Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Story Demo "Tarzan and the Lost Empire" with Pencil and Photoshop

In this demo, I illustrate something a bit different from the normal advertising assignments. I created a scene from E.R. Burrough's book "Tarzan and the Lost Empire.' I discuss some techniques I use in Photoshop, but mostly talk about the craft of making pictures that tell a story. Inventing visuals that aren't described in the source material is what makes story illustration so appealing. They complement and enhance the narrative in a wondrous way. 

Monday, August 8, 2016

Windsor Newton Watercolor Travel Kit

Watercolor painting from my trip to Lasdon Gardens, using Windsor Newton Watercolor on 140 lb., cellulose acid-free Cartiera Magnani paper. 

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

"The Legend of Tarzan" Arrives in Full Swing

"The Legend of Tarzan" hits a new cinematic benchmark for Tarzan. It's reverent in the right places, with probably  the best live-action depiction of Tarzan - one that is closer in tone to ERB's literary work than any other interpretation. 

The dialogue in the script plays a bit simple, but what the script lacks in sophistication it makes up for in performances and film making.  The camera takes it's time with a slow reveal of Africa, showing us lush landscapes, sultry jungles, swooping tracking shots, and 3D character animation. 

Alexander Skarsgard is a fine Tarzan, portrayed a bit more modest than his literary version. Burrough's Tarzan was commanding among man or beast. His superior intellect and jungle-conditioned strength and agility surfaced at every opportunity.  In the film, Tarzan seems less dominant among the apes, as evidenced when a rival gorilla kicks the tarmangani out of him during the film's big boss-battle.  Plausibility seems to be the big intent.  

However, the filmmakers paid a compliment to Burroughs, writing Skarsgard's Tarzan as a man of few words, the way Burroughs intended.  You can sense the backstory in Tarzan's brooding silences, his pensive soul, and his maturing acceptance of civilization's capacity for greed and violence. He appears to commune with animals without speaking. Unfortunately, the filmmakers missed a rich opportunity to demonstrate Tarzan speaking to the apes in their native tongue, a scene that always astounded me as a reader. I was left with the impression that Tarzan is more the "Friend of the Jungle," instead of  "Lord of the Jungle."  Nevertheless, the film strength is in it's protagonist. Tarzan leaps, jumps, climbs, swings, swims  and fights with the grace of a gazelle and the strength of a bull ape.

Burroughs had a gift for introducing new characters in his novels and making us care for them in a page or two. In "The Legend of Tarzan," the secondary characters are not as memorable.

(Margot Robbie) forces an overly-simplified American accent as Jane, probably because there is nothing remarkable about her dialogue. I couldn't help feeling that a production of this caliber could have been enhanced if it reflected the pronunciations and vocabulary most of us associate with American aristocrats of the late 1800's.  Instead of sounding something like "Tarzan my dear, I insist you let me accompany you to Africa. I've endured jungle hardships before and there shall be no exception for me this time,"  we get the lowest common denominator of television series dialogue, written to advance the story quickly instead of expounding on it. Jane's lines are short and sweet when she says "Africa is where I grew up. I'm going with you."  Jane has appeal, but deserves more. 

Samuel L. Jackson is out-of-breath as an American emissary and former Civil War freedom fighter who wants Tarzan to help expose Belgian King Leopold's tyrannical intent to colonize the Congo. It's easy to relish his performance as he provides comic relief and lucidity to the precarious expedition, all the while maintaining that Tarzan is the best hope at squashing the looming invasion. The jibes between he and Tarzan are a hoot. 

Christoph Waltz plays the villainous Lt. Rom with his usual disquieting menace, one we have come to expect in the wake of his roles in "Inglorious Basterds." Like Jane, he doesn't have enough script to play with, and we're waiting for tension to build as if Tarantino wrote his lines. He is perpetually creepy as villain, but when he whips his rare African silk rosary beads into a lariat to ensnare muscle bound warriors, dinner guests and an unassuming Tarzan, it felt like a gimmick unworthy of a Tarzan story.

I detected no racist overtones in "The Legend of Tarzan," despite the knee-jerk reaction of some critics to accuse it of such. This is an adventure where Tarzan fights to save Jane, the Congo tribe, and the future autonomy of his African homeland from the crushing enslavement of European colonization. Tarzan plays the savior role in all his literary adventures, appearing like a flash of lighting to save an innocent prey from a hungry lion or other attack.  The "bronze god" has easily maintained worldwide hero status, not because he is a superior specimen of a white man, but because despite his near naked appearance and predilections for jungle habits, Tarzan combines his animal conditioning, super strength and superior intellect to preserve the innocence of his adoptive homeland from those who wish to exploit it. 

