Tuesday, 10 October 2017

interview: Gerald Scarfe

I interviewed Gerald Scarfe at the old Museum of the Moving Image in London in September 1997. The reason was because he had provided design work for Disney's (greatly under-rated) Hercules, and MOMI was showing an exhibition of his work to tie in with the release. He was a lovely guy to interview and just a generally all-round nice bloke. When he saw a little kid pointing at him, he went over and asked if he would like an autograph. I'm posting this here because it's 20 years since Hercules was released.

How did Disney first contact you?
"I was over in Los Angeles doing The Magic Flute with Sir Peter Hall. I’d done the designs and the costumes for that. And one of the Disney artists rang me up and said, ‘Would you like to come round the Disney studios?’ I said yes. His name was Rik Maki, and he said he’d been a fan of my work and that sort of thing and he’d like to show me round. So I had the tour of Disney, which was fascinating, and towards the end he said, ‘Would you be interested in doing anything?’ and I said, ‘Yes, sure.’ He said, ‘Because I think someone might ring you at some point.’ I went back to the opera where Peter Hall was rehearsing and I told him this and he said, ‘Well, you’re alright now then’!

"But then nothing happened. I never heard any more about it for nine months or a year, then suddenly there was a fax or phone call or letter - I can’t remember which one it was now - saying: ‘We are developing a film called Hercules. We would very much like your involvement if you would like to come in as a sort of design consultant. What do you think?’ I thought: ‘Wow!’ They took me on at the beginning on a very sort of impermanent basis. Because at the beginning of all these movies they have designs from anybody just to get ideas flowing and going. I think they asked me for a dozen or so designs but I sent them 40 or 50 - I was so desperate to get the job!

"One of the heads of the studios, Tom Schumacher, came over to my studio where I’d plastered all these drawings on the wall. He was bowled sideways by (a), the size of my drawings, which were about two foot by three foot, and secondly by the colour of them, which was very, very immediate and vibrant. He liked the energy of the drawings and all of that. So he took them back to LA and got the same reaction. I hear all this because I wasn’t there, but apparently they all gathered around and looked at them for hours and said, ‘Wow. Very interesting but we’d never get it into a movie.’ Anyway, the directors, Ron and John...

"Just to go back a little bit, John Musker was growing up in Chicago in the ‘70s - I suppose he was at art school - at the time when I was having exhibitions of my sculptures there. I worked for Time magazine and he’d seen my Time covers and he’d cut those out and kept all my work. He was kind enough to say he’d been a fan over the years. Anyway, Ron and John - John especially, I think - wanted to make it work. So bit by bit they persuaded the artists that this would work. I sent more and more work and actually became very excited myself and more and more involved. It’s difficult for them, who’ve been trained in the Disney method, to step outside that. As John said in one article I read, it’s like suddenly having a tennis coach that tells you the exact opposite of what you’ve been doing for the last 13 years. Your grip’s different, or whatever.

"So they had to relearn. They covered the studio in things saying ‘This is the Scarfe line’, ‘This is how to draw like Scarfe’ - there was someone who was almost like my interpreter who was telling the others how to draw. Some of them adapted to it very quickly, others didn’t. There was some resistance, I read afterwards, but they were all incredibly charming to me. I did about a year’s work over here on my own, going back and forth to LA and showing it to the directors and Peter Schneider who’s the head of the studio. Then after about a year, all these animators came on from other projects - they’d just finished Hunchback and various other things they were working on there - and they took them on holiday with me up to Santa Barbara for about three or four days at the seaside."

That sounds alright.
"Yes, it was alright. Everybody enjoyed that very much, in this very nice Four Seasons hotel. There we had this conference room, where I spread all my work out and explained to them what I was after. How I’d gone back to the Greek vases and looked at the linear quality of those. And how I felt that the keynote of Greek art was its strength and its elegance. I said that I would very much like this to be an elegant film - as well as a funny cartoon. They were very enthusiastic. Then each of my characters that I’d devised - and I designed every one in the film, I didn’t want one to get away because I thought it wouldn’t look like my world. If you had the main characters by me and the other ones by someone else, the two worlds wouldn’t fit together.

