In many ways it is easier to list the properties that today’s guest hasn’t worked on, for his CV includes Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, The Matrix, RoboCop, Lost, Battlestar Galactica and Reservoir Dogs, to name but a few. He also crossed over to the music industry having worked with people such as Alice Cooper and the Foo Fighters. He has been dubbed the Rock Star of Illustration and today he is here to talk about his work and upcoming movie Aladdin 3477.
Hello there! Thanks for taking the time out to speak with me. Are you well?
I’m very well! In my glory, actually. If anything, there’s so much going on that I’m trying to slow down and smell the roses. I’m so excited to wrap some of these huge projects but one day I know I’ll look back and wish I was in the thick of it all.
Fantastic! Going over your body of work it’s hard to know where to start… I think the beginning is as good a place to start as any! At what age did you start drawing and painting? And what do you think appealed to you about it then?
I was actually thinking about this the other day, and wondering how everything might be different if I were growing up in this world today. I started drawing and making my own comic books and pop up books at around 4-years-old, but a lot of the creativity I had stemmed around what was available to me. I had crayons, glue, and paper.
Today is such a great time to be a kid, because technology is so available and user-friendly. I didn’t do any animation or filmmaking as a young kid because having those resources was just unheard of. So I often wonder how my life would have evolved had I had access to these incredible tools early on.
What appealed to me was, with something like Star Wars, I could only see the movie in the theatre a couple times. There was no Internet or Blu-ray or even a VCR to have multiple viewings. So the only way I could relive the magic was to create my own adventures on paper.
At times I have to pinch myself. It’s just astounding to work on the material I grew up with…The 12-year-old me would be so jealous!
– Matt Busch
That’s a reason I just wouldn’t have thought of! How did that then develop into you first working as a professional artist?
It was a pretty natural progression. I continued to make my own comic books and stories all the way through high school and college. My first real gigs were storyboarding movies and television when I lived in Los Angeles during the 90’s.
How does working on the storyboards for films such as Home Alone 3 and The Matrix compare to designing posters and promotional materials?
There’s actually a huge difference, and both are arts I respect and enjoy immensely. With storyboards, it’s more about a specific moment within a larger story. You’re communicating to the audience, but the product is really the overall story and the end result. So previz (previsualization) and concept art is really just tiny pieces of a puzzle that is the grand work of art.
With designing and illustrating posters, it’s kind of the opposite. You’re taking the entire story and condensing it into a single visual image, often a montage. You’re trying to sell this grand project, thematically, and you have a single image to do it. Sometimes less is more, and sometimes more is larger-than-life.
Is one or the other more creative and do you prefer one to the other?
Both are really fun, but both require a completely different set of skills and perceptions, besides the actual drawing part. One is designed to tell a story and one is designed to sell a story. It’s rare that you see an artist working on both sides of it in the industry, but I really do enjoy both.
Being able to draw and paint for a living is fun enough, but being able to work on tons of licensed properties like Star Wars, Indiana Jones and Lord of the Rings… I think that really brings out the kid in me. At times I have to pinch myself. It’s just astounding to work on the material I grew up with. And to work on new material that’s coming out, it’s such a thrill to be involved. The 12-year-old me would be so jealous!
A little while back you were asked to paint President Barack Obama for the Becoming Barack: Evolution of a Leader documentary, was that a particularly exciting project to work on?
It absolutely was. Leaving politics out of it, I was so stoked to be doing something for an authorized documentary on the President of the United States! It’s one thing to paint starships and action scenes with helicopters, but then to do something involving the real President (as opposed to a fictional one) was just an honour.
Has there been any work that you’ve done which you found intimidating to start on? Perhaps because you were a big fan of the source material…
There’s nothing bigger than Star Wars, so once you’ve done that, there’s little left to intimidate. This year I’m celebrating my 20th anniversary of illustrating official art for the Star Wars universe. I was definitely intimidated at first, creating art for resource guides for the roleplaying games. Back then, everything was considered canon, so I felt like it was my one shot to impress or I’d be done for. Thankfully, I’m still getting the calls.
It’s my magnum opus. I’ve developed the project for about twenty three years in one form or another. I’ve worked in so many aspects of the entertainment business, from concept art to marketing and advertising, so I’m taking all I know and putting it together to create the biggest thing I’ve ever done.
The story is of course based on the Arabian Nights tale, which is slightly darker than the whimsical Disney version most are familiar with. The movie is also set in Asia, like the original story is, yet 1,500 years in the future. While the movie sets out with the familiar plot of Aladdin falling in love with a princess, getting a wish from a genie and all that, this movie is a roller coaster from there with many twists and surprises.