Like Burroughs Tarzan novels, the weakest of his stories are still great reads. Similarly, the imperfect script of "The Legend of Tarzan" still allows solid entertainment, with the focus on portraying a fascinating and substantial Tarzan.  If audiences give Tarzan a chance and see this film, there is a strong likelihood he will be around at least another hundred years. 

Monday, July 18, 2016

WWE SummerSlam at Madison Square Garden!

I recently worked with World Wrestling Entertainment on an upcoming project in development. It's always a pleasure to team with a great group of professionals,  creatives who love what they do and do it with a smile. I've always admired the stellar showmanship of the WWE, the larger than life stories, and the thrilling excitement that the athletes bring to the ring.

Attending SummerSlam with my family was a blast. My daughter experienced Madison Square Garden in all it's bling, while my nephew was jumping out of his seat. My cousin, who is a life-long WWE fan, joined us to explain some of the history behind the match-ups.
It's tough being mistaken for John Cena's body double, but I managed. :)

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Hollywood Screams: The Bad Guys are Us

In case you haven’t noticed, Hollywood’s’ latest villain behind the crime of the century is not some mustache-twirling rascal, not a bald megalomaniac living in a volcano or a sophisticated thief out to rob Fort Knox.

Instead, the antagonists in today’s blockbusters masquerade as exemplary and distinguished role models.  While our hero has been pursuing suspect after suspect, the real engineer behind the inciting incident turns out to be a person considered beyond reproach - their best friend, superior officer, trusted confidant or respected colleague.

Leo G. Carroll and Ingrid Bergman in
the final shots of Hitch's 1945 "Spellbound"
It’s not a new idea at all. For example, Hitchcock’s “Spellbound” entertained moviegoers with the case of an amnesiac doctor (Gregory Peck) suspected of murder.  In the last sequence the esteemed hospital director (Leo G. Carroll) is exposed as the real murderer. In “Touch of Evil,” director Orson Wells plays an untarnished detective caught falsifying criminal evidence.  When another officer investigates him, Wells conspires with a gangster to destroy him. Even Dirty Harry in “Magnum Force” finds incriminating proof that his Lieutenant is head of a murderous gang of police vigilantes.

Why has this once unorthodox twist become a common fallback solution for today’s hero/villain dynamic? The answer is obvious - the film industry is afraid to offend anyone, isolate audience demographics or exclude world markets that will diminish box office returns.

In the wake of Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, Edward Snowden’s defection, and Nixon’s’ Watergate - Hollywood is showing us that we habitually miscalculate the ones in whom we place our trust. Since we’ve all been chumped into voting for them, we readily join in their public vilification.

Would Bond films with a Chinese Communist villain make money overseas, never mind even be released in China? If Bruce Willis stops a Muslim terrorist organization then surely the “Die Hard” filmmakers are anti-Muslim.

This year's "Captain America: Civil War." It's the Shield vs. the Shell-Head.
Marvel Studios aren’t taking any chances. “Captain America: The First Avenger” didn’t so much battle Nazi Germany in WW2 as he did their fictional cousins of HYDRA.  In the sequel “Captain America: Winter Soldier”, the descendants of Hydra have infiltrated government and intelligence organizations at every level to threaten the free world. Finally, this year’s “Captain America: Civil War” pits Avenger vs. Avenger in a war of principles.  We sense their rivalry will be short-lived, but better to distract us with colorful hero against hero than by battling real-world threats like Boko Haram or Al Shabaab.

"Batman vs. Superman: Death of the Giant Clam"
Similarly framed is Warner Brothers “Batman Vs Superman: Dawn of Justice.”  Our iconic heroes square off with unbridled fury until they realize the bigger problem is Lex Luthor.

Is a giant clam swallowing Robin too much to ask for in today’s market?  Adam West would race to the bat-poles - if he only knew who the bad guy was supposed to be!

The busiest offender of this “good-bad guy” gimmick is the Bond Franchise, starting with 1995’s “Goldeneye.” Bond’s fights a former agent, now a mastermind intent on controlling a powerful military satellite. It’s blue-collar government agent vs. blue-collar evil genius.  