"So I designed everything. Each animator takes one character. So I’d be handing over what I thought of as my babies, which I’d been working on for a year, to these animators. One would take Hades, one would take Phil, another would take Hercules. Then they would come to me with their particular problems, like how does Hercules look from the back? Or if Hades hair is going to catch fire, how would this happen? What sort of ears has he got? A million questions about the character. Then they’d put their input in. And if I thought it was getting a bit too Disney or whatever, I would say, ‘Can’t we make those feet a bit smaller?' Or those eyes a bit smaller? Or something, so it wasn’t too ‘cute-y’. I was all the time pressing the directors to just go for it. If you have a bad character or a wicked character, make him truly wicked and carry it through. Don’t say halfway through, ‘Oh, he’s not that bad. He’s a good bloke really.’ If he’s wicked, let’s make him truly wicked. He can still be funny.

"So the first year was me designing alone; the second and third years, after I met them, was really dealing with them. I did a lot of that by fax. Every week they would send me a huge pack of drawings by FedEx and I would select certain ones of those drawings that I thought were indicative of what I wanted to happen and I would go over them with my pencils. Then I’d fax back their drawing and my drawing alongside, so they could see what I’d done. It was mainly making this a bit more elegant, or not quite so obvious, and giving he line a certain look. By this time I was no longer one of the consultants or whatever they call it, I was then production designer. They’d taken me on board completely by then and decided to go with it. To the extent also of not only doing the characters but trying to get the line right, trying to get my look into the movie.  I think there was a breakthrough when some of the animators began to achieve it. Then we projected some of my drawings and they looked very clean and clear and immediate. The images were very clear to see. They weren’t diffused in any way.

"I worked with them for about a year with this FedEx and fax system, so it was in many ways designed by fax, or directed by fax. Then the last year was when the animators had finished their drawings, they then pass them to a department called ‘clean-up’. Whereas an animator might do a rough, fuzzy line, the clean-up people have to do the line which actually appears in the film which has to follow through naturally otherwise it would jump about all over the place. I decided that that was another important spot for me to stand, when it was coming from animators and going to clean-up, it could have gone wrong there. So I stood in the middle and went over a lot of examples of the animators’ drawings for clean-up to follow. That was really the way it was done over those three years."

In creating the characters right at the start, were there descriptions in the script?
"No, there weren’t. There was just a script, like any script. The directors had some ideas. They knew that Phil, for instance, was half-man, half-goat. And he was the only person who we knew was going to play it, so he had to look a bit Danny DeVito-ish. He couldn’t be tall and thin. But there were various things. Like on that, I did loads of drawings and suddenly I realised: if he’s half-goat, why not give him a goatee beard? Well, it’s obvious when you see it, but it isn’t until you think of it. Some of the characters when I was reading the script immediately jumped into my mind, like Zeus and Hera and even the centaur, Nesus. Others, like Hades and Hercules, I had to work on a bit to get them right. Partly because they were the main characters and I knew they’d carry a lot of weight.

"So of course there was some input from the directors, but not a lot. They never ever drew one for me and said, ‘This is what it looks like.’ I sent many, many interpretations. There are about 600 large drawings and literally thousands and thousands of faxes. So there were many interpretations that didn’t get to the screen. For instance in the case of the Hydra, which had to be computerised so they wanted that very early on, I remember I did about 20 drawings of the Hydra, all different, complete variations. So I gave them the choice of what to choose. In Burbank they’d all stand around these drawings and decide. When the Hydra was chosen, it was just one single drawing, ultimately. Then this guy called Kent Melton makes these three-dimensional sculptures of them, and its fed into the computer. You take the points and put it in."

Did the fact that the Hydra was being done by computer affect the way you designed it?
"No, not at all. I didn’t even think of the computer, because I thought that’s their problem. And it was a problem too, because having achieved their computer image, they naturally had to ‘Scarfe it up’ as they called it. They had to make it linear. A computer fist, if it comes forward, it comes forward looking real and not getting that much bigger, but if you draw a punch in cartoon terms, it gets much much bigger until it fills the whole screen, much more than in reality. So you have to cheat the computer to make it do unreality, otherwise the punch would have come forward and it wouldn’t have had the same sort of animated feel."

