From Jethro Tull to The Jungle Book, the artist shares his most famous characters with Gary Evans and explains how anyone can become a master storyteller
From Jethro Tull to The Jungle Book, how anyone can become a master storyteller.
On a jiggling London Underground train, Iain McCaig brushes the finishing touches on to an iconic album cover. The passenger in front acts as a makeshift easel. Another holds his water jar. Iain works in watercolours and adds detail to a hooded faerie, a mercurial creature resting on a broadsword in front of a painting of an ocean that seems to be coming to life.
The artist received the commission just a few weeks before. In Charing Cross railway station he returned a call to his London agent. Brian Froud had pulled out of doing an album cover. Would Iain be interested in taking over? He asked about the band.
“I whooped so loud,” Iain says. “It’s a big cavern-like space, so my whoop echoed and re-echoed off the walls and sent the pigeons flying. They must have thought someone had fallen under one of the trains.”
Iain’s 35-year career as an artist, writer and filmmaker has taken him from Glasgow School of Art to Skywalker Ranch, via Sesame Street. This year he helped shape Disney’s live-action remake of The Jungle Book, the first film he saw in a cinema. But it’s the album cover Iain created for his favourite band that he talks about most fondly – for more reasons than one.
It took 14 days and nights – with hardly a wink of sleep for much of the five days leading up to deadline – to create the cover for The Broadsword and the Beast, the 1982 album by Jethro Tull. Only the final few details remained. Iain completed those on the Tube on the way to the record label. He remembers fellow passengers cheering him on as he leapt from the train and raced up the escalator carrying his painting. Singer/ songwriter Ian Anderson waited for him at the offices of Chrysalis Records. Anderson liked the artwork, everyone liked the artwork. Now, what about the back cover?
“We hadn’t discussed a back cover. But of course we had to have one. And so I staggered back to my easel for another exciting, creative hellride. It was a milestone for me in so many ways – I even proposed to my wife during the creation of it. For the first time I experienced that surreal lift that comes from helping to create an icon, a thing that hits the public just the right way at just the right time, and becomes more than a piece of art.”
a different approach to work
Iain doesn’t have an agent, he has an attorney. The topics he chooses to work on varies from project to project, often quite dramatically. This makes agents nervous. An agent, Iain says, is best at selling what you’ve already done. An attorney closes the deal on what you want next. “Actually, mine does a lot more than that, but that’s only because she’s part Yoda.”
Iain began his career in animation, creating cartoons for Sesame Street, before moving to London to work as a freelance illustrator. He returned to his native California in 1990 to take a job at Industrial Light and Magic, the visual effects company founded by George Lucas. He then joined George’s personal art department, based out in the Californian countryside at the legendary Skywalker Ranch.
As a concept artist working on the Star Wars prequel trilogy, Iain had to design a Sith Lord that George Lucas described as “a vision from your worst nightmare.” He put pen to paper and tried to create a villain that would “out-helmet” Darth Vader. When he realised he couldn’t top Ralph McQuarrie’s original design, he took off the helmet and explored what lay beneath.
I experienced that surreal lift that comes from helping to create an icon
Iain starts with a drawing from his imagination, then looks for areas that lack authority, sketching analogous shapes from real life. Finally, he blends the passion of his imagination with the precision of his studies in a third drawing. “Hide steps one and two,” he says, ”and everyone thinks you’re a genius!” For the nightmarish Sith Lord, the character who eventually made it to cinema screens was Darth Maul.
Iain planned to train as a journalist, something that he pictured as “bootcamp for later novels, bestsellers and immortal pieces of literature.” But writing gave way to his first love – drawing – and Iain ended up at art school.
super power studies
Iain describes Glasgow School of Art in the late 70s and early 80s as “Hogwarts for mutants,” where he joined a creative writing group and the drama club. He combined the two when he tried – unsuccessfully – to mount a stage production of Frankenstein. For the eponymous doctor, he enrolled a fellow classmate named Peter Capaldi, currently starring as the most famous doctor in the world.
In his second year he specialised in design where he learned to set type by hand and draw an exploded diagram of a snare drum. “I’m saving those skills for the zombie apocalypse. I would have died for classes in concept design and visual storytelling, but those weren’t real things yet.”
Iain works not only as an illustrator, storyboarder and concept artist, but also as a writer, director and producer. To him, they’re all pieces of the same puzzle. “As a wise guy once said: ‘ When you come to a fork in the road, take it.’ I have a really big collection of forks by now. As long as the sign says Story Road, I take it.
I would have died for classes in concept design and visual storytelling
“My art is me… I’m the thing that ties it all together. And I find people fascinating, the best fantasy creatures ever made. I have a fondness for certain kinds of characters; you can see those scampering through my work wearing different disguises. But my muse – She Who Must Be Obeyed – is story. I’m completely and forever under her spell.”
