An Interview with Iain McCaig

Iain McCaig

Artist, storyteller, teacher, husband and father Iain McCaig has worked on films such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Interview with the Vampire, Charlotte’s Web, Hook, Terminator 2, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, and the most recent adaptation of Disney’s The Jungle Book, just to name a few. He is best known for designing the characters Padme Amidala and Darth Maul for the Star Wars series. His artwork has appeared in the Art book, Shadowline, which features 28 years of his artwork in the Entertainment Industry (as well as insert Art classes, and a fictional story about his creative process);a cover for an audiobook of The Hobbit, an Alice In Wonderland illustration in the new edition of The Annotated Alice, and an album cover for Jethro Tull’s Broadsword and the Beast. He won the Grand Master Award from Spectrum in 2014, whose previous recipients include Frank Frazetta, James Bama, and Mobeius. Iain wanders the globe teaching people to draw, and he really does believe that anyone can do it. He teaches it as a language, and before he goes, he wants to create a simple drawing program that will teach anyone who wants to learn how to speak in pictures.

What was it like growing up in Canada? Do you think your childhood nourished your creative streak? Did you always have an active imagination?

Actually, I was born in LA, but I grew up in Victoria, Canada, on the tip of Vancouver Island. For those who don’t know, Vancouver Island has nothing to do with the city of Vancouver, other than that fact that both were discovered by Captain George Vancouver, much to the surprise of the native people living there. Victoria is actually the capital of British Columbia, which means it’s got all the modern stuff you’d expect from a capital city. The cool thing is that less than half an hour north of the city and you’re in virgin rainforest, and any other direction you’re on a rocky beach. That juxtaposition was like cosmic radiation to a kid, zapping my imagination a love of contrasts: the things that lurk on the border of what we know and what we don’t. Most of my favorite stories all come from that place; Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes could have been written for me. There was also plenty of room to exercise my imagination growing up, whether it was playing bare skinned Tarzan in the woods behind my house or making-up stories in the basement on a battered old Remington typewriter. And with two brothers and three sisters, I always had willing collaborators and a captive audience.

Who were some of your very first favorite characters?

Superman was my first hero: he stood for honesty and goodness and compassion, words that aren’t so popular in these dark and cynical times, but still mean a lot to me. By contrast, I also loved selfish and anarchic Peter Pan because he was so unashamedly selfish and anarchic, and the Frankenstein Monster, because how can you not love a terrifying man-made monster who longs to be human?

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Do you feel lucky to have been able to encourage imagination in people of all ages through your various works?

I’m always honored when someone claims I had something to do with them becoming an artist. As for luck, yes, we all need that too. There are many talented artists still searching for an audience to support the thing they love. For me, I try to remember that the honor come with a price: to show by example, to endeavor to give back to those who are still struggling, to strive to put an extra drop of blood, sweat and tears in everything you do.

Do you think your training at the Glasgow School of Art has served you well? What was the most important thing you learned there?

Glasgow School of Art pounded life-drawing into my noggin, and the Graphics department a solid sense of design. I still needed to learn a lot of other things when I graduated–principally how to paint–but my colleagues have always been kind enough to enlighten me with their wealth of skills and knowledge.

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What do you love most about the art of creation?

Creating anything connects me to the best of me: it is humbling, inspiring, enlightening, and even healing. After a day in the Studio, I often emerge more refreshed and energetic than I went in. Unless I’m battling deadlines, that is. Deadlines have a way of kicking the sap out of you, which is not always a bad thing (especially if you want to sleep afterwards).

How did you come to work in the field of conceptual design?

I think it’s more appropriate to say that the career we call Concept Design sort of grew up around my feet as I sat at a drawing board scribbling storyboards and illustrations. When I started back in 1980, concept design wasn’t even a job description. The first time I was aware of the term was when I watched the Dark Crystal, and saw that Jim Henson had given artist Brian Froud–upon whose work that film was based–a ‘Concept Design’ credit on the opening titles (I know Ralph McQuarrie is officially the father of our profession, though I believe he was called a Production Illustrator on Star Wars, not a concept artist). My own first job as a concept artist was for Producer Ivor Powell (Alien, Blade Runner) who wanted some images for a script he had written. This was back in the 80’s when I was still working as a book and record cover artist. It wasn’t until the early 90’s and joined ILM that my ‘concept design‘ career properly began. And as I say, somewhere along the way those words eventually became the official name for the thing that I did.


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What does it take to create a realistic character?

Creating characters is a little like building a Frankenstein Monster: you combine things you know–bits and pieces of people you’ve seen and remembered or dreamed or imagined, all intricately stitched into a new form. But the body just lies there like a lump of clay until you reach inside and infuse it with something true from deep inside YOU. That’s the lightning that zaps your invented characters to life!

Are there any of your own characters you hold more dear than others?

Nah, I love all my invented characters and stories pretty much the same, though each has it’s time in the spotlight, and some come sneaking come back for encores in different disguises. The innocent-but powerful beauty that manifested herself in Padme Amidala, for example, is a regular, but so far no one’s complained to the management.

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How does it feel to see something you have created come to life on the screen?

Watching your creations going out into the world is a bit like watching your children grow up: you remember vaguely being responsible for making them, but you watch with wonder and pride as they leave the nest and become their own special thing in the world.

Do you ever wish you had more time for your own personal projects? Do you have a dream project you’d most like to bring into being?

I try to make every project a ‘personal project’ by putting a little bit of me into everything I do. That said, it’s getting harder to find projects that appeal to the sides of me that I want to explore, so I am putting more and more effort into creating my own assignments these days. Currently, I am illustrating my own edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

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What was the best advice anyone ever gave you? Who was it?

During his blood and gore rugby years, when you sometimes had to carry your unconscious kid off the playing field, my son Inigo always amazed me by getting back in the game as soon as possible. He taught me that you don’t get bandaged up just to sit on the sidelines.

What do you think is key to a life well lived?

I’m a big fan of the notion that you should try to leave something better than you found it, including your life.

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Is there anything you’d like to say in closing?

If you’ve ever dreamed of doing something, do it. If you can’t do it, do it anyway.

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