What was the organisational set-up with the 900 or so animators? Was there a sort of pyramid structure?
"Yes. Peter Schneider is the head of the whole organisation, then there was the the producer, Alice Dewey, then there were Ron and John the directors. Then I worked under those four people, and I would show all my stuff to them. Then it was my job to go to these 15 major animators, highly skilled, top of the field, Disney animators, the guys I met in Santa Barbara. I would talk to one about, say, Hades. He then had a team of, shall we say, ten people working on Hades under him, then they had people under them and so on. So as long as I told the main guy what’s happening, he would hopefully convey it to all the rest. But it’s a bit like Chinese Whispers; the more it goes on, the thinner it gets. It’s very difficult to maintain control over 900 people, but that’s the way it’s done. It’s like the army: you tell the various sergeants what you want and hopefully they tell the privates."

In the exhibition you say that you learnt a lot about your own style from doing this. What did you learn?
"Well, it was these things they kept writing about me on the wall, about the ‘Scarfe curve’ and the ‘Scarfe reverse’. Apparently, when I’m drawing I draw a line and go back on it, or something like that. And there’s the ‘Scarfe scallop’. It’s rather like being psychoanalysed."

Was it like being back at art school?
"No, it wasn’t so much like that. It was just: I didn’t know I did that. It’s like someone saying, ‘You’ve got funny handwriting’: ‘Have I?’ then they say, ‘Yes, look. That’s a funny sort of H.’ And you go, ‘Oh yes, maybe it is.’ A style is something that comes to you naturally."

In terms of the influence of original Greek art on this, did you do a lot of research in museums?
"Yes, I did. I’ve always been a bit of a Grecophile or whatever they call them. I’ve always loved Greek art. It’s a very weird thing, but it’s true: I love Disney, I love Greek art, and I love mythology. All those three elements were in my life early on. Disney very early, and mythology and Greek art around about the age of 15 or 16. I studied on my own, I didn’t go to classes or anything. I bought books on Greek art and just admired its simplicity and shape. At the beginning of this I went to the British museum to look at the Greek vases and studied them and discovered they had this beautiful serpentine line and very, very simple shapes. Which is very close to my style.

"Maybe I’ve been influenced by Greek art way, way back. When I first started drawing in my early days, I used to put every damn thing in: every pimple, every wart, every nostril, every nipple. Every little thing that I could do. Now I tend to go for the overall shape and put the detail in afterwards. It’s rather like some of the Italian painters like Piero de la Francesca. He draws a man in a gown or a cloak, you just get the simple cloak shape, almost like a block. Then he puts all this beautiful Florentine design all over the cloak so it looks extremely complicated, but in actual fact the shape itself is quite simple and straightforward. And all that of course reads very well on film. Because it’s moving fast, the simpler the image is, in a way, the better understood it is. So all that, I think, helped. I really did try to get a Greek influence into the film. But I didn’t go out and slavishly copy across. It was just an assimilation of Greek thoughts and ideas. Artists are sort of like computers themselves: you feed in all this stuff and then it hopefully comes down their arm and out of a pen."

With your experience of caricature, were any of these characters loosely based on real people?
"No, I decided not to. Some of them ultimately swayed towards... Hades for instance. After I’d designed him as a mercurial figure, James Woods, who’s quite a mercurial actor, came in, and the animator Nick and I changed the eyes to look a bit more like James Woods. We changed the lips: James Woods has rather fleshy lips. Little adjustments like that, but only in the case of James Woods and Danny DeVito, a slight leaning towards who they are. But the rest of them, no. I did try a couple of real people, but they didn’t look right. They’ve got to come out of your imagination, really. There’s an artist in the film that everybody’s convinced is me, and probably subconsciously it is me. It’s a painter who’s painting Hercules when he’s extremely famous."

