For the first 10 years of my career I toiled exclusively on shoddy Saturday Morning cartoons and yearned to work on something, anything, well made. Thankfully, the second decade was spent on better quality work, though it largely went unseen. Either it was a TV commercial that was beautifully crafted but aired when viewers went to the toilet, or an entertainment project that stalled for financial reasons and/or studio machinations that I never understood. One such project has become semi-legendary (within the biz anyway)..
Mid 1998, a few ex-Colossal Pictures freelance artists drove from San Francisco up to Marin County to show our work to Dave Carson at ILM, who was one of the directors of an all CGI movie (Brent Maddock being the other). That project was ILM’s all-digital continuation of the classic Universal Studios Monsters franchise, featuring both FRANKENSTEIN’S MONSTER & THE WOLFMAN, plus a whole new menagerie of creepy beasts.
Based on the strength of their folios, Tony Stacchi & Garett Sheldrew were hired on the spot to do some visual development. I was not a perfect fit with the gothic style (being a goofy cartoon guy through & through) but wanted to push myself into new territory. Thankfully, a few weeks later I got a spot too, along with other ex-Colossal folk who trickled onto the project over the next few weeks. Tony Stacchi eventually oversaw a story team that was roughly half freelancers (Garett, me, Robert Valley, Bosco Ng, John Puglisi, John Stevenson) and half ILM/Lucasarts folk (Derek Thompson, Brian O’Connell, Delia Gosman, David Byers Brown, Steve Purcell – managed by Jane Lopez & Kate Relyea)
That year ILM was humming with activity and filled to capacity as it scrambled to finish the first STAR WARS movie to hit screens since 1983, such that there was no extra space whatsoever. The solution for our unit was to set up several trailers in the ILM parking lot, with one for the story team and another for the art department. This turned out to be an ideal situation, and I have fond memories of this little self contained ‘termite terrace’ shanty town, complete with deck & sun umbrellas for our coffee breaks.
In the early days of any animated movie it is not uncommon for storyboard artists to have a crack at visual development, simply because during that early phase of production the art department might not yet be fully assembled. Many ILM designers were otherwise occupied on THE PHANTOM MENACE, so I scribbled furiously, hoping to get some of my designs into the movie during this brief vacuum. I enjoyed trying to keep up with the dark/moody/gothic style being drawn by inspiring artists in the story team, and the growing art department of heavy hitters (Iain McCaig, George Hull, Erik Tiemens, Ryan Church, Terryl Whitlatch, Carlos Huante and others – Managed by Larissa Martin).
This screenplay featured another mad scientist with the same cut & paste obsessions as Dr Frankenstein, so I cooked up ideas for sinister critters he might stitch together from offcut bits & pieces. Such as OSTRIPUS (half octopus and half ostrich) and a beast I called SQUID KONG (gorilla head and cephalopod body) designed to be a particularly tricky foe for ol’ Frank to battle. These abominations were truly creepy to me, but the directors burst into gales of laughter at the sight of each and every one of them.. I went back to the drawing board and redoubled my efforts.. A living battering ram made from a lion and a rhino?! GIGGLE! Or how about a laboratory crane made from a repurposed giraffe corpse?! More GUFFAWS from the directors..
My goofy design sensibilities were not the greatest fit for the creepy & atmospheric requirements of FRANKENSTEIN, and I eventually gave up trying to design scary monsters, leaving that to the many experts ILM had on tap, and tactically retreated to the storyboard department to draw beat boards and sequences. (Most of what became the final critter designs were by Garett Sheldrew, Iain McCaig, Terryl Whitlatch & Carlos Huante, deftly sculpted by Mike Murnane).
Garett, Tony & I all lived in the same neighborhood, and met each morning on Polk Street to grab coffee before commuting north to San Rafael. Early mornings were typically cold and/or foggy in San Francisco, but during our reverse-commute out of the city, we’d strip off coats & sweaters and would be down to t-shirts when we pulled up to our hot & sunny crew trailer park. At the end of each day we’d commute from summer back to the wintery fog banks of Mordor (AKA San Francisco) often joking that the view of swirling fog over the city, as seen from the north approach to the bridge, looked exactly like a cloud-tank special effect by ILM, circa 1985.
One feature of that era was great studio parties, that welcomed people of other companies too, and ILM parties were fun to attend. There was a big one in summer, as a wrap party for crews of multiple Summer blockbuster productions, and a spectacular Halloween Party, where fabricators from the ILM creature shop flexed their creative muscles on absolutely fabulous costumes. This was a great time to be freelance in the Bay Area, ping ponging around a variety of independent studios, with a healthy cross pollination between various independent companies. We don’t think of Lucasfilm or Pixar as being indie now, but they were separate entities back then. Every studio I loved working for in the 1990s was eventually absorbed into the ever-expanding Disney Borg Cube (and now I’m a corporate cyborg myself!)
When Colossal Pictures folded in the mid 1990s, its diaspora became a fantastic networking resource for me, as my ex-colleagues spread to the 4 winds in the Bay Area, and beyond. Even while I was still working at Colossal many years prior, ex-colleagues Bob Pauley & Bill Cone met us for lunch when they worked nearby on THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, and we continued that tradition now that they were at Pixar and we were at ILM. Reunion lunches happened when we ILM folk drove to Point Richmond to meet our Pixar pals, other times they drove to us, and sometimes we met in the middle.
Occasionally, we went to Lucas Ranch to have lunch with friends working there. I’d already visited in the late 1980s, when I had the good fortune to look through the Lucasfilm art archive. The initial furor of STAR WARS mania had subsided by then, with no expectation of more sequels, and there was not as much security as today. I was allowed to look through old artwork, holding many of Ralph McQuarrie’s iconic Star Wars production paintings in my own hands, surprised (but charmed) that these epic images that dominated my childhood imagination were so small in person.
I was still working at ILM when the PHANTOM MENACE was finally finished, and attended the crew screening and after party. At that early preview of one of the most controversial pop culture films of that time, a few people immediately didn’t like it, but most absolutely gushed, including one high profile artist who enthusiastically claimed that it was “the best film of the four!” That early impression changed in time (and is still debated today).
Sadly, FRANKENSTEIN was cancelled in late 1999, for reasons too complex for me to grasp at the time, but I suspect that it was a combination of many things all together. The crew was devastated.. after all, we had an official GREEN LIGHT (I still have the celebratory crew T-shirt!) This film became a legendary project that coulda/shoulda been.. but had it actually hit the screen with that very early CGI might it have been another late 90s uncanny valley curiosity? who can say? What is absolutely certain is that FRANKENSTEIN was a great project to work on with a super crew. Sometimes, I don’t realise that I was standing in a sweet spot till much later, but in this case knew I was lucky, even at that time.
When FRANKENSTEIN dissolved, those of us who were freelance retreated back to our San Francisco base at Maverix Studios, bringing DEREK with us. He’d taken the plunge into freelancing and joined our nutty collective on 9th Street.
After hearing the sad cancellation news at one of our lunches, Bob Pauley set up an interview for me at Pixar. While MONSTERS Inc. production chugged along, a parallel Pixar pipeline was being built for a new project, where I worked in both art & story, and finally, my multi-year cancelled-project curse was broken when FINDING NEMO was released in 2003.
In an amusing & ironic epilog, some of my silly creature designs (done long after I’d given up trying to impress the FRANKENSTEIN directors and settled for amusing them instead) eventually did hit the screen, when featured in a short film ILM made to demonstrate their new techniques at Siggraph: “WORK IN PROGRESS“.