I noticed that the most common questions asked, whether I’m at the Anime Expo, Comicon, or the LA Arts Job Fair, are, “How do I break into the business?” and “Are there any books I can read to learn how to do what you do?”
I can never really answer the first one, as there is no set path for becoming a filmmaker. There are so many different ways to approach it, so many different positions to hold. It really is an “insiders” business, but at the same time, the industry is constantly looking for new people and fresh ideas. At the end of the day, it has the most to do with being at the right place at the right time. The most important quality a person wanting to break in can have is perseverance. You have to commit to the decision, and constantly work to get yourself in that right place at that right time. But no one can ever tell you where or when that will be.
People often seem upset that I didn’t just hand them a card with an address and say, “Show up there at 5pm and you’re in!” It’s never that easy. Although I’m sure there are people who had that happen, and two years later they won an Oscar. But I guess that’s the point. Everyone has their own unique story about how they got into the business. The important thing to remember is that it can happen. You just have to put yourself out there.
The second question is a little easier to answer. The part that makes it difficult is paring it down to a palatable number of books to recommend! The truth of the matter is that there are hundreds of books about filmmaking, art, photography, special effects, and design. You can get different information from all of them, and in a field where you are often trying to do something that has never been done before, it usually takes many combinations of the reference to help you figure things out.
The genesis of my career is one probably shared with a majority of filmmakers from my generation: Star Wars! I don’t even think I was allowed to walk to the corner store by myself when I first saw that movie, but when I left the theater, I was 100% sure that I knew what I was going to do with the rest of my life.
I asked a gazillion questions about it, as kids often do, but I only ever got one answer: special effects. How did they make the Millennium Falcon go into hyperspace? Special effect. Why did Greedo look so real? Special effects. Did all those people really die on Alderaan? It was only special effects. Well, I didn’t know how special effects worked, along with every other person I questioned in New Jersey, so I was determined to find out and somehow become a special effector. Or what ever they would be called.
Book 1: Then one day on a trip to the bookstore, I found The Art of Star Wars ! Cracking these pages open for the first time was like looking into the Ark of the Covenant. It was the first time I had ever seen a film script, and every mention of a character was followed by concept art, in progress shots, and final products. I have probably flipped through the pages of this book more times than the binder though humanly possible. I learned about thumbnail sketching, storyboards, mock-ups, maquettes, model making, and blue screen. 30 years later I still find bits of information I had never noticed before. It is truly a treasure, and should be a staple of any film artist’s library.
Book 1.2: There are also art books for the rest of the trilogy. They are invaluable to anyone working in genre design. So much so that I stock my library with multiple copies! OCD maybe? Or maybe it’s just that I never want to be without it! Keep in mind that I acquired that first copy long before there was such a thing as Amazon or EBay. I left the book behind on a family trip one time, and couldn’t find another copy for years! And when I did, it was a hard cover edition that cost me a few hundred bucks! I never wanted that to happen again. So I have a mint copy just in case, a casual viewing copy, and a copy to reference while I work with messy paint and clay. Yeah, kinda sounds crazy when I spell it out like that. But I’m an artist. Crazy is part of the territory…Book 2: The “Art of” trilogy got me into special effects and design hook, line, and sinker. But it was still so hard to find any other in-depth information about the craft. It seemed that Lucasfilm was the only company not afraid to reveal their secrets. The most I could come across on other projects was a few pages in sci-fi magazines. And then Lucas upped the ante, and released Industrial Light & Magic: The Art of Special Effects. This has been and will always be my bible. If it weren’t for this book, I would not have the career I have now. Not only did the magicians at ILM create the groundbreaking special effects for Star Wars, but also for pretty much every movie I had ever loved as a kid. This book goes into great detail about how many of those effects were done, the equipment used, the concepts of each technique, why one technique was chosen over another, and a history of all the people that made it all happen.
