releasing these images as trading cards (Denis published Crumb’s card sets). Because of licensing issues and celebrity exploitation laws Denis convinced me to do a book instead. I agreed — but only if Robert Crumb gave us his blessing on the project. I didn’t want to impinge upon Robert’s turf. Denis showed Crumb some of my portraits. Crumb enthusiastically gave me a big thumbs up. We proceeded with the book. Abrams ComicArts agreed to publish it — if I expanded it from 50 to 100 entries. It was my turn to be enthusiastic.
Legends of the Blues was a total labor of love, as are the two sequels I’m working on, Legends of the British Blues and Modern Legends of the Blues.
That was a big part of what inspired me to create Legends of the Blues — my way of saying “Thank you!” to the creators of the musical genre I love so much. I gave a copy to Kim Wilson, the leader of The Fabulous Thunderbirds. He came back to me the next day with tears in his eyes. “This is an important book! These people need to be known. Thank you for doing this.”
It seems as if you’ve done everything you can with art. Is there one thing on your bucket list that you haven’t yet had the chance to cross off?
I would love to direct and/or design a feature film version of Peter Pan (the musical version made famous by Mary Martin). I’d love to design a western and a comedy. I want to finish my next two blues volumes plus a volume on soul music icons. I’ve got several autobiographical books planned that will be related to the various fields of art I’ve worked in. I’d like to do more collaborations with my pal Van Dyke Parks. And I really need to finish my big Antarctica book.
I feel I’ve taken up enough of your time. Do you have any last words for our readers?
Work hard and always do your very best work. Always give 100%. If you’re an artist, never stop life drawing. Be your own biggest fan and give value to your work. Don’t be arrogant in negotiations (be polite) but never be afraid to walk away from a negotiation.
And don’t forget to give back. Give back to younger artists, your community, good causes and society in general. Don’t just take, take, take, my friends.