1. What is your formal training.
I went to Berkshire College of Art and Design for four years. The piece of paper is not important. Opening up to the experience and criticism from tutors and fellow students, using the time to play and experiment free from financial concern, and just doing the work, is crucial.
2. What advice would you give to someone entering art school?
My only advice would be to lower your guard, admit you don’t know everything already, throw away your preconceptions, play. You have three or four years before entering the serious world of real life, so have fun discovering who you are. Ask for criticism and deal honestly with all comments. If you ignore them, ignore them for the right reasons, not because your pride is bruised. After a while you’ll find that your goal comes into focus. Do the work you need to do to get to that goal, free from outside interference, then open up to critical opinion again. I’ve found this ebb and flow of engagement and isolation to be an on-going pattern in life.
My last bit of advice doesn’t sit well with the way the creative arts are taught. It is to seek out like minds in other disciplines. Get to know writers, photographers, musicians. If you are on a large campus, try and connect with others from other disciplines, the sciences, historians, everyone. The world doesn’t obey the strict demarcation of jobs that the educational system seems determined to enforce upon it. Chances are you will enter a world that needs ‘content’, not illustration, design, typography, but this big, multi-disciplinary thing called ‘content’. Knowing how to develop a narrative, to marry sound and pictures, to visualize ideas, to deal with motion, will all help you find a place in this interactive world.
3. What advice would you give to someone wanting to draw comics?
My advice has always been, put them away for at least your first year in art school. Chances are you will find your way back to them eventually. There is a world of drawing, painting and image making out there, and it will only make your work stronger and deeper if you dive into it. You’ll be amazed at how differently you’ll feel about comics when you return, suddenly a whole world of untapped potential will open up before you. I personally don’t believe in teaching comics as a single subject. I believe a good comic comes out of many disciplines, drawing, observations, writing, dialogue, editing, design, narrative structure, typography, colour theory and this list doesn’t even scratch the development of the content of your comic. I’m much more interested in students finding their own solutions to telling stories, not learning ‘the correct’ way to do it.
The actual steps to getting published are pretty predictable. Draw you own story (or find a sympathetic writer), print, or photocopy a few sample copies, or throw it up online. Note the publishers of the books you like, and feel a kinship with, approach those publishers. If it’s a comic-book publisher, go to conventions and try and talk to the relevant editors (always better face to face), if it’s a book publisher, send them samples, and try and get an interview with the appropriate editor or art director. Don’t forget to sell your own work on the net, local comic shops etc. Finally, always be open to other venues: newspapers, magazines, online comics sites, graffiti, art galleries.
4. What materials do you use?
I use whatever is appropriate for the job. If the story needs close storytelling and a light, simple style of narrative, then probably pen and ink, or brushpen, or pencil would be best. If the story needs a more symbolic approach then maybe collage, or paint, or digital. It all comes down to the emotion and atmosphere you want to convey.
5. What software do you use?
I still draw and paint and photograph everything first. I can’t get into drawing using a tablet. But, to composite I use Photoshop of course. To design, Indesign or Quark (unfortunately, as Freehand has not been supported).
For moving picture editing I use Final Cut, for post on moving pictures I use After Effects. For 3-d animation and rendering, the studio I set up for MirrorMask used Maya.
6. Who are your main influences?
Always a difficult one, there are so many.
Pre-art school, mostly genre movies, and old serials, comics from early Marvels to Warren magazines and Heavy Metal. Surrealists and the illustrators who were inspired by surrealism when creating record and book covers. Important individuals here would include Max Ernst, Patrick Woodroffe, Moebius, Storm Thorgerson, Berni Wrightson, Philip Castle, Monty Python and the Goons, Woody Allen (yes, a long term fan), Barbarella, the Max Fleischer Superman cartoons, Flash Gordon.
During art school my taste exploded in all directions. I watched a film a night from a great little video library near the school, so found, amongst many others, Bergman, Gilliam, Cocteau, Lang, Murnau, Meliés, Dreyer, Kubrick, Polanski, Bob Fosse, Lars von Trier, Luc Besson, Greenaway, Jan Svankmajer, The Quay Brothers…
Also discovered the beauty and emotional power of abstraction and expressionism through Jim Dine, Francis Bacon, Ralph Steadman, Degas, Egon Schiele, Picasso, Larry Poons, Russell Mills, Antoni Clavé…
And absorbed comics by Bill Sienkiewicz, Winsor McCay, Jose Munoz, Jean Teulé, Sergio Toppi, Raymond Briggs, Duane Michels (yes, I consider his work to be ‘comics’)…
After art school, almost everything; places, food, carpets, architecture, theatre, music, people and places have all had an impact on my work. Important names were Matt Mahurin, Marshall Arisman, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Brad Holland, Roland Topor, Barron Storey…
And meeting some of the artists and writers who are my contemporaries has been very inspiring; Kent Williams, Jon Muth, George Pratt, Lorenzo Mattotti, Stefano Ricci, Raul Fernandez, Scott McCloud, and many others.