I remember working on my first real movie, and the director came in and asked if I could do a matte painting, because he could afford an effects house. I agreed to do it, knowing full well that it’s probably something you need to at least see being done before you try one for the first time. I went home that night and studied the chapter on matte painting till the sun came up. There are amazing gatefolds of all of these incredible scenes that you would never imagine were paintings, like the hangar bay on the Death Star, or the warehouse from the end of Raiders. I applied everything I absorbed from those pages and accomplished what would be the first of many matte paintings. It gave me the confidence I needed, even though it wasn’t really a “how to” book. There is a phrase, “Everything I know I learned in kindergarten”. I would have to modify that to “Everything I know about special effects I learned from the ILM book!”
Book 3: Like I said, Lucas is definitely not afraid to put it all out there. But as a true Star Wars fan, I can never get enough. Just when you think you’ve seen everything, a new publication comes out with “forgotten archives” images and information. I have multiple versions of Star Wars Chronicles too, but not because I’m compulsive! This was originally published in Japan, and the import was pretty hard to get a hold of. The photo content is amazing, with never before seen photos from crewmembers’ personal collections, blue prints, and “lost behind the scenes” images. But all the text was in Japanese! So when it was rereleased in English years later, I had to get another copy so I could read all the captions.
At this point in the blog, you are probably wondering how all these Star Wars books would help anyone be a film designer. Since Star Wars was my first real love of film and design, it is often my go-to for inspiration. All of the books I am showing now have in some way helped me figure out what my aesthetic and technique are. This particular book has in-depth looks at the miniatures, revealing textures and painting styles that, in my mind, make everything more real. It talks about the costuming, and shows how the various armor and robots were made. It also shows how the entire Star Wars Universe follows a very coherent design style, so nothing looks out of place or time, no matter how diverse the worlds get.
Although you can never just lift a design from anyone else’s work, you can get a better understanding of what makes good design work by studying it. It’s important to know what’s out there, so your work doesn’t become redundant. But it’s also important to embrace what you gravitate towards, figure out what it is about that work that makes you respond, and incorporate those things into your own work so it is always fun to do.
Book 4: As much as I loved drawing and building models, I always wanted to work in make-up effects as well. Movies like “The Wizard of Oz” and “Planet of the Apes” fascinated me with living, breathing sculptures. I wanted to be able to do that, too. For some reason it is so much easier to find step-by-step and “how to” books on make up! But if you really want to know the history of how your favorite monster or alien came to be, Making a Monster is the book to have. Don’t be discouraged if the newest freight fest creature isn’t included. It was published in ‘84, so it focuses on what would now be considered classics. But all the current creatures couldn’t exist without the people who pioneered the techniques in this book.
This is an excellent reference due to its diversity. There are detailed accounts of many of the most famous movie monsters and how they were made, all of the make-up artists using completely different approaches.
"Making a Monster" has helped me figure out so many solutions to make-up problems, but my favorite story about it has nothing to do with the text itself: One morning while I was sculpting a creature, this book on my workbench, there was a knock at the door. It was Tom Burman, Oscar award nominee and make-up effects creator for such awesome movies as The Goonies and Teen Wolf. He heard through a mutual friend that I lived right by his daughter’s school, which was notoriously difficult to park near. He was wondering if I minded if he parked in my driveway on the mornings that he dropped her off. How random is that?! I said sure, as long as he would sign my copy of “Making a Monster,” in which he has a prominent chapter. Oh, only in Hollywood!
Book 5: One of my greatest influences has to be the legendary Jim Henson. He had me interested in effects and design before I was even old enough to understand what I was looking at. His level of artistry is a rare commodity. You can be a great sculptor, craftsperson, or animator, but to breathe life into simple puppets the way Jim did takes a true understanding of human nature. I can only try to imitate what he did, but I don’t believe I will ever understand the work the way he did.
