Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Part 2. Fire & Ice: Frazetta

Here’s a photo of me and Frank Frazetta, taken at Comic-Con in 1995.

This was quite a while after the animated movie project “Fire and Ice” was released in 1983.

Frank Frazetta was a co-producer, along with Ralph Bakshi, who directed. Frazetta worked with Bakshi to come up with the original story, which was scripted by comics writers Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway.  He was involved in casting and in supervising the live action shoot that was used as the basis of the rotoscoping.

Frazetta brought a lot of inspiration to the art crew: animators, layout people, and background painters. He would tour the building with his famous friends, like Arnold Schwarzenegger. And he would lug in stacks of his famous canvases and prop them up around the break room every once in a while. He wouldn’t talk specifics about his techniques, but he loved to sit around the background room and talk about his art.

Art was an intuitive thing for him, something you didn’t analyze unless there was something the matter with you. He often bragged about “pulling off” paintings at the last minute, though we all knew how hard he really worked at them. What did come out of our conversations was how much he valued understatement and subtlety, though he might not have put it in those terms. 

Frazetta prints were all over the walls, of course, I admired the simplicity of his compositions, and the confidence he brought to creating an image totally out of his head.

But I didn’t come into an awareness of Frazetta’s work until I started on this movie job with him. I knew about Howard Pyle before I was aware of Frazetta, so I saw his work in terms of theirs. (Above left, Pyle's "Attack on a Galleon. Right, Frazetta).

I was looking for ideas about composition and light in other places—Dean Cornwell, N.C. Wyeth, Arthur Rackham, Frederic Church, and the other Hudson River School painters.

That would irritate Frank sometimes. I’d say: “Look, Frank, what do you think of this spot of light in the forest? It’s just like Wyeth would do!”

“Wyeth?” he’d shout, “Forget about Wyeth! This is a Frazetta movie!”

One time Frazetta came in with a stack of his original paintings and set them up near the coffee machine. He saw me standing there with a spray can of clear enamel. “Come over here, Gurney!” he said, “What you got in that can?”
“It’s a finish varnish,” I said. “We use it to give some shine to our acrylic paintings.”

“Acrylic? How can you work with that crap?” he asked.

He handed one of his classic Conan covers to me. “That baby’s got some dull spots. Why don’t you give it a coat of that stuff?”

“I don’t know, Frank. I’m not sure this kind of varnish is made for oils.”

“No problem, don’t worry about it,” he said.

But I refused to do it and handed him the can. I didn’t want to be the guy responsible for wrecking a Frazetta painting. 

Working with Frank Frazetta gave me my first real exposure to fantasy as a genre of art and storytelling. As a result of seeing Frazetta’s paperback covers, I started to think about covers as a career option, which had never occurred to me in art school. When the movie work finished, I began illustrating covers for science fiction and fantasy novels.

Other posts in this series:
Part 1: Fire and Ice -- Rekindled
Part 2: Fire and Ice -- Frank Frazetta
Part 3: Fire and Ice -- Tom Kinkade
Part 4: Fire and Ice -- Ralph Bakshi
Part 5: Living Inside Paintings


Chris Jouan said...

The first time I truly noticed Frank Frazetta's work was during the Illustrators of the Future contest. The L.Ron Hubbard Gallery had several paintings and I had a chance to look at his work up close. I remember being struck by the energy in the figures, even when they were at rest.

I also remember wishing that I had learned about him sooner!

armandcabrera said...

Thanks for writing this Jim. He was such a force in the field of illustration and really allowed artists to make money on their own by getting his originals returned to him from publishers and selling posters and print collections of his work which was groundbreaking at the time.

Anonymous said...

Ah so young! :D

I think I was introduced to Frazetta alongside yourself, Boris Vallejo, Julie Bell and Patrick Woodroffe. All your stuff was next to each other at the book store.

Arnaud said...

Great post, James! Did you feel some pressure to meet his expectations, or was it an "easy" experience?

Daroo said...

I like this series -- I love hearing stories of the artistic continuum.

I wonder if the "forget about Wyeth" comment had as much to do with an intuitive artist, suddenly thrust into the role of an artistic supervisor, (with no experience dealing with other artists,) being frustrated at not being able to communicate his message of personal aesthetic as much as it has to do with ego.

Nerites said...

I first watched this movie as a birthday present when I was 8.

I was captivated by all of the elements: the story, the music, but especially the art.

To find out you were part of that is like putting sunshine and sea breeze together.

Thank you so much for sharing this. You've made me remember how much I love that movie and how much I admire you and Mr Frazetta.

Humza Khan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Humza Khan said...

Thank you so much for that post. It was really insightful to hear the different schools of thoughts between the two of you. It's quite thought provoking

jeffkunze said...

