Iain McCaig

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

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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?’”

© 2015 Walt Dis­ney Pic­tures

“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

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