I was fortunate enough to work for Henson, helping found the L.A. Creature shop, and I learned a lot of wonderful things there. But I wasn’t there long enough to get answers to all the questions I had, and I was crushed when they closed the London shop down before I could ever visit. That’s where such landmark fantasy movies as The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth were created. I finally got an inside look at the shop during the making of those milestone productions with No Strings Attached ,which gives amazing insight into the development of the technology the elevated the Muppets to the Skeksis. So many of these techniques are still the basis of how its done today, but why I tend to reference this book more often than updated animatronic guides is the one ingredient only Jim used: heart.
Book 6: In terms of design, Jim had another secret weapon when it came to his fantasy movies: Brian Froud. I have always considered Brian as the godfather of fanciful fantasy art, and I believe I am not alone considering the amount of “Froudian” style fairies and goblins there are in Hollywood films. Actually, almost any modern version of pixies seems to be influenced by this artist. If you are working on a project involving fairies or goblins, you will want to comb through this book as well as the many other Froud books. He captures the essence of the genre, and always inspires a good starting point.
Book 7: Froud has definitely cornered the impish end of the fantasy spectrum, but it is difficult to pinpoint the next master. I have equal love for Frazetta, John Howe, Larry Elmore, the Brothers Hildebrandt, Clyde Caldwell, and so many others that brought the realms of D&D and other fantasy games to life on the page as the 12 year old me studied those manuals deep into the night. They all had their own style, and each was as fascinating as the next. I spent most of my teenage years trying to emulate some form of the fantasy art style, and was very thankful when Boris Vallejo broke the silence and revealed his bag of tricks in Fantasy Art Techniques.
Known for his misty backgrounds, but hyper detailed figure work, Boris explains the use of live models, lighting, and composition. He is very open about how he achieves his look, and the understanding of the techniques opened a floodgate for me in terms of analyzing other artist’s approaches, too.
Book 9: And if you are doing alien design, you will probably need something for that creature to travel in. Like a spaceship or futuristic vehicle. Of course, the go-to guy for that category is Syd Mead. Syd showed us the grim future in Blade Runner, and life inside the master computer with the revolutionary designs of Tron. Our concepts of tomorrow have never been the same, and science fiction can easily be divided into “Before Syd Mead”, and “After Syd Mead” categories. One of the most important aspects of Syd’s design is that it is all grounded in the possible. Starting his career with Ford Motor Company, Syd’s imagination was tapped for making the future a reality. Everything he designed had to be unique, but able to be built. He carried that foundation in reality over to his movie work, which is why we believed those future world existed. Today, so many products in our everyday life resemble those dreams of the future, bearing the mark of Syd Mead’s aesthetic!
Book 10: You may have noticed that one of my key beliefs for design is diversity. I try to study as many different artists, mediums, and techniques as possible. I will reference different genres even if I am concentrating on just one in particular, to help widen the scope of possibility for the look or style. Looking at other artist’s approaches for inspiration is helpful, but only the tip of the iceberg. I also try to keep a very diverse collection of books on wildlife, locations, fashion, architecture, machinery, and every other category I can find great images for. Obviously there is Google image now, but as a tactile artist, it always helps me get more in the headspace of creating art to flip through a physical book. I also pretty much have my favorite sections of the library memorized, so I usually know where to find what I’m looking for pretty quickly with out the distractions of wondering off into cyberspace, and most likely buying unneeded things on EBay!
Book 11: That brings me to the master of diversity, Drew Struzan. If the essence of art was put into human form, it would be Drew. As a kid, I used to beg the local video store by my house to give me the promotional movie posters when they were done with them. A girl I had a crush on freshman year started working there, and she snuck me a brand new copy of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom right as it came in. Probably one of the happiest moments of my life! I hung that thing up and studied it, attempted to recreate it over and over, analyzing every inch of it. A year later, Back to the Future was released, and I think that poster melted my mind. It was such a simple image, Marty looking at his watch, one foot in the barely visible Delorean. Yet everything about it made me want to see that movie. I HAD to see that movie. Just thinking about that poster makes me want to see that movie right now, 25 years later! It was then I realized that Drew had created every movie poster I had ever loved. At first glance, the techniques he used varied so much you may not think it’s the same artist. But further scrutiny will reveal the tell-tale signs, and as his work became more in demand, and studios gave him more artistic freedom, Drew honed his style into the unmistakable work of a modern master.