What a great story!
It seems crazy to hear about Frank lugging around his original paintings and spraying them with varnishes so haphazardly.
I'd trample a dozen Monets to save a Frazetta painting :)

Anonymous said...

looking forward to these posts. the stories are great! THIS IS NOT A WYETH MOVIE- haha. I think the first time i saw Fire and Ice was when i was 8- saw it and Nausicaa and the Valley of the wind back to back. Blew me away. And the animation holds up pretty well too, to this day ( the begging of FIre and Ice was pretty stiff though) But the backgrounds were always amazing. I used to wonder if Frank painted them himself. But years later when I found out you and Kincade did the bulk of them I was not surprised. The quality was and still is amazing in those background.

Super Villain said...

awesome post, i'm a big fan of frazetta! i'm really disappointed i didnt get out to his museum before it closed up.

awesome posts! i hope there is more behind the scenes of fire and ice!

Shane White said...

Man, I wished we'd gotten you on camera for this.

Great stuff.


kev ferrara said...

Love this story, Jim!

Well, call me nutty, but I simply do not believe all the mythology that surrounds Frazetta.

Just the one fact that he and Krenkel spent decades as friends talking about art... knowing how technical Krenkel was in terms of his interests in composition. What did they talk about all those years? Popeye?

There's lots of other evidence that Frazetta was both intuitive and hyper conscious, in turn, about his work... as needed.

That is, I assume he believed as Pyle taught, that all the rules were only there to correct by. The first impetus for a picture had to come from the imagination within. But from then on, you used whatever you knew to get the thing to the finish line. And it seems pretty evident that Frazetta knew a heck of a lot. (He called it "all those illustrator tricks" in one interview.)

I think (because this is what I heard) he became less generous with information as the 70s wore on at Ellie's insistence. By all accounts, by 1983 he was a clam.

Looking forward to the next installment...


Phil Kapitan said...


I didn't know you painted backgrounds for that movie, that's awesome! I'm currently re-watching it on Netflix after reading the posts.


James Gurney said...

Chris--Yes, energy at rest--that’s a good way to put it.

Armand--You’re right, Frank (and maybe his wife Ellie) were very smart to hang onto their originals. Not only did they build a museum, but they’ve recently sold some of those paintings for more than a million dollars each, more than a thousand times what he got paid for the commison of some of those illustrations in the first place.

Twilight Cat--I was in good company.

Arnaud--It was incredible pressure, but oddly I really enjoy that feeling.

Daroo--Perhaps. Both Bakshi and Frazetta had a very light touch with art direction, really. Once they trusted us they let us loose. Frazetta himself had had to match Al Capp’s style earlier in his career, so he was used to the other side of the coin.

James Gurney said...

Nerites--Glad you mentioned the score, by William Kraft. He told me he got of a lot of the inspiration from the Scythian Suite by Prokofiev.

Humza--That’s what I loved about studio work--the crosscurrents of different art philosophies, playing out in a tight space under incredible deadlines, with everyone trying to join forces in a single vision.

Jeff--I think Frank manufactured his nonchalance as a kind of street bluster. Of course he treasured those pieces, and would never have endangered them.

Matt--thanks. At the time Bakshi’s adult animation was really different from the stuff out there. Most of the other animation was kiddie stuff. Ralph was and is a real pioneer.

Super Villain--I’ll do a couple more posts on the movie, so there’s more coming!

Shane--I took very few photos during that period, unfortunately.

Kev--Yes, Frazetta and Williamson owed a lot to Krenkel’s knowledge and collection. Frazetta’s debt to Hal Foster, Z. Burian, Wyeth, and others is pretty obvious when you go through it. He liked to make you think he was just a natural genius that came out of his pores, but of course he thought about it and was aware of a lot.

It was hard to get him to talk specifics, and he would never draw or paint in front of us. I’ve got tape recordings of conversations that I had with Frazetta that I haven’t gotten around to digitizing.

Schnider said...

Sir, Did Frank Frazetta also made maquettes when he made his paintings? Did he even hire models or used photography? Or did he made everything purely from his imagination?

James Gurney said...

Schnider, I'm not aware of Frazetta making maquettes, but he did a drawing of Nekron's throne based on my maquette. He also never would have admitted using models or photo reference. Whether he did or not is another story. He certainly looked at other artists, and you can find direct influences of Wyeth, Pyle, Burian, and many others on individual paintings. With all of that said, Frazetta had prodigious abilities to draw completely out of his head, and that's what he did most of the time.

keemiller said...

Just read your Frazetta Blog... I enjoyed a lot... He and Wyeth have been a great influence in my career. I remember in Design School, BYU, an assignment we had was to copy one of the Illustration Masters work... my friend decided upon Frank Frazetta, and found a phone number somewhere... this is before internet... he call the number and my friend asked for Frank Frazetta... The voice on the other end of the phone was- this is Frank... My friend about fainted... in the end they had a good talk.. And my friend has had a good story since.
Thanks for your blog and your insight. I appreciate it.

Marcelo Vignali said...

His work was so inspiring. There seems to be a direct stylistic line from Pyle to Wyeth to Frazetta. I now Wyeth had a connection to Pyle, but just wondering who Frazetta studied with to learn this approach to painting?