Were you consciously trying to draw stuff that wasn’t Disney style?
"No, I was just trying to draw my stuff, the way I draw. And I must say there was absolutely no effort on their part to say, ‘Ooh, that’s a bit much’ or, ‘Can we make it a bit more rounded and Disney-ish?’ If anything, they encouraged me to go for it and the more extreme my drawings, the more they seemed to like it. Because it was a thrill for them to see something so much outside their style. I kept saying to the animators, ‘Please don’t think that I don’t respect your work. You are the top of your field. You are Disney animators. Don’t feel that I am saying my way to draw is the best way to draw. I’m simply saying that my way to draw is the way the directors would like this film to look. I’m here to help you achieve that if you want to.’ So I was trying to be diplomatic and respectful to them.

"So every effort was made to draw like me. However, in the interpretation, some achieved it better than others, and in some areas it has naturally slipped back to Disney. It’s a strange mixture, Scarfe and Disney, I can see that. In the book, they’ve written that they were after - what’s it called? - ‘Disney-Scarfian-Greco style’. But I think they really tried, I really do. There was definitely no effort to say, ‘Oh, he’s a bit on the dodgy side’ or, ‘That’s a bit much’. Never. Which I expected. I thought, as soon as I went into this project, that I was going to be extremely disappointed at the end. Because Disney is a very, very strong influence, and to arm-wrestle Disney, you don’t have a lot of hope. But I’m quite pleased with the amount I’ve won in this ‘battle’, which it was to a certain extent."

Do you remember when we met at the exhibition launch, there was that woman from the Sunday Times, who wanted to do a piece on you provided you had something bad to say about Hollywood?
"Oh yes! Well, that’s newspaper, isn’t it? It’s crazy. I said to her, ‘Well, if you want a story that isn’t a cliche, this is something that really worked well.’ That’s all they want to hear about Hollywood: it’s a bloody awful place. Which it is, I know. Perhaps I’m lucky. As I said to her, perhaps I’m the only happy person to come out of Hollywood."

Were you drawing turn-around sheets or single drawings?
"I was drawing single drawings initially. Then if they liked that, I did other views. But I never did a model sheet - side, back - they did that. And some of them, Ken Melton did models of - so you could turn that model and look at it. The major characters are done in three-dimensional model form so that the animator can just turn them and see what happens at the back. Some of them are a bit tricky from the back, or from above or from down below. I had to answer some questions. For instance, the guy who drew Zeus, I remember him coming to me and saying, ‘I’ve got his face right’ - I showed him how to draw the face - ‘But I’ve got this real problem. Because Zeus is so big I’m looking up under his chin. What does his beard look like underneath? How does it join his neck?’ So then I had to think about that myself, because it’s not an angle you normally see. But once a character is created, I would know what goes on. It’s like people who are writing books say, once they’ve invented a character, ‘Oh he wouldn’t do that. That’s not possible for this character.’ And I would know, once I’ve invented or designed these characters, what is possible under there. He wouldn’t have a thin neck - he’s Zeus - but I would know how it joins and so on."

Did you design the colours for the characters as well?
"To a certain extent. All my work is coloured and the palette we went for was influenced by the land of Greece itself: the olives and browns and rust-colours of that country. So I had a couple of sessions on the computer colouring things with the art director, and influenced it. I said, for instance, ‘These are gods. They haven’t got to be pink-faced.’ They’d done Pegasus in a sort of dull colour. It didn’t look like I’d imagined it. So I immediately made him white with a blue mane, which made him look something unusual. So yes, I did have an interest. But partly because I wasn’t there all the time, a lot of stuff had to go on without me, naturally. They sent as much as they could to check, but it’s just a huge locomotive once it gets moving. You know how many drawings there are and how much work goes into it. It just gets steaming down the track in the last year and it’s very difficult to turn certain things round."

Can any figure that’s drawn be animated?
"Well, I think anything can be animated but that’s because it comes from my imagination. I think my drawing of my imagination was sometimes very difficult for them to realise because I draw in a very graphic way. When I do a couple of lines, I imagine those lines enclosing a volume. Rather like Matisse, towards the end of his life, he could draw a naked woman with a line that side and a line that side. That contained the volume of that woman’s body, her full fleshiness. And I tried to do that with my drawings, but I think in the interpretation some people found it difficult to see what I mean, graphically. But I can see what I mean. The Hydra, for example, when it turns, is like a lot of snakes, so that was difficult, but that was on computer so that’s how you sort that out I suppose."