It may be cheating to call this one of my favorite books, as I helped write and assemble it. But I swear to you that not a week goes by that I don’t pick this volume up and go through it. Drew’s use of color, texture, composition, and above all, his ability to capture a likeness, are truly inspirational. This book is like my medicine. Even if I am not looking for artistic guidance, I skim through this book just to feel better when life has got me down. It’s impossible to not smile at some point while passing through these pages. And at the end of the day, isn’t that what art is really for?
Book 12: I have a shelf of books to help me with directing movies, too. But very few of them are “How To” and “The techniques of” type books. If there is such a thing as “FILM DIRECTING FOR DUMMIES”, it would probably only help you get through the initial meetings not sounding like a newb. What I’ve found is that all the text books in the world cannot prepare you for what you will encounter the moment you step into helming a production. Even all of the things I learned and experienced first hand under the direction of someone else during productions didn’t equip me for the magnitude of the situations I would face on my own films.
So, much like Drew’s book helps me find my way through the murky waters of commercial art, I have an array of “comfort books” that remind me that production is never easy, but others have made it out alive and with great results. You can say it’s a case of “misery loves company”, but I think of it more as coming to terms with the reality of the process. It gives me hope that I am not alone. I could lie and say that my films have run smooth as ice, but that wouldn’t help either of us! Bad timing, bad contracts, acts of god, it seems I’ve had everything against me at one time or another. But its something you need to be prepared for if this is your career of choice.
Naturally, all things start with Star Wars for me. Since this film is at the center of my universe, er, galaxy, the story of it’s struggle to hit the screen really resonates with me. Even if you are not a Star Wars fan, as a filmmaker you must notice the influence it has had. You can’t walk into a toy store, supermarket, or even post office without seeing product from it. It’s groundbreaking techniques changed modern cinema, it’s old school score saved us from disco soundtracks. Lucas is considered a pioneer of the industry, or at the very least an industry tycoon. But The Making of Star Wars is a no holds barred expose’ of Lucas’s battle to even get the movie made. Every step of the way, he was in the shadow of doubt. The studio was ready to pull the plug every hour on the hour, the crew thought George was insane, the cast thought it would be the end of their career. Over budget, over schedule, Lucas shelled out of his own pocket to finish. But it never ended. R2 wouldn’t roll. Execs were concerned that Chewbacca wasn’t wearing pants. None of the special effects shots were able to be completed on schedule. And somehow, that all translated into 127 minutes that causes me to spend about 33% of my annual income on t-shirts and action figures. Every year. If there was a formula to the genius, I haven’t been able to decipher it yet. But this book comforts me to know that it wasn’t as easy as someone saying, “Hey, you know what would be a good idea for a movie…”
Book 13: Every movie has its horror stories, but the making of Jaws is more freighting than the movie itself. It was so intense, actually, that the studio released The Jaws Log, screenwriter Carl Gottlieb’s personal day-by-day account of the production, right after the film hit theaters. So many behind-the-scenes and making-of books show the highlights and achievements of a film, but Mr. Gottlieb’s honest, often heartbreaking account of the steadily sinking production really helps you get a perspective on the challenges of filmmaking. The strongest elements of Jaws came from rookie director Steven Spielberg’s ability to adapt his vision to the situations at hand. Probably the most obvious example would be that the giant shark effect wouldn’t work for the majority of filming, so Steven thought of ways to have the shark present without ever seeing it. The thought of those barrels rising to the surface of the dark water, just yards away from the drifting ORCHA, still gives me chills. It was thinking like this that made JAWS the first summer blockbuster of all time, and rocketed Spielberg to a household name. I’ve had the honor of working with Steven on 11 films, and I am always surprised at how well he deals with situations when things go haywire. Reading this book helps me understand what gave him that foundation. I don’t believe that those kinds of instincts can be learned, but it does help me remember that there is always a way out of the hole. You just need to think it through.
