WORLDS OF WONDER
Interview with William Stout
By Michael McCarty
William Stout is a famously diverse artist of international renown in many fields: themed entertainment and motion picture designed (specialized in science fiction/fantasy horror film, comic book art, book illustrations, poster design, CD covers, public murals, and dynamic yet accurate reconstruction of prehistory life. His endeavors in the fields and movies and comics has gained him a loyal following, making him a popular guest at comic book, sci-fi and horror movie conventions around the world.
In 1977 Stout painted his first movie poster, for Ralph Bakshi’’s film Wizards. During his career, Stout has worked on the advertising for over 120 films.
In 1978, with Buck Rogers of the 25th Century, Stout began his film production design career. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Stout and fellow illustrator Richard Hescox ran a Los Angeles art studio, working on such projects as the storyboards for Raiders of the Lost Ark and pop singer Michael Jackson’s video Thriller. Fellow cartoonist Dave Stevens worked for a time in the same studio.
Stout has worked on over thirty feature films, including both Conan films, First Blood, The Hitcher, Invaders From Mars and The Return of the Living Dead. He also production designed the Masters of the Universe film.
MICHAEL McCARTY: How did you go from underground comic book artist to working in the cinema?
WILLIAM STOUT: I accidentally fell into the film business. Ironically, I’ve found the more you want to work in film, the harder it is to get a job in that business.
My friend Bob Greenberg was working as a production assistant on Conan the Barbarian. I had no interest in making movies at that time; I was making a fortune advertising them. But I was a big Robert E. Howard/Conan fan. Bob told me Ron Cobb was the production designer. That blew my mind, because I only knew Cobb as a political cartoonist for the underground newspapers. I was intrigued. What would he do with Conan?
I wanted to come by the Conan offices to see what he was doing but I just didn’t have the time — I was too busy creating movie posters.
I finally got a break from my schedule — but instead of going to the Conan offices, I went to the ABA (American Booksellers Association) event at the Los Angeles Convention Center. The ABA was a great place for an illustrator to pick up work, as every single editor and publisher in America was there.
The first person I ran into at the ABA was, coincidentally, Ron Cob. He told me that I was his first choice of whom to work with on Conan. But, he explained, he had a deal with John Milius, the film’s director. John had veto-power over anyone Ron wanted to hire. Would I be so kind as to drop off my portfolio for John to see?
I went to the Conan offices the next day. Kathleen Kennedy was the receptionist. Milius happened to be there. I met with John. He flipped through my samples portfolio, recognized a Heavy Metal story I had done that he had liked and handed me back my book. As he walked out the door, he barked “Hire him!”
I then had a meeting with Buzz Feitshans, the line producer. He told me what I would be making on Conan. I nearly fell off my chair laughing. It was 10% of what I was making in advertising! Nevertheless, I thought it might be fun to learn how films were made. Plus, the job was only for two weeks. Well, the two weeks turned into two years — and a film career. Oh, and whose office was opposite mine when I started on Conan? — Steven Spielberg. Cobb and I would work on Conan during the day and then at 6:00PM cross the hall into Steven’s office where we would kick around ideas for Steven’s next film project, Raiders of the Lost Ark.
McCARTY: You’ve done storyboards for such films as First Blood, The Return of the Living Dead, Raiders of the Lost Ark (uncredited) and other movies too. Explain the process that goes into doing a storyboard.
STOUT: First, I read the script. Then, if possible, I talk to the director. I want to know what his vision is for the film. If he doesn’t have one (some directors are just not very visual), then I feel it’s my job (working in tandem with the production designer) to help create one. Then, I either board the entire film or, most commonly, board the key scenes of the movie, the action scenes, the effects scenes or the most difficult to visually understand scenes.
(Photo of William Stout)
McCARTY: Is there anything cut from one of your storyboards, you wished they kept for any film?
STOUT: I wish they had kept the entrance I had designed for Evil-Lyn in Masters of the Universe. I think main character entrances and their design are very important. They can tell you so much about the character without anyone saying a word.
McCARTY: What are the things you are most proud of with your storyboards?
STOUT: Their strong composition and the clarity of their storytelling.
McCARTY: Do you think CGI has helped or hurt the artist in the film industry?
STOUT: Both. I really miss stop motion animation — although it seems to be making a bit of a comeback in some cinematic areas. I see CGI as just another tool among many.
McCARTY: I like to talk a little about the film The Return of the Living Dead, because I feel this is such a watershed film with zombie motion pictures. As far as I know, it is the first movie that featured fast moving zombies, which is done a lot nowadays. Why do you think this movie has been such a hit with audiences for over three decades now?
STOUT: It accomplished something that’s very difficult to pull off: it was very scary AND very funny. And the humor didn’t come from jokes — it was funny because (like the great beginnings of John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London and Twilight Zone: The Movie) of the characters’ natural, real life responses to horrific situations.
The characters also seem to be true friends with a real past together. That was mainly due to Dan O’Bannon’s gift to the cast of two weeks of rehearsal prior to shooting.
