The Many Careers of William Stout

When they made their recent announcement about "Jurassic Park: Redemption," IDW listed a long number of prominent creators who would be contributing covers to the miniseries, including Frank Miller, Paul Pope and Bernie Wrightson. One of the artists listed who may not be immediately recognizable to comics fan is William Stout, despite being hailed as one of, if not the greatest, paleoartists of our time.

Stout has had a career in comics that many would envy. He started his career working as an assistant to Russ Manning working on the Tarzan comic strip, and went on to work with Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder. He has worked with Jack Kirby, Al Williamson and Archie Goodwin. Stout was an early contributor to "Heavy Metal" magazine, and his more recent work includes contributions to anthologies like "9-11," "Autobiographix" and "Hellboy: Weird Tales," in addition to providing cover art for "Alien Pig Farm 3000" and others. In 1978, he was awarded an Inkpot Award at Comic-Con International in San Diego.

All of that is just part of Stout's long and varied career in which he's been a Hollywood production designer, painter, children's book illustrator and screenwriter. He was one of the main designers on Guillermo del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth" and wrote the cult David Carradine film "The Warrior and the Sorceress." He worked for Disney Imagineering. He's spent time in Antarctica over the years, researching what he hopes will be the most complete illustrated guide to the natural history of the continent from prehistory to the present.

In recent years, Flesk Publications has released three books of Stout's prehistoric art; "Dinosaur Discoveries," a kids reference book "New Dinosaur Discoveries A-Z" and "William Stout's Prehistoric Life Murals," which details the process and detail of Stout's murals for the San Diego Natural History Museum, the Houston Museum of Natural Science and Walt Disney World's Animal Kingdom. The books have been praised by Ray Bradbury, Ray Harryhausen and paleontologist Jack Horner who called Stout "our greatest living muralist of prehistoric life."

Later this year, two books of Stout's paintings, "Hallucinations," and "Inspirations," will be released, one a book a fantasy art and the other paintings of women. Stout also has a busy convention schedule for the year which is available on his website. He spoke with us about his new projects, dinosaurs, working with Jim Henson and his long career.

CBR News: Let''s start at the beginning: where did this fascination with dinosaurs begin for you?

William Stout: My parents took to me to see my first movie when I was three years old. It was a 1952 re-release of the original 1933 "King Kong" showing at the Reseda Drive-in Theater. I think it did damage at a genetic level. I still vividly recall that experience. Coupled with seeing the "Rite of Spring" sequence in "Fantasia" shortly after that, I've been nuts about dinosaurs ever since.

Reading through "Dinosaur Discoveries" and "New Dinosaur Discoveries A-Z," I have to say that I really loved them and they're the kind of thing I would have devoured when I was seven, as well. What was inspiration for the books and for the design?

I originally pitched my former (and late) publisher Byron Preiss with doing a dinosaur book that covered all of the most important recent discoveries. This was in about 2002. I had already finished all of the illustrations. Functioning as a packager, to his amazement, he couldn't find a publisher that was interested in the book. I put it on the shelf. Byron died (talking on his cell phone while driving) and I forgot about doing the book.

Cut to: Seven years later, my current publisher, John Fleskes, gets laid off from his job. He called me up with the news: "Well, I'm a full-time publisher now. Got any books?"

I thought for a bit and remembered the Preiss dinosaur book project.

"Actually, I do."

John was astounded that I had a complete new dinosaur book almost ready to go (I still had to write the text). He put it on his "hot" list and I proceeded to quickly complete the book. I soon realized it was out-of-date. In the seven years that had passed, many new, important discoveries had been made. I sought to include them in the book as well. That meant more new pictures. In the space of about two months I bore down and produced about two dozen more finished illustrations, radically changing the original "completed" book.

I like to leave the design aspects to the fresh eyes of a good designer. I nearly always like to use my friend Randy Dahlk. His taste is superb and often pleasantly surprising.