We have an incredible cast and crew. Everyone believes in the movie and is bringing their ‘A game’. I really think this is one of those ‘lightning in a bottle’ projects that will impress and be remembered.
Well fingers crossed! Will that primarily be using practical effects, models and sets? The photos on your twitter timeline seem to indicate as such…
Yeah, that was always the plan. I know for a big studio, it’s always cheaper to go CGI, but to do the epic scale we’re trying to convey, it’s easier to just build what we want and shoot it in-camera. That said, the amount of work going into building the robots, weapons, starships and huge sets… It’s the biggest and most expensive undertaking of the film.
Aladdin 3477’s production began with a chunk of money I had saved from George Lucas purchasing a lot of my art over the years. But I ran through that long ago and am already maxing out credit cards for all of this. You only live once, so this is my one selfish, ambitious, and epic project that I’m allowing myself to gamble on.
Often, even if set against an alien backdrop, you can create a social commentary relevant to what’s happening in our world today…
As an artist what are your thoughts on CGI versus traditional matte backdrops?
I can appreciate both if done well, but I really miss the old-school matte paintings on glass. It was such a brilliant technique and still holds up today.
My issue with CGI is never that it’s used, or how much it’s used, it’s that it’s misused or done poorly. And when that happens, it’s distracting to the film. In my mind, the best special effects are the ones you don’t notice, because then they did their job. But any time something stands out, even if it’s because it looks too smooth and perfect, or even if it’s a special effect just for the sake of having a special effect, I think it’s a mistake.
With Aladdin 3477 will you be making an appearance just like in Conjure?
Everyone keeps telling me I should have a cameo, but I really don’t want to. I took a lot of heat in reviews of Conjure by putting myself in the movie. The reality was, I couldn’t get anyone to help me back then, so part of why I wrote, directed, starred in, and did everything myself is because myself is all I had to work with. Even when I was in front of the camera, I was the one setting up the camera and hitting the record button! I have a lot more help these days, so I’m trying to remove myself from expectations one would have from seeing Conjure.
That said, it was a very experimental project, and I’m still proud of it. All I had was a small Sony Handicam and everything was made up on the fly. I recently heard that the Motion Picture Institute has a course where they view Conjure as a case-study in class. They tell students to ignore the technical aspects which aren’t as impressive, but to take note of the creativity I used with the extremely limited resources I had. I found that extremely flattering.
When you put it like that, I realize that The Fifth Element is also a huge inspiration with Aladdin 3477 because it’s futuristic, but also has an ethnic or worldly feel to it. But the biggest homage is definitely Star Wars, as I’m trying to build a used, lived-in universe.
I think the essence of why I like science fiction is this… Stories are all the same in the sense that it’s always a hero’s journey. Even with comedies and horror, the plotlines are strikingly similar, it’s just the style and delivery is different from story to story. With sci-fi, you get to show beautiful eye candy and futuristic or otherworldly visuals that are thought-provoking through and through. Often, even if set against an alien backdrop, you can create a social commentary relevant to what’s happening in our world today.
Having worked with both Star Wars and J.J. Abrams properties before, can we expect you’ll be in some way involved with the new films?
Lucasfilm is still it’s own company, so the Disney buy-out has affected very little in terms of my involvement. J.J. Abrams and his company Bad Robot are falling into a producer role with Episode 7, but that also has little to do with the licensing chain that goes directly through Lucasfilm, at least as I’ve seen thus far.
I should point out that while I have lots of movie concept art under my belt, and have produced hundreds if not thousands of published Star Wars images over the years, there is sometimes a misconception that I have something to do with the actual Star Wars film, which is not true. The work I do with Star Wars is always with the licensed products, advertising, posters, book covers and other various merchandise.
That said, I’m actively working on Star Wars projects as we speak. I have over 50 illustrations on my desk right now that I’m working on for various projects which haven’t been announced yet. So I would say, yeah it’s a good bet that I’ll be involved with Episode 7 material in one capacity or another.
Beyond Aladdin 3477 and Star Wars, which will keep me busy for the next year or so, I have tons of projects in the pipeline. I have plans for more books, movies, apps and games. I’ll continue to do illustration work for licensed Hollywood properties as I always do, but I expect you’ll see me gravitate more and more into doing projects that are creator-owned. Aladdin 3477 and even the Hollywood-is-Dead book have really been rewarding experiences.
Excellent! Again thank you very much for speaking with me today!
Thank you! Very insightful questions- I hope the answers make for a good read!
They certainly do.
Well I hope you enjoyed that, I certainly did. As always be sure to leave your thoughts in the comment box below!