Iain believes anyone can learn storytelling, something he says is hardwired into us. “Every day we make up a story of who we are, and who we want to be, then contrive the plot of our lives to support it. We don’t have much control over tsunamis and sunny days, of course, but our friends, our enemies, our hopes and dreams and what we do about them… all that stuff is ours to write. We make it up without a single class in character creation, just as we usually speak without scripting dialogue. Brush up your grammar and vocabulary, learn to draw and
overcome a fear of public speaking, and you’re good to go. Learning storytelling starts with an awareness of the tools that you’ve already got.”
Behold the Gigantopithecus
Iain temporarily rejoined Lucasfilm to work on The Force Awakens. In between Star Wars films, his credits include Terminator 2, Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and more recently The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy and the Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book.
When Iain heard Favreau (the director of Elf, the first two Iron Man films, and Cowboys & Aliens) was making a liveaction version of The Jungle Book, he bypassed all the usual channels and called up the director himself. “I begged him to let me play. No way my inner child would let me sit this one out.”
In Disney’s 1967 film of The Jungle Book, feral boy Mowgli becomes friends with an orangutan named King Louie. But orangutans aren’t native to India, where the story takes place. Favreau and the team were planning to turn Louie into a monkey, until Iain ‘ discovered’ the Gigantopithecus: an ape that was twice as big as a gorilla, which once lived in the region. “Thank you, Wiki Gods!” he says.
Concept design on films typically lasts from three to nine months. Sometimes the script shows up during that time. Sometimes it doesn’t. Iain never saw one on The Jungle Book, but that didn’t matter because he knew the story inside out. Adapting ideas to suit a director’s vision, Iain says, is a concept artist’s job description.
“The director is the chooser, your job is to create choices. But you have to learn to take direction without becoming a ‘wrist,’ the same way an actor takes direction without becoming a robot. The golden rule is: if it doesn’t work for you, don’t show it. And if you do, make it shiny. And add a floating droid. Never fails.”
Return to Frankenstein
Iain lives in both Victoria, British Columbia, and California. He doesn’t keep “anything remotely like a regular routine.” But ideally he’s working by 9am, having already exercised and eaten breakfast, writing while “the inner critic is still snoozing.”
He’ll eat lunch at noon and be back in the studio within an hour a two. He draws and paints until dinnertime. Then he’s back in the studio again and will work until 2am or later. His home has two
If it doesn’t work for you, don’t show it. And if you do, make it shiny. And add a floating droid. Never fails
studios, each split into digital and traditional work areas. He prefers the latter, but spends half his time on each. When he’s not in Canada or California, he’s usually wandering the world, encouraging people to draw and to tell stories.
Where next for the concept artist extraordinaire who’s done it all? Back to the beginning: Iain is retelling and illustrating Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, this time from the monster’s point of view. “I’m doing it in front of a camera and recording every moment, including my trips to Europe to shoot location reference. The goal is an exhibition of paintings, an online workshop for Schoolism, an illustrated book, and no doubt a Snoopy dance when it’s all over.”
In the back of Iain’s mind at all times is the “nice paradox” of the artist-reader relationship. But while engaged on the work, only one thing matters: story.
“As for compliments and criticisms, as Rudyard Kipling said: ‘If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster. And treat those two impostors just the same… Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it. And – which is more – you’ll be a concept artist, my son.’ I’m pretty sure he meant daughters, too.” You heard the man, people.
“Contrast is the secret of life, and what a joy to play the beastly Darth Maul against Queen Amidala’s beauty.” beauty and the beast
“Star Wars has many nods to Lewis Carroll. This lady Yoda caterpillar was one of mine.” wonderland yoda
“I love the Alice books, and the notion that all these crazy encounters are taking place in Alice’s head.” “This painting began life as a watercolour, but I was never happy with the wizard’s face. Happily, Photoshop enabled me to paint him a new one.” The Mouse’s Tale Trad-digital art
“Mark Ruffalo’s gentle Banner is the perfect foil to the rampaging Hulk.” Hulkalo
“Recreating icons often means going back to the source material. Kipling’s Mowgli, which means ‘strange frog’, was a much more complex character.” “As an animator, I learned that there are always two stages to bringing something to life: doing it correctly, and then doing it with character.” king louie II strange frog
Back in the trenches “Working on The Force Awakens was like excavating a dinosaur that wasn’t dead yet. There was a lot of wondering: ‘What did George do?’”
“Edgar Rice Burroughs’ 1912 novel told the love-at-first-sight story of a human and a Martian princess.” John carter of mars
“Another way to reinvent an icon is to remember what it was like to see it for the very first time, and to recreate and magnify that experience as vividly as you can.” inner mowgli
“Left to design without a story, I’ll make one up. Some make it into the film, most go into the Land of the Lost.” “Justin Sweet and I both worked on Shere Kahn. Justin gave him great power. I injected some personality.” “With Anakin now a ghost, I imagine he and Luke would have some long chats about life, the Force, women…” “Looking for the new ‘worst nightmare’, I proposed this flesh and metal Sith, leading an army.” Story nugg ets Speaking with spirits The wrath of kahn The dark side arises