It was John Fleskes' distributor that came up with the idea of doing a kids version of the book as well ("The New Dinosaur Discoveries A to Z").

Your first solo art exhibition, if I'm not mistaken, was The Prehistoric World of William Stout back in the 70s.

That's true. Most of the pictures in that show were drawn for the revised edition of Don Glut's Dinosaur Dictionary.

How has the focus and nature of your work about this period changed over time?

At first, I did minimal research for my dinosaur pictures, foolishly (arrogantly?) thinking that I knew what dinosaurs looked like, having seen every dinosaur film and owning loads of dinosaur books and comics. Ha!

As I was working on the "Dinosaur Dictionary" pieces, I realized that my drawings might be the only visual representation the public ever sees of these animals, so they had better be accurate. I joined the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (I'm still a member) and began to seriously study the science of dinosaurs and their accurate reconstruction. I tried to consult with the discoverer of each dinosaur that I drew, submitting preliminary sketches to them and getting their feedback for accuracy.

I began to think about the accuracy of the settings, especially after I found out that grass didn't exist during the Mesozoic. I studied paleobotany so that the plants were accurate as well.

I continue with this passion for accuracy to this day, attending every annual Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting to stay on top of the most recent discoveries and information about dinosaurs. These studies have taken me around the world.

You've been drawing these types of scenes for a long time, during a time when what we know about them has constantly changed. How has this affected not just the content of the work, but your approach to illustrating these creatures?

Everything we knew about dinosaurs got turned upside down in the mid 1970s. They weren't slow, they were fast. They weren't stupid; some of them were highly intelligent. Their tails didn't drag on the ground. They took good care of their young.

Portraying them as lively, vibrant creatures changed how I drew dinosaurs.

At this same time, huge breakthroughs were being made in paleobotany. Plants preserve poorly and rarely in the fossil record, so not much was known about prehistoric plant life. Paleobotanists began studying plant microfossils and found that, although adult plants don't preserve very well, pollen, because it is small, hard and compact, preserves beautifully. Suddenly, entire forests sprang up in areas and times where science had had no plant information. I was the direct beneficiary of that knowledge and passed it (and the new dino info I was getting at SVP meetings) all on to the public.

What is it that you feel makes you a good artist of prehistoric life? Imagination, accuracy and the combination of skills associated with both good science and great art. It's rare to find those to qualities combined in one artist. Certainly Charles R. Knight had both.

Being a good artist and having a good idea for detail doesn't quite seem to be enough, since accurately representing this subject matter requires depicting a landscape and creatures that aren't there, so it does require a certain amount of educated guesswork.

A good paleoartist needs to be excellent at drawing animals without using photos, must know animal behavior and psychology, must be brilliant at painting landscapes and must know both the flora and fauna of the time and place they're reconstructing. When the information is lacking, a good paleoartist needs to be a fine detective with a well-honed intuitive and logical sense.

Working in film and also being a painter, moving between projects where you're constantly toggling in your mind the depictions of objects in three dimensions and then on a canvas, how does one complement the other?

I get bored easily, but am quickly stimulated by variety. I learn from both artistic forms and use each to feed the other. That gives my work a look and feel that is fresh yet familiar, a killer combo. Taking what I learned about storytelling, making movies and using camera angles of dinosaurs that had never been seen before immediately separated my prehistoric life reconstructions from what had come before.

You spent time in Antarctica, have painted a lot of pieces and you're working on a book, "The Lost Continent." How is the book coming along and what are you trying to accomplish with the it?

It's coming along slowly - but the pace is about to be picked up. My publisher wants to publish my Antarctica book more than any of my other books. I just agreed to do a series of new prehistoric Antarctica paintings for an Antarctic paleontologist that I am close to. So, lots of new Antarctic stuff will be happening soon, putting me closer to the publication of what I hope will be my most important book, the first visual history of the wildlife of Antarctica, from prehistoric times to the present day.

You were working on a film with Jim Henson back in the 1980s that you were writing and designing and he would have directed. What was the experience of working with Henson like and what kind of movie were you trying to make?

