Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Artists of the Apes - The Best Bananas of the Bunch

Splash page highlighting some of Mike Ploog's best work.
This month's release of War for the Planet of the Apes is bringing in "box office bananas" and providing what many audiences think is the best of the newer Ape's trilogy.  It's a perfect time for me to pay homage to one of my favorite life-long franchises by sharing some of the great comic book illustrators who breathed exuberant life into the Marvel premium format comics magazines that broke ground in 1974.

Following the success of the original 5 POTA films and the advent of the POTA TV Series, Marvel published a great BW magazine (bigger dimensions than your average comic book) which could be scooped up for a handsome dollar at your local newsstand (if they hadn't sold out yet!).

In a former post where I mentioned POTA and gave away two self-designed POTA tee shirts to lucky readers, I highlighted the brilliant pencil art of Tom Sutton and the writing of Doug Moench in the most amazing and visually inventive Ape Art a kid could witness. In this post, I am sharing the contributions of two additional art greats - Mike Ploog and Rico Rival along with the striking cover by artist Bob Larkin.

Bob Larkin's POTA cover illustration
promised new and unusual
interpretations of the POTA universe.

In 1974, I was mere young pup, and somehow managed to finance a few issues of this rare mag. To say that I was incredibly pleased is an understatement. The cover of issue # 13 by illustrator Bob Larkin had me transfixed for years. Since then I've researched a lot of Larkin's work, and this cover may be one of his best published pieces. The reflected light and additions of red contours on the primary Ape's left side are outstanding and contribute to raising this art above the norm. The background showing the ape and the girl tied at the stakes while more apes dance a "dum-dum" around their fire are direct as they can be. This is going to be one Ape tale that General Urko himself would cherish.

Mike Ploog's narration is lush in black and white.
Inside, the two aforementioned artists split the mag. The first story illustrated by Mike Ploog is part of the "Terror on the Planet of the Apes" story arc. Jason, a blonde surfer look-a-like who dresses like Tarzan seeks revenge on the Gorilla soldier who killed his parents. Lost in the wilds of some arboreal jungle, his friends get kidnapped by primitive apes and Jason rescues them with the help of Lightsmith, an old hippie dude who travels in his "Wonder Wagon."

Ploog's use of high contrast black inking is complemented by his deft placement of grey tones throughout. Like an old black and white movie, the lack of color can work wonders in the right hands, and Ploog captures a mood of despair and mystery with his handiwork. Ploog had a distinguished career in movies as a story and concept guy for many years following. Doug Moench's writing is more memorable here than in many of his Marvel and DC super-hero titles.

Escape from the Planet of the Apes
lovingly illustrated by Rico Rival
The second story is the comics adaptation of Escape from the planet of the Apes. As most of you ape-o-philes know the motion picture had a total of three apes appear on screen (I'm not including baby Ceasar or the guy in the gorilla costume who kills Professor Milo in the films opening.) This film turned out to be quite well put together and captivating even though it's a long way off from the future Ape timeline. Philippine artist Rico Rival hits it out of the park with his art.

If Rico was missing all the fantasy subjects he and other Philippine artists were doing at DC back in the seventies, it's not evident. The splash page alone makes me wonder just how the heck this guy was so good? He clearly relishes the drawing of drapery, people, poses, action, pantomime, mood and emotion, embellished with his bold line work and immersive staging. 

Many of today's comic artists would probably copy movie snapshots for an illustrated movie adaptation. Rico Rival instead draws the daylights out of the story and makes this interpretation feel like a brand new totally original ape animal .

If you have a day to kill, kill it with these two genius artists. You will be mesmerized and astounded over how beautiful comic books can be in the right hands.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Madden 2018 - EA Sports Banks on a "Longshot"

Last year I had a great opportunity to revisit EA Sport's Madden Franchise where I was once-upon-a-time an Art Director.

A strong factor in being hired by EA many moons ago was to integrate cinematic storytelling into sports video games. In this, I faced many technical and leadership obstacles across the team and the studio. EA Sports had been a heavy Producer-dominated culture back then, and giving the Art Director ownership over visual game features was viewed with much skepticism by the old guard. In time, the Art Director community grew into a united front, gaining influence and resulting in dramatic cameras, improved visuals, and better storytelling. Until now, however, Madden never truly reached a complete cinematic narrative combining film, gameplay and programming.

