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.

Monday, March 21, 2016

“Managing Up” as a Freelancer Part 1.... It’s Not Just for Staff

If you’re a member of the corporate world, you’ve frequently encountered the catch phrase “managing up.”  Books have been written on it, seminars have addressed it, and corporate training programs have empowered managers to apply its principles. But you don’t need a subscription to the Harvard Business Review to understand the techniques that have helped employees galvanize effective relationships with their bosses and supervisors. “Managing up” need not be obsequious or contrived. It utilizes clear communication, a dedication to partnership, and an interest in successful results.

To put it simply, “managing up” is a deliberate effort on the part of an employee to forge the best possible partnership between himself and his boss, with the ultimate intent of producing innovative and high performance results for the company.

But hold on, you don’t consider yourself an “employee” so to speak. You are an elite member of the freelance swashbuckling club, uninhibited by the oppressive doldrums of company politics and unconcerned with climbing the corporate ladder. Maybe you’re a Storyboard Artist or Illustrator, a contractor who dreams of being so prosperous that you call your own shots.

Perhaps you toil away in your home studio, office, or kitchen table creating what you love with the tools of your choice. You gladly work on-site in the client’s office to make them happy and confident in your skills. You say: “I draw pictures for a living! I work for myself, and as long as I get paid, who cares what happens after that? I don’t WANT to manage up, that’s why I FREELANCE!”

You may think that doing what you love and getting paid for it is in-and-of itself the realization of success. For many, it is. You get to work in your slippers sometimes, with your favorite mug, listening to your favorite music, satellite radio, or daily podcasts. Although rewarding, it’s only part of the picture. The reality is a lot less glamorous than it sounds, AND a lot more IMPORTANT than it sounds.

I’m sure there are superstars in our industry who are so popular, talented and in-demand that they may never even consider the client relationship that seriously. They command large sums of money and get so much work they turn assignments away. If you're one of those artists, I admire your talent and skills. If you're not one of those artists, listen up.

The reality is you can’t be successful unless you are helping your clients be successful. 

Because the freelancer has multiple clients over the course of his career, an attribute of success lies in satisfying the needs and solving the problems of each and every client. Being a “rock star” artist is great – but if a freelancer is inflexible or indifferent to the project, or does ONLY what he is told, cannot read between the lines, or anticipate problems before they arise, the results will be less than stellar. You may realize too late that your client had a different expectation, one he or she THOUGHT they communicated effectively, but didn't. Or maybe you thought a last-minute change in direction would naturally be followed by an extended deadline. However, if you have not clarified an extension with your client, they will be disappointed when you deliver later than originally agreed. Chances are that you will be viewed as the one who flubbed the presentation, not them. The client won’t rush to hire you again, and may even discourage others in their organization to contract you.

Remember you are carving your own legacy with each assignment. You’re enjoying work on your own terms, but if immediate satisfaction and comfortable work habits are what you ask from life, that is what you’ll get.

My guess is you want more. You want a prosperous business, professional achievements, artistic growth and financial gain. You want to be a bread-winner, and have the freedom to jfly to the Bahamas or hike the Appalachian Trail once in a while.

That's where managing up comes in. If you want your freelance storyboard or illustration business to flourish, make yourself an integral part of your client’s success by managing up.

Managing up is essential, even if your projects last one day, one week or one month. And it’s easier than you think. The techniques are easy, unobtrusive and effective at scoring home-runs with clients. I believe it's what keeps me first-in-line for future projects.
In part 2 of this article, I will explain some key managing up methods that have worked for me.

Continued in “Managing Up" as a Freelancer 
Part 2:Take the Bull by the Horns

Monday, March 7, 2016

How to Make it as a Storyboard Artist

"Would'ja believe.....that desk is also a car?"