More recent discoveries would be Patrick Bokanowski, Konstantin Lopushansky, Walerian Borowczyk, Buster Keaton, Anthony Minghella, Ildiko Enyedi, Kim Ki-Duk, Theo Angelopoulos, Michel Gondry, Franciszek Starowieyski, Stasys Eidrigevicius, Jan Lenica and many other great Polish artists, Heston Blumenthal, Umberto Boccioni, Walter Sickert, Hans Bellmer, Werner Tübke, Stanley Spencer, Paul Nash, Louis Bourgeois, John Bellany, the Starns, Joel-Peter Witkin, Anselm Keifer, Rebecca Horn, Rachel Whiteread, the end is listless…
And then there’s design: Poster’s from the 20’s, the Secessionists, Futurists, and modernists in Holland, Stephen Byram, Vaughan Oliver, Milton Glaser, David Carson and so much more.
And music? I wouldn’t know where to start. I like something in almost any genre, except opera (although I like Philip Glass), country (although I like the odd song) and really poppy pop.
Overall, I would say the big two are Miles Davis and Picasso, simply because they continually reinvented themselves at such a high level.
7. Do you take on assistants/work experience students/staff of any kind?
Short answer is no. When a film is on, we need staff, so I will advertise for any jobs going in the blog on this website. I’ve often thought it would be good to have someone around to do all the dog-work, but that’s no use to an eager student, and it would take me so long to explain to anyone the in’s and out’s of my studio, archive system and preferences, I might as well do everything myself. My partner Clare helps out as much as possible, and so far I’m just about afloat on the sea of paperwork and endless stuff.
8. Can I send you questions for my thesis/class project etc.?
I’ve never had a very satisfactory way of dealing with these requests. Hopefully, with this website, anyone interested in my work will be able to find the relevant information they need.
9. Can I buy original artwork?
Sure. This site will have a few examples of my work up for sale most of the time in the Virtual Gallery. I have shows occasionally around the world and they will be advertised here in the Gallery section. I hope to post pdf’s of the price lists.
There are a few galleries who have examples of my work on file, and they are listed in the Contacts section.
If there is something specific you are after, please email me. All Arkham, Violent Cases, Signal to Noise, Mr. Punch, Sandman, and Hellblazer artwork is gone. I have a few pages from other comics still. The children’s books are usually composited in Photoshop so I only have odd drawings. All my photographs are available as editions of 20 in two sixes; 24 and 12 inches square, signed.
10. Can I send you my books etc. to sign?
I think this best done at signings. I will advertise personal appearances through the year in the blog.
11. Can you come to a convention/event?
Possibly, depends on the usual litany of deadlines and commitments. If you grab my attention on twitter, we can take it from there. Or you can use the firstname.lastname@example.org email.
12. Who can I talk to about work/commissions?
I only do commissions around the time of Comicon in July to help pay for the table. You can contact Allen Spiegel: email@example.com
And here is an essay I wrote a few years ago after having finished MirrorMask for a magazine article. It may be flippant, but it has a few truths in it that may help.
24 LESSONS A SECOND
1. Don’t stick to the brief.
MirrorMask began as a proposition from Columbia Tristar by way of The Jim Henson Company. If Neil Gaiman and I could make a fantasy film for a family audience and $4M., then we had a deal. There was a tentative title: The Curse of the Goblin King. We set about writing a film without curses, goblins or kings in it.
2. Gift horses are rare, but do exist.
I spent the months surrounding the writing of the script and the doing of the deal, waking up every morning and assuming I would be fired today. I couldn’t really see why these nice American people were writing me a cheque for this much money, which, although a tiny amount for an effects driven fantasy film, was still more money than I’d ever seen in one place.
However, we were left alone, and although notes were emailed occasionally, they were always in the spirit of suggestions rather than demands.
3. Work out a snappy way of telling people what the film is about as early as possible.
I had many conversations with mostly patient executives, which included liberal uses of the words ‘sort of’ and ‘feels like’ and ‘it’s analogues to’ and ‘dream logic’.