Javier Bardem threatens Bond as ex-agent Silva in "Skyfall"
About as shapeless as the moon.
“Skyfall” trudges further, with bitter ex-agent Silva seeking revenge on M for disavowing his existence amidst enemy torture.  To justify his motivation, Silva pulls out his dentures, revealing the Quasimodo-like disfiguration caused by Mi6’s dental plan.

Donald Pleasance looms as Blofeld in "You Only Live Twice"
while Christoph Waltz as Blofeld is lost in "Spectre"
Not so fast, Mr. Bond. In last year’s “Spectre,” Bond learns the culprit responsible for incidents spanning the last four movies is actually his foster brother!?!?  Worse, he’s changed his name to “Blofeld” (really?)! But that’s not as scary as his master plan to install and oversee customized surveillance systems for an unprincipled shadow cell of the British government.  It would have been simpler to make him head of the IRS.

Gert Frobe as Goldfinger (1965).
Nothing like a mint julep after a hard days' laser surgery.
Goldfinger, do you expect me to watch? No Mr. Bond, I expect you to buy a ticket and die!

“Mission Impossible” drinks the same screenwriting kool-aide, as Tom Cruise outraces more than one government official complicit in heinous activities. But it’s “Star Trek: Into Darkness” which retreads sacred ground when the Federation’s Admiral is exposed trying to start an intergalactic war.  It wouldn’t be the first time a Federation official turned bad in Star Trek canon, but when a movie franchise releases a mega-picture every four years, can we get more face-value villains like the original Khan?

Empathetic villains are great, although not always necessary. Replace the “twisted secret service agent” out to avenge his enlisted son’s death by destroying the Presidential Palace in “White House Down” with a plain, old, rotten Wicked Witch now and then.

The Frightful Four: Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber ("Die Hard");
Lee Marvin as Liberty Valance (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance);
Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West ("The Wizard of Oz");
Jack Palance as Jack Wilson ("Shane")
Baddies played by Lee Marvin, Jack Palance and James Cagney all brought extra dimension to their ruthlessness. One of the richest villains of the action genre was Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) in “Die Hard.” We loathe Hans instantly because of his unabashed cruelty and greed. In fact, the setup is so basic that the script spells it out for us. “I’m the good guy, you’re the bad guy, Hans!”

Unfortunately for the near future of cinema, real-life terrorists, rogue nations, dictators, religious extremists, and other vile scourges will be ignored.
If we must consider the looming threats to peace and harmony, Hollywood asks that we point to ourselves, gaze into the mirror of the movie screen and see that our worst threats are not Hitler, Kim Jong Il or ISIS, but the individuals and groups we trust our welfare to.  The baddies have become us.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Tarzan Triumphant - Time Has Not Diminished the Jungle Lord's Reign

Dust jacket illustration for the
first edition of "Tarzan of the Apes"
If you haven't read Edgar Rice Burroughs “Tarzan” novels, you don't know what you're missing. The novels are works of art. Reading them, it is easy to understand why for the past 100 years the entertainment industry has continually reinvented Tarzan for different media.

First published in 1912, “Tarzan of the Apes” proved so popular with readers that Burroughs wrote a total of 24 Tarzan novels, spanning into the 1940’s.

Despite the movie, television, comic book, syndicated strip, cartoon and other incarnations of Tarzan, the most rewarding portrayal of the Jungle Lord remain in Burroughs’ original material.

There is a level of detail, insight, and reflection that immerse the reader in the Jungles of Africa, where Tarzan, Jane, N’kima and the Waziri tribe encounter new mysteries and civilizations. Burroughs’ Tarzan transcends a fictional character, so convincing is he embellished as a force of nature.

My pen, ink and charcoal study from "Tarzan and the Lost Empire."
Orphaned on the coast of Africa, John Clayton, Lord Greystoke is raised by apes in ignorance of his human heritage.  Under the rigors of jungle hardships and customs, Tarzan (“white skin” in ape language), develops physical attributes and abilities rivaling man and beast. As he matures, Tarzan’s intellect enables him to progress beyond the limits of his anthropoid family. Although eventually recognizing his ancestry as heir to the Greystoke title, Tarzan remains most at home in the wilderness, sleeping in the "crotch of a tree" or navigating the "upper terraces" of the jungle in his own fashion. Adopting the victory cry of the "bull ape," Tarzan proclaims his superiority as “Lord of the Jungle.”  

Film and TV

Filmation's Tarzan Lord of the Jungle was a staple
of my Saturday mornings in the 70's.
Probably my first real opportunity to embrace Tarzan was with Filmation’s Saturday morning cartoon. Tarzan was stoic, athletic, and unlike most live-action adaptations, he spoke fluent English.