With the unveiling of Madden 2018's "Longshot" story mode, users can control the story path and progress of Devin Wade as he navigates the challenging prospect of the NFL Draft. Unlike earlier story modes, the "Longshot" feature doesn't rely on stat screens and user interface controls to display results. Unfolding like a film, users play mini games and compete in drills to influence Devin's performance, his career prospects, and ultimately his failure or success.

I am proud to have been reunited with two former Disney colleagues in designing storyboards for this new feature.  Before he achieved recognition for his story contributions on worldwide animation projects, my pal Woody Woodman and I were budding storyboard artists toiling for promotions under the Disney roof. "Longshot's" Head of Story, Tom Labaff, was my former animation mentor during my training period on Mulan, and has since crafted boards for Blue Sky and Digital Domain, while somehow managing to squeeze in a hefty bunch of published illustration gigs! If you want something done, give it to a busy person.

The ultimate bonus for me was reuniting with Writer/Director of "Longshot," EA Art Director Mike Young. Mike helped elevate AD efforts across NCAA Football and Madden year after year. I learned a great deal about Art Direction from him, and enjoyed his effortless style of leadership. I should also mention, he put up with and often encouraged my goof-ball sense of humor. "That's right, Sizzlechest!"

I look forward to the release of Madden 2018's "Longshot" on August 25th.  I promise to keep my "showboating" to a minimum.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Gang Sheets - Handy Self Promotion

I usually put a few gang sheet samples together each year. They are typically a mixed variety of storyboards and illustration. This is one such example, mixing Black and White frames with Color Frames to showcase versatility and quality. In addition to digital media, this sample contains a few watercolor and ink frames that were used as part of an ad campaign for History Channel.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

"The New Day" WWE Concept and Wardrobe Designs

I've gained permission to show some of the "The New Day" WWE designs from the recent Wrestlemania 33.

It's interesting to see the direction evolve from costumes true to the art direction of the new "Final Fantasy: Storm Front" video game, to the upbeat and festive demeanor that is so crucial to "The New Day's" identity. You can see the progressions in the costume designs, the entrances, and the ice cream cart that the WWE Superstars ride down the ramp and into the ring.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Color Sketches - Down and Dirty

I was in the mood to do some quick Tarzan studies tonight. Once again I lost track of time, so I can't say exactly how long each took. It's safe to say I did them in about 90 minutes total. What a realization that occurs each time....either I am pleased with the quick results, or horrified. I would say a mix of both tonight. The monkey in the last frame (Nkima) is particularly bad. From one of my favorites - "Tarzan and the Lost Empire."


Thursday, April 6, 2017

It's a "New Day" at Wrestlemania 33


WrestleMania 33 exploded in Orlando Florida this past April 2nd. As expected, the performances were bigger and better than ever, viewed by 1.95 million to become the most watched event in WWE Network history.


With A-List Superstar matches, captivating story-lines and a few surprises, the City of Orlando, Florida exploded in spectacular entertainment.

I had the privilege to work with the talented WWE Creative team to design the wardrobes and entrances for the WWE Superstar Hosts of Wrestlemania 33, "The New Day." In a viral-style cross promotion with Square Enix's "Final Fantasy XIV: Stormblood," Superstars Xavier Woods, Kofi Kingston, and Big E made their debut in Final Fantasy inspired costumes while riding a Final Fantasy-themed Ice Cream Tricycle. Assignments like this are a blast for an Artist like me!

Every detail of the wardrobe was meticulously planned. In an iterative process of design, ideas evolved from conventional to more daring and dazzling. The results were successful, and full of paintings, model sheets, concept art and storyboards.  Final Fantasy fans will notice the decor of Chocobos and Moogles on the Ice Cream cart and the cartoon caricatures branded on the Jumbotron. As WWE Superstars, "The New Day" can showcase anything with their outrageous presentation and lively charisma.

I helped design Triple H's entrance, one where H drove his custom bike down the show ramp with wife Stephanie MacMahon on board. Orlando Motorcycle Police provided them a regal escort into the ring.

I'd like to express my thanks to WWE for giving me the opportunity to work with such talented colleagues - artists, writers, and creative directors - on the spectacular pre-production of this titanic extravaganza.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Practice, Practice, Practice with "Tarzan and the Lost Empire"


Last year I nearly finished reading the entire series of Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan novels. Burroughs wrote 24 novels about his greatest character creation, starting with "Tarzan of the Apes" and ending with "Tarzan and the Castaways." Along the way aside from my freelance schedule I began designing rough illustrations from one of my favorites - "Tarzan and the Lost Empire."    