This is really not good. MirrorMask follows a young plucky girl from a circus family, as she tries to save a fantastical city from dark and dangerous forces, and in so doing wakes the Queen of Light and saves her mother’s life.
Now this is not really what it’s about, but it’s dramatic and easy to follow. The film is actually about the aforementioned girl, arguing with her mother who promptly falls very ill. Then our girl, crushed by guilt and a life careering out of control, retreats to a simpler dream logic (uh oh) world of two kingdoms ruled by light and shadow queens who sort of (um…) feel like (arrrgh!) her mother. She tries to regain control over her own life by attempting to help in this analog… erm… other world… and there’s a mask which represents… hello? Are you still there? Hello?
4. If the whizzy new digital camera you want is still in pieces, and the only other one in existence is also in pieces, and someone called Gavin somewhere in the bowels of the camera hire company says that it will probably be okay on the day, boring old 35mm. film starts to look really interesting again.
5. Don’t panic when the cast still isn’t in place with one week to go before shooting. We got the okay for our male lead Jason Barry in the proverbial nick. Seasoned producer Martin Baker wondered what all the worry was about. I removed the noose, and got back to storyboarding.
6. Actors are not props. I always suspected this, and after making a handful of short films with actors in masks, I was unsure. But I can safely say that it is true, they are not props, clothes horses, mark hitting puppets, or, as many people who really should know better have said, cattle.
Actually they are very nice, very surprising, very enthusiastic, quite magical basket cases. At least my lot were.
7. Shoot a sound film in a sound studio.
Yes, it’s extraordinary how simple that looks on paper, but you will be tempted. A big empty building, with no neighbours at the time you are shown around, the lure of a ‘90%’ soundproofed studio at a big discount, how we scoffed at all those wasteful British productions paying through the nose for their 100% soundproofed studios. Six weeks surrounded by neighbours with cherry pickers, exploding props, ice cream vans, trained crows and something that sounded like a huge trumpet saw, and I was ready to blow the place up.
8. Bluescreen acting is a knack. Some people can tell a joke, some can’t. Some people can imagine sharing that joke with a collective noun of monkeybirds*, and fortunately our wonderful leading lady, Stephanie Leonidas, could.
(* Either a trock, or a floupe)
9. Editors like rules. I think because the process of assembling a film is so chaotic, there is a need to find order in the chaos. The only rule that works is the one that states that no rule will work more than once a day.
10. Don’t try and set up a computer animation studio DURING production. All these computers really don’t like each other very much, and need a few months just sitting in the same room before they feel comfortable in each other’s company. Then one day, they might start working together, and only then is it worth bringing in an animator to sit down with them and suggest that they might like to try rendering something.
11. For gods sake, don’t set up in one location and then move to another one. I don’t care if we needed a half-way house before our proper place was ready to move into, NEVER AGAIN. Computers may look like cold metal and plastic boxes, but they actually put down tiny follicles of psycho-digital root system into the floor. Sever those at your peril!
12. Try not to render anything over summer.
Render nodes melt in hot weather and only a small army of air conditioning units can convince them to carry on.
13. Make sure you have enough electrical feed for a small army of air conditioning units. The scent of deep fried mains supply lingers in the air, and doesn’t fill visiting producers with confidence.
14. Don’t, and I really mean this, don’t composite a whole feature film yourself. It’s not big, or clever, and you just end up losing track of time, sanity, your family, world events and the will to live.
15. Animators are people too.
16. The amount of time it takes to create a computer animated shot, in days, is four times the estimated time, plus the age of the animator, minus his inside leg measurement, plus two and half times the re-estimated time squared.
Or, ‘it’s very hard to say’.
17. Animators rule: the only sphinx with a human face that doesn’t move at all, is a dead sphinx with a human face.
18. Photo real cg is like training a mouse to play the piano. It takes a huge amount of time, trouble and expense to get it to work, but then it’s only ever going to play a couple of notes. there’s a whole keyboard out there, think of the infinite possibilities. So, much better to train a monkey.
19. Edit with music. It completely changes the mood and tempo of a scene, and tells you if it’s working or not.
20. Don’t use temporary music. You just fall in love with it and then your composer has a thankless task trying to match it.
21. Don’t get your composer in too soon, the film keeps changing and the timings move, and the four beat bars become five, or eleven or three and bit beat bars, and it just upsets him.