Christopher Lambert's performance in
"Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes,"
was the most chimp-like of all. The first half of the film
is captivating; the second, a snooze fest.
A pivotal adaptation was the 1984 film “Greystoke, The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes.” The epic landscapes and immersive jungle sequences were memorable, including scenes highlighting Tarzan's foster ape-mother and the unfriendly native tribes who attack jungle explorers.  

Disney's "Tarzan" is one of the best interpretations
of the Jungle Lord to hit the big screen.
I was honored to work on the 1999 “Tarzan” film with Walt Disney Feature Animation. Artistic and technical breakthroughs were combined with exceptional storytelling, modified in places for family appeal. I never had an opportunity to animate Tarzan, instead assigned to the bumbling Dr. Porter. Still, it was a privilege to have contributed to this classic Disney film.

The greatest illustrators of the last century have had a hand in visualizing Burroughs’ Tarzan. Instead of naming every artist and how significant their contribution was, I’ll mention three of my favorites.

Hogarth's Tarzan is full of introspection and symbolism, with muscles to boot.

Burne Hogarth did two stints drawing the Sunday and daily strips starting in 1937 and leaving in the 50's. He published two Tarzan graphic novels in the early 70's. I was always impressed with his sensitive portrayal of Tarzan; He ponders the meaning of life, the wonders of the universe, and the superiority that man has over the animal kingdom. Hogarth’s anatomy lessons would become a big influence on me as a young art student.

Master storyteller Joe Kubert drew the definitive "Tarzan of the Comics." 

Joe Kubert captured the DC comic book incarnation of Tarzan with his rich brush strokes, lending a unique visceral quality and mood to the narrative. Many consider Kubert’s to be the definitive illustrated version of Tarzan, and I might agree.

I can stare at Neal Adams' book covers all day.
This gem is from "Tarzan and the Lion Man."
While Kubert's mastery is undeniable, Tarzan gained ultimate stature for me with Neal Adams' mid 1970’s Ballantine book covers. I’m mesmerized by the depth and depiction of the “story moment.” Never has Tarzan seemed so relevant in regards to the source material as he is on these covers.  Adams presents us with a god-like superman, bursting off the page amidst an orchestra of action and determination.

More Adventures

"The Legend of Tarzan arrives in theaters July, 2016. Fingers are crossed.
This summer, audiences will be treated to another Tarzan feature film, “The Legend of Tarzan.” It remains to be seen if today’s moviegoers will embrace Tarzan’s retelling. Regardless, one can be sure that the masterworks depicted in Burroughs’s books will inspire countless interpretations and assure the Lord of the Jungle’s longevity well into next century.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

“Managing Up” as a Freelancer Part 2: Take the Bull by the Horns

In the first part of this series on “Managing Up as a Freelancer”, I described how “managing up” is a necessary component of a successful freelancer’s career. It’s not merely a technique used by corporate staff to get promoted or produce companywide success. It is also a vital part of the freelancer’s strategy of constant diligence, yielding satisfied, repeat clients.

In Part 2, I will highlight key areas that help the freelance artist create a streamlined experience for the client, one that minimizes problems and yields excellent results.

Getting to Yes: Alignment
The first thing you want when starting an assignment, be it remote or on-site, is to get into alignment with your client.

It’s not effective to sit down, follow instructions and think you’re doing your best. Even though you are an autonomous freelancer you must be briefly informed of the project history and details of the intended outcome. Are they presenting to an internal or external client? Is the concept already sold and merely needs to be fleshed out for group discussion? Or are they risking their last dime on this presentation to gain the new contract?

Your designs should fit the presentation. Are they printing your illustrations for display on presentation boards in a conference room?  A Power Point slide show, or a PDF document distributed via Skype? If the big pitch is for the newest brand acquisition, the frames might have a higher fidelity than looser storyboards prepared for a director who wrote the script. Whatever the form, establish the parameters and details ASAP. Part of “managing up” is getting clear on what you’re asked to deliver and why. The more you know the better you can proceed.

My clients often invite me to brainstorm sessions. I consider it an honor. If you’re asked to brainstorm, give it the importance it deserves. Your client values your input and experience. Take charge of their concerns – remember you are building trust with clients. “Managing up” means you aren’t afraid to discuss decisions that will serve them best.