Book 14: Not every film struggles from pantsless Wookies and sinking sharks. Sometimes the Hollywood curveball is all in the paperwork. Even if you stay on budget, deliver on time, and don’t kill anybody in the process, studios still have a way of messing with your vision. It happened to Ridley Scott on Blade Runner. It happened to Stanley Kubrick on, well, everything! But it happens equally as often for a man known for his unique vision, Terry Gilliam. From as far back as Monty Python, all they way through Time Bandits, Baron Munchhausen, to 12 Monkeys and beyond, Gilliam defines his style like no other. So it is a terrible mystery that almost every time he completes a film for a studio, they are shocked and appalled with the final product. Whether it ‘s their lack of vision or artistic ego, Terry has repeatedly rammed heads with the largest of industry leaders. None so infamous as Sid Sheinberg, head of Universal Pictures during the making of Brazil.
The Battle of Brazil: Fight to the Final Cut details the public dispute that was Hollywood’s version of David and Goliath. Gilliam and Sheinberg fought for creative control over the finished work, the latter winning on a contractual technicality. The movie was recut from its original version, and popular opinion is that it was wrong to do so. At first this story may seem like a sensational, once in a lifetime event, but it actually happens more than you would think. It’s good to keep situations like these in mind when creating your own work, so you can take lengths to avoid them, and be more prepared for them when they find you!
Book 15: I consider Terry Gilliam to be one of the most visionary people in the field. He is a director by the truest sense of the word. A rarity like James Cameron, Gilliam can handle so much of a production personally. He draws his own designs, operates his own camera. He relates to actors on a very personal level. He doesn’t sit in a chair a yell, “Action!” He is right there in the thick of things. I admire and respect that, and constantly work to be that involved, to have the knowledge and ability to be that interactive with a production.
I have placed Gilliam, along with every other director and artist I have mentioned in this blog, on a pedestal, high above my reach. I will always look up to them, and will never cease to be in awe of the creations they have yielded in the name of entertainment. I cannot be so bold as to say I will ever create anything as magnificent as the works of my heroes, but I dare say I dream of it. Standing in their shadow is what pushes me forward to do what I do, and catching quick glimpses of the fact that they are all human is what picks me up when I stumble. I have made it a personal rule to stop saying, “It can’t get any worse than this” after the production of my film LABOU was wiped away by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. But on ever project, there are moments when I think it, and try to un-jinx myself with the though, “Well, it could never be worse than Lost in La Mancha!”
If you are feeling like your project is having hard times, just drop a copy of this documentary into the DVD player and breathe a sigh of relief. Every possible thing imaginable goes wrong, and if you are wondering why you never saw Gilliam’s “Don Quixote” film, well, no one ever has. Yeah, that happened too. A group of behind the scenes featurette makers captured enough footage to produce this gripping account of a dream gone bad, and as terrible as it was for Gilliam, I would not be the filmmaker I am with having been able to witness his experience. It is oddly motivating, and will most likely always be found in my on-set bag to help me through those rough days.
Obviously, the more I think about it, the longer this list can get. As a rule of thumb, you can never have TOO MANY books to reference. But if you are interested in doing any of the things I talk about on this site, these would definitely be of interest to you. They have all helped me grow as an artist, and honestly, are also just pure entertainment with great insight to some of the most fascinating people out there.
Let me know if you are looking for any references on a specific topic, and I’ll tell you what’s on my shelves. And likewise, if you thin there are any books I should know about, please tell me in the comment section. I can always put up more shelves!