22. Don’t leave it too late to get your composer involved, the sooner the better really, bearing in mind lesson 21.
23. Is music really necessary?
Yes, but it’s very hard to know when to get your composer started. Better to get him or her to write about eighty four hours of ravishing score taking in every imaginable mood and flourish, and then cutting out the bits you like and sticking them in when you’re editing. Or not.
24. Practise saying the words, “yes, it’s finished”. I still haven’t
got the knack.
That old adage is right, films are never finished, or abandoned, they just need a final bit of work on reel six.
And here are a collection of random questions from various professionals for a magazine article:
What are you up to at the moment?
I just finished shooting principle photography on a new feature film called LUNA. It is an original script that I wrote last year. It is a drama, with a series of strange surreal dreams flowing through it.
I’m half way through the illustrations for Heston Blumenthal’s BIG FAT DUCK BOOK.
I’m doing a book of drawings called CAUSTIC and another of paintings called NITRATE; both inspired by images from Silent Cinema.
I’m illustrating a new kids book with Neil Gaiman called THE GRAVEYARD BOOK.
I’m preparing pitch materials, artwork and 3rd. draft script of VARJAK PAW, an animated film for The Jim Henson Company, for meetings in January.
Still doing odd illustrations and book covers.
Finally putting KEANOSHOW to bed, the DVD collection of my short films, due out early next year.
Getting my website together finally with Tim Spear.
Flea Circus Director, London, UK
Does your own work ever give you nightmares?
No, I seem to be able to put them all down on paper.
I had nightmares during the shooting of Luna, all stress and sleep depravation induced.
One involved the whole shoot taking place in Lisa Henson London home, where we’d trashed the house completely. She visited the set desperately needing her fruit. I spent the whole dream trying to tidy just enough bits of the house, for Lisa to walk through, collect her fruit, and not realise we were there.
Still playing the piano?
Every day, when not away shooting or travelling. Must get down to that cd of songs I started a couple of years ago. Neil wrote some of the lyrics, I wrote the rest. I wrote a song for Luna called Words which I think will work well.
Darragh Field, UK
You’ve worked with Neil Gaiman for a long time, how’s that
relationship? Would you mind asking him to write a few more novels?
Our relationship is still strong, but changes all the time. I’ve found the sudden green lighting of 3 big films from his scripts difficult to deal with. I can’t help feeling a little jealous, but also wary of the deals with devils he’s doing. I’m very happy that he’s happy, and learning so much, and ever more sure that I need to do it my way. I don’t have skin thick enough for Hollywood.
I will pass on the request, but he knows, and as soon as there’s a way of squeezing another 12 hours out of each day, a novel a year will follow.
Matt Robinson, London, UK
What do you think of CGI?
I love CGI. But mostly I love the potential to create anything, rather than the slavish copying of reality. Beowulf is an obvious talking point. For me the people still look soulless. And something very important gets lost in the translation from mo-cap to screen. All the tiny, transient subtleties of performance disappear. I honestly don’t know if this is possible to capture. I’m sure Bob Zemeckis will continue to try. Personally I don’t see the point. But the dragon was great.
Tamasine, Lyon, France
Outside of Neil Gaiman, who are your favourite writers to work with?
I enjoyed working with Iain Sinclair for the feeling of walking into an endless labyrinthine library; a hall of mirrors where every story and character spins off into hundreds of alternate versions, histories and interpretations.
I liked working with John Cale, someone who is always several steps ahead of you in conversation.
I’ve enjoyed writing the VARJAK PAW script with SF Said, I haven’t laughed that much while working ever.
I really loved the story by David Almond called THE SAVAGE that I illustrated for Walker Books, out soon. We still haven’t met, but I clicked into the story, and it really resonated with things in my own life. A purely pleasurable project to do.
Ra Julez, Belgium
How long did it take you to make ‘Cages’ ? Not really a big question, but I enjoyed ‘Cages’ very much and I think it must have been an incredible amount of work
It went on far longer than it should.
I started in 1991 and finished in ’96. I did several other things in between, including Mr. Punch. I decided not to take an advance for the work, so I needed to do paying work in between. Then Tundra, the first publisher, went down, so that delayed things. The great thing is, I never lost the faith, or got bored with it. I’m still very proud of it for a first book.
Ben King, Bristol, UK
Dark Crystal 2… Will it be as good as the first?
The script I read was not to my taste. I’m sure it will be rewritten and improved. With CGI, I’m sure it will be spectacular, but there’s something about the real physical nature of the first film that will be lost without Jim around.