Is there any difference between designing human, non-human and semi-human characters?
"Very much so, yes. Especially for me. Most easy I found the monsters and the wicked characters. I don’t know why. Maybe that’s just me."

They’re the most fun to play.
"Maybe that. The most difficult ones were the human beings. Hercules and Meg were difficult for me because not only were they human beings, but they were the lead characters. He had to be hunky and handsome, she had to be pretty and attractive. They had to be all these things, and yet still fit into the world we’d created of these mythological beasts. I had difficulty I must say, with Hercules. At one time we thought he should be like the young Paul Newman, or even the young Elvis. That kind of Greek look: the straight nose, the wide-spaced eyes, the strong jaw, the thick neck. But the animator who came onto that, Andreas, is very, very experienced. He’s the guy who did Scar in The Lion King. I think this is the first time he’s done a hero - he’s usually done the villain. And he helped tremendously with that. With the human beings I was a bit at sea. I was fine with the wicked characters and the monsters."

Was it because Hercules and Meg are sympathetic characters and your drawings tend towards the grotesque?
"Yes, caricature is a grotesque art, and one couldn’t really caricature Hercules and Meg too much because once you caricature a good-looking person, all you can say about a good-looking person is not so much that they are not good-looking but that they are vain, they are stupid, they are empty-minded. You can say those things about them but you can’t really distort their nose right out there because they don’t have a nose right out there. You couldn’t do that and still make it look like them. So they had to look reasonably human.

"Yes, I’m known for tending towards the grotesque, but there’s acres and acres of my work which is not generally known. I think I’m mostly recognised for my political caricature in which I deal with politicians and those in power. I don’t like politicians so I really go for them. But if I’m designing an opera or a theatre piece - or indeed the Disney piece - it’s a complete world. They’re not all wicked: there are goodies and there are baddies. So if I’m designing a whole world, I have to design reasonable people as well as bad people. So I’m quite used to doing that, but that’s not what I’m generally known for. For instance in The Magic Flute, the one that I did with Sir Peter Hall, all the goodies looked quite nice. They’re not going around all distorted with club feet."

So was designing this similar to designing for an opera?
"Yes, I suppose it is. I think I approach everything exactly the same. When I was given my first opera, which was Orpheus in the Underworld - the ENO gave me that - I thought, ‘Ooh, hello: opera. This is smart, this is intellectual.’ And I started looking rather stupidly at opera design. It seemed to be huge drapes and great big black girders, lots and lots of monotone. I did a series of designs influenced by that, and David Powteney of the ENO looked at them and it was a very difficult moment. I was trying to do something else, and suddenly I got it. What they wanted from me was what I do anyway. They had come to me for what I do, not for what somebody else does.

"And so, having learnt that lesson, 25 years ago or whenever it was, I now know that if people come to me, they come to me for what I do. When I worked with the Pink Floyd, when they first sent me their tapes I tried to do something that was ‘from the cosmos’, that was out there and unknown. In actual fact, I realised much later that what they wanted was what I do all the time: fat grotesque businessmen or whatever. So I’m not influenced by the job. I do try and find a way of varying it, not making it always look the same."

How different was this from working on the animated sections of The Wall?
"Well, the animated sections of The Wall I had much more control over because I was directing. I designed it and wrote it really, and directed it - the animated bits. Whereas on this I was just a production designer and in charge of the animators. The Wall was very much smaller, a much smaller crew. I should think, tops, that was about 40 people. I had probably five main artists I had to work with. And I managed to convince them that you don’t have to draw like Tom and Jerry, you don’t have to draw like Disney. There is another way for animation to go.

"Not that I’m against Tom and Jerry and Disney, but I wanted to make them relearn. It’s very difficult to make people relearn. They think, ‘Why should I?’ All of us, when we’re in trouble, we fall back on what we know, we don’t really want to try something new. I think everybody’s tempted by something new - ‘That would be fun. It’s a real challenge.’ - but whether they can achieve it is another matter. Then if they can’t achieve it, they fall back on the way they’ve always done it because that’s comfortable and they know where they’re going."