After you and your client are in alignment on what the desired goals are, you must agree on “when” to get there. Are you working the whole day? Lunch? Coffee breaks? Need to stop at a certain time so you can make your kids evening drama production? Communicate times and involvement up-front. Not only will you focus better, you’ll be uninhibited by questions and do your best work.

Agree on “how” you will submit roughs and final frames for review. Can you reach the client via email, or stroll over to their desk? Are they in meetings all day? Do they prefer you send a PDF which they can quietly review on their tablet during their weekly staff meeting?  Would they rather discuss progress at your work station? Either way, they’ll be happy if you make it convenient for them.

Other details relate to the “what” that you will create - that is, what formats and styles? Are you drawing digitally or hand drawn frames on paper? Black and white? Color? Line? High-fidelity refined frames or low-fidelity loose images? Maybe they have a visual target you can reference?

Since you both agree “when” to deliver, “how” to get there and “what” it should look like, forge ahead. Together, you can make adjustments as needed.

After the client and I review the script, I sometimes identify more frames than discussed.  If it turns out the original 10 frames to be finished at 5:30 have doubled to 20, get some clarity. Do they want all twenty frames now that you’ve got their adrenaline pumping? Is the delivery flexible? If not, what then? Should you remind them “I was hired to do only ten frames“ or should you bunt your way to 20 frames, hoping to score a home run?

A smart alternative is to suggest another solution. Maybe you deliver 20 frames at a much rougher fidelity level than planned in the same amount of time. If it serves their needs just as well, you’ve managed up. Take ownership of the final results by getting their permission to use your suggestion, or to produce another one.

Things can change rapidly on an assignment. For example, after lunch, the client suddenly asks if they can have the frames at 3 o’clock instead of 5:30. You’re starting to feel stressed and taken advantage of. But hold on - you’re the expert! They hired you to assist them in achieving greatness. There’s no need to feel manipulated or pressured beyond what you can achieve. If they really need everything earlier and you want to accommodate them, suggest what you CAN deliver by 3. Can the frames be painted with broad strokes, masses of shapes without detail? Can they choose a smaller selection of deliverables in order to meet the deadline?

How you handle changes in direction or deadlines makes all the difference. Communication is important every step of the way. Never take for granted that a client knows what your thinking. Constant communication and evaluation of progress is vital for client success and satisfaction. When details and plans change, remain poised. “Managing up” is a sign of professionalism and uses deliberate action to get results.

The greatest complement a freelancer can receive is when a client leaves them alone. They go to lunch or meetings knowing you’re on the job because you’ve won their confidence. They feel safe because your suggestions are good ones, and you are in alignment with them. 

When employers find someone who is great at their job and a pleasure to work with, they will love having you around. Since you aren’t subject to the same jaded outlooks many staffers are infected with, your enthusiasm makes you a perfect candidate to tackle a problematic or difficult job. As your storyboards, concept art or illustrations breath new life into their troubled project, you will become a favorite freelancer for future projects.

Satisfaction Guaranteed
After following the above practices, you’ve handed in all deliverables. Now take a minute to see if the client is happy. You may have to wait until after their presentation to find out. Usually, you can gauge their satisfaction by how relieved they are once completed. Since you partnered methodically with them and received their blessings every step of the way, they’ll remember how instrumental you were for a smooth production and how you inspired confidence for the project.

In the odd case the client is not happy with what you’ve provided, express regrets and ask what you can do to make them happy.  You also want to know where things went wrong. At what point did both of you not align in the process? Walking through it step-by-step allows the client to revisit the decisions they made, suggesting a constructive review both parties can learn from.  

Wrap it Up
After ending on a good note, mention that you would love to work with them again. Perhaps they can refer you to other potential customers. Also, it’s perfectly fine to ask for a testimonial that you can share on your web site or linked-in. They may not have the time or patience to put one together no matter how much they liked your performance, but assure them you only need one or two sentences. With that amount of brevity, their comments will get right to the point. If they are slow to get back to you, be patient. They just had a great experience, let’s keep it that way. You can always circle back when the time is right.

I hope these points on “managing up” as a freelancer are helpful. It may seem common sense, but many times we can forget to employ such basic principles. As your talent gives you entrĂ©e to seek freelance work, “managing up” is the method you use to secure a foothold. Get into Alignment. Agree on “how,” “what,” “when” and “where.” Adjust the plan as needed. Finally, build Trust between you and your clients. You’ll be delivering the highest level of Satisfaction their money can buy.