Missing Goat Animation, Woodinville, Washington US
Is it a viable option to try to get into animation before having any formal schooling in the field?
Of course. Many of the best animators are single minded, obsessives, pouring over each drawing, or model or CG image for years until it’s done. I don’t think this kind of commitment can be taught in school. Or the skills and judgement to create a compelling story. I think these things are inside you wherever you are.
School and art school is great for contextualising what you do in a room full of other obsessives. It’s great for debate and pushing each other to do better and question what you do.
It’s great for technical knowledge and access to kit.
It’s great for professional attitude.
But the fire’s got to be there anyway, that’s not part of the curriculum.
Do you have any advice for up and coming animators that want to be able to make feature length animations like MirrorMask?
I’m sure you can do better.
Prove what you can do in short form. You have to tell a compelling story, in an original way. It’s that simple and that difficult. There are many opportunities in festivals, film groups, and especially on the net, to get your film seen by the people who can help you up the ladder.
Delirium tr’s mince, Iceland
Could you “explain” or interpret the short movie “reason” which speaks to me deeply.
I did a still image for an artist’s book of responses to 9/11.
The little film REASON was created for MTV to show a year after the event. The word reason has two meanings. Is there a reason why that event happened? It’s very likely that many people will see no reason at all, just random, misguided madness. I agree that it was misguided, but I think there are clear cause and effect reasons. We find it difficult to empathize with a mind-set that has no stake in our way of life, and democracy at all. We are so embedded in it, and rely so strongly on it working, it’s hard to make the jump. But imagine a world completely run on fundamentalist religious lines. If you don’t follow the book of rules to the letter, you are tortured, or killed. You cannot speak your mind. You have no choice over whom you love, or what you do. If you were one of the victims of this regime, would you try and fight back? Now, I’m not equating one with the other, I’m simply trying to look at the situation from another’s pov.
But reason, also means to REASON, to talk, to communicate and try and understand, and that’s what I think is missing in the American regime’s view of the Middle East, and what is missing in the Islamic view of the West. We are not talking, or trying to understand. Look at any documentary on the Israel/Palestine situation, and you will see two groups of people with their hands over their ears.
Sorry about the rant.
Blackbird, UK Have you ever read Borges?
I’m ashamed to say I haven’t. And since I’m such a fan of Argentinean culture and music, I’m doubly ashamed.
He’s on my list, with about 500 others.
And here is another questionnaire, this time from the publicity department of the film La Lune en Botella, for which I did the poster:
The director and producers of La Luna en Botella wanted you as designer of the poster from the very first moment. That’s a good starting point, isn’t it?
Yes it is. It’s classic Roger Corman style film making: get the poster sorted out, and then make the film.
How did you face the artwork for La Luna en Botella?
It was lovely to see the film in Barcelona. There are many elements in the film that are very resonant for me: the creative individual trying to crack a problem, music intrinsically bound into life, circus, surrealism. The film is a real ensemble piece, so it reminded me of Fellini’s films, especially Amarcord. I remembered those posters had a joyful abundance of detail and characters.
Could you explain the process from the very first idea until the final result?
I did 17 roughs, some based on compositional ideas, a couple on symbolic approaches, and a few based around good stills that seemed to sum up the spirit of the film. In the end, we decided on 2 of the images, and recomposed them into a single image.
In what way did it help you to be a movie director when it comes to design a movie poster?
Not really, except I know what it is like to live your life 24/7 making a film for two years, so I wanted to make a poster that Grojo was proud of, having put so much time, blood, sweat, tears and love into it, and that helped the film find its audience.
Did you throw away many ideas before finding the good one?
Or course. There were a couple of directions I thought were very promising, but for one reason or another were rejected. Maybe I’ll use these ideas for something else.
How would you explain the poster from La Luna en Botella to someone that hasn’t seen the film?
The film follows a writer who is trying to find inspiration for a new novel amongst the eccentric patrons of his local bar, and their various life stories. The poster shows a little boat of his imagination, sailing through the action of their lives.
What does a movie need to involve you in the project?
It’s wonderful to start watching a film with no idea where it’s going to go, or what you are going to see.
The poster is about the first information the public gets from a movie, how do you handle that responsibility?
It should be accurate. There is no point producing a Hollywood action movie poster for a quirky independent thoughtful film. It’s all about tone of voice.
In your poster there are 15 persons and one donkey… Wait a minute, I like that as a brief plot of the movie: «15 persons and one donkey». Do you agree?
It sounds like Peter Greenaway’s next film.