Was the experience of animation useful in knowing how these characters were going to be treated?
"Oh yes. I really learnt from The Wall. First of all, back in the ‘70s I went to Los Angeles and did a film called Long Drawn Out Trip which I drew the whole thing myself on 70mm film."

Good lord!
"It was supposed to be for BBC television, they were the ones who sent me to use a sort of computerised system. And to my horror when I got there it was not computerised at all. What I’d heard was that you drew one frame and then another frame and then the computer would fill in, say, three to four frames in the middle. I thought, ‘That’s not possible. How’s it going to do that?’ Of course you can now. But when I went there I discovered it was really a system of dissolves. They would dissolve between this image and that image, so it was really a series of melting images, one coming and one going all the time.

"When I discovered that I got very despondent and thought about coming home. But I thought No, I’ve come all this way. I’ll really try and make a go of it.’ So I drew every frame myself, and I started making them closer together, because I realised with this dissolve system you couldn’t make them too far apart otherwise it jumped. So I stayed there and I drew this stream of consciousness about America at the time. What was happening in the '70s was black power, Coca Cola, Playboy magazine, Marilyn Monroe, Mickey Mouse... I did Mickey Mouse on drugs, which I showed to the Disney people. There was then a hushed silence."

You’re probably one of the few people to have got away with something like that.
"Yes, and the BBC showed it too, so they’ll probably come steaming in for a huge commission now. So I haven’t really much done animation myself, but I’m not a professional animator. I couldn’t animate like the Disney guys do. I couldn’t do it. I wouldn’t have that patience to be able to sit there hour after hour doing that. I discovered when I was directing The Wall that animators must go at their own pace. Because I used to think, ‘We’re not getting enough footage in. Can’t we speed up? Can’t we do this?’ I would go in and give them this pep talk about getting more done and pushing on, and it would just upset them all. They’d all get jangled nerves, and at the end of the week I’d find I’d achieved less than I normally would, by upsetting them. So eventually I thought ,‘Well, they’ve got to sit there with their ear-pieces listening to Radio One or Radio Four or whatever it is, and doing it at their speed.’"

Do you have any influence on the spin-off TV series or any of the merchandise?
"No, I haven’t had any influence on that. They tell me that they’re going back to my drawings to take other characters from those. There’s a whole mass of characters that didn’t appear in the movie. People who were planned. And there are those I did quite elaborate drawings of, like Medusa, who’s in the exhibition: she’s in the movie about two seconds. You’ve got to be very quick to spot her. She doesn’t look much like that. But I’ve done something on the website. I’ve taken part in as many things as I can, but I haven’t had anything to do with the spin-offs or the TV series."

If they offered you another film like this, would you take it?
"Yes, I think I would. Partly because I’ve enjoyed it so much and everybody was so incredibly kind to me. And I did think (a) they would alter my work tremendously, and (b) I’d heard so many horrible stories about Hollywood. But they were all extremely nice. They were all very laid back and very Californian, walking round in jeans and T-shirts all the time. There was no feeling of hierarchy over there. Just a feeling of trying to achieve the best art possible. I don’t feel any cynicism there - going for this or going for that for any particular reason. But then I suppose to a certain extent I’ve benefited from being in England. I didn’t get too much caught up in the system. Every time I went over there with a new batch of drawings, I was welcomed because I brought new stuff. Maybe if I’d been on the spot all the time it might have got little more tired."

Are you completely happy with the way the film’s turned out?
"Yes. But having said that, I’m never completely happy with anything that I do, even if I’ve got complete control over it myself. It’s just part of being an artist - or anybody of a creative nature. You just always see the worst bits, when you look at something. I’ve done it many times. Sometimes I can look at a drawing of mine and there’s just one line out of place, but that one line jumps out at me. It looks like a California tree trunk rather than a tiny line. You always tend to be self-critical. If you’re going to push on and try things, you are self-critical. But I’m incredibly flattered that they asked me. It’s the first time they’ve ever asked an outside designer in, and the first time the designer’s been allowed to stay around for the whole movie and have that much influence, and altered the look of the movie. So I’ve achieved a lot more than I though I would achieve."

website: www.geraldscarfe.com