Monday, October 12, 2015

The Backgrounds for Fire and Ice

The best painting education I ever had was coming up with 11 background paintings a week—about 600 paintings in all— for the animated film "Fire and Ice," working for Ralph Bakshi and Frank Frazetta.

Ralph Bakshi and Frank Frazetta on Fire and Ice
Lava ports of Fire Keep, about 9 x 12 inches, cel vinyl
Each sequence needed a different color mood: in this case red light from below and blue light from above. Although we had a wide range of colors available, we restricted the palette for each sequence, and that probably got me started thinking about gamut mapping and color scripting.

Seeing the paintings overlaid with animation made them come alive. The layouts, by Tim Callahan, had to be carefully registered where the action intersected with the background. These lava ports spewed out animated lava.

We used animation paint called cel vinyl acrylic for the backgrounds, brushing them in first, and then using airbrush for the soft atmospherics.

James Gurney, Establishing shot of Fire Keep, about 16 x 20, cel vinyl.
You can read more about the making of Fire and Ice in this archived blog 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

Wikipedia on the original Fire and Ice. 


  1. James, thank you for sharing a bit about these. I have been curious about that paint used for a long time!
    I also have a question- today it seems there are very few opportunities for a young artist to train in this way (meaning on the job.) You have to be extremely skilled very early on, and it's hard to find long term work to support this type of training. Do you think there are still jobs that offer this kind of mileage to young artists, or do you think barista jobs and self training longer is the best solution? What solutions do you see?

  2. 11 backgrounds a WEEK? That blew my mind, mr. Gurney, have you been working day and night at those, or you still had some spare time? I mean they also should've been detailed and well thought out, right?

  3. I am also impressed/amazed by the 11 backgrounds a week. I wonder if you could go into more detail about how you achieved that? I reread the older articles and I know the paintings were smallish (9x12) and painted with acrylic (which obviously dries faster). Also other people had already done the layout and drawing it sounds like. So basically you were coloring in an already completed drawing? Did you start several at once? Maybe start with an underpainting and then move onto the next one while the underpainting is drying? Or did you just work on one until it was done and move on? And I assume you worked pretty long hours right? I feel like I need to learn to paint faster in my own work without sacrificing quality, so I'm very interested in how you achieved such a pace.

  4. Mel and Michael, good questions, and you guessed some of the answers:
    1. The layouts were drawn by another person, though we had to mercilessly paint over them because we were using opaque paint.
    2 Many of the backgrounds were very simple brushy indications. We could do those in a matter of an hour or so.
    3. The paints came in premixed colors, and we often set up color schemes from those limited colors.
    4. We occasionally did two or three paintings in kind of an assembly line if they were closely related.
    5. Drying time wasn't an issue because it was basically an acrylic paint.
    6. We just worked four days a week, but 10 hour days. On the three day weekend we were creating sketches for the book we were writing, "The Artist's Guide to Sketching."

    Abigail, I owed a lot to Bakshi and Frazetta for trusting me when they hired me, because I had a lot to learn, and learned a lot on the job. I think you can find your way into almost any job by starting somewhere and always going beyond what is expected of you.

  5. You've made a great work with those backgrounds, I mostly write, but when it comes to drawing I sometimes use this Total Image Slicer that I consider the best, but unfortunaly I will never become such a great artist as you are)


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