McCARTY: In The Return of the Living Dead, you play a bum towards the beginning of the movie. How was it to be on the other side of the camera for a change?
STOUT: I loved it but I also took my cameo very seriously. I never broke character that day — which upset a lot of people.
I was originally cast as the shopping cart bum but our line producer nixed that idea. He thought that as the film’s production designer, I already had enough on my plate.
McCARTY: In The Return of the Living Dead, there is this half lady corpse that is strapped onto a steel table and slapping her spinal chord around and she is leaking spinal fluid. Do you remember what they used for the spinal fluid? Did you also help with the production of that scene?
STOUT: I’m a hands-on production designer. For that scene I was under the gurney, operating the mechanism that made the spine flop around and ooze spinal fluid, while Tony Gardner operated her arms and Brian Peck (Scuzz) puppeteered her head and mouth. Brian also spoke her lines for the temp track (which later got replaced with a female voice).
I don’t know what was used for the spinal fluid. I would guess it was glycerin. You’ll have to ask Tony Gardner for the definitive answer to that question.
McCARTY: In The Return of the Living Dead, one of the characters is reading one of your comic books in the backseat of the car. Which comic book are they reading?
STOUT: Scuzz is reading Weird Trips — the Ed Gein issue. Ed (the inspiration for Psycho’s Norman Bates) died during the making of our film. Dan O’Bannon and I had a moment of silence for old Ed when we got the news.
McCARTY: Have any other of your comics ended up on the silver screen?
STOUT: Not that I know of…
McCARTY: You’ve done a number of famous movie posters as well, including The Wizards, House, Life of Brian, More American Graffiti and Up From The Depths. First of all, they are fantastic pop art. How do you go about capturing an entire film with just one image of artwork?
STOUT: I either watch the movie, read the script or ask my advertising art director for some direction. Then, I make a list of what I consider all of the most important elements of the film. I then try combining some of them to create an arresting image that somehow captures the feeling of the movie at its most moving or exciting.
McCARTY: You did a comic book of King Kong. King Kong is an iconic movie monster for over eighty years. What are some of your favorite Kong movies over the years?
STOUT: The original 1933 classic is my favorite movie of all time. I have a soft spot for the rushed-to-the-screen sequel, Son of Kong, too. I think all the other Kong films are crap, quite honestly.
McCARTY: Did you feel a lot of pressure in doing the Kong covers, because you were doing the artwork of one of the most famous monsters in cinema?
STOUT: No; it was sheer, total pleasure on my part; I was in my element. I wanted to do all of the covers but they only let me do two.
McCARTY: You also have connections with the Godzilla world. You wrote the episode “Why Is Thy Sting” for the animated Godzilla: The Series which pits The King of the Monsters against a gigantic mutated scorpion called Ts-eh-go. How did you get that gig?
STOUT: My animation agent, John Goldsmith, scored that gig for me. It was a tremendous experience. Animation writers are treated SO differently from movie screenwriters. It felt like I was living in Fantasyland.
McCARTY: What did you think of the show?
STOUT: I was very impressed. Except for me, they had top professional writers turning in scripts with terrific characters and dialogue. The writers were inspired by the quality of Joss Whedon’s Buffy The Vampire Slayer TV series — and it showed. Nice look, too.
McCARTY: Of all the Godzilla films, which are your favorite?
STOUT: I know this sounds like sacrilege but, honestly, I’m not a real big fan of the Godzilla movies. I think the suits look hokey. They’re baggy and you can always tell that there’s a guy inside. The early ones in the series are painfully slow. There’s a lot of unintentional humor in most Kaiju movies. I really like Toho’s Attack of the Mushroom People, though. It pissed me off that the Matthew Broderick Godzilla movie kept repeating effects (a big no-no in the Stout filmmaking handbook). The new big budget Godzilla movie hardly had Godzilla in it at all.
My favorite is the one we didn’t get to make.
McCARTY: Pan’s Labyrinth, you were a conceptual artist for the film. What did you contribute to the movie?
STOUT: I created the first designs for the Fawn (Pan), the exterior of the main set (the building that houses the general, the girl and her mother), the giant toad (originally it was going to be carved from stone. It had all kinds of runes and symbols covering its body), and something we called the Nerve Ghost, a creepy character that got cut from the film.
McCARTY: What was it like working with Guillermo del Toro?
STOUT: Guillermo gave me good direction and a lot of freedom. I wish he could have afforded me for the entire film.
McCARTY: On a related note, Guillermo del Toro was supposed to make a movie of H.P. Lovecraft’s At The Mountains of Madness. What has ever happened to that project? Were you going to be involved with Mountains too?
STOUT: Guillermo told me he wanted the triumvirate of Mike Mignola, Wayne Barlowe and me to design the film. The project seemed like it was on the verge of being made a number of times. Then, something would come up (like Pacific Rim), and it would be postponed and kicked down the road for another chunk of time. Guillermo also was insistent that the film to be a hard R-rated movie. The studios didn’t think that would pencil out financially.
McCARTY: Do you do a series of studies before beginning a project?