As with most Tarzan novels, Burroughs quickly establishes empathy for his characters. There are plenty of newcomers to enrich the plot, as Tarzan is captured by an ancient Roman civilization hidden deep in Africa. Every gladiator movie or Biblical epic film I can think of must have come to life here first.  As Tarzan is forced to fight alongside other prisoners in the Colosseum arena, we are introduced to violent battles, a scheming emperor, secret romances and a colorful finale.                             



These rough sketches were created in pen and ink, dry brush, charcoal and a variety of pencils. I was inspired by the pen and ink methods detailed in Henry Pitz's classic instructional book "Ink Drawing Techniques." My efforts do not reach the depth or fidelity of Pitz's examples, but I gained a passion for experimenting with ink and other media while attempting to visualize details of Tarzan's story from "Lost Empire." 


An artist needs to persevere in his personal work, and I find that illustrating books is an easy way to thumbnail, conceptualize and create story moments, while constantly providing an opportunity to try new mediums. I am not sure if I will ever complete my Tarzan illustrations, but I'm excited enough to continue trying. 

Thursday, February 9, 2017

My "Take-Away" From Watercolor

I've been practicing the art of Watercolor since last summer. The warm weather is perfect for outdoor painting, especially when I can find a shady alcove to set up shop. 

I'm not working in any sort of conventional manner with Watercolor. For starters, I don't actually soak my paper, I tend to just streak it with a big flat wet brush. When the paper is close to drying, I have planned a loose workflow in my head. Every painting has its own workflow, as determined by what I want to accomplish in that particular setting.  I work direct most of the time, no pencil, just straight brush with color on the wet surface. 

Trees have always astonished me, provoking a sense of wonder for the miracle that is nature. If trees could talk, the stories they would tell. An old, twisting tree whose winding branches reach up to the heavens and expand far from their base like some protective canopy invites me to come near. New York's Westchester County is replete with beautiful trees and landscapes, and provides me with many possibilities. Each painting is an exercise for me. What can I do different from last time? How much tree do I actually need to describe? Would it be useful to design selectively and simplify or draw every branch?

After spending some time struggling with the medium and evaluating my results, I finally understand why years ago friends like Ray Lago (great water illustrator, voice of reason and all-around nice guy) surmised that watercolor may not be best suited for my temperament. Back when I had a partial share in a studio space with him a few other guys, I lacked the patience for Watercolor. Today, I am eager to expand my traditional skills and explore more mediums. Digital deadlines as a storyboard artist have inspired me to step away from the screen and reconnect with myself. I have the luxury to improve, question and experiment - something I can't do when on a client deadline.

My sketchbook is full of pencil drawings I made every day for a month or two, usually after school drop off and a morning run. It's the little efforts that accumulate to a big result. I was able to satisfy the draughtsman in me by doing tree studies in pencil, purely as an observation and note-taking process. With this confidence gained from routine exploration, I was ready for bumping it up a notch with Watercolor.

Being spontaneous is what I love so much about drawing and painting, and my direct approach brings me the most satisfaction. The results are uncertain but captivating. Either way, I am having fun and conditioning myself to associate good feelings to Watercolor. With that reinforced, I'm sure to be productive well into my future journey as an Artist. 

Monday, January 30, 2017

"SIX" on History Channel Pays Tribute to WW1 Soldiers

I recently illustrated a series of watercolor/brush and ink drawings for a History Channel promo.

The network's new "SIX" is based off real Navy SEAL missions, and authentically captures the inside world of America’s Elite Special Operations unit, Navy SEAL Team Six.
In this promo spot, cast member Barry Sloane reads a letter from a WW1 soldier to his younger brother, written from the front lines of the trench war conflict that dominated Europe a century ago.   


Many assignments I accept are created on a digital format. I use Photoshop and/or Storyboard Pro on a Mac platform and draw on a Yayanova 19" tablet. Most clients don't have a preference how I work, but they understand that if working digitally it can be easier for me to react to changes, notes, and iterations. For this project, the director and I quickly agreed a traditional approach would be best. I created some samples by applying brush, ink, and watercolor on different paper stocks, and found a smooth press 140 lb. gave me great results.             
I'm no expert with watercolor or brush and ink, but my recent practice of painting trees around Westchester came in handy. Watercolor can be a fascinating medium, one that evokes mood and allows room for the viewers imagination. Painting these images of WW1 was a thrill for me, and I am grateful that I had the opportunity to interpret this soldier's historic letter and share my results with History Channel audiences.