This January I had the privilege to join Storyboard art.org as a guest teacher for one of their industry webinars. Titled "How to Make it as a Storyboard Artist," the sessions began with a webinar where I talked with moderator Sergio Paez (a master story artist and great public speaker, to boot) about industry experiences and practices. We had about 200 attendees signing in live around the globe, submitting questions regarding best ways to find work, when to use contracts or letters of agreements, and different methods of getting paid. 

When marketing a class, tell the student what they get in clear, concise words.

Between Sergio and myself, we were able to cover the tools of the trade, professionalism, and how to work under pressure. I shared a bit of my history, including my time as a Disney Animator, my role as an Art Director on "Madden NFL" and my early struggles shopping around my portfolio in the pre-digital age. Especially of interest was how-the-heck does one freelance for 7 years full-time while raising a family. It was a lighthearted session, even though packed with tons of information for beginners and professionals alike, and I received many warm messages from participants who appreciated me recounting my personal struggles and successes.

The indefatigable Sergio Paez, co-founder of Storyboardart.org.
The webinar was followed by two classes, where students were able to gain details regarding portfolios, marketing and self-promotion, networking, and web sites. Through the miracle of Google Hangouts, I was able to speak on camera here in my studio, surrounded by my books, computers, hard drives, animation desk, collectibles and the general state of clutter that I am forever battling. Students submitted portfolios and received personal portfolio reviews where I discussed their strengths, weaknesses and potential strategies for getting work. It was an honor to review the students' work, as it was to provide feedback with respect and encouragement. 

Personal projects like this frame from a movie pitch
offer variety and excitement not always found in client work. 
Despite being called a "successful storyboard artist," by Sergio, I emphasized to the group that success in this industry is often transient, and encompasses not just getting clients but living a balanced life. Making money from a skill set or talent like drawing is a blessing, but one which must be tempered by preparation for rainy days. Having personal or "vanity" projects like writing a screenplay or a comic book involve the ability to reinvent yourself, to stay flexible, and adapting to whatever times require. It helps to be able to work in many formats and styles, and not accept the comfort of being a one-trick-pony. When you're not storyboarding the next great commercial spot or the current animated Nickelodeon series, there is no shame in doing product comps or personal commissions. 

By the look of those phonemic distortions,
I could be singing "Mammy."
I enjoyed coordinating the sessions with Sergio and his co-founder Anthony Rivera. I look forward to future sessions where I might help inform and educate pro's, beginners and clients, while elevating the distinction of the storyboard artist community. For info on classes and storyboard resources, visit Storyboardart.org.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

How to Make it as a Freelance Storyboard Artist - Free Webinar

This Saturday I am part of a free webinar with StoryboardArt.org, designed for people interested in getting into the business of storyboarding. It's appropriately titled, "How to Make it as a Freelance Storyboard Artist.

I'll be joining an live and informal Q and A session where we will discuss tactics for breaking into the industry,  how to approach potential clients, when to use contracts, marketing yourself, developing a portfolio, balancing work with your personal life, and other essential topics.

Reserve your place here: http://storyboardart.org/make-it-as-a-freelance-storyboard-artist/

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Get Out the Crayola's

Over the summer I picked up a coloring book job for Canson. I created five pages for an insert that was to be included in with sketchbooks sold exclusively in 500 Wal-Mart's around the US.  I did them because they met the following criteria:

I was in charge of the creative content, with the one request from Wal-Mart that the images fell within the realm of fairy tale/fantasy.

I have permission to share the images on my blog.

One pass at roughs, one pass at finishes.

About two days of work or a little more.

I have a good relationship with the folks at Canson.

That being said, I rifled through my art books for inspiration.  I noticed I kept going back to the same illustrators, like the Red Rose Girls, Arthur Rackham, Edmond Dulac, Rene Bull, W. Heath Robinson, Stephen R. Kidd and others.

How talented those legends were. In retrospect, I wish I would have spent more time on developing them, in order to solve some of the problems that bug me every time I revisit. Out of the five illustrations commissioned, I like the ones shown above the most.