My first advertising course at art school was taught by the Boston brothers. They were tough. I had them on Tuesdays and Thursdays. On Tuesday they would assign us two ads to do for Thursday. We were expected to show 200 thumbnail ideas for each ad. On Thursday, we were assigned four ads. Same thing: 200 thumbnails per ad. So, that resulted in my coming up with 1200 ideas and sketches — plus the six ads themselves —per week for that class — in addition to all the work I was assigned in my other classes. I’m glad that class was in my first semester at art school. It made the rest of my four years seem like a piece of cake.
McCARTY: What mediums do you use?
STOUT: My favorite medium is oil on canvas. I rarely use that medium in film, however, as it is too slow for movie work (even though I use fast drying oils — alkyds — when I paint) and I need to work outside (because of the fumes).
I also enjoy pen & ink, watercolor, ink & watercolor and acrylic painting (somewhat; acrylics have several disadvantages, most notably that it dries abut 10% darker than what you put down). I color my comics digitally now (I used to cut hand separations and then later used the European gouache-on-blue-line method). I’m a decent sculptor but I rarely sculpt because I am so damned slow at it — unlike when I work graphically.
McCARTY: How long does it take before you are satisfied with the results?
STOUT: That varies piece-to-piece. Complex works take longer for obvious reasons. Typically, though, a 24” x 18” oil painting takes me about three days. A comic book cover usually takes me a day to pencil (more if I’m doing all the cover lettering), two thirds of a day to ink and a day to color. My pen & ink convention sketches typically take an hour or two.
McCARTY: What advice would you give to someone who wants to be an artist?
STOUT: Do as much life (figure) drawing as possible and never stop (on the days you can’t find a model, draw yourself in a good full length mirror). One day per week should be devoted to animal drawing from life (pets, zoo, neighborhood animals). If you want to be a painter, do some plein air painting (on-the-spot landscape painting) as much as you can. It will teach you color, design, composition and how to handle your paint. Always give 100%, no mater how much or how little you’re being paid for the job. Your past will never come back to haunt you and you’ll get better as an artist at a faster rate. Plus, your clients will be pleased.
McCARTY: What advice would you give to someone who wants to work in the film industry?
STOUT: Don’t; it will break your heart.
The most often question I get asked now on films is, “Bill…you’re a really nice guy. What are you doing in the film business?”
That should tell you something.
It’s a brutal business, especially on women. I have successfully persuaded many of my family members not to get into The Biz. I think they’re much happier for taking my advice.
If you’re single and can’t do anything else, then go for it. If you’re in a relationship, however, expect it to be destroyed. The divorce rate on David Lynch’s Dune was 95%. There were people on that picture who hadn’t seen their families in six years.
If you’re doing your job properly on a film, you should be working 18-hour days, seven days a week minimum. I promise you will dearly earn every penny that you make.
McCARTY: Of all the movies you’ve done, which ones are you the most satisfied with?
STOUT: Return of the Living Dead, Conan the Barbarian, the opening to Walt Disney’s Dinosaur (before the dinosaurs talked), our unmade Godzilla, Stephen King’s The Mist, Pan’s Labyrinth, The Prestige, The Muppets Wizard of Oz (before it was cast), Men In Black, Predator (but with the original ending that was never shot), Rambling Rose, House, The Hitcher, First Blood, Raiders of the Lost Ark and the Firesign Theatre movie Everything You Know Is Wrong. The trailer for the upcoming Monster Roll (with my creature design) is incredible. Magic Kingdom could have been incredible — but the Disney attorneys screwed that one up.
McCARTY: Which are you the least satisfied with?
STOUT: Easy. Theodore Rex, the most expensive direct-to-video movie ever made. To give you an idea how wrong this film was, it starred Whoopi Goldberg in a part written for Val Kilmer. I was the movie’s production designer for the first nine months of pre-production. It was the only film I ever walked away from. Leaving that film is one of the reasons I’m still alive.
I was disappointed the there weren’t more differences between the scripts of Invaders From Mars and our remake.
I worked on three different versions of John Carter of Mars — but not the one that got made. There was one script I worked on that would have been a terrific film. I’m sorry that the Conran brothers didn’t get their shot. We had a great vision for their movie.
Ant Bully could have been so much better. I was only on that film for about a week when Warners tried to negate our deal, so I left. Nevertheless, nearly everything I created during that one week made it to the screen.
McCARTY: Do you have a good behind-the-scenes story you’d like to share?
STOUT: I loved Billy Barty (Gwildor in Masters of the Universe). Every morning I’d feel a tug on my coat. I’d turn around and it was Billy. He had a new joke for me every single day on the set. He was such a sweet guy.
McCARTY: Last words?
STOUT: Find what you love to do and then endeavor to become the best at it. Be your own biggest fan. Give value to your time and work. Stand up for yourself. Expect the industries you work in (and their jobs) to change — because they will.
And be kind.
The William Stout was originally published in the book:
The Silver Scream
Edited by Joe Mynhardt & Emma Audsley
It was published by Crystal Lake Publishing)
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