Jim Henson was a real gentleman. I loved the guy. He was kind in a business where many aren't. He gave me a lot of creative freedom. I'm extremely sorry our movie never came to pass.

The film we were trying to make was extremely similar story-wise to what became "The Land Before Time," which, ironically, was taken from my award-winning children's book, "The Little Blue Brontosaurus." I wanted to tell our story without dialogue (no talking dinosaurs), however. Our story was much more dangerous, dramatic and thrilling than "The Land Before Time." It was to be Jim's third film (after "The Dark Crystal" and "Labyrinth") in his "serious" Muppet style.

As far as your film work, what do you look for when considering a project.

A strong visual story with great, distinctive characters. A lot of the work designers do never makes its way onto the screen...

Man, that's the truth.

...and that's just when the movie gets released, which is not a given. What makes a film job worthwhile for you?

The best thing for me about working on films is being surrounded with very bright and funny people. If you don't have a great sense of humor, I won't hire you. I love the stories I come away with from each film.

As far as the quality of the movie goes, outside of you doing your best work, the quality of the final film is pretty much out of your control. Any number of factors can screw up the film, even if it has a good script (which is rare): bad acting, bad editing, bad lighting, etc. The timing of a good film's release can sink it.

For me, a film job is worthwhile if I come away with great experiences with great people; if the film turns out to be one of those rare good ones of which I can be proud  (like "Pan's Labyrinth"); if the film adds something positive and beneficial to our culture (I won't do what I consider to be torture porn; I've turned down a lot of those films); or if by doing the film I've greatly expanded my skills and abilities.

Are there any favorite directors or filmmakers you've worked with over the years?

Most of them, actually, but especially Ron Cobb, Jean "Moebius" Giraud, Dan O'Bannon, Steve Miner, Jim Henson, George Lucas, Roger Corman, Kirk Thatcher, Thom Enriquez, Chris Patton, Kerry Conran, Frank Darabont, Guillermo del Toro, John Milius, Pierluigi Basile, Chuck Russell, Martha Coolidge, Tony Masters, Robert Harmon, Michael Chapman, David Lynch, Robert K. Weiss, Wolf Kroeger, Andrew Laszlo, Dennis Gassner, Rick Carter, Robert Howland and the Firesign Theatre.

I know you have two books coming out from Flesk later this year, "Hallucinations" and "Inspirations." What are we going to see in them?

These are two book collections of my fantasy work, executed in what I call my ink-and-watercolor style. "Hallucinations" covers general fantasy subject matter; "Inspirations" focuses on the pieces that include women. Each book is loaded with full color pictures.

You started out in comics, assisting Russ Manning on Tarzan, and you've worked with Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder. You inked Jack Kirby, were in Heavy Metal and you've done covers over the years, but every now and again, you do a short comic. What is it you enjoy about comics that keeps you coming back to do more?

Comics is one of my favorite genres in the wide world of art. It's like making movies on paper, except that the creator is not limited by budget like they are in the movies. If you can take the time to draw it, it's in. With every panel hand drawn, comics are a much more personal form of expression than movies.

I think we're living in a new Golden Age of comics. Any subject matter, painted or drawn in any media, is now accepted. It's the wild west; it's wide open.

You made a remark in the "Murals" book about subscribing to the "pinball school of career planning," and I couldn't help but feel that the title of the new exhibition up at the Laguna College of Art and Design, "William Stout: From Antarctica to Zombies" really sums up your career and its breadth. What is behind this career-oriented wanderlust, for lack of a better term?

A short attention span is the quick answer. I have always been hungry to learn and eager to accomplish. For the most part, once I've successfully accomplished something, I tend to lose interest in it. "OK; I now know I can do that - What's next?"

The two things I've never lost interest in are comics and creating oil paintings of prehistoric and contemporary wildlife. Murals are my favorite work genre, but those kind of